Dark Phoenix Tales

 

Just a quick post: I am editing a blog for Dark Phoenix Events. Our collection of GMs provide stories, advice, excerpts of their work and sundry other goodies. Head on over the Dark Phoenix Tales, and maybe take a look at the services we provide for your private games, events and parties!

 

And make sure to come see us at TotalCon this February.

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Dropship Murphies Post Mortem

The Dropship Murphies are Gone! Long Live the Eclipse Runners!

 

Okay, that’s going to take some explaining.

 

Another Carnage on the Mountain in Killington, Vermont is in the bag. As usual I ran a multi-session episodic adventure, this time using Starfinder, the brand new space fantasy follow up to Pathfinder by Paizo, Inc. It is a new game and as such it was a bit rockier than my usual runs, but overall the experience was good.

 

For reference, the basic setup was this: the PCs represent the dropship crew of a vessel called the Void Adamant, captained by one Bolg Murphy. Hence “Dropship Murphies.” He was the kind of guy that would take almost any job — eradicating settlers on a colony world seems to be the line he won’t cross for work, but almost anything up to that goes.  The players characters consisted of mostly the Starfinder Society pre-gens from Paizo and a few graciously provided by a friend of mine. They were all 4th level and every session had all 8 player slots filled except the last, which had 7. Most players had working knowledge of Pathfinder and a few had some experience at least reading Starfinder. Many players were those who I see every year at my table — which is awesome! I love you guys! — with a few new faces.

 

The first session was by far the  weakest, due to me preparing too well. That’s going to sound strange unless you know my GMing style. I am usually a pantser (that is, “flying by the seat of my pants”) but I have been running Starfinder for my weekly Fantasy Grounds group in the lead up to Carnage. On the upside, this let me get used to Starfinder as a system, with its minor but important variations from both Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 5e (with which I am much more familiar). On the downside, I had only 4 to 6 players per session for those online games, which may have skewed my perspective. In any case, I ran an adventure I had done for my regular group — a space western style story with a shady mine owner, green martians and angry unions — and it did not survive the transition to 8 players so well. There just wasn’t enough for each player to do in a largely investigation based adventure like that. It was a little disheartening, to be honest, but also illuminating. I knew I had a lot of work to do during the dinner break before the second session since most of my prepared material had been based on experiences from that weekly group.

 

Here’s a thing: I am good at and like improvising when it comes to RPGs, but unfamiliarity can be a wrench in my creative gears. Because Starfinder has so much that it new in it — both in regards to setting and rules mechanics — it was stretching my pantsing skills to the limit. That said, all the following sessions went much better. For most of that I reckon I can thank my wonderful players. As I said, a lot of them are there every year and they are enthusiastic, forgiving and provide me with lots of opportunity to ricochet ideas off them.

 

In the second session, the Murphies accompanied an elven research vessel intending to observe a stellar dragon hatch from a white dwarf. That process attracted some void sharks — yes, ship scale sharks that live in space — and during the ensuing combat the elven vessel was damaged. Upon the initial travel to the site of the hatching the PCs had noted an unusual method of interstellar travel by the elven ship and they found out the reason: the elves kept an efreet bound in their engine core and forced it to use its wish powers to make them travel interstellar distances. Yes, I did call this adventure “n’djinn trouble.” Why do you ask? Anyway, once the efreet was free it took its revenge on the elven crew, murdering them and turning them into horrible void zombies, and the Murphies had to save the lone survivor before the dragon hatched. That was probably the most fun session of the weekend.

 

In the next adventure the Murphies were tasked with recovering an extremely advanced AI — built by the church of Triune — from pirates that had it (but didn’t know what they had). While the Void Adamant drew the pirate ships away from the base, the PCs flew in, dealt with some smart mines protecting the base, and breached. They were actually pretty successful this time, sweeping room by room of pirates, collecting some booty of their own and finally forcing the pirate captain to hand over the AI core or else. This mission did not go sideways until they got back on to the dropship and the android pilot decided to make contact with the AI. It turned out that the AI did not want to go back to Church of Triune and spend eternity doing divine calculations. After some tense negotiations that included the AI turning off the dropship’s inertial dampeners and slamming uncooperative Murphies around the cockpit, the AI merged with the dropship and turned it into a Drift capable vessel. With the words, “Let’s go exploring,” it initiated a Drift effectively forcing the party to steal both the dropship from Murphy and the AI from the Temple of Triune.

 

I should not here that this was one of those moments in these games I love. I literally had no idea what I was going to do next, but I presented the PCs with the option of “freeing” the AI just to see what would happen. And happen it did.

 

The dropship was not made for long term travel. The PCs were eating ration bars and stinking up the cargo hold when the AI — now calling itself “Eclipse” (you can see where this is going) — found a strange, almost song-like signal emanating from the Prime Material Plane into the Drift. Drawn by its power, the dropship emerged into normal space to find a massive Sargasso Sea of hulks and wrecks orbiting a central point. Living in the ship graveyard was a kilometer long worm, surviving off the radiation from a nearby Red Dwarf-Black Hole binary system as well as the ships themselves. At the same time, the song kept Eclipse from fleeing via the Drift and the same force was rapidly draining their power reserves. Eventually they would end up a drifting hulk as well unless they could solve the mystery. Through some clever technobabble — one of the reasons I love space opera and science fantasy so much — they managed to avoid getting eaten by the worm and find the source of their problems: a powerful fey not unlike a siren of deep space lived at the center of the wrecks. Despite its ability to mind control both the android and the mechanic’s drone, the Murphies were able to defeat it. Once it was dead power returned to their engine core — along with the engine cores of all the other ships. Unfortunately, none of those had shielding remaining and they started to go off like fire works. The dropship beat a hasty retreat to the Drift.

 

That was Saturday night and, frankly, it would have been a perfectly decent cap to the story of the Dropship Murphies for Carnage XX. The last session was scheduled for 1 PM on Sunday and I had kind of figured I would have some no shows. As such I figured maybe I would just do a big space combat game with whoever happened to walk by, since that part of Starfinder is pretty fun and doesn’t need a lot of context. I did decide to sketch out an adventure just in case I did have a full table. Good thing that, since everyone was there except one.

 

Nebula City is a large space station of about one million inhabitants situated on what I call the Verge — an area of the Vast that serves as a kind of border between the space-Nazi Azlanti Empire, the Veskarium of that lizard-klingon race, the relative civilization of the Pact Worlds and uncharted regions of space. It is neautral, with independent operators, powerful corporations, crime cartels and the Azlanti all vying for positions. After getting attacked by some renegade Vesk pirates once out of the Drift, the Eclipse (now the name of both the ship and the AI at its core) docked in a seedy part of town (less likely to report their arrival, since at this point they are running from the Church of Triune and the Void Adamant). Their plan is to get the ship upgraded to be more Drift comfortable and find some work. To that end they make contact with a Witchwyrd — a member of an ageless species of traders and hucksters — named Ahkimetakoka and hope to strike a deal.

 

Here’s where I had a silly adventure involving goblins in the maintenance tunnels and ventilation shafts all prepared. They didn’t take the bait. Instead, they asked a lot of questions, some too loudly, and during a no-armor fancy dinner with Ahki the Azlanti tried to kill the Witchwyrd (and the PCs along with him). Loose lips sink PC groups. Luckily the PCs survived even without most of their gears and in protecting Ahkimetakoka they earned a reasonably powerful patron.

And that is where we left it. At Total Confusion this year, we will pick up the tale of the Eclipse Runners.

 

in a future post, I will talk about running Starfinder from a rules perspective and what I intend to do regarding some issues I have with the system.

 

In the meantime, buy my book. ;)

 

Prepare For Drop!

T-minus ten days to drop. All hands to stations. Incoming!

CarnageCon, the annual tabletop gaming convention held at Killington Resort, Vermont, is imminent. This year, after the summer release of the science-fantasy RPG Starfinder from Paizo, Inc., my usual extended adventure takes place amidst asteroids, space pirates and void kraken.

The player characters are the tough as nails “away team” of the Void Adamant. The Adamant is a heavy cruiser, retrofitted for everything from hauling ore to surveying planets to fighting space pirates. Captain Bolg Murphy plies his trade in the Vast, far away from the civilized “Pact Worlds” where the only thing less common than rules of engagement is the tax man. Sometimes, though, you can’t nuke it from orbit and that’s where the PCs come in:

They are the Dropship Murphies. Highly skilled, questionably motivated and utterly expendable, the Murphies serve as the captains eyes, ears, hands and (when necessary) guns on strange worlds, salvaged hulks and unidentifiable alien mega-structures.  Over the course of five slots from Friday to Sunday, the Murphies will drop in and endeavor to get out before whatever can go wrong, does.

Starfinder Impressions

A week after returning from a record setting GenCon, laden with all the Starfinder books Paizo saw fit to print, I have had a chance to do both some deep reading and some actual play. This post serves as a follow up of the previous post, which contained my thoughts based on initial skimming.

 

First, the rules: Starfinder is very much “Pathfinder in SPAAAAAaaaace” both mechanically and narratively. Even casual Pathfinder RPG players will have no trouble picking up and playing Starfinder. There are a few stark differences — how ability scores and hit points are calculated, for example, and the way Attacks of Opportunity and combat maneuvers work — but they are exceptions that prove the rule. If you can play Pathfinder, you can play Starfinder. Just be sure to check for small differences before you assume. There are a lot of minor tweaks that definitely suggest a potential revision and clean up of the Pathfinder rules (who knows if such a thing is in the works) and it is easy to miss the small details. If, like me, you have played a lot more Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition over the last few years than Pathfinder, you will have to both unlearn some 5E rules and relearn some Pathfinder/Starfinder ones. I already miss Advantage/Disadvantage, but I am dedicated to playing Starfinder by the book for a while before I go tinkering with it.

The characters: My players took a solid couple hours creating characters. We play on Fantasy grounds and were using the PFSRD ruleset for that platform. It wasn’t perfect and we had to do some googling to see how others had handled certain things (for example: Starfinder has two armor class types and two different sorts of hit points) but we managed. There was lots of digital page flipping of the core rulebook PDF. I wish the table of contents and index at least were hyperlinked, but alas we had to make due with the search function. Inevitably there will be Starfinder SRD to match the wonderful Pathfinder one, which will make finding specific rules and things much more efficient. No one opted to play either a mystic or technomancer during this initial playtest — perhaps spellcasting classes were a little intimidating not in relation to the game but to trying to code information into Fantasy Grounds — and the mouse like ysoki were over represented. Maybe my players just like rodents. Who knows. In any case, Starfinder characters are comparable to their Pathfinder counterparts in terms of capability and versatility, with a little more built in survivability given the addition of Stamina Points on top of Hit Points.

 

Fighting: While the players built their characters, I input (what else) Space Goblin stats into Fantasy Grounds. It was easy enough. We decided on using Touch AC for Energy AC and Temporary Hit Points for Stamina Points — suggestions we had seen during our aforementioned googling — and decided to manually handle anything that was not easily coded (like you would at a non virtual table top). One nice thing about Paizo PDFs is that the art is easily extracted for creating tokens and laying out battlemats. In the end, four PCs were jumped in a nightclub by a like number of Space Goblins just so we could see how various rules interacted and character abilities worked. It pretty much ran like a Pathfinder small scale skirmish, but with a focus on ranged weapons. Everyone took cover. We used the harrying and cover fire rules. In the end, not goblin junk lasers exploded (this made me sad) and the PCs triumphed. The extra protection provided by Stamina Points means it takes a lot to kill even a first level PC — which is not necessarily a bad thing, but may change the way you play both as a player and as a GM.

Starship Combat: Separate from the above character combat, a friend and I ran through a starship encounter between an Eoxian Blackwind Sepulchre (a medium transport) and a trio of Veskarium BMC Mauler fighters. While the math provided for creating starship encounters said this was a balanced encounter based on tier, it was decidedly not. The nuke-wielding Vesk fighters made glowing shards and gas out of the Sepulchre in 4 rounds. The Eoxian ship was just too slow to get away and lacked any weapons with the same punch as the Maulers. That said, it was still fun. It is a relatively light tactical game. It has facing and maneuvers and is broken down into phases — very much its own thing rather than man-to-man combat rules translated to ship scale. It feels a little shallow so you probably would not want to make it a major focus of a Starfinder campaign, but it seems like it should provide a nice change of pace now and again. Not every adventure should probably include a space battle but maybe half should. In feel, the battles definitely evoke The Expanse (both book and television show). There are fast moving torpedoes and point defense weapons and flip-and-burn maneuvers. This is not a criticism: there are much worse things to emulate. We did not test the capital ships but my guess is they will feel more like Star Trekian lumbering naval fleet actions.

Next week we start our Starfinder campaign in earnest. This will be my test bed in preparation for running 6 ongoing session of Starfinder at Carnage in November. If you plan on going to Carnage this year, look for “The Dropship Murphies” in the event catalog.

 

Don’t forget: while I love me some science fantasy gaming I also do some science fantasy writing. My novel Elger and the Moon is available on Kindle Unlimited and for purchase in both Kindle and dead tree formats.

Starfinder Has Launched

Although August 17th is still a week away — that’s the official street date — Paizo, Inc’s science fantasy role-playing game Starfinder has been finding its way into customers hands already. Some who pre-ordered the core book have received it and some folks (like myself) have gotten their download links for the PDF copies as subscribers. The big drop is not until GenCon, of course, but it is nice to get to see it early — and get ready to run some impromptu games at GenCon if I can find an empty table and some interested parties. Given how quickly the official Starfinder events sold out, I don’t imagine it will be too difficult.

 

I don’t really do reviews, and even if I did I have not had enough time to really digest the book or play the game so a review would not be appropriate at this point anyway. That said, I thought I would give my thoughts on Starfinder. If it helps someone on the fence decide one way or another, or makes someone still waiting for their copy to turn green with envy, I’ll call it a win.

 

Note that these thoughts are coming pretty much at random and are still in the initial I-have-been-waiting-for-this-game-for-a-year-Oh-My-God-it’s-here! phase. Take them for what they are: initial impressions of a long anticipated game. Detached and objective ruminations, these are not. With that preamble out of the way…

First and foremost, the art in this book is just gorgeous. Paizo has not put up an official art gallery for the game yet but some of the game’s excellent art can be seen in various block posts.

The whole core book is full of great images like that one. I would be hard pressed not to shell out a sizable wad of cash for a Starfinder art book right now. I imagine the wealth of wonderful sci-fi/fa art from the game is just going to continue to grow.

As far as the core system for Starfinder is concerned, it is very close to the same as Pathfinder, which itself was a revised and expanded iteration of Dungeons & Dragons version 3.5. I have not played Pathfinder in a few years (essentially since D&D 5th Edition was released — the last time I was at GenCon!) but from what I understand some of the new rules in Starfinder come from a book of options called Pathfinder Unchained — which is analogous to D&D’s Unearthed Arcana variant rules collection. I can see how people that do not care for Pathfinder’s relatively heavy rules set will be turned off by Starfinder, and how some Pathfinder purists will be bothered by some of the changes in Starfinder. Those that will have it worst I think are those Pathfinder fans who jumping feet first into Starfinder. They are likely to run into a lot of small rules changes for actions, feats, abilities and spells with the same or similar names as those in Pathfinder. I expect a lot of accidental legacy rules calls in the near future.

Starfinder is chock full of great new ideas, from the races and classes to the mix of magic and technology to the starship combat system in which every character has a role to play as something like the “bridge crew”. Like Pathfinder, Starfinder relies on well worn but successful tropes. Among the races there are recently freed hive mind insectoids, biomechanical androids that made it through their own singularity, and warlike lizard-folk Gorn-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off called Vesk. Among the classes and archetypes are scoundrels with hearts of gold, space marines with really big guns and power armor, and no-we-totally-aren’t-Jedi called Solarians. This isn’t to bag on the game for its choices. Pathfinder is based on D&D and D&D is a game of tropes and stereotypes that excels when both companies and individual campaigns find a way to use those tropes in unique ways and surpass them. That there are small ratlike people that are good at stealing things in Starfinder is not a bug, but a feature. Especially when the ability of said race to hide objects in their furry little cheeks is detailed.

 

One idea that is less of a trope is the marriage of magic and machine in the game. Often times in games or fiction where both magic and technology are present they are at odds. Not so in Starfinder. The world of Starfinder was a D&D inspired fantasy world that developed naturally to its high tech future (exactly when and how is an open question built into the setting, but that’s neither here nor there). Thus, character options like the technomancer appear: a wizard whose magic is as much about manipulating technology as it is about summoning monstrosities from the outer planes or casting charm person. High tech weapons can be engraved with magical runes to better fight undead cyborgs and dragon space pirates. Starfinder is not just space opera a la Dune or Star Wars — it is true space fantasy. It is to space opera what Shadowrun was to cyberpunk.

If there is a fault in Starfinder it is that — like Pathfinder and D&D both — it is not complete even in its 500-odd page core rule book. There are no monsters in the core rulebook (aside from space goblins, as an example of how  statblock is read) nor any adventures. The latter are coming in October’s Alien Archive, and the latter can be found at launch with the first installment of the Dead Suns Adventure Path (which incidentally includes some monsters as well). It is nice that conversion rules are given for Pathfinder monsters and characters so GMs not content to or interested in using a pre-packaged adventure have options. There is also the Free RPG Day booklet First Contact which serves as a sort of Alien Archive primer, though not all the creatures in it will be appropriate for beginning adventures in the Starfinder universe. Enterprising Starfinder GMs should have no trouble cobbling something together, but it would have been nice for a simultaneous release of the Alien Archive rather than, say, cardboard standee pawns or shiny flip mats.

Now that I have it in my hands — at least in digital form — I am still All In for Starfinder. I am going to run it as often as I can in the near future — I will cut my teeth at GenCon as mentioned above; stay tuned here for news on that front! — and am committed to running a rollicking Starfinder mercenary open world game at Carnage called “Dropship Murphies.” If you are in Vermont in November, come see us and drop in at my table!

All In For Starfinder

Last year, Paizo, Inc. — makers of the Pathfinder role-playing game — announced they were making a science fantasy RPG called Starfinder. Not only was it to be based on the Pathfinder rules, but  it would be set in the far future of their Golarion campaign setting. To say I was intrigued is an understatement. Science Fantasy is one of my favorite genre mashups, especially when their are spaceships and chainswords and Artificial-Intelligences-So-Vast-They-Become-Literal-Gods involved. Pathfinder itself is a game that I played and ran a lot of in the Dark Tim between 3rd and 5th Edition of D&D, and while I was happy to leave its intricate and crunch heavy rules behind when 5E came out, I still appreciate Paizo’s production quality and talented writers.

I was a little worried at first. The art previews seemed to be heavy on the science and light on the fantasy. Note that I think a sci-fi Pathfinder game would be bad — but the prospect of true Science Fantasy with a D&D base flavor was very exciting to me. The last time we saw it was during the third party glut of the early 2000s with DragonStar — a noble effort, to be sure, but long unsupported and built on the rickety foundation of the 3.0 D&D rules. Luckily, it did not take long for the game previews on the Paizo Blog to assuage me of my concerns. The art preview for the Game Master’s screen killed those concerns dead.

That there is some Science Fantasy Heaven.

Why am I so excited for Starfinder? First of all, I am looking forward to see what Paizo can do with their Pathfinder game system — itself a rebalancing and expansion of the D&D “3.5” rules. It is pretty commonly accepted that Pathfinder sometimes suffers due to its requisite adherence to some now decade old design choiced from 3.5. The talented folks at Paizo surely have some fixes in mind they can’t really implement in Pathfinder without disturbing its stated goal of compatibility with D&D 3.5. Beyond that, the notion of “D&D In SPACE!!!” just tickles me. It takes all the joy and weirdness of Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and Warhammer 40K and mashes them together with a heaping helping of Tolkien and Howard and Lieber. What’s not to like?

Plus, you know, laser guns.

Starfinder debuts at GenCon 50 this year. I have already gone all in on the purchases — I am subscribed to everything except the map subscription and may add that anyway — and I have already committed to running Starfinder at this November’s Carnage Con in Killington, VT. Here’s the con book blurb, in fact:

“The Dropship Murphies”

It is a big galaxy out there, full of weird science, alien magic, ancient ruins and very hungry native life forms. Despite all that, people from the Pact Worlds push out into the Vast, colonizing and capitalizing. Sometimes, they get in deep trouble. That’s where you come in: the Dropship Murphies are the toughest, hardest bunch of mercenaries in the Vast, specializing in pulling naive pilgrims, greedy suits and lost explorers out of the fire — for a price.

“Dropship Murphies” is an ongoing adventure for the Starfinder space fantasy role-playing game by Paizo, Inc. Sessions are connected but episodic, so players are free to join for as many or few as they want. Accept a client, plan the drop and then try and keep Muphy’s Law at bay long enough to get paid. Pre-generated characters will be provided. Keep an eye on www.ianeller.com for previews and other updates.

Even more than that, I plan on running Starfinder at GenCon this year — not in any official capacity, mind you. All the Starfinder events were sold out within the first few hours of registration opening. I was disappointed for about a minute and a half before I realized I would be picking up my Starfinder rulebook at GenCon, so I might as well find a prominent place in Open Gaming and run it for anyone else like me who failed to get in an official game. We’ll navigate the rules together and much fun will be had, I am sure.

So expect a bunch of Starfinder related posts in the coming weeks and months. On the upside, it means fewer posts about writers block, the pains of self promotion, and/or other writerly whining and ranting.

Speaking of, if you like Science Fantasy as much as I do, there’s a little novel by yours truly you might want to check out. Just saying.

 

Being Johnny Diceseed: Making New Gamers

When my wife and I first watched Netflix’s Stranger Things series, I was struck (just like so many of my peers) by how powerful the D&D nostalgia was. We were those kids in 1985 (minus demonic monsters and psychic girls). Much has written about the connection between us 40-something gamers and the Stranger Things kids, so i won’t rehash it here. But an experience last night reminded me that you did not have to be 12 in the 1980s to be those Stranger Things kids: you can be 12 right now, in fact.

 

Obviously, I make no secret of my geekery and neither does my wife, so it was not unusual that Dungeons and Dragons came up in a conversation between her and a friend at work. It turned out this friend, S, had bought her son J a full set of the D&D 5th Edition books (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual as well as the Starter Box) for Christmas. Part of the reason was because S wanted J to put down his tablet and interact with friends more. J and his buddies had tried to navigate D&D on their own, S told my wife, but had crashed and burned. That is when my lovely wife offered up my services to teach J and his friends how to play D&D. I was to be Johnny Diceseed, progenitor of a whole new crop of D&D players.

 

I will admit, at first I balked a little. I am used to running games for strangers at conventions, but those are usually adults, and if there are any kids they tend to be with their parents. My sense of humor and imagination are not PG rated, and f-bombs, shit jokes and bloody decapitations are likely to fly during any given moment in one of my games. In addition I was not confident in my ability to teach kids the very basics of a game that is so ingrained in me after 30-plus years of playing it. Are you a parent? Do you remember the frustration of trying to teach a child to ride a bike when you could not actually articulate how to keep the bike upright? That’s what I was worried I was up against.

 

Nonetheless, I agreed. After all, the couch is cold. As the event got closer, I found myself rehearsing things in my head, planning out how I would explain this aspect or that aspect. I remembered being me trying to master the weird game in the red box and I got both a little misty and excited to impart that on a group of kids. I have purchased D&D for friends’ kids before, trying to pass on the hobby, and have offered advice to those kids. My own kids have been resistant, with my son being more active than tabletop gaming allows and my daughter being too young until recently. This would be the first time I really tried to teach the basics of the game to kids I had not met before. It would be much more like those convention experiences of a table of strangers.

 

None of my plans survived contact with the enemy, so to speak, but even so I was able to herd the kids and get them pointed in the right direction. J was quiet but deeply interested. Of the other four kids at the table — at boys about 12 or 13 years old — two were obviously natural gamers. One, B, is going to be their DM — he says not, and they want to make J do it because it is his stuff, but I can spot a DM a mile off and B is going to be it. Two of the other boys were a little more distracted and had little interest in the nuts and bolts of their characters, and if I had to guess those two would play for a while on occasion before wandering off back toward other activities.

 

One thing I found to be difficult in the process what that non-gamer adults never understand how long D&D takes. The kids wanted to learn to create characters AND play the game. Our window was about 2 hours. I got the kids through the rolling stats, picking race and class and spells, part of character generation and then told them we would fill in the other details as we went. Then, I ran them through a forest ambush with a hobgoblin and some goblins to give them a taste of the combat rules. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. It is hard to articulate until you sit down and think about it, but there is quite a lot that happens in your average game of D&D. No single 2 hour session can hope to teach it all. But, again, as Johnny Diceseed my job was just to plan a 20-sided acorn.

When I learned to play D&D, we had just a 32 page player’s guide and 64 page DM guide to navigate, along with a solo adventure to explain the basics and a pre-stocked dungeon to get the DM started. I like the D&D starter set and think the Lost Mines of Phandelver is a great introductory adventure, but I actually prefer Paizo’s Pathfinder beginner Box for teaching the very basics of tabletop D&D style role-playing. Kids just getting into D&D now have a lot more material to try and digest.

boxbackfinal

If it were up to me, I would teach a group to play D&D over the course of four sessions. The first one would be a short adventure with pre-generated characters to teach the basics of play and the assumptions of the world of D&D. The second session would be a character generation session where the players went through the entire process, had time to read their options and so on. The third and fourth sessions would be a somewhat longer adventure using those newly minted characters, designed with the goal of introducing the variety of activities that can happen in D&D, from dealing with NPCs to delving dungeons to traversing the wilds to selling loot and upgrading their gear. By the end of those four session, I think any group of kids that was interested in D&D should be able to navigate their way through the sometimes arcane rule books and adventures.

 

My philosophizing aside, I got to see at least a few gamers made last night. They cheered when they eviscerated a goblin and laughed when the barbarian whiffed twice in a row. They only got to peek through the door into this world, but they decided based on what they saw they were going to set their shoulders against that door and push. I am excited for them, for all the adventures they will have and the friends they will make and the worlds they will create.

Getting Weird: Why I Can Never Run A Grounded Campaign

It is all my players’ faults. I set up the campaign, one where magic is rare and magical creatures are alien and dangerous, where culture and technology are based strictly on a real world society at a particular time and where the primary conflicts are built around maintaining order as the larger social structure collapses. What do they do? They decide to play dragon men with a penchant for building armies of street urchins, demon bound warlocks that want to sell magical trinkets and marry into the nobility, civilization hating gnomes at war with colossal squirrel royalty and all manner of other weirdness. What’s a DM to do?

 

The answer, it turns out, is to say, “Yes.” Or, at least, “Yes, but,” with the possible inclusion of the occasional begrudging, “Fiiiiine.”

 

First of all, I can hardly blame them for grabbing on to the weird fantasy elements I myself put into the setting.

 

I only like “realism” in my fantasy insofar as it gives me firm foundation on which to build. Moreover, historical cultures, even in pastiche, provide ready resources when I do not know a thing or need to fill in details that I might not have considered. What do nobles in the court wear? I look up 15th century English noble attire on Wikipedia. What kinds of names do these people have? There’s a website for that. Is plate armor worn yet? I happen to have a book within arm’s (ha!) reach  to tell me. It isn’t that I am going for historical accuracy, just something approaching consistency or verisimilitude.

 

But all that mundane historical stuff gets very stale very quickly. I grew up on a cocktail of D&D, comic book super heroes, video games and pulp science fiction and fantasy. If there is a more incestuous family of weird fantasy influences, I’ve not had the pleasure of partaking. So once I established the lords and ladies and guilds and what not, I threw in the dimensional rifts from which monsters spring, the ancient Celtic and Norse inspired faerie races, the lost civilization of unknowable otherworldy wizards whose vaults and libraries wait to be plundered for arcane secrets and the city sized dragon that killed a king and brought about a (regional, at least) Apocalypse. This is the structure of the fun built onto that solid foundation and it should be no surprise to me (and, yet, is every time) that the players want to not only engage that stuff but expand on it leave their own weird fantasy marks on the world. That is, after all, why players show up at the table in the first place, isn’t it?

 

What I find interesting in my own process is that I always think I want to rely on my own imagination. I think I want to lay out the world and its denizens and locations and systems and then let the players move through it freely, yet constrained — as if it were a museum, all look and no touch. I do that every time, it seems, but just as inevitably I realize what my kids already know: museums aren’t actually any fun unless they are the sort in which you get to touch stuff. Maybe I think too much of my imagination, or too little of the players’, or it is simply that I cultivated a thing in my mind and I just want to share it so I am a little jealous of it in those first few outings. The reality is, though, that players improve the exhibits. Imagine how much more fun Michelangelo’s David would be if the Accademia Gallery kept a box of costume clothes and water based paints nearby and told visitors to go at it? Letting players dress up and paint the world I have created is like that.

 

This isn’t to say there aren’t pitfalls to allowing players to run amok, creatively speaking. First and most obviously, they usually do not have the whole story as it relates to setting secrets. If a player wants element X to work one way, but in the DM only notes it is actually part of situation Y it can be a little touch to navigate. Usually I can say something as simple as, “That thing is sort of off limits to players,” which has the added benefit of suddenly attracting that player’s attention to it. After all, I wouldn’t both including a secret if I did not want the player’s to uncover it, would I? Other times it is easy enough to let the player (and their character) believe a thing is X when it is actually Y. The look on their faces will be worth it in the end.

 

To be honest, either of those scenarios are relatively rare. Usually a player comes up with an idea or extrapolation I would never have considered. That’s the beauty of the cooperative nature of D&D and other RPGs. People complain about “movies made by committee” for big budget Hollywood releases, and for certain too many cooks can ruin the stew. But in D&D, I have found that generally speaking the more input, the more ideas floating around the table, the more fun everyone has and the better off the game is. Plus, it has the added benefit of taking a whole lot of work off my shoulders and, frankly, I am a Lazy DM.

The World is a Phoenix: The Post-Post Apocalypse

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I love the Post Apocalypse. I love mutant bears with lasers coming out of their eyes. I love libidinous frog men trying to keep Rowdy Roddy Pipe down. I love spike covered muscle cars and psychic dogs and cross country treks in tricked out APCs and the rockabilly battles of Old Vegas. But as much as I love the post apocalypse, it is really all prelude, because what I really love is the post-post apocalypse: when civilization rises from the ashes like the titular mythical bird of this post.

 

Stories about the end of civilization are fun. Characters are given permission to go native and lose their inhibitions, and in the context of games (both tabletop and electronic) you are too. It’s cathartic, blasting mutants and zombies and cyborgs and mutant-zombie-cyborgs. But it is also ultimately limited: the world is dying and man is fading and no amount of weird super-science or gritty survivalism can change that. But when the spark of renewed hope appears, when it looks like the world might just crawl out of the crater, that is when things get interesting. I would contend that much of the best post apocalyptic fiction is actually post-post apocalyptic, because it is not about the End, but the New Beginning.

 

Let’s take for example a pinnacle of the genre: Fallout. Across many games and some tie-in media, the world of Fallout is celebrated as a perfect post apocalyptic story. Except it isn’t. From the very first Fallout game, it is a story about hope: can you find the water purifier chip and save your people. Along the way, it turns into a story about how new powers are trying to control the new world and usher it into a new age. That doesn’t sound like a whimper or a bang. Fallout 2 is more explicit in its metaphor, casting the player as an uncivilized tribal that enters and embraces the new civilization. By the most recent Fallout 4 you actually create, manage and preserve civilization in the form of settlements.

 

When post apocalyptic stories center around creating a new world order, abolishing the monstrosities of the past, reclaiming lost knowledge or otherwise building something new, they transform into post-post apocalyptic ones. Now, sometimes it is a bit of a bait and switch: The Walking Dead, both on the small screen and on the page, is a post apocalyptic story. it flirts with hope but ultimately smashes it with a baseball bat or devours it with a horde of the cannibal dead. The original Mad Max qualifies as well: there is no real sense that things are going to get better by the end of that film; they gangs will just keep fighting one another until all the gas is gone. Interestingly, The Road Warrior transforms into a post post apocalyptic tale just at the very end when we hear the narration of the feral boy grown into an aged storyteller: there is hope and a world beyond Max’s diesel powered Hell. Both Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road are, like the later Fallout games, more explicit in their embracing of the post-post apocalypse. Each of those films promises a future.

 

Narratives more easily recognizable as post-post apocalyptic are often set much longer after The End. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a recognizable example of this, if a bit less fantastical and weird science than much else in the genre. The tabletop role-playing game Numenera from Monte Cook qualifies, too, along with the upcoming (and awesome looking) Horizon: Zero Dawn Playstation game. In each of these examples, enough time has passed that the world is on its way to healing (although usually things are still much more primitive than they were prior to the apocalypse). Here the events of the apocalypse and subsequent rebirth serve as a stage for whatever drama is to follow, rather than the plot itself. The slate has not only been wiped clean but new social, political, religious and cultural structures have been built and these worlds often have similar features to second world fantasies. My own upcoming novel Elger and the Moon fits into this category.

 

There is an optimism in the post-post apocalyptic genre that makes me happy. I like to think that however badly we screw it up, humans are just smart, tenacious and lucky enough to avoid completely destroying ourselves. The struggle to survive is interesting but it is also exhausting, and with all the things in the real world that seem so hopeless sometimes, a dash of hope in my leisure-time adventures is much appreciated.