The Fate of Zaskettr

sigurd

In the cold mountains of Vermont, the great wyrm Zaskettr met its fate.

Let’s back up. Last weekend was Carnage, the annual northern New England tabletop gaming convention that currently takes place at the Killington Ski Mountain Resort. It is a great con, with hundreds of attendees playing all manner of games. This year, I ran a long form game called The High Guard which you can read about here. For the purposes of this discussion, only one detail of that adventure matters: the fight against, and victory over, Zaskettr, the great wyrm responsible for the death of the High King and following chaos.

 

Dragon fights are notoriously difficult in D&D. As very powerful singular monsters, dragons can be both overwhelming for a party and at the same time anti-climactic. This is due to the nature of threats, combat and so-called “challenge ratings” in D&D. As what can be referred to as “boss” or “solo” monsters, dragons have tons of hit points and the potential to deal a lot of damage. As such, they can be very deadly, even for level appropriate PCs. Despite this, they can also seem somewhat weak. As singular monsters, they are inherently the focus of a heroic party’s energies and all those arrows, swords and spells stack up quickly. This is doubly true when, such as at a convention, the party is larger than usual.

 

Zaskettr began as an indistinct concept. I wanted to create a setting defined by a central monster, one that would always be present but not necessarily involved. This being D&D, the obvious choice was a dragon. Not any dragon, mind you, but an ancient red wyrm, the most powerful evil dragon in any edition of the game (barring deities and the like). The dragon would have destroyed not just the king and his castle, but the very stability of the kingdom. It would be the ultimate boss monster for a party that started out as zero level nothings trying to survive giant rats in the inn cellar.

 

Of course the idea evolved over time. Eventually when I was deciding what sort of long form game to run this year, I remembered the idea and created a world around the creature, which I called Zaskettr based on some random googling. Despite whatever details changed, the core idea remained the same: the dragon was the monster that had brought down the apocalypse and whatever else the heroes accomplished, destroying it would be the ultimate test. That said, I did not actually go into the con game expecting the PCs would tackle the dragon. I thought they might so I prepared, but it was just one of a few threads. It became clear early on in actual play though that if you put a dragon at the center of a game, the players are going to want to kill it.

 

Many adventures led up to the direct conflict with Zaskettr. One of the things I believe I am really good at from a Dungeon Mastering perspective is working on the fly. I create a realized setting and I prepare some expected encounters and Non-Player Characters. So armed, I am confident in letting the players go whatever direction and dealing with it as they go. Truth be told, I prefer this method of DMing simply because I get to be surprised, too. Who knows what a random group of players are going to do at a convention game, let alone one that stretches over 5 or more slots? I certainly don’t, and I like it that way.

 

Eventually, the PCs did come into direct conflict with Zaskettr. Twice, actually. Once the party had acquired the weapon with which to defeat the dragon, they went looking for it in its domain. That location proved very challenging and when they retreated to lick their wounds, the dragon, drawn by the very weapon designed to defeat it, attacked. The party barely survived and managed to escape through sheer luck. (Aside: that luck happened to be in the form of a helm of teleportation that one player rolled as a random starting item at the beginning of the first session. I believe in random input into the game. I can’t think of everything, and sometimes a random die roll, whether for an item or an encounter or even just a name, can completely change the course of an adventure. As I said, I like to be surprised.)

 

After the party fled, they chose to seek aid from the lords, churches and common folk of the land. With such aid, they drew the dragon away from a populated area and used magic to create a battleground of their devising. Zaskettr met them and this time the wyrm and the party were far more evenly matched. Even so, there were tense moments where only lucky die rolls on the part of the PCs or unlucky die rolls on my part spared their lives. It was glorious — everything a tabletop D&D fight with a dragon should be. I guess that an outside observer inexperienced with the nature of play would probably have been bored to death as we worked through a single battle for 2 or more hours. But for us at the time, it was thrilling. By the way, in my opinion that, in a nutshell, is tabletop gaming.

 

In the end, the PCs managed to whittle Zaskettr down. I had the dragon all set to flee the battle and force the PCs to come to its lair for the final round. Sadly, I did not leave the poor beast enough hit points. I did not expect the last round of luck the PCs had and before Zaskettr could fly off, the party cut the dragon down and impaled it with the magic spear that would keep it in torpor so long as the spear remained in Zaskettr’s heart.  They whooped and hollered on their victory and, to be honest, so did I. I talk a good “killer DM” game but in the end I want them to succeed just as much as they want to. After all, what we are all really looking forward to is a good tale to tell afterwards.

 

I gleaned a lot more from that extended game at Carnage this year than the fun of the party defeating Zaskettr. I will go into that in a future post. But for now, the joy of a well fought battle that mattered to the players, even at a convention without any of the weight of a home game, is enough to make me smile. This is why I run games and why I run games at conventions the way I do. Success after 20 hours, even if you as a player was not there for every single moment of it, is still far sweater than after just four.

The High Guard

A decade ago, the dragon Zaskettr returned from the grave and in a rain of fire and death killed the High King, destroyed the capital and thrust the island nation of Maroester into chaos and ruin. There were those sword to defend the king and the realm, but they had grown aloof and self interested. Their great battles were won, they thought, and they retired to their villas and their self interests. They were not there that day when the dragon returned. they were not there for their king.

Maroester was discovered 250 years ago by the Vastlund Empire. The local inhabitants — called the paku, or halfling in the Vastlund tongue — were quickly pacified and assimilated while Vastlund’s slave race — the uyghur, or “orc” — was imported to build the Empire’s newest colony. This island held secrets, however, and in the wild forests and deep mountains and jagged dells there lived other beings. These were the races of the fae, the Fair Folk — haughty and wicked elves, crafty and suspicious dwarves, wild and mischievous gnomes, dark and murderous goblins and many more besides.

But neither the paku nor the fae races were the first to settle Maroester. Something older lived there, something woven into the land and tied to the fabric of magic itself. Ruins cover the island and deep within them lie secrets far older than either mortal or fae, and far more dangerous than either.

Nearly a century years ago, the Empire retreated from Maroester. Some calamity befell the Empire at home and the fleet and the legions left. Only the Margraves — something like barons — and there sworn retainers were left to maintain order. It was not enough. The island quickly devolved into civil war as the Margraves fought one another for control, the orc slaves rebelled and the fae worked their dark tricks on men.

Margrave Emrys Wellard became High King of Maroester when he killed the dragon Zaskettr and used its hoard to consolidate power: some Margraves he bought off and others he raised armies to defeat. He freed the orc slaves and gave them there own lands in the rugged center of the island and he brokered peace with those elves and dwarves who might treat with him. After a seven year campaign, he forged a prosperous nation that could survive the abandonment of the Vastlund Empire. Among his most trusted allies and favored servants were the High Guard — heroes of their own lands and regions and people that gathered under his banner to bring peace to Maroester. they were diverse in kind and objective, but all chose willingly to serve the High King for the sake of Maroester.

For forty years the High king ruled and peace reigned. The High Guard subdued rivals and defeated monsters from the wilds, tamed wild fae and delved secrets in the ancient ruins. But eventually peace got the better of them all and they parted ways and retired. That was when Zaskettr struck. No one knows how the wyrm returned from the dead , but it came back more powerful than it had ever been. It destroyed the capital of Bishop’s Gate and killed the High King and his court. The smoldering ruins of the king’s castle are its lair and the Molten Throne is its most prized treasure. And with the death of the High King, the unified land of Maroester crumbles. The Margraves fight amongst themselves while the old animosities between men, halflings, orcs and fae reignite. Dark monstrosities in the wilderness walk freely and the dragon’s presence sends magical energies and ley lines into choas.

 

Now more than ever, Maroester needs the High Guard.

 

Embracing the Virtual Tabletop

fantasygrounds2

Thanks to Fantasy Grounds, I have officially slain my inner Luddite.

I am not a technology averse individual. I am as tethered to my smartphone as much as any modern person. I own computers and tablets and gaming consoles and weird robot ladies that live in little black towers that play music when I want. But one place where I consistently resisted embracing technology was table top, pen and paper roleplaying games. Certainly, whenever I would run the Pathfinder RPG I made use of the extensive on-line SRD and associated apps, but I refused to actually play online. I resisted the siren song of Maptools, Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, despite having friends that successfully used each, as well as simply getting together to game on Google+ Hangouts or Skype.

I think my resistance was based on the way I perceive myself as a Game Master. When I run a game, I rarely sit down. I see my roll as referee and storyteller, but most as entertainer. It is like an interactive one man show or stand up comedy for a select group of hecklers. Though I am not sure I ever articulated it in my protestations to VTT enabled friends, I thought that my style of GMing, what I literally brought to the table, would not translate to a microphone and computer screen. And if I am being honest about it, how I perform as a GM is embarrassingly important to me.

What finally made me reevaluate using a VTT was when I realized I wanted to play more often with people who lived far away. Once a year I drive 500 miles to cram 30 hours of table time into 4 days to continue a campaign that has been going on for 20 years and counting. It is awesome. No gaming experience matches it for pure immersive fun. But it is also limiting. That world and its stories are told in annual event stories. Little is accomplished outside of those events so the characters don’t get the kind of small scale, personal stories that created the foundation on which we still play. It turned out that the game system we use for that campaign, Mutants and Mastermind 2nd Edition, was not supported by Fantasy Grounds, but the newer 3rd Edition is.  I decided to give FG a try, to see if we could use it and then whether we wanted to make that edition transition. Somewhere along the line, I happened to accidentally fall in love with running Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

Fifth Edition is fully supported by FG and even free, at least in its Basic Rules form. Being completely unfamiliar with FG but very familiar with 5E I decided to mess around with FG using the 5E rules. With the help of the friend who had been successfully running games on VTTs for years, and who was ever berating me for avoiding the technology, I learned just enough to be dangerous — to my wallet. Fantasy Grounds is not an inexpensive platform for the GM, especially when it comes to running D&D. A quick check on Steam shows that you can get the Complete Bundle for D&D at a cost of over $300. If you want to be able to host players without them having to buy the software, add another $100 for the Ultimate License, or pay a $10 monthly subscription fee. I tend to view the purchase of gaming materials not from a “how much does this one thing cost” perspective but a “hours of enjoyment” perspective. Even at the high cost, if I use FG even half as much as I plan to it will come out to be some of the least expensive entertainment ever.

As an aside, I think that is true of table top RPGs in general. Sometimes books do cost a lot, and sometimes they sit on your shelf, but if you actually play an RPG regularly its cost per hour of entertainment can’t be beat.

After that initial exploration of Fantasy Grounds, I quickly fell in love with it as a platform. I invited far flung folks with whom I have and/or currently game to give it a shot. That resulted in almost universal excitement. Now I have more potential players than I know what to do with and am developing a new campaign world — about which I will blog in the near future. There are still technical hurdles to overcome — we have gone through a couple VOIP solutions so far — and scheduling is likely to be a bear. Even so I am excited for what the future holds: how long before it is a VRTT*?

*Virtual Reality Table Top

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right

About a year ago, I wrote a little post about Superman versus Cthulhu.  It was not merely an idle musing on how to marry the bright four color world of superheroics and the hopeless ennui of eldritch horror — it was the thesis for my work on the Strange Arcana universe from Sigil Entertainment and Aaron Acevedo. At the time, I was seriously considering doing some RPG self publishing and knew I would need some art for any such project. I tossed out a call on Facebook to get recommendations for royalty free art. Aaron, with whom I had worked in writing a story for his Maelstrom fiction anthology, suggested we team up and the rest is history. Strange History, in fact.

 

I did my first professional RPG writing for White Wolf Publishing (who didn’t, right?) on the kitchen sink, dialed-up-to-eleven epic fantasy RPG Exalted. Later I did some work for the d20 reboot of the famous post apocalyptic science fantasy game Gamma World. Unfortunately, real life got in the way when my kids arrived and I could not sustain a freelance RPG career. I always missed it, though, and when Aaron proposed an opportunity to get back into that world, I was ecstatic. And terrified.

 

It wasn’t easy. Writing for games is entirely different than writing fiction, and I had spend the intervening years focusing on fiction in hopes of one day Making It Big. (Spoiler alert: I am still hoping.) What was originally supposed to be a short turn around job has become a year long odyssey through this world of super heroes and malevolent forces. While the idea and the world belong entirely to Aaron, I feel a sense of kinship with the world we have developed. Both super heroes and Lovecraftian monsters are easily misused — both are subject to tired tropes and cliched stories. But I think our little team, which has grown well beyond Aaron and I, has found a way to make both new and fresh while simultaneously creating a world that blends the two and is more than the sum of its parts.

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right is only the first piece of that world we want to share with you. It is a fiction anthology, culminating in a beautifully illustrated comic book, that introduces the weird world and strange heroes. It will be followed in early 2017 with the Strange Arcana RPG for Savage Worlds (and, if we hit our goals, hopefully Mutants and Masterminds and FATE as well!) and, we hope anyway, a long line of support.

I love fantasy and I love post apocalypse and I love cosmic horror, but no genre hits all the cylinders for me like comic book super heroes. It draws on all the genres we love and at the same time remakes them. And more than any other genre, it demands complex characters — those secret identities, love interests and recurring villains are there for a reason, after all. With the infusion of its own take on eldritch horror (far more than a simple Lovecraft retread) Strange Arcana promises to reinvent the super hero genre for years to come.

 

Get in on the ground floor. Back Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right Kickstarter. I guarantee that by the time you finish the anthology you will be clamoring for more.

On the Value of History in Storytelling

Source: Official Marvel Website

You may have heard about a couple small films that came out this year: indie darling Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and a little joint called Captain America: Civil War. Many have discussed these two films, both individually and in relation to one another, and many good points have been made. The long and short of it seems to be that BvS was overblown tripe and CA:CW set the new gold standard, or something to those effects anyway. I won’t belabor the point or retread well worn ground. Rather, I want to talk about what these two movies underscored for me as a viewer, a fan of the source material and a writer. Namely, how a real sense of history informs storytelling and how a thin veneer of it can be worse than none at all.

Source: Bleeding Cool

The above pages from The Dark Knight Returns, the seminal comic book by Frank Miller from which director Zack Snyder took inspiration fro BvS, underscores my thesis. The captions which present the antagonists’ thoughts ooze history between the characters, making the battle between them important far beyond its spectacle or the late night nerd sleepover question of whether Batman could ever beat up Superman. This history is earned in DKR, sprouting from decades of team-ups and crossovers between the characters. Batman and Superman were friends once and it shows. their battle is not simply about anger or revenge, it is about an ideological rift between two genuinely heroic figures. Every World’s Finest comic book and every episode of Superfriends produced was leading to this moment. At least, Miller was able to convince us of that. He did not have to wipe the slate clean in order to justify the conflict between the Big Blue Boyscout and the Dark knight Detective. Rather, that deep connection was what made such a conflict possible and compelling in the first place.

 

Similarly, the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War was earned. perhaps not by decades of comic books but by years of big budget, very well made tent pole blockbusters. The architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wove each of the properties together and did not waste appearances by one character in another’s film. Moreover, the Avengers films that brought the characters together did so in a way that solidified relationships and established history. Due to the nature of film release, there is not a huge body of work in the same way there is in comics. It would have been lovely for Cap, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor to all have TV series that crossed over regularly with one another and the rest of the ensemble, but in a world where it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to do these characters justice on screen, that is a vain hope. Even so, I think the collective creative powers of the MCU managed to create that history without relying too heavily upon unrelated comics or cultural connection the way BvS did.

 

So what is the lesson? The lesson for me is informed by years of playing tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. I know. I was equally surprised.

 

RPGs share a lot with other episodic and serial forms of entertainment such as comics, television series, long book series (ex: Dresden Files), and of course movie series. In an RPG the continuity between sessions is a major component of the fun for the players. Not only do players watch their characters grow in wealth and power, they watch the world in which their characters operate grow, with recurring villains and subplots and themes. In other words, they develop a history within the context of the campaign. That history feeds itself. Every time a recurring villain shows up or an old ally reappears, the value of that historical element increases exponentially. You know you have succeeded as a Game Master when the revelation that the bad guy behind this adventure is the party’s old enemy elicits both cheers and jeers. They players are invested in a way they cannot be when presented with new threats, no matter how cool.

 

That same is true of other forms of entertainment. Comic book movies often make the mistake of killing off the villains at the end. Writers, directors and producers think, I believe, that audiences demand closure and in an action move, closure amounts to a bullet between the eyes or falling off something exceptionally high — preferably into something fiery and/or explodey. Television and comics fare far better on this front, though even comic book inspired shows like CW’s The Flash rely heavily on the death of the villain as the climactic event. It is not an insurmountable problem, of course, as Civil War displayed: the protagonists then must shoulder the responsibility of history. If recurring villains are not on the table, then it must be recurring heroes, along with non-villainous rivals and other supporting cast, that must do the heavy lifting in this regard.

 

Ultimately, what a sense of history provides is a reason for the audience to care.  There are a lot of ways to attract and then sustain a reader or viewer’s attention, but getting them emotionally invested is much more difficult. One surefire way to succeed is to tug on those emotions tied to the history between two things or organizations or participants. Few people gave a shit about Batman fighting Superman because that conflict failed to say anything about the emotional relationship between those characters. There was no history there. The fight between Captain America and Ironman, on the other hand, was much more well received and inspired a lot more emotional investment from the audience because the people in the seats not only knew who those characters were, as they did with BvS, but actually knew those characters and their motivations and what could drive a wedge between them. They knew these things because they had been invested enough to go see, rent, own or pirate all the MCU things that came before.

 

I am not saying there is no place for stories that are told in a single unit of storytelling, whether one novel or one film or one RPG session. Rather, I am suggesting that history and its weight plays a large role in our tendency to care about the fiction we consume. Acknowledging that will make us both better consumers of storytelling and purveyors of it.

 

Return to the Isle of Dread: TotalCon Report

This past weekend marked another TotalCon in Mansfield, Massachusetts. It was a great con and as usual I had a lot of fun with old friends and new. As it relates to running games, it was my most successful convention by far.

 

Each of the six 4 hour slots I ran of the Return to the Isle of Dread was full (all 8 tickets sold). There were always folks waiting to see if they could get in, as well. Even more, the 48 total seats available were filled with somewhere on the order of 15 to 20 individual players — meaning that many players returned to the game for multiple slots. It is hard to express how gratifying this is as a GM, especially that last part: players were willing to spend a large portion of their con at my table, sometimes even dumping other games for which they had signed up.

 

This, I think, is an illustration of the strength of the format more than any measure of my game mastery. Dungeons and Dragons can be fun to play in a limited format, but it really shines when treated as an episodic or serial form of entertainment. It isn’t just accumulated treasure and experience points, but accumulated lore, allies, enemies and relationships that make long term play so powerful. I wanted to bring that experience to convention play based upon my experience cramming long hours of play into a single annual long weekend game event. (I will talk more about this in a future post.)

 

Imagine my surprise upon realizing it actually works.

 

Actual Play Report

 

On the off chance that anyone is interested in what actually went down during play at TotalCon, I have compiled a brief synopsis. Note that this was a continuation of events that had occurred at Carnage on the Mountain in November. Also note that this synopsis is neither exhaustive nor chronological, since so much happens in the midst of play that my poor beleaguered brain stands no chance against it. If you were there and want to correct me you can do so in the comments. You can even lie. I won’t know.

 

Back in November, the player characters uncovered an ancient Yuan Ti temple, if the actual definition of “uncovered” is “unsealed, thereby releasing that blight back onto the Isle after eons in torpor.” Swarms of poisonous snakes attacked Farshore in search of stolen gold, which led the PCs to head into the wilderness and track down the site from whence the stolen goods came. In doing so, they had to contend with a despoiled cairn in the swamp that created two will o’ the wisps and a shambling mound. The ranger died by a will o’ the wisp after “escaping” engulfment by the mound via the “back door.” What they found there would lead them to the source of the snake swarms — a very angry spirit naga — and result in the longest string of sub-5 rolls I as a GM have ever had. That the ranger player’s follow up wizard lived trapped alone with the naga while the rest of the party listened to him scream is a miracle of miracles. That naga’s death would also result in a vessel rechristening, but I am getting ahead of myself.

 

Pterosaurs are dangerous! Especially ones that are nested 500 feet above the sea and 150 down from the top of the cliff. This is doubly true when would be nest raiders in service to a dishonored knight of House Karameikos (aka the PCs) decide to hang right over the ledge. It’s complicated. But it did result in a bloody death as the poor high elf thief chose to plummet to her death rather than be torn to shreds in midair. It may also be of use to know that it takes 4.3 seconds to fall 660 feet. Believe it or not, that figure would come up again.

 

Somewhere in this mess of events the party hired a small sailing vessel called the Red Queen, which was captained by a lovely but less than kind woman named Lydia. During their travels on the Red Queen, the party’s valour — and Sabrina the bard’s Bossom of Charisma — had the motley crew of rejects and half wits start looking fondly upon them and less so upon Lydia. Eventually there was a tussle for control and Lydia lost her head while Sabrina gained her hat. After the aforementioned killing of the naga, the barbarian Garth took the thing’s head and hung it from the figurehead and they renamed the vessel the Black Cobra. Many “Karate Kid” jokes were made and no NPCs ever called it that because all my notes said “Red Queen.”

 

Once the PCs had their own vessel the sessions took a decidedly piratical turn, though that was never my intention. The real motivating force behind that element was not so much the acquisition of the ship, which really just served to force me to roll on a different random encounter chart as the PCs travelled, but the outcome of one of those random encounters.

 

Not the ship that was really a mimic, though. That encounter was fun and scary and ultimately very cool but did not have a huge impact. But still: a ship that was actually a huge mimic.

 

The game changing random encounter was with the Tusk. The Tusk was my go-to vessel for pirate encounters in the seas around the Isle simply because I like the idea so much: a human captain and his orc wives crew the vessel with their dozens of half orc offspring. It is gross and fun and over the top all at once. It turns out, though, that when a ship has cannon as part of its armament, it is highly susceptible to fireball slinging wizards. The Tusk did not last long and given that the captain was one of the three pirate lords of the Isle, the Red Queen/Back Cobra suddenly earned a great deal of prestige.

 

Interlude: On Emergent Story

 

I try not to go into a sandbox or open world game with a “story” idea in mind. There are little stories, of course — the ones that make up the encounters or the NPC stories so they have motivations and personalities. I like to create just enough in the way of backstory so that I can manage play as it happens, jumping on ideas that seem fun at the time and responding to players’ antics. In other words, I throw a lot of shit at the walls and see what sticks. If an open world game is working right, though, a story inevitably emerges. It is a twisted mass of a story, an organic thing like a briar all turned in on itself, but it is there. Players will choose the elements they want to explore and I will flesh out the bones with ideas that come to mind, the results of random encounters and the players’ conjectures (this last one is super top secret; don’t tell anyone). So even as I argue “against” story as it relates to RPGs and D&D, I am really arguing against a pre-determined plot, not “story” itself.

 

Back on the Isle…

 

The story that emerged in the last half of the sessions was one of escalating hostilities between the pirate king Guy Voral and the PCs. There were other events of course: the hunt for necromantic flowers used to make rease dead potions that led to a vampire’s lair guarded by an undead treant, the battle atop the 600 foot tall ancient war machine brought back to life by goblin shenanigans and others. But that growing rivalry served as the centerpiece and served well.

 

First, the Council of Farshore asked the party (as the owners of the Red Queen/Black Cobra) to sign on as privateers. They declined. Then, Captain Guy asked the PCs to fly pirate colors. He would have even offered them the Tusk’s old station as the third pirate lordship. They declined that as well, but did so with gusto: they levitated the pirate flag into the air and set it alight for Captain Guy and his whole crew to see. Understandably miffed at the rebuke, Guy later convinced a few members of the Red Queen’s crew, which were some of the lowest scum sailing the seas as it was, to release fire elementals onto the deck of the Queen. The party defeated the summoned creatures and decided on a measured response: they went to Guy’s pirate town, freed his slaves, killed his men and burned his opulent mansion to the ground. On their way out they ran into a powerful ally of the pirate king: a seas dragon that lived in the bay. The dragon did not harass them since it was paid by Guy to keep ships from coming into the bay, but it did promise to report to the pirate so that it might renegotiate its contract.

 

After this affront, guy turned to the mysterious drow Assassin’s Guild to deal with the player characters. Simultaneous attacks from the shadows, with both blade and poison, nearly did the party in but they managed to survive and capture an assassin. After some intra-party squabbling they decided to make an offer to the Guild to buy out Guy’s contract on them. Events would not allow for them to hear the answer from the Guild, but the assassin they spoke to did escape to present the offer. Finally, the party decided to seek divine aid in finding out where Guy was hiding and discovered he had fled to the headquarters of the final pirate lord: the undead captain of the ghost ship Kraken. Coming into the Kraken’s bay at sunset to hid themselves in the glare, the Red Queen was able to get close enough to unleash it’s devastating super-weapon: control water.

 

Seriously. Have you read this spell? I had not. Holy crap. It might not look like much in the context of a bunch of dungeon delving tomb robbers, but on a ship, in battle against other ships? It is a nuke.

 

It turns out Guy had upped the promised wealth to his sea dragon ally (he was double dipping on what he promised the drow assassins, assuming he would only have to pay one or the other) and the dragon was guarding his ship while Guy was on the Kraken negotiating with the last pirate lord. When the cleric tried to use control water to sink Guy’s vessel, the sea dragon responded in kind and they wrestled for control of the ocean. For many rounds the sea dragon attacked the PCs while magically protecting Guy’s ship. The party wizard also had control water and used it to sink the Kraken (after all, the sea dragon had not been retained to protect that vessel or even specifically Guy’s life — dragons can be such lawyers). The party hurled fireballs at the sea dragon while it attacked them with dragon fear and its tail (it’s main action was held up with the control water spell). Once the dragon finally lost concentration on its spell due to the damage done to it, it breathed on the wizard. By that time, though, both the wizard and the cleric were controlling water beneath Guy’s ship and with water rushing in, the Storm Whore was destroyed (but not before the water walking barbarian could loot it at least a little — priorities, people!).

 

Eventually, the party had done enough damage to the sea dragon to convince it to flee. It bore into the hull of Guy’s ship to retrieve it’s promised pay (whether it deserved it or not) and then took the better part of valor. As to the fate of the captain of the Kraken or Guy — no one knows. One would presume that powerful pirate captains might have ways to escape sinking vessels, however.

 

That is where we ran out of time. I don’t think we will see those characters on the Isle of Dread again. I like to create a new sandbox with ever convention season. But who knows? perhaps there is another story yet in the Red Queen — okay, okay.. in the Black Cobra.

 

After all, there is that little matter of the Yuan Ti and their stolen artifacts…

Over the Isle of Dread, a Dark Phoenix Rises

 

When the Return to the Isle of Dread continues this weekend at TotalCon 30, it will be playing under the banner of Dark Phoenix Events. Operated by good friends of mine, DPE is an honest to goodness business designed to provide high quality gaming experiences — not just at conventions, but at private venues as well. The folkks behind it are not just wonderful people and hardworking Game Masters, they are dedicated professionals that want to provide the best experience for your money.

 

Don’t believe me or think I’m biased? That’s okay. Come to TotalCon and play in any one of the number of games DPE will be hosting there. Aside from my own ongoing Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition hexcrawl, there will be immersive cosmic horror and more from Andre Kruppa, comedic horror and more from Nik Palmer, strange mystery and more from Jason Marcure, sci-fi horror and more from Alexander Jackl, steampunk action adventure and more from Scott Legault, Firefly adventures and more with Sean Murphy, super-heroic adventure with David Clarkson, and Star Wars themed Fiasco from Petra Jackl. A number of those GMs are winners or runners up for the Northeast Regional Iron GM competition.

 

Conventions are great places to find new games, meet new friends and hook up with new polayers. This wonderful group of folks that make up Dark Phoenix Events are friends I met at TotalCon and with whom I fell in love with long before Scott and Petra decided to kick off this business. They are all great folks and even if you don’t ever think you will want the services of DPE, you should sign up to play with them because they are just that good.

 

See you at TotalCon 30!

Seven Sandbox Essentials, Revisited

I have believed in the value of so-called sandbox DMing for a long time. In September, 2008 I tried to codify my views on the subject in a blog post on the ENWorld gaming site. It went over pretty well. But now seven and a half years later, i wanted to revisit it. Sandbox gaming is more popular than ever — I attribute it to the ease with which one can run such a game using 5th Edition D&D — and my perspective has probably evolved.

 

What follows is the original post (with some minor editing for spelling, etc…) with my annotations in bold italic text. If you are interested in reading the original version, follow this link to ENWorld.

 

Seven Sandbox Essentials

 

The “sandbox” setting, in which players are not only allowed but encouraged to make their own fun by exploring and interacting with the setting, is, in my opinion, a fundamental requirement for satisfying, rewarding D&D play. Adventures and setting that force players along certain paths — or worse, away from certain paths — cannot hold a candle to sandbox play.  No DM’s or designer’s story has a hope against the story that the players themselves create through their actions and the consequences of those actions (with a healthy dose of DM input and dice-based uncertainty,to boot).

 

Well,that was kind of absolute — and we know who speaks in absolutes. It is interesting to see how one’s perspective on internet communications changes over time. I now cringe at the preceding paragraph, all to aware of the intended authoritative voice despite not possessing much in the way of authority besides some years running games and a few RPG sourcebooks.

 

Here are seven essential elements for a good “sandbox” setting.

 

  1. Big, but not Too Big: A sandbox setting should cover a relatively large geographic area, with room for varied terrain and environments, as well as multiple political entities.  However, one of the things that makes a sandbox game so enjoyable is the players’ ability to engage it as a whole, to see all four corners and to uncover its nuances and secrets.  Too big a sandbox makes each part indistinct — the DM likely doesn’t have time to flesh out every aspect of a whole world; nor do players likely have time, or even interest, to visit it all.  By limiting the scope of the setting and containing it geographically, the DM has the opportunity to delve into the whole setting and so do the players.  Something on the order of the British Isles works well, size and scope wise.

 

Not surprisingly, I was running a D&D campaign set in a mythic post Roman Britain at the time. That said, I actually agree with myself here. Both of my very successful convention based ongoing hexcrawl sandboxes have hewed to this rule. The Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread are both contained geographical regions with varied terrain types and locations.

 

  1. Lots to Do, Lots to See: As stated above, a sandbox needs to be diverse in regards to where the players can go and what they can do when they get there.  It isn’t enough to litter the place with 100 dungeons.  Rather, there should be a handful of dungeons, a handful of towns, a handful of active fortresses, a handful of mystic locations, etc…  This applies to political, religious and mercantile groups, as well. A monolithic nation that covers the whole setting won’t do.  At the very least, there should by various states or provinces with different cultures and conflicting interests.  Even better, numerous small nations or city states work well.  In addition, even if the DM chooses to have a dominant religious entity, schisms and sects within the church, with their own temples and own interpretations of scripture are necessary. Players should want to explore the setting to see what is around the next bend or over the next hill.

 

And here I think I overstated the need for such a high degree of diversity. In retrospect this advice runs counter to the previous advice. Geographical containment or not, having multiple states, multiple institutions and multiple other kinds of factions is a heavy workload that can lead a DM to never actually finishing preparing his sandbox. In my experience with the Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread as sandbox settings, a couple settlements and a couple factions of important are plenty.

 

  1. A Life of its Own: The setting should “live” like a real place.  The diverse locations and groups discussed above should interact and those interactions should be both internally consistent and produce movement within the setting.  Groups that are opposed might be moving ever toward open conflict. The heir to a city state might try and hasten along his inheritance.  A lowly peddler might slowly climb to the top of the mercantile heap.  A dark cult might be waiting for a soon approaching celestial event to unleash their dark master on the setting.  It isn’t that the setting ignores the players and their characters’ actions.  Rather, there’s something of a timeline or assumed evolution to the setting that the players can interact with and disrupt.  Knowing what would happen in a given situation without the involvement of the players allows the DM to better interpret what happens when they do get involved, as well as allowing the DM a plan if the PCs don’t bother with a particular setting element or subplot.

 

This advice still rings true. What’s more, I think it applies to all kinds of campaigns, not just sandboxes. In my experience, players respond to a living, breathing world and having some idea of what everyone might be doing if the PCs weren’t throwing wrenches into the works helps the DM maintain that kind of setting.

 

  1. No Scaling: The sandbox should not scale to the level of the PCs.  If there’s a “12th level” monster in the Darkenwood when the game begins, that monster remains there — barring its involvement in the above — whether the players choose to go to the darkenwood at 2nd level or 20th (or both). A scaling setting breaks verisimilitude and suggests to the players that whatever growth they have is irrelevant.  instead, the setting should include a wide array of “levels” of adventure locales, NPCs and monsters, distributed throughout the setting in a plausible and internally consistent manner.  This is not to say that the setting can’t include “zones’ that are geared toward certain levels of play, but too much of this inhibits the open nature of the sandbox. Mix it up instead.  But make sure that there aren’t too many “invisible” major threats.  Powerful creatures and characters produce legends and rumors and even inaccurate information will give players a glimpse into what lies ahead, allowing them the opportunity to make a meaningful choice as to where to go and what to do.

 

This advice is built around the issues of Challenge Ratings and the steep power curve of D&D 3.x and Pathfinder. Since 5th Edition’s power curve by level is more shallow, reminiscent of 1st and 2nd edition where lower level characters could get lucky and take on higher level threats while higher level characters might get slaughtered by even common enemies likes orcs, I view it a little differently now. I usually apply an assumed CR to a geographical locale or “zone” and then include both “easy” and “deadly” as well as typical encounters for that locale on the chart. In this way, the uncertainty of random encounters is preserved at the same time as some internal consistency is maintained for the locale.

 

  1. Wandering Monster Tables and Random Encounters: One of the key conceits of the sandbox is that players are free to go where they will, do what they wish and engage the setting through their characters without being pulled or prodded into the DM’s “story”.  This requires a lot of work on the part of the DM, creating many adventure sites, placed encounters, NPCs and organizations before play even begins.  But even with all the work done, there’s still a good chance the players will go somewhere the DM hasn’t thought too much about or had a chance to flesh out.  This is where the value of random encounter charts comes in.  With such tables, built specifically for the setting and informed by the detail the DM has done, can provide fun for everyone even during those sessions where the players simply strike out down the road.  These random encounters shouldn’t simply be a collection of monsters listed by terrain type.  Instead, the charts should include little glimpses into the setting.  What tribe are those orcs from? Who are the bandits? Where is the merchant caravan heading?  By making specific encounter charts for the setting, the DM ensures that more of the work he has put into the setting sees use.  By exposure, players are given hooks to choose for themselves to investigate and engage aspects of the setting.

 

Still solid advice. In fact, as time has gone by I have become more and more comfortable with “on the fly” DMing and relied more and more on random encounter tables for inspiration. The part about not everything being a fight is true, too. When the encounter comes up, a little creative application can turn what was likely a short fight with a couple specters into a tragic love story the PCs got to not only witness but resolve (as happened on the Isle of Dread at CarnageCon last November).

 

  1. New Blood: Characters die.  They retire.  Players get bored or want a break from the usual.  Inevitably, a player is going to need a new character, or a new player will join the group.  It may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked: the setting must allow for the introduction of new heroes (i.e. PCs) without breaking plausibility. As such settings that are mostly wilderness or wastelands with few settlements don’t work as well as those that provide a diverse selection of races and classes within the population.  As a related aspect, this means the setting must be adventurer friendly and reasonably wide ranging in regards to which races and classes are available.  While it is okay for the DM to establish some limitations to better suit the genre or setting he has in mind, too many restrictions hampers the introduction of new characters and should be avoided.

 

Both the Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread include gateway towns for this very reason. they are frontier locations where adventurer types come to test their mettle. The only requirement for a new PC is that they want to head off into the wilderness for fortune and glory. With the more shallow power curve as explained above, new PCs can be introduced at whatever the “starting level” of the sandbox is (be it 1st or 10th) and likely both survive and be able to contribute as they quickly close on the veteran PCs, level wise.

 

  1. Meaningful Choices and Meaningful Consequences: Most important of all, the actions of the players should have direct, noticeable impact on the setting, at least insofar as the PCs degree of influence.  Information should be plentiful enough to allow the players to choose which actions they will take, and those actions must have consequences.  Who the players ally with, and with whom they make enemies; what meta-setting secrets they uncover, and which they bury; those monsters they kill and those that they merely enrage: these all should change the setting to some degree or another.  If the players feel their adventures and explorations within the sandbox have a real impact, they will be both more inclined to engage the setting, and more thoughtful of the consequences of their actions.

 

I think this is another bit of observation that rings true regardless of the sort of campaign you run.

 

Revisiting an older piece is an interesting experience. I may do it again sometime.

 

Summon Boredom Elemental

Long story short: I have an introductory AutoCAD class that is required for the degree I am pursuing. I also use AutoCAD most every day, all day, and have for close to 20 years now. Thus was born:

 

monster

Cute, ain’t he? It’s like the smoke monster from Lost and Krumm from Ahh! Real Monsters got it on and had themselves an abominable baby boy. Since I went to all the trouble of trying not to fall asleep, I figured I might as well stat the little darling up for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

 

Ravenous Cloud

Huge Elemental, neutral

Armor Class 15

Hit Points 130 (20d8+40)

Speed 40 ft., Fly 40 ft. (hover)

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Str 20 (+4) Dex 14 (+2) Con 14 (+2) Int 8 (-1) Wis 16 (+3) Cha 11 (+0)

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Skills Perception +9, Stealth +8
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities poison
Condition Immunities exhaustion, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone, restrained, unconscious
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 18
Languages Auran, understands Common but doesn’t speak it
Challenge 6 (2,300 XP)

Special Traits:

Cloud Form The ravenous cloud can pass through spaces occupied by other creatures and stop there. Any creature within the cloud’s space has disadvantage on any ability checks and attacks that rely on normal sight. It can also pass through openings as small as 1 inch in diameter.

Actions:

Multiattack The ravenous cloud can make 2 slam attacks and one bite attack on its turn.

Slam: Melee weapon attack, +8 to hit, reach 10 ft, 1 target. Hit: 16 (3d6+6) bludgeoning damage

Bite: Melee weapon attack, +6 to hit, reach 5 ft, 1 target. Hit:  26 (4d8+8) piercing damage

Scan: In place of its slam attacks, the ravenous cloud may scan its surrounding for invisible foes. This acts like see invisibility with a range of 120 feet but only lasts for one round. (Recharge 4-6 on 1d6)

Hailing from the elemental plane of air, ravenous clouds are alpha predators from that windswept realm. On their home plane, their primary prey are invisible stalkers and even when found on the Prime Material they prefer that above other meals. As their name implies, though, ravenous clouds are constantly hungry and will stalk and devour whatever they can.

 

Unlike invisible stalkers, ravenous clouds are not easily summoned and bound by spellcasters. Sometimes an attempt to summon an air elemental goes awry and a ravenous cloud appears, usually attacking and devouring the summoner. More often these monsters slip through places where the veil is thin between the plane of Elemental Air and the Prime. They are dumb, hungry brutes with whom negotiation in impossible. They can be distracted with prey of their favored sort, however, and are capable of enough low reasoning to be intentionally redirected in that way.

 

Ravenous clouds are not tactically savvy, choosing enemies seemingly at random but with a strong preference for those that use stealth or invisibility. If there is an invisible stalker within sight of the ravenous cloud’s scan ability, it will attack that enemy regardless of what other threats are present.

Endings, Real and Imagined

This is going to be one of those posts where I just sort of meander on a subject. You’ve been warned.

 

I have never seen the end  Battlestar Galactica (the new one, I mean). I really, really loved that show. It was gritty, well acted, complex and surprising. Plus, it had one of the best starship battle scenes in the history of forever.

 

 

The thing is, I have a difficult time letting things go. In the last half season of Galactica, I realized that it was almost over. I knew that soon there would be an honest to goodness End, and I knew that if I watched that End, then it would really be Over. That sort of thing happens a lot. I am about 2/3 of the way through Arkham Knight now, which is a beautiful Batman Simulator. I know the End is coming there too: not just the game or even the franchise, but also Mark Hamill as the Joker. Ever since 1992 Mark Hamill has been the Joker. Heath Ledger was A great Joker, but Hamill was THE Joker. Until the end of Arkham Knight. After that, no more.

 

It seems that I have a pattern: the more I adore a thing, the less likely I am to actually finish it. There is something in that finality that bothers me in a way I cannot truly articulate. I know only that I freeze up inside a little and start looking for escape routes. And the longer I have been with a thing, the more difficult it is to push through my inherent resistance to finishing it. For example, tonight I finally finished listening to the audiobook of The Stand by Stephen King. It was really, really good. I was enraptured the whole time. At the end there, in say the last 4 or 5 hours of the 47 hour story, I almost stopped listening to it. I was afraid for how it would end, what would happen to characters beloved and reviled. It is not a simple matter of not believing the ending won’t be the one I would prefer or the one I would come up with, but not wanting an ending to it at all.

 

This issue affects my own writing, too. I have a lot of unfinished manuscripts floating around in hard drives. Some of them are unfinished because they suck, but many are unfinished because I don’t want to see the end of them. I don’t trust myself with the right end, or I do and I still don’t want it to be over and gone. I am in the final act of my current novel now and I feel the anxiety rising the closer I get to the finale — and it is not even the end of the story, since this novel represents just one adventure of the protagonist in a world I explicitly designed to cover centuries of stories. Even so, the ending looms massive and terrible in front of me and I have to force myself to keep driving toward it.

 

I guess endings are a lot like death, of which I am not a great fan. Or, to put it more honestly, death scares me to my bones and the thought of it, if I linger too long, can actually lead me to panic attacks. Finality is immense, whether it is of a life or of a story — and what is a life but a story?

 

I don’t know if I will ever watch the end of Battlestar Galactica or if I will ever play the end of Arkham Knight. I do know that I will finish this novel (and the next one, and the next one) because at least in writing I can decide when and how the rebirth happens, where the new story emerges from the end of the last. In fiction one consumes, as in life, you don’t get to pick how it ends and sometimes the ending can be bitter and unsatisfying.