Riddle me this

“Why do riddles exist in RPGs?”

The obvious answer is “Because Tolkien did it”. Which is the answer to almost every question about conventions in fantasy. (If not this, then “Gygax did it”.)

clip-l-incontro-tra-bilbo-e-gollum-lo-hobbit-un-viaggio-inaspettatoBut I think they are a terrible idea to include in a roleplaying game. Tolkien could use them in his novel because he knew the answer and the reader didn’t have to figure it out for the story to continue. And that’s one of the biggest mistakes many GMs and most writers of published adventures are making all the time: They approach creating adventures like writing a novel and then having the players act out the parts of the characters. But unlike actors, they don’t know the script. Story is certainly a very important element in most roleplaying games, but it works completely different from story in a novel or a movie. Story is what is happening now, not what somewhat has prepared to happen in the future. When you have the characters in the adventure face a riddle, there is a good chance that the players won’t figure out the answer at all. Then what? Or even if they do, it might take them a very long time and can very soon become the opposite of fun.

And what justification is there within the world of the campaign for the riddle being asked in the first place? The sphinx in the desert was asking riddles of travelers or it would kill and eat them. That was not a test of cunning or a password to be granted passage, but simply some additional torture before the poor traveler would be murdered. There was no point to it other than causing suffering. The secret gate of Moria did work really well with a riddle lock. But it worked not because the riddle was challenging, but because there wasn’t any indication that it was a riddle at all. Frodos stroke of genius was not solving the riddle, but recognizing that it was a riddle to begin with. However, that trick works only once and Tolkien already did it.

Other than this one case, riddle locks don’t make sense. Why would anyone secure an important place with a lock that random passer-bys can open with a few minuts of thinking? If it is to make any sense at all, then the answer would have to be something that is only known to people who have been initiated, but which an outsider can not possibly know. Which is very difficult to do in an RPG. Players only remember details about the setting if they know that this detail is probably going to be important later the moment they first hear about it. If a character should know something because of his background, but the player isn’t aware of it, you can’t use it for a riddle either. The only thing you could do in that case is to make a skill check or something like that to see if the character knows or remembers it and then telling the answer to the player. Which would be completely boring.

So my advice to anyone creating adventures: Don’t use riddles. They don’t make sense and are not as fun as you probably think they will be. (Because you already know the answer.)

Things that really piss me off: History Documentaries

I love watching history documentaries. There are lots of decent ones and even a couple really good ones.

But why do they all have such stupid names? For every single documentary that has the words secret, truth, lost, hidden or forbidden in the title, someone somewhere needs to be whacked in the head with a stone slab!

That is conspiracy theory crap! Don’t try to make your science more appealing by begging for attention by the dumbest of people.

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

When Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in 2007 the oppinions I hear about it were mostly pretty bad and calling it by far the worst Indiana Jones movie and absolutely terrible, and it causing the series to be ruined forever!. So I never watched it in all the years and had no desire to ever do so. But I got the series on DVD for christmas and it had the movie included and yesterday my parents were visiting, and since we wanted to watch a movie and none of us had seen it before, we watched it. Otherwise I still wouldn’t have watched it, preferring to simply don’t know what’s in it. (I might do the same with the new Star Wars movies.)

Indiana_Jones_and_the_Kingdom_of_the_Crystal_Skul_01Right from the start some things seem to be odd. Indy aknowledges being old and mentions his father having died, which doesn’t match the ending of the previous movie. But no explanation is ever given or the events of the movie mentioned, which I found rather odd. The second scene is set in the famous warehouse from the first movie and we get a quick lool at the arc as its box is broken, but otherwise the first movie isn’t mentioned either. It’s just like “look, we made a reference to the other movies!” That’s weak. Indy starts the movie with a new sidekick, whose name I can’t even remember, which always is a very bad sign about the strength of a movies characters and dialogues. It’s never explained who he is or what his relationship with Indy is, and except for two short scenes he has no real relevance to the plot or any meaningful dialogue. The other new character is Mutt, who follows Indy around after fat moustache guy has left for a while and after his first scene has no real impact on the plot either. Later of course we meet Marion again, who is a fun character but also has just one relevant dialogue with Indy and doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot. John Hurt also plays a character who gets picked up with by Indys crew and hangs around for the rest of the plot, but after drawing a map in his first scene does not have any meaningful dialogue or impact to the plot. Indy himself is okay, but you probably can see the problem here. Indy could have gone on this whole adventure by all by himself, or at least with only one companion to give an opportunity to explain the plot to the audience.

There are two villains in this movie. One is a Russian psychic played by Kate Blanchet, who tries to read Indys mind once but fails and then never shows any supernatural abilities for the rest of the movie at all. She keeps chasing after Indy for all of the movie but except for one scene in the middle of the movie she never catches up to him so her impact on the plot is also almost nothing. She has a henchman who commands a group of Soviet soldiers, but since he almost only speaks in Russian without subtitles and very little of that, we don’t really know anything about him. *sigh* And yes, he also does not do anything relevant for the plot. Indy has a fist fight with him, but he simply falls over ans gets pulled into a hole by a swarm of ants. It doesn’t remotely reach the fight against the random German mechanic in the first movie, which is clearly what this scene tries to allude to. At two point during the search for a lost ancient city in South America does Indy run into local tribes of Indians who menacingly sneak around with seemingly supernatura skill in the dark. But they show the Indians the skull and they back off, doing nothing at all and then disappearing while Indy explores the city.

And that really expresses the big problem of the movie. People move to different places and have chase scenes, but nothing ever happens. Nothing is accomplished, nothing is gained. In most of the chase scenes there isn’t even a reason why they are getting chased. They just move fast in vehicles. Occasionaly the classic red line on a map shows us where they are traveling to, but it happens randomly without anyone saying “we have to go to X to do Y”. It’s like the ending of a Monty Python sketch. When they don’t know how to continue or end a scene after they have said what they want to say, you get a shot of the map and then go to “something completely different”. Probably the most infamous scene in the movie is where Indy gets into a nuclear explosion and only survives by hiding inside a big refridgerator. Yes, the scene is stupid, but not because he survives being thrown miles through the air and crashing very hard into the ground. In fact the scene happens about 5 minutes into the movie when Indy escapes from the Soviets who had kidnapped him to have him help them find a specific box in the warehouse where the CIA stores all its secret artifacts. Which happens to be a simple airplane hangar inside the testing area for nuclear bombs. The Soviets probably chose to go to the site on that day at that time because the whole area had been evacuated. That makes sense so far, but wouldn’t that mean the warehouse is now destroyed with most of its contents? That doesn’t make any sense? Why is it just a hangar on a military base and why do they have nuclear tests there?! And worst of all, It has no relevance to the plot! At all! Indy already escaped from the Soviets and was just somewhere in the desert after they had left with the thing they had come to get. There was no point to the scene at all! Maybe to put it into the trailers? Bullshit.

Though I give it to the movie that it is eight years old, I have to say the effects look pretty bad. There are big swarms of goophers in the first scene and monkeys in a schene in the jungle (which have no relevance to the plot), which are obviously only there to show of the effects. And look terrible. The nuclear explosion looks fake too, as do most efects.

It’s also extremely predictable. We usually never do riff-tracking for movies and we didn’t indend to be fooling around, but in the big scene at the end, when they reach a room with alien skeletons, our comments were this:

  • “These will be 12 skeletons, plus one additional one that is missing the skull.”
  • “Which they need to return back home.”
  • “And then the Russians arrive.”

Which was of course exactly what happened.

The ending was also bullshit. Supposedly the reward for the person who returns the skull would be gold, but in Mayan the word for gold also means treasure. And the treasure they found wasn’t riches, but knowledge. What a nice message. But what knowledge? What have we learned at the end? Nothing! The whole trip accomplished nothing! There was some excuse for first finding a missing friend in trouble and then about preventing the villain from getting the power to telepathically turn all Americans into loyal socialists. But in the end Indy and his large entourage don’t really do anyhthing and the villain fails anyway. In fact, the villain only gets this far because Indy leads her there. And why does he even keep trying to get the skull to the lost city once they stole it from the Soviets? Even the other characters are wondering. So Indy tells them that the skull told him so and he has to. And they just go with it.

Is it a bad movie? Yes, it is. But not for the reasons people always complain about. The reason this movie is bad is that things are happening with no rhyme or reason but it’s still painfully predictable. There is no plot worth mentioning and nobody ever does anything. This movie only exist because it had been decided that there should be another Indiana Jones movie. But nobody seems to have had any real inspiration for a story. There are characters and locations, but nothing is ever done with them. The are introduced and then immediately forgotten about. At several points of the movie I had the feeling that the script originally started as a decent story but then was shortened and shortened to make for a shorter film and leave more time for special effects until nothing of the plot remains.

But ruined forever? Yes, the movie is bad. But it is simply very weak. It is not insultingly bad to fans of the series. It really mostly ignores the other movies and it doesn’t do anything really ridiculous except for the refrigerator. And extradimensional aliens? Sure, why not? It’s not a cheap twist at the end as I had assumed, but made clear right from the start that this is what the movie is about. It’s not a good choice, but it didn’t seem to me as particularly unfitting for the series.

But when it comes to asking yay or nay, I think I would like to introduce a third rating: “Meh”. Because that’s really what I feel about this movie. It really isn’t great by any stretch, but it is so utterly bland and without plot that I’m not even mad.tumblr_lmm3edWoLK1qh55zko1_400

Review: Black Streams

Black Streams is a series of free, short supplements for the Red Tide campaign sertting by Kevin Crawford. Though they are directly tied to the setting, they are self contained enough to be eassily adapted for any setting in any OSR game and should also be useful sources of ideas for other systems.

122752Cults of Ruin expands on the cults of various evil forces that are mentioned in Red Tide and has a length of 7 pages. The Black Emperor was a powerful and evil ruler back in the days before the Tide, who was eventually destroyed for his dark sorcery, but somehow managed to ascend to becoming a god. Though most records of his terrible reign and evil transgressions had been deliberately destroyed or lost during the coming of the Red Tide, the truth can still sometimes be discovered by sages searching for obscure lore. Only scholars, alchemists, and other learned people can become true followers of the Black Emperor, who offers them secrets to extend their life and evade Hell and other necromantic magic. The God-Beasts are savage animal spirits that protect remote villages and can grant fertility to their fields and herds, but often demand terrible forms of tribute from their worshippers. The only salvation offered by the Hell Kings is the promise that those people who truly devote themselves to evil can gain their respect and admiration, so that when they ultimately will go to Hell after their death, they will be elevated to rank among the Hell Kings instead of suffering in eternal agony. Worshippers of the Hell Kings are expected to lead as many souls as possible into hell, but even among the high priests of the cults only very few reach a degree of evil that gets them a place among the lowest ranks of devils. The Red Gods are strange entities of evil and hunger that only reveal themselves to people suffering from famine and facing starvation. They grant the gift of great strength and vigor, but in turn those who accept it slowly transform into ravenous beasts who gain sustenance from a range of unnatural and depraved sources. Finally there are the truly mad cults that worship the Red Tide itself. They are compelled to create portals that allow the Tide to spill into the Sunset Isles and are usually the first to be torn apart by the horde of the Tides spawn that emerges. The last page describes the new Azure Minister class, a cleric variant specialized in secretly exterminating evil cults that threaten the Sunset Isles while keeping the existance and true nature of their organization secret.

The Pacts of the Wise seems to be heavily inspired by pact magic from the Tome of Magic of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s 7 pages long and describes six elusive entities that can be contacted by a wizard to be granted special powers. The ritual to make a pact take a month of preparation and have to be repeated once every year. Unless a ritual to be released from the pact is performed, wizards who fail to meet their obligations are suffering severe consequences until their debts are paid. The powers granted by the entities are not particularly powerful and more than balanced by the price demanded from the wizard, but still interesting and useful enough that players might consider it to be worth it. It certainly adds an interesting new element to the character and each pact includes ideas on how to create adventures around NPCs who have access to these powers or are struggling with meeting their part of the bargain and are getting desperate to gain the required resources. Even though there are only six entities described, they provide a sufficient base to create your own ones. Since the mechanics involved are extremely simply they are easily adapted to any game.

The Yellow Legion is 8 pages long and describes a powerful artifact and the Walking Ghosts it can create, as well as their history in the Red Tide setting. The artifact is a black rod that can be planted into the ground to grow into a large tree that produces magic fruit when watered with the blood of living people. The juice of the fruit have the power to restore any corpse and return it to unlife, and the blood of a single person creates enough fruit to create ten walking ghosts. However, the fruit can only revive creatures of the same type of creature whose blood is used to create them, so to bring a fallen army of human soldiers back to life, many humans have to be sacrificed to the trees. While those who have been sacrificed can be raised like any other corpse, they are henceforth forced to exist as undead. The walking ghost are loyal to the person who create the tree and appear just as they were in life. They do not eat, drink, breath, or sleep and they heal and can be healed like living humans, but even the terrible and horrific wounds can not kill them. Only when hacked to pieces or burned do their minds fall into delirious slumber, but over the course of many years their bodies can restore themselves and make the walking ghosta rise from their graves. Without purpose after the eventual death of their creator they wander the land with the appearance of a living person, but all living things can sense their unnatural aura. If there is a way to permanently end them, it has not been discovered.

Though short as they are, I really like all these supplements and in fact their briefness probably makes them even more interesting and useful for GMs not using the Red Tide setting. Pacts of the Wise is probably the most versatile and not at all connected to any specific settin, and I recommend it to everyone to give it a look. The other two have a much more specific cultural flavor, but since they are both short and completely free, I do recommend them all. Really nice stuff and a format I would like to see used by more games in addition to full sized books.

Y’all got any more of these GMs?

Angry wrote another post about the constant apparent lack of gamemasters among RPG players. Being a regular GM myself that has never been a problem for me, but then I also always was the one who initiated the groups in the first place and got all the players together in the first place, pretty much proving his point: New players are overwhelmingly introduced to roleplaying games by existing players and only when a GM is already starting or running a group. If there will be any game at all really comes down to there already being a GM. Old players may ask a GM they know to start a new campaign, but usually it’s all happening on the GMs initative. No GM, no game. Simple as that.

No matter how much companies advertise their games, it doesn’t matter how many players they get excited, only how many GMs they can reach. And they can’t get any new players to start playing any RPGs. The only way to get more people to play is to get more people to become gamemasters. GMs can train other GMs in the basics, but that’s nothing that companies can influence.

Now the question Angry is putting out in the open is how we can get more people to become GMs. Because as he correctly notes, running games is not generally treated as something desireable. It’s not usually “Who wants to be a GM?” but “Who is willing to be a GM?” If you are not already totally excited about an idea you want to run, people become GMs for a campaign because everyone else “refuses” to, or feels “unable” to do it. And I think here is the key to the whole problem. Running a game is generally perceived as being difficult, tiresome, and all around undesirable. If anything is going to change, we need to make games that are easy to run. And looking at the big names in RPGs we got D&D, Pathfinder, Exalted, Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and Legend of the Five Rings. And from what I am able to tell these are all really a bitch to run. Among the most work intensive and complex systems that are out there. So no wonder nobody wants to be a GM. Even I don’t want to run these games and I already am a GM of 15 years. Now D&D 5th Edition made a few little steps into the right direction, but why are all the big games what could be called Hardcore or Expert-Level games. These are games for players and especially GMs who already are familiar with the whole thing. For new people they are almost inaccessible.

The one shining light I can think of are the various B/X clones, because Mentzer Basic and Expert are actually the only truly introductory game products I’ve ever seen. This is a game that is easy to learn in half an hour and also puts a very light workload on the GM, and it actually makes a real effort to tech the game to new GMs. Sandly, there are now dozens of them of which most people have never heard of because they are made often by just one or two people at home who don’t have any marketing and rely entirely on nostalgia from very old GMs and word of mouth. Little honorable mention here to Barbarians of Lemuria, which seems to have gained some real popularity while also being rules light and not a B/X clone. Doesn’t try to reach new players either, though.

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Review: Spears of the Dawn

Spears of the Dawn is another small sandbox setting by Kevin Crawford, who also did the excelent Red Tide setting. While Red Tide uses a great number of elements from Chinese and Japanese culture, Spears of the Dawn is strongly based on various cultures of West Aftica. The book consists of roughly three parts: A complete roleplaying game, the Spears of the Dawn campaign setting, and advice on running sandbox games. These are not clearly divided into three section though, and it’s probably best to read the whole thing even if one only intends to use certain elements of it. It’s made clear in the introduction that this book is meant to be mined for ideas and its elements disassembled and repurposed as any GM sees fit. Like Red Tide, it is more of an example of how a great sandbox setting can look like and how you make one.

110293The Setting

The setting presented in Spears of the Dawn are the Three Lands. Two centuries ago the empire of the Nyala was close to conquering all of the other five kingdoms of the Three Lands and when the king of Deshur was forced to retreat with his remaining army into the desert he discovered the means to make himself and his followers into Eternals. The Eternals are powerful undead who neither age, nor need to eat or drink, but maintain their youth and heal any wounds through the eating of human flesh. For over a hundred years the Eternal invaded the lands of the Five Kingdoms and causing the empire to fall apart. Eventually the emperor of Nyala accepted that the other four kingdoms were no longer under his control and instead created an alliance of equals to destroy the Eternals and put an end to the terror of the Sixth Kingdom. The Five Kingdoms where victorious and the Sixth Kingdom no more, but they were unable to destroy all of the Eternals as some of them escaped into the wilderness and continue to exist in hiding to this day. In the fourty years that have passed since then, the fate of the new Five Kingdoms has remained uncertain. There is peace now, but the former subjects of the Nyala still have resentments against their former masters and there are still many bands of raiders and new settlements created by refugees from the war are not always getting along well with their neighbours. The last emperor had anticipated that some of the Eternals might escape from the armies of the Five Kingdoms and created a group of warriors, shamans, and sorcerers called the Spears of the Dawn, who were given the duty to hunt down the remaining Eternals and destroy any lingering trace of their evil. With the empire being no more and Nyala being only one kingdom among others, the Spears of the Dawn lack any real leadership or organization. However, with the threat of the Eternal and other evils still around, there are always more people who take up arms and wander the Five Kingdoms to destroy them. With many elders still remembering the terror of the Eternals well, these warriors against evil are highly respected and stand somewhat outside of the normal tribal politics and regular social classes.

It’s a nice compact setting, though I am feeling a bit ambivalent about the post-colonial character of the Five Kingdoms. I would consider my knowledge of African politics and social issues only slightly above average and tribal affiliations and great class inqualities appear to be indeed an important factor in regional and social conflicts. However, to a large degree these conflicts are the result of the British and French colonial empires and their sudden disappearance that left many regions in administrative chaos. Using contemporary Real-World conflicts as a template for a fictional medieval African-inspired setting seems a bit problematic to me. It’s not exactly a respectful treatment of a cultural region and its people to focus on one of their darkest periods which was primarily caused by outside forces. However, Spears of the Dawn doesn’t reduce the African theme of the setting to only that element and there is a lot more than that. And it isn’t like precolonial Africa was all happy paradise. There has always been as much tribal war and violence, as well as slavery and exploitation of lower social classes in Africa as in all the other continents of the world. When empires fell apart in Europe, the result was always just as ugly. So I am inclined to give this setting a pass in this regard. While I probably would have stayed clear of that aspect myself, the way it is treated here seems pretty well balanced and I think you have to actually know what to look for to notice any real world similarities at all. Continue reading

Oh wow! I have readers!

Hey, I reached 50 comments on my posts. The visitor stats I have seem highly doubious and I think most of them are bots. But comments are actual readers who even have a strong enough oppinion about the stuff I write to make a reply to it. That gives me confidence that there’s a sizeable number of people reading this.

Though I wonder how they all get here? I don’t think there are a lot of links to this site other than various of my forum signatures.

(Oh, look! There’s a “Don’t track bots” option. I expect the visitor numbers to mostly evaporate now.)

Why we didn’t take an eagle to fly to Mount Doom

In a discussion about magic systems at Fantasy Faction, I made the argument that the most important thing about writing magic is consistency. Audiences flipp out when characters have a useful ability at one point of a story but for some reason don’t use the ability in other situations when they would be super useful. The most famous example of this is the complaint about The Lord of the Rings, that Gandalf clearly has a way to get the giant eagles to come to his aid and pick up people and fly them around. Just after the Ring is destroyed, the eagles show up and rescue Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom. Right after they completed a foot march of several months! So why didn’t Gandalf call the eagles in the first place to carry him and Frodo to Mount Doom and avoid the whole ordeal?

lotr-eagles-fan-theory-lotr-eagle-plot-hole-plugged-upThis is a justified question. But lots of people simply stop there and complain about bad writing. But in fact there are plenty of reasons why they didn’t try that and why it almost certainly would not have worked at all.

The whole point of the Fellowship is to get the Ring to Mount Doom without Sauron even realizing that anyone has any intention of destroying it. But Sauron does not just have scouts and spies to keep informed what his enemies are doing, he also has the power to see almost any place in Middle-Earth. The only way to stay undetected is to look inconspicious and not worthy of being paid any attention. Flying on eagles towards Mordor might be quick, but Sauron should know that the eagles are allied with the elves and the wizards, and there is very little chance they could even get close without being noticed. They are big, they stand out, they are known enemies.

To make things worse, we also know that the wraiths have flying beasts and at least one of them was scouting the area right outside Mordors front gate. The eagles can’t get into Mordor without being noticed by Sauron and once spotted the wraiths are able to fight them in the air. Could the eagles had slipped through or perhaps defeat the wraiths and flying beasts in battle? Possibly. But if they fail Sauron has the Ring and then it’s instant Game Over.

Yes, the eagles are used twice in the story to carry people. The first time they rescue Gandalf from Isengard, but that’s very far away from Mordor and the flying beast could’t get there in time to stop it, even if Sauron noticed it at all. The other time they rescue Frodo and Sam, after Sauron and the wraits are all destroyed. There was nobody there to either spot them or to intercept them, and even if in the worst possible case orcs with ballistas manage to shot them down, it wouldn’t make any difference in the war anymore. They don’t carry the one thing that must never fall into enemy hands at that time. Had for some reason the eagle at Isengard died, it also wouldn’t have made things any worse than they already were at that point. But there are very good reasons why flying Frodo to Mount Doom very likely wouldn’t have worked and why it would have been too risky to try. Two hobbits sneaking in at the back while making a huge distraction at the front door really was a plan with much better chances.

An adventure for any number of characters of any level

A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about the problems I have with published adventures. One of the pretty big problems that makes most adventures unusable to me is that they are not only written for a different game than the one I am running, but have also been designed for a group of player characters of a specific power level. While am talking a lot about published adventures here, the main point I want to make further down is really about designing adventures in general, so even if you don’t usually use published adventures either, this might still be interesting to read. The earliest adventures for Dungeons & Dragons were pretty vague on this subject, simply saying they are for adventurers of “1st to 3rd level” or characters should be “5th to 10th level”. Since at that time nobody had any pretense that character levels and monster experience were an exact science, it really was just very rough eyeballing. But soon it got more specific like “This module is designed for 6-8 characters of 4th to 7th level. […] The party should possess somewhere between 35 and 45 levels of experience.” Since experienced henchmen were a common feature of the game at that time, it really wasn’t any big deal to get a few more of them to make the party ready for adventure. I make no secret of the fact that I think AD&D was really terribly written and had really bad ways to deal with numbers. But while the 3rd edition did some good work in straitening up the rules (mostly fixing attack bonus, armor class, and XP tables), it also went of into a completely wrong direction with long steps. A derection into which I, being totally new to RPGs, happily followed.

Over time people realized that any claims that there was a balance between the classes and experience, treasure, and monster abilities were carefully calculated and weighted against each other was complete nonsense. It was still nothing but eyeballing and often pretty bad one. But you still got all this huge amount of additional math that didn’t actually make anything better! But the published adventures might be one element of the game that suffered the most. From now on published adventures would usually make a statement like this. “The Sunless Citadel is a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS adventure suitable for four 1st-level player characters. Player characters (PCs) who survive the entire adventure should advance through 2nd  level to 3rd level before the finale.”

Great. What if the characters are already 2nd level? What if I have another adventure I want to run that is for 2nd level characters? At these very low levels it’s not such a big deal yet, but when you get adventures that are for 10th level characters and take them to 14th level it does become a real issue. My campaigns are usually with new players and run for perhaps a year or so, so I usually ran games with characters that are all 1st or 2nd level. (It’s easier for new players.) Which means lots of great adventure I never got an opportunity to run. But it got worse. The way things were described in the rulebooks and the first adventures that were published for 3rd edition, players had the expectation that the encounters would be “balanced” and “suitable for their level”, which means they should win the fight without any big trouble. I did. I am guilty. I was young and stupid.

But of course, that idea is nonsense. While Gygax was pretty bad at explaining himself, he did understand that D&D was not just a game about individual fights, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about rationing your strength and resources. Part of that is judging when to let the warriors clear the room with their swords and when the wizards unleash their full awesome power against enemies the warriors can’t handle on their own. And when you put it this way, it is obvious that individual encounters should be highly imbalanced in either direction. Many fights should be pretty easy while some should be pretty hard, and the key to being a successful adventurer is being able to tell which type of fight you’re currently dealing with. If you rush in with full force, your resources will be quickly exhausted. And if you then get into a fight against a strong enemy, it could be your death. But if all fights are balanced to a level where the players will be able to win without great difficulty or great risk, what is there really to do for the players other than “I guess I attack it with my sword again” over and over and over. 3rd edition tried to “fix” this with lots of special attacks and feats. But that’s where everything started to go wrong. They tried to make the round by round attack and damage routine more entertaining, but that part was never meant to be center of the game. It really was about judging the strength of your enemies, using the environment to your advantage, and making calls which fights to pick and which ones to avoid. The notion that fights should be balanced according to a mathmatical calculation killed all that. The Sunless Citadel did include a fight that would be really difficult to win and force players to retreat and come up with outside the box solutions or avoid that particular monster entirely. But as the story is being told, people complained about the encounter being unbalanced and that practice was discontinued from there on. Paizo eventually became not only the biggest creator of published adventures but actually the biggest RPG company of all. (Seems like WotC has left the field.) But even though there’s lots of great stories, I only really ran three of their adventures. Flight of the Red Raven and Escape from Meenlock Prison and The Automatic Hound from the Dungeon magazine. All three of which I completely rewrote to fit the size and level of the party I was running them for.

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Review: Red Tide

Red Tide is described as a “Campaign Sourcebook and Sandbox Toolkit” and even though it tries to do two different things at once, it does a very good job at both. In fact, the two complement each other very well and make this book a lot more than just the sum of its part. Released in 2011 by Kevin Crawford, it is both a short and compact campaign setting as well as probably one of the best guidebooks to creating your own settings for a sandbox game. You could probaby use the Red Tide setting to play a different type of campaign and if you make your own setting you don’t have to use any of the Red Tide elements at all. Each element of the book takes up about half of its pages and are mostly separate from each other, but reading only half the book would do it a great disservice. The Red Tide setting is a great example how the theories and tool from the toolbox section can be effectively used, while at the same time the rules for creating sandbox content really help to bring the setting to life.

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The Red Tide Campaign Setting

The first half of the book, which has a total of 159 pages, describes the world and background of Red Tide. 300 years ago a red mist appeared that killed the land and everything it, leaving behind a hellish wasteland haunted by terrible monsters. However, a single prophet saw the comming doom and organized a great evacuation with hundreds of ships to an unknown continent in the west. Something in the rock of the mountains that dominate the continent keep the Red Tide at bay, and this cluster of large and small islands may be the only place in the world still inhabited by the living. However, the refugees were not the first people to settle this land, as it was already the land of the Shou, a large collection of numerous tribes of goblins, orcs, and bugbears (though except for their stat blocks they are always simply called the Shou). The human refugees come from cultures that are mostly inspired by the Chinese and Japanese, but there is also another group in the smaller islands to the north that is inspired by Vikings and there are some dwarves as well, and also some elves and halflings. Through a fierce and brutal war, the refugees from the east managed to conquer half of the main island from the Shou and created several new kingdoms, but things are looking far from rosy. Hordes of countless Shou warriors are still in the wild, eager to take back their homeland, while the Red Tide is still waiting out there just beyond the horizon, raveshing the rest of the world. And to make things worse one of the kingdoms has turned to demon worship as a way to escape from their seemingly hopeless situation. While there is a good amount of very intersting history and background, it’s a very compact and almost minimalistic setting when it comes to locations and NPCs. The seven described countries have about two pages each, with another four pages dealing with various other important cultural elements. It’s done with good reason, as the methods of how to populate the world are what the second half is about. There are another 26 pages with information on standard and new character classes, spells, and equipment, and 10 more pages with new monsters and that already wraps the first half of the book up.

The Sandbox Toolkit

As interesting as the campaign setting is, the second half of the book is where the real gold is to be found. The central idea presented by the book is the use of a Campaign Folder. The campaign folder is an actual folder that is meant to be a setting sourcebook which the GM constantly expands by adding new pages with new information to it. Any time something happens or the players do something that changes the world, which in a sanbox campaign should be happening all the time, the GM updates the campaign folder by adding new notes to any locations or NPCs. Between game sessions, the GM also adds new pages for new locations and NPCs, which are already prepared but have not yet appeared in the campaign. The great benefit of this system is that the GM does not have to completely make up everything as the game goes along while not having to decide what to do with each element from the start. If the players have a random encounter with bandits and decide to track a fleeing survivor back to his camp, you can just flip to a bandit camp you already prepared and simply add a note where on the world map this camp is located. If you really want to do a hard sandbox campaign, I can’t really imagine how you could possibly manage it any other way.

The next 50 pages are basically tables to randomly generate ideas for interesting locations or encounters. Usually I hate these, but in this case the ideas are actually really excellent. The reason they take up so many pages is because each item on the lists comes with plenty of useful explanation and elaboration. There are four types of sites: Court Sites, Borderland Sites, City Cites, and Ruin Sites. However, they are not so much about describing places (and maps don’t enter the picture at all at this point), but all about describing the kind of people and situations you’re going to encounter there. Court Sites are any places where a group of powerful people comes together. Which can be the court of a noble ruler, but also the estate of a wealthy family, a wizard school, a great temple, or the backroom of a cheap tavern where the local gang bosses tend to hang out. Each type of court has a table with 10 types of important people, 10 reasons why these people do have power in this court, and 10 additional minor NPCs who have a strong personal bond to the important people. For example, in a Temple you might have a “slightly heretical scholar” who “comes from a powerful family” and has some kind of connection to the “cook”. Within a few minutes you can randomly create one to three such NPCs as well as selecting one of ten conflict types they are currently involved in. It’s very bare bones, but the combinations are often interesting enough to create a solid inspiration for a whole conspiracy or murder mystery with just a few die rolls.

Borderland Sites are small villages, manors, or strongholds in the wilderness. Their exact nature can easily be decided by the GM, but the book offers 40 ideas for a current problem that plagues the site. Each pf these offers a number of suggestions of additional elements, like possible allies or enemies for the players, or special circumstances that complicate the situation or may be useful to solving the problem. For example, you could have a fortified outpost that is suffering from a hidden demon cult that meets in an abandoned temple to a forgotten god and the players get help from a traitorous cultist, but it turns out that the cults magic is actually the only thing that keeps the outpost from being overrun. Instant adventure plot, takes only two minutes. Not a complete adventure, but a solid hook that can be quickly made into one. And since in a sandbox game any possible outcome can be worked with, experienced GMs might even be able to do it on the fly. City Sites work basically the same way, but have their own list of 40 possible plot hook generators.

Finally there are the Ruin Sites, which are usually dungeons, but also inhabited by one of 20 possible groups of people, which each come with six or eight ideas for a twist that makes them more than just a random group to fight. It could be a group of necromancers who believe the tomb of an old great necromancer to be somewhere in the ruin and are trying to find his tomes that might be burried with him. It would be up to the players to decide if they want to stop them, help them, or perhaps even steal the tomes for themselves (if they are actually there at all). And there would likely be some random monsters in the ruin too, which the necromancers might be able to help the players with, or the players could use to kill the necromancers. Since there isn’t any real plot, the possibilities are endless and it’s entirely up to the players what they want to do, which is the great charm of a well done sandbox.

And that’s really what separates a great sandbox campaign from a pure dungeon crawl campaign where the players can pick which dungeon they want to crawl. There are a few paragraphs on quick and dirty map making, but it’s generally a topic Red Tide doesn’t concern itself with at all. This sandbox toolkit is to create roleplaying situations based on social interactions, not on generating random dungeons to plunder. And that’s what really makes it such an outstanding book. You can get advice on map making everywhere, but actually running a game is something very few people ever bother adressing (probably because they don’t really know either). And that is also why it’s not only a useful book for people who want to run pure sandbox games, but any GMs who want to run campaigns that are not strictly plotted out in advance and allow the players a great amount of freedom which paths to take to the great goal of the campaign and how to interact with the people they meet along the way.

At 6.50€ for the pdf this book is a steal and there isn’t really any question whether my call is yay or nay. Clear yay! from me. Get this one, it’s really as great as its reputation. If not even better.