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!

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The Fate of Zaskettr

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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.

 

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.

 

Return to the Isle of Dread

 

Decades ago, adventurers found a forgotten captain’s log that led them to a mysterious island inhabited by strange peoples and terrible monsters. Their adventures opened the floodgates for treasure seekers and monster hunters until one day, the island simply disappeared, as if erased from the very ocean. In time, the so-called Isle of Dread became a legend and rumor, all but forgotten — until now. The hull all but gone and the crew all but mad, a ship has berthed bearing not only tales of the lost isle, but also glittering treasures and strange artifacts.

 

The isle has returned to the world, but will you Return to the Isle of Dread?
A D&D 5th Edition Ongoing Adventure of danger, daring and dinosaurs coming to a Con near you this fall.

10 Things I Learned Running D&D 5E All Weekend

I spent the weekend at TotalCon in Mansfield, MA. I visited with old friends, drank too much and absolved myself of real grown up responsibilities for a few days, but mostly I ran 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I DMed six session slots for a total of 25 hours of play (that last one on Sunday went an hour long). These were not six sessions of the same couple of adventures run over and over, but rather one continuous hex-crawl exploration, a sort of table-top massive multi-player game called “The Valley of Tombs” that actually started at CarnageCon in Killington VT this past fall (that’s a total of 11 Con sessions I have run it, by the way). It was exhausting. It was fun. It was overwhelming. It was glorious. And, it taught me some things.

 

So, without further ado, here at the 10 things I learned while running a ridiculous amount of D&D 5E this weekend:

 

1: The most time consuming thing is getting everyone up to speed. With only one exception, every session had at least a couple players that were unfamiliar with 5E and who had not played the Valley of Tombs before (either at Carnage or at a previous TotalCon session). While this was no surprise, I was taken aback at just how much time it can take to get a player comfortable enough with both the system and the conceit of the game to be able to choose a character, parse its abilities and role in the party and be ready to strike out in search of adventure. And while I think I got “the spiel” down to a reasonable length by the end there, my introduction to both 5E and the Valley could certainly use some tweaking.

2: Valley Veterans are a Godsend. There were two sessions in which folks who had not previously played were entirely absent and their absence was felt. It was not simply an issue of history and lore, though having folks around that appreciated and could impart that stuff was nice, but one of logistics: veteran players were able to bring new players up to speed while I was organizing my notes and preparing for actual play. Thankfully, I had a ton of veterans by Con’s end and I appreciate everyone who sat twice or more at the table.

3: Characters should belong to players. There is something neat about picking up a PC that has some treasure, some XP and some history, but one thing I did not think about was just how profound player versus character knowledge became with a mix of veteran and new players. Some characters were chosen consistently throughout even though players came and went, which meant Gar the Half-Orc Ranger experienced the first brush with the Faerie-Eating Spider-Men, Bob could not explain that information to Jane since Fred had actually played Gar the previous session. The shared journal I have players fill out helps some, of course, but unless Gar’s player was running the journal, Gar’s perspective is lacking. I think one-and-done PCs for any player are necessary given the format, and since levelling is slow slow it should not impact the balance of the game.

4: No one cares about the Inspiration die. In the Con game format, I wanted to avoid everyone jostling for role-playing time with their Flaws and Ideals and such to gain Inspiration. Instead, I had one Inspiration Die that was meant to move around the table. If you got it (for being awesome, for making the game fun, or for bringing me beer or coffee) you could use it anytime you wanted, but then it went back into contention and the next awesome, beer-getting player got it. In reality, no one remembered it was out there. Maybe I give advantage too often or maybe the die being in one player’s possession makes everyone forget about it, but there were very few situations in which it got used at all. I will have to rethink the Inspiration Die bit.

5: Tea is my larynx’s best friend. I had a cold last week anyway, and spending all that time talking certainly strained my voice. Throw in the late night parties and I should have been voiceless by Saturday. But I took that advice of my beautiful and hyper intelligent wife and brought an electric tea kettle to the Con and was able, with judicious use of honey and lemon, keep myself able to be heard. As an added bonus, the kettle was also great for instant oatmeal and Ramen as a way to save money on meals!

6: Never Sit. Seriously. You are the head of the table. All eyes are on you. If you disappear behind that screen, you have lost them. Don’t do it. (I actually learned this at Carnage, but it is so important I had to repeat it here.)

7: If you are going to wing it, be prepared. That sounds contradictory, but it really proved its truth this weekend. In the weeks leading up to the Con, I had some trouble dedicating the necessary amount of time to be ready for this. So, it turned out that because I do not run any early morning games (you’ll remember the thing about the late night parties above) I had a few hours every day to tweak previously prepared stuff and add new material, without knowing whether it would get used. Open world sandbox gaming requires lots of material on hand, whether it is cribbed from other sources, based on random tables or created whole cloth. Otherwise, the game slows to a painful crawl. I made good use of my mildly hungover, tea-drinking time and it paid off.

8: Random results are best results. There is no better way to illustrate this than by example. During the aforementioned preparation, I rolled a treasure hoard that included, of all things, a bag of beans. I have never used a bag of beans in a D&D game before and would likely never have thrown one into the treasure mix on purpose. It happens to end up in a hoard that the PCs acquire (though they don’t know what to make of it — either PCs or players). Later, those same PCs end up in a dire situation: a few party members are trapped in a sealed room, running out of oxygen, dying the slow, ignominious death of the tomb raider while their friends tried desperately yet futilely to free them. Finally, with nothing left to lose, they decide to drill a hole in the many-ton stone block that traps their companions, stuff said hole with dirt and plant a bean from the bag. One percentile roll later, a massive pyramid erupts from the bean, destroying that portion of the dungeon and providing a way out for the doomed PCs. And, on top of it, a terrible mummy lord lives in said pyramid, thereby adding a new wrinkle to the setting. None of that awesomeness would have happened without a few random rolls.

 

Yup. Just about like that.

9: Allosaurus riding lizardmen make everything okay. My last session of The Valley of Tombs for the weekend was the Sunday 1 PM slot. Thirteen players ended up at that table (because I can’t say “No”) and I was sure it was going to crash and burn. My TotalCon legacy was going to be a baker’s dozen of disappointed players. At first, it seemed to be going that way with minor details turning into major plot points and some intra-party machinations threatening to derail things. Then, at just the right moment (i.e. with less than an hour left) the party heads to their original adventure site which turns out to be full of lizard men riding Allosauruses (Allosauri?). It made everything better.

10: The Valley of Tombs is an actual thing. When seven of nine (insert Star Trek borg bosom joke here) 1 PM slot  players chose to forego their pre-registered 7 PM games to continue their adventures, I not only realized I had something pretty cool on my hands, I was more flattered than if I had won IronGM (which I decided not to do this year since I wanted to run Valley). It isn’t perfect yet and there is a lot of work to get The Valley of Tombs into a semi-pro state, but I think it has legs. My goal over the next few months is to build it a website and develope it well enough that it becomes an honest to goodness actual “thing” at New England regional gaming cons, probably starting with OGC Con in New Hampshire in June.

 

I loved running this event over the weekend and I really do think it has potential to be a fixture for years to come. I want to thank every player that sat at the table, but most especially those that kept coming back. You guys rock.

 

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 2

 

Last time, I discussed my take on the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules themselves. What follows is a more specific discussion of running The Valley Of Tombs at CarnageCon as a persistent open world exploration adventure, a “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” if you will.

 

The Valley of Tombs

 

Figuring out what to run at a convention can be very difficult. I know that I much prefer run games than to play them: for every good game I play, there are two that are boring or uncomfortable or just plain bad. Ultimately, I want to be that game that is good for other players, and in any case I love running RPGs. It’s too bad there is not career in it.

 

Last year at Carnage I ran a two part Mutant Future adventure (“Out of the Freezer/Into the Fridge”) and I found that I really liked running multipart games. At the same time, that I was trying to decide what to run this year, I was playing a lot of Skyrim and the open world, exploration based adventure design that is so fundamental to that game really inspired me to try and recreate the experience on tabletop. The result, it would turn out, was The Valley of Tombs.

 

From a player’s perspective, the Valley setup is simple: an ancient region used over eons as a resting place for the mighty has been rediscovered, setting off a “gold rush” like race for not only riches but forgotten knowledge and ancient power. Player characters are contractors with the Finder’s Guild, which serves the dual purpose of giving them a place to fence their recovered loot (*for a 10% fee, of course) and a way to connect with like minded fellow explorers. They also pay for the simple act of discovery, using a magical journal and map. The players, of course, fill in the map and write in the journal, with the goal of creating a base from which future groups of players at different events where I run the Valley can start their own adventures.

 

I was very lucky at Carnage in that I had a very enthusiastic journal keeper who also happened to be present (with her husband) for each of the five slots I ran. That they were great role players who brought a lot to the table as well was gravy.

 

Prior to the convention, I had planned on creating the entire Valley, stocked top to bottom with interesting locations and encounters. That proved to be far too ambitious a goal, however — especially with taking classes for the first time in 10 years (not to mention the usual family and professional responsibilities). Instead, I sketched out the immutable features of the Valley (terrain and settlement locations that would not be changing) and created a few dozen encounters, both location based and “wandering” encounters. In the end, I think it worked out for the best.

 

Had I assigned every interesting location a hex in advance, the possibility that the players might accidentally sidestep the “fun stuff” was there. In addition, it would deprive me of my favorite thing about being a Dungeon Master: playing to your small, captive audience of players and giving them a tailored experience. Like many of the open world video RPGs that inspire it, the Valley is chock full of things to see and do (and kill!) but those things are not necessarily nailed down to a single location. That said, the experience at Carnage has helped me devise a balanced approach to exploration and storytelling that should make the experience even more fun for future groups.

 

I am not a fan of the “adventure path” style of play that currently pervades the RPG hobby. I much prefer stories to emerge out of events that occur at the table. Certainly, prep work is necessary and story seeds need to be spread liberally over the fertile soil of player imagination (to take a metaphor way too far) but too much predetermination is counterproductive. In my experience players have more fun if they feel like they are driving the narrative with their choices and actions. These two elements — the things in the world and how the players choose to interact with them — combine with the game system itself (not least of which is the randomness inherent in the dice) to result in “story.” Sometimes a character’s story ends with her at the bottom of a pit, pierced by goblin punji sticks, and sometime it ends with her slaying the dragon and saving the prince. In an adventure like Valley of the Tombs, either story is as likely as the other.

 

Some numbers from Carnage: I ran 5 slots of the Valley, for a total of 20 hours of play. I had 12 or 13 players total. Two players played every slot and 6 players played at least 2 slots. Only one PC died (dammitall). A total of 12 adventuring days occurred, during which about 20 hexes were explored. One “dungeon” was explored, consuming an entire slot, and another (the apparent prison of “The Lord of the Pit”) was found and the key to opening it unlocked, but the players chose not to open it. Player characters present for every session earned 3000 XP.

The Valley of Tombs was a joy to run and the slots at Carnage taught me a lot about how to make it even better. I will run it a few times between now and February, when I bring the Valley to TotalCon for 6 slots — 24 hours of hexploration and adventure!

Game Mastering, Conventions and The Valley of Tombs

 

Table top roleplaying games in general, and Dungeons and Dragons in particular, represent my most beloved past time. There are lots of reasons for this, from the creativity involved to the social aspects to simple nostalgia. Within the scope of TTRPGs, though, there is one element which I love most: running games for others, or Game Mastering as it is generally known (Dungeon Mastering when talking specifically of D&D).

 

The art of Game Mastering is equal parts creation (coming up with plots, settings, characters and conflicts) and improvisation (reacting to both the responses of the players and the rolls of the dice) with a side of personnel management (players don’t always work smoothly together) and customer support (nor does the game itself always work as intended). It is a challenging and rewarding experience that lets me flex my creative muscles and receive immediate feedback in a way that other creative exercises, like writing, do not. In short, it’s fun — often exhausting fun, but fun just the same.

 

Broadly speaking, GMing comes in two flavors.  The usual kind is you and a group of friends that get together at least somewhat regularly and play an ongoing game (called a campaign). You know everyone at the table and their preferences — what they like, what they dislike and what they are looking for in the gaming experience. Because these are your friends and it is an ongoing activity, if problems arise you can discuss them and find solutions that work over the long term. And make no mistake, like any activity involving multiple people, problems will arise, from scheduling conflicts to interpersonal disputes and misunderstandings and miscommunications.

 

The other sort of GMing involves groups of strangers coming together for individual, short term play. It can be a game day at a store, an organized play event, or, more commonly, a scheduled slot at a game convention. Up to six or eight people who most likely do not know each other (you might get two or three people who regularly play together signing up together for such an event, but rarely a whole table full) sit down with a GM they also most likely do not know, to play a game they either aren’t familiar with (it is common to try out new games at conventions) or perhaps are masters of (some people only play one game and do so with an almost religious zeal), all in a noisy room under a time limit and the added stress of the players having paid good money to be there. Convention GMing is difficult and stressful and not for everyone, but I love it.

 

Two Great Tastes…

 

As conventions I regularly attend and run games at approach (Carnage in Killington, Vermont, and TotalCon in Mansfield, Massachusetts) and at the same time I have chosen to go “all in” with the new Dungeons and Dragons, I realized I want to try something new: I want to mix some of the elements of the ongoing game into the experience of running a convention game. When players and GMs think about the game beyond the immediate moment at the table, they make different, interesting decisions (either because they are considering consequences or laying groundwork in a way they wouldn’t when they know there is no follow up, no tomorrow as it were). By hopefully adding that level of consequence, that tomorrow, from an ongoing game into a convention game, I hope to produce a richer, more fun experience for all involved. To make that happen, my plan is simple — at least, it sounds simple on the surface:

 

I am going to run the same adventure continuously throughout the duration of the convention. Now, many convention adventures have multiple slots, where Part One of the adventure might be played on Friday, Part Two on Saturday and the finale on Sunday morning before everyone drives home. That’s not quite what I mean. Instead of an adventure with a multi-part plot, I am going to create an environment with a lot to do, a “sandbox” full of enough locations, characters, monsters and treasures to entertain  multiple groups of players over 16 or 20 hours of play. That sandbox is called The Valley of Tombs:

 

“For thousands of years, the Valley served as the resting place for tribal chiefs and god-emperors alike, for in it was a magic that promised great reward in the afterlife. But a calamity centuries ago cut off the valley from the greater world and its location was lost. Only a few years ago, the Valley was rediscovered and now hungry adventurers and crypt raiders have descended upon the valley in search of lost lore and buried treasure. But not everything rests in peace in the Valley of Tombs. Can your heroes overcome its insidious perils as well as rival tomb raiders, and still find fortune and fame?”

 

Players can sit in on as many slots as they like, keeping their characters and tracking treasure won, enemies overcome and experience gained. But even if no players play for more than one slot, continuity will remain — whatever players do in the slot before remains done in the following slots. A player updated map and a player written journal that stays at the table will ensure the next slot’s adventurers know what came before. My hope is that some players choose to play multiple sessions and others who only play one session look at the map and journal and choose to go after, for example, a treasure that was hinted at but not found by an earlier group or to take out a monster or villain that killed a previous adventuring party.

 

Testing:

 

I signed up for GenCon 2014 too late to submit any events. Even so, I plan on planting myself at an open gaming table with the Valley of Tombs — or some pieces of it anyway — to work through some of the concepts and ideas. I am hoping that there will be enough demand for D&D 5th Edition play that I’ll be able to fill a table a couple of times. After GenCon, I will use what I learned there to craft the Valley in full for Carnage and run a few test sessions with my local game groups. Carnage will be the first full “beta” test at a convention and should help me work out the bugs for TotalCon, where I plan to dedicate my entire time at the convention to running The Valley. Assuming it goes well and everything works as intended, I hope to be able to keep honing and running it into next con season, perhaps even at GenCon 2015.

 

Over the course of the development and testing process, I will be talking about the Valley of Tombs here on occasion, so stay tuned!