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. ;)

 

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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.

 

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.

 

Return to the Isle of Dread: Random Special Encounters

 

 

When running an open sandbox game, having good random encounter charts at your disposal is a must. I tend toward finding or making terrain based charts and then having an additional chart of “special encounters”. These encounters can happen in any environment and exist primarily to reinforce the themes, mood and atmosphere of the sandbox. in the case of The Return to the Isle of Dread, the point is to remind players that the Isle is a weird nexus of worlds and not at all safe.

 

The following chart is a little bit gonzo, and that is intentional. The Isle is a little bit gonzo, blurring genre lines and serving up some wicked wonder. It will probably see a little bit of modification before TotalCon rolls around, but you can see what the intent is.

d20

01: A tribe of 4d4+4 goblins living inside an animated T-Rex skeleton led by a bugbear witch.

02: A circle of severed heads on spears babble madly as per gibbering mouther. Bodies and loot in circle.

03: Mad explorers set trap gauntlet to catch a meal: spiked log, falling stones, snare over spiked pit.

04:Human barbarian and 1d6+2 awakened apes stalk area, killing hunters/tomb robbers & aiding innocents.

05:Haunted camp. Spectral explorers replay fight over treasure nightly. One can be traced to the gold.

06:Tree grows melon sized plums. Max any HD spent when consumed during short rest. Last 1d4 days.

07:4d6+6 draconians think they’re on Krynn and await orders from Highlord in a makeshift fortress.

08:Tree looks like the one with healing plums. Those aren’t plums: they’re 2d4+2 giant spiders.

09: Village of 5d4+10 phanaton is plaguestruck and needs help. 2d4 die/day until village is gone.

10:2d6+4 slavers have of 3d6 slaves in tow. Freed slaves repay kindness with secret knowledge.

11:Goblins! 2d4+4 ride pig size triceratops. Peaceful unless provoked. Other goblins hunt them.

12:Something slithers in an ancient yuan ti shrine nearby. 1d4+1 abominations stalk the PCs.

13:Allosaur nest with 1d6+2 eggs. Mother and father return in 5d6 minutes and will attack.

14:Couatl guards a magical fountain. Drink with permission 24 hour bless; without 24 hour bane no save.

15:Waterfall hides cave with treasure inside guarded by specter of original cursed tomb raider.

16:Small ruined tower inhabited only by shadow demon still trapped in magic circle and willing to bargain.

17:Bones of a massive dinosaur 500 feet long with dire wolf den (2d4) in the skull.

18:Zombie herd (2d6+6) wanders aimlessly. On death a necrotic worm escapes brain.

19:Fungal grove. If touched emit cloud of spores. DC 10 Con save or sleep 1d4 days. Roll encounters!

20:Ancient shaft 2d4x10’ deep. DC 12 Dex save to avoid. Treasure hoard at bottom CR 1d4+1.

The 5E OGL Is Here!

Yes, those are orcs dancing the dance of joy. Just like me!

 

Had you asked me two days ago, i would have said that Wizards of the Coast would never repeat the “mistake” of 3rd Edition and create and Open Gaming License and a System Reference Document for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons — no matter how much I wanted one.

 

It has never felt so right to be so wrong.

 

As explained in this ENWorld thread, WotC has not only opened up 5E to the Open Gaming community, but has created a marketplace for commercial, fan generated adventures and other materials in D&D’s own Forgotten Realms called the Dungeon Master’s Guild. It is going to take some time before we know whether this produces a glut of terrible products like the d20 Boom of 2001, or if it will provide a steady stream of quality material. Expect the former, hope for the latter, and you can’t be disappointed, I say!

 

What I will say is this: a strong OGL for 5th Edition is not merely a good thing but, I think, is fundamental to a long life for the edition. 5E is a great version of the game, no question about it, and is a market leader. But it is a leader in a progressively more niche market. A lot of people are “in the know” regarding D&D due to the rise of geek chic over the last decade or so, but if you ask most of those people what edition it’s on you would get blank stares in return. Even the savviest nerd among them is as likely to tell you, “Uh, Baldur’s Gate just got an enhanced edition,” as answer correctly. Tabletop role-playing is a niche hobby. It always has been and always will be. Rightly so, Wizards of the Coast has trimmed the staff, outsourced material and focused on media tie ins and digital games in order to remain profitable. That has left some folks, especially those that remember the broad support of 3rd edition by outside publishers or are current Pathfinder RPG fans, a little underwhelmed by the output of D&D 5E game materials. Offloading that work to the fans, both in the no-holds-barred world of the OGL and the more restricted but presumably stamped-with-approval arena of the Dungeon Master’s Guild, means 5E gets the support it deserves.

 

Hardcore players and Dungeon Masters, the kind of fans that clamor for new character classes and monster manuals, are the people that bring new blood into the hobby. I think that for some years now a lot of that introduction to the hobby has happened through Pathfinder rather than D&D. I myself gave two sets of young kids a Pathfinder Beginner Box because there was not an equivalent D&D product until The Lost Mines of Phandelver came out (which i immediately bought for one of those kids). Exciting existing players about D&D will generate new players as they share that excitement. New products are one way to keep excitement running high.

 

As 2016 progresses and details become clear regarding the DMGuild (not to mention me finishing projects I am already working on) I will be looking to publish for 5E under the OGL and possibly even the DMGuild. I don’t expect to make much if any money doing it. D&D is one of my great passions, a fundamental aspect of my inner geek older than comic books and only slightly newer than writing fantastical stories. Being able to put my thumbprint on even the smallest corner of the game, in however unofficial a capacity, is way too awesome an opportunity for this old geek to pass up.

 

An Aside: If you are interested in my Return to the Isle of Dread and don’t follow me on Twitter, fix that! I am currently creating a d100 random encounter chart for the Isle in the lead up to TotalCon 2016 and want to share it with you — yes, even you, over there, in your underwear eating a bowl of Ramen while you read this. Find me @IanAsItWere

Carnage on the Isle of Dread

This past weekend marked another successful 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons ongoing hexploration adventure at Carnage Con in Killington, Vermont. This year, given the “Lost World” theme of the Con, I chose to have the players explore the  Isle of Dread. As usual, I used new school rules to run a game with old school sensibilities and more than a dash of weirdness. This post is simply a collection of thoughts on the game and how it might change (hopefully for the better) before TotalCon.

 

Don’t worry, TotalCon attendees, I will be speaking in generalities so no worries about spoilers.

 

  1. Everyone Love Riding Dinosaurs:  As much as folks love hunting dinosaurs, killing them and making steaks of them, the truest pleasure possible for the sword and sorcery hero is to tame such a mighty beast — or at least hold on for as long as possible. One of the “side quests” I provided was a T-Rex hunt. See, the terrible lizards (see what I did there?) have a penchant for devouring herds, guides and paying customers, so the lord of Gate Town (the only purpose of which is to operate the huge Skull Island style wooden gates) offered 500 gold pieces for the head of a tyrannosaur. Of course the party took the bait. But it was not the slaying of the mighty beast (“beasts” actually, as they were a mated pair) that was the highlight, but rather the riding of the monsters by first the gnomish eldricht knight and then the bard. Pay no heed to the fact that the gnome had an advantage to getting atop the thing by being so close, clamped between its jaws and all. She certainly didn’t.
  2. When in doubt, zombies — and if that doesn’t do it, tentacles: It is a well known fact that the weird fantasy from which D&D takes much of its inspiration is closely tied to horror. And if two things speak “horror” then those are the shambling hungry dead and amorphous horrors that seek to propagate by way of infection of one’s innards. It turns out that these two things are two great tastes that go great together. If you want to recreate this most compelling adversary in your home campaign, do thus: start with a zombie and upon its death have it explode into a swarm of maggots, which in turn coalesce in to a medium sized tentacled ooze that suffocates its victims by crawling into their lungs. Now, count them by the score. It certainly worked upon the Return to the Isle of Dread.
  3. Never discard a random encounter; use it in a new way: Much of how I prepare for these long hexploration adventures amounts to finding the right random charts: names, weather, treasures and, of course, encounters. I run D&D well on my feet, responding to both the players and the dice. I have tried the other way, with all the writing and the plotting, and it simply does not work for me. So, there were many random encounters rolled during the course of the adventurers wanderings, but two really stand out in my memory. In the first, which followed fast apace a troublesome combat encounter, I rolled two revenants. I wanted to give the PCs an opportunity to avoid trouble, and it occurred during one of the late watches. I decided on a whim that the spirits were lovers (people of the antediluvian culture that once ruled the Isle) who, star crossed perhaps, decided to be together forever in death. The revenants walked through the party camp and the party chose to follow them, all through the night to a high cliff on the shore of the Dread Sea and just as dawn broke one spirit put a ring upon the finger of the other and they threw themselves off the cliff to their eternal, nightly repeated dooms. So the party set about finding the ring, which was still on the finger of the hand of one of the lovers while held in the skeletal grasp of the other. They performed the right rituals and waited the night and were able to put the revenants to rest with nary a shot fired — and for their effort they were rewarded with a magic ring. It was touching and warm and a nice break from the usual combat. In the other example, a unicorn ran swiftly by the party, chased by sprites. The ranger decided to “defend” the unicorn and fire upon a sprite. It exploded in a cloud of glitter and two gossamer wings spinning sadly earthward. Then, the rest of the party opened fire and it was glitter and doom everywhere. The unicorn returned to collect the surviving playmates and glower at the ranger. I guess not every encounter can be non-combat. On the upside, the party did not decide to find out if unicorn meat really did sparkle.
  4. Greed is the DM’s Best Friend: When in doubt, dangle something shiny in front of the party. Gauranteed, at least one of them will take a grab at it. Amazingly, I managed to get a player with the old “illusory floor” trick. Big statue. Heaps of gold. No ten foot pole. You know the story. The splat was very satisfying, but then a quick fly spell followed by revivify and my work was undone. I still count it as a kill, of course. Better was what I like to call the Test of Wizardly Greed and Instant Death. You see, The Isle of Dread is a weird place, influenced by many worlds, and in one spot a machine made for nothing but destruction — a death machine from Gamma World for those keeping score — was found in a crater. It patrolled the crater and killed anyone that touched the ground within with a ray of pure death. Those that were merely killed and not disintegrated were picked apart by circling pteranodons. Over the centuries since its appearance on the Isle, wizards in particular have been interested in discovering its secrets, perhaps even mastering it, and their bones litter the crater — along with their magic staves, rings and spellbooks. It is a vast collection of wealth, free for the taking for anyone capable of out witting the death machine. I won’t wore you with the details, but a new wizard’s corpse decorates the crater (while the paladin’s ash pile has probably blown away by now).

I was very lucky this Carnage. Of five sessions I ran, the first four were full with other folk waiting around to get a seat (I learned after last year’s TotalCon to limit my players to 8 — my last game had 13 players!). The final Sunday afternoon game was only 5, but that was okay since it tends to be a bit of a slower day (aka hangover city). I had great fun running the game — and will so again at TotalCon 2016 under the Dark Phoenix Events banner — and got to play with lots of friends, old and new. Running games is a treat for me and while I of course believe I am completely awesome at it, I would not be near so awesome without great players in the seats.

 

Some Housekeeping

 

I have been posting rarely these days, due in no small part to time constraints from school and work and family life. Now, I am working on  novel which will eat even more of my creative time and energy. But, I will endeavor to do more blogging as the year draws to a close and hopefully 2016 will see a return to form for this space. Thanks you for sticking with me.

 

 

 

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.