Note to self: Take better notes

I was just updating my monster manual for the Ancient Lands and found a note that I still need to write stats for the Sand Bision.

I have no idea what a sand bison is.

The next item on the list is a Riding Goat, so it’s probably some kind of actual bovine, but I havn’t the slightest clue what I could have meant with the name. There aren’t even any deserts in the Ancient Lands!

Update: I believe I simply meant an upsized version of the regular old musk ox.

musk-ox-vegan

Lies! All lies!

I’ve been going over my ideas for my campaign setting again, this time specifically with a look at what kinds of reactions and emotions I want to evoke in the players. (Something I’ve read here, but never consciously gave much of a thought before.) Some themes I want the setting to encourage are trusting in what you think is right, and always questioning what hidden motives both enemies and allies may have.

And that of course means that NPCs will be lying a lot. Which interestingly, villains in fiction rarely do. When an enemy gets defeated and cornered and the protagonists start to question him, he usually will just tell them everything he knows, the heroes take it as truth, and it all turns out to be completely correct in the end. Players will probably not expect that NPCs will lie to them, which is good. But it also means that you can’t simply copy things you’ve seen before. So using lies in RPGs is something that can use a bit additional thought.

Continue reading “Lies! All lies!”

My impression of D&D 5th Edition

I went over it once and as a longtime 3rd edition player and GM, I can say with confidence that 5th edition is 3rd editions with many of the small modfiers of combat removed.

My biggest complaint with 3rd edition was the wide gap of attack bonuses and saving throws over the levels, and this aspect has been adressed.
However, a very close second is it’s reliance on new class abilities at every level, which now in retrospective is a much more significant problem and antithesis to the oldschool style of playing RPGs. And in this regard Wizards remains true to itself and makes this the centerpiece of the game. Problems are solved by searching for the right special ability on the character sheet. And with this the whole business is completed. I don’t have any interest in running this game.

There are a few good ideas here and there, which should have been there 14 years ago, but it doesn’t affect the main structural problem I mentioned. I’ll probably keep an eye out for campaign sourcebooks, as in this regard 3rd edition did have a couple of gems. But the rules system is of no concern to me.

A worthy Quest

I’ve been talking about the idea that a campaign in an RPG can be either following the entire adventuring life of the player characters, or be an episodic series of their greatest adventures. Though I’ve run all my previous campaigns in the “life story” style and all the games I’ve played where either this or one-shots, I am actually much more fond of the later one. Part of it is because most of my campaigns are short and never make it to a grand finale and I really want more opportunities to run adventures for Big Damn Heroes for a change. But I think in a campaign that is driven by events and developments in the game world, as opposed byfighting and treasure huting in isolated dungeons, it’s actually a more effective approach.

A common issue many people have with “epic” campaigns and adventure paths, is that no-name 1st level characters rise to be the most poweful people in the world in just a few months or even weeks, while NPCs supposedly take decades or centuries to get there. It works better in action movies, where an Average Joe only needs an extraordinary crisis to unleash the fighting beast that has always been sleeping inside him, and lots of videogames of the RPG genre make the samemistake, as they want to show off all the sweet high level abilities offered by the source material in a single story. Two games that handled this aspect reasonably well are Mass Effect, where you you start as an elite veteran and unlock new abilities over time only for gameplay reasons, and Dragon Age 2, which does follow the episodic format and has almost 4 different stories from various moments over a 10 year period.

In the context of a campaign, Mass Effect would be a case of starting at a high level with few increases of character strength, while Dragon Age 2 only shows the moments in the characters life where they made significant increases in experience and power. For myself, I’ve made the descision of following the episodic approach, skipping over all the uneventful patrols of the roads and borders, and explorations of dungeons that turned out to be empty. But what kinds of adventures are actually worth telling?

Continue reading “A worthy Quest”

Campaigns of Heroic Deeds

I’ve been thinking a lot about improving my recently started campaign over my earlier ones, and I discovered a new pair of approaches to campaign and adventure design. The Campaign of the PCs Career, and the Campaign of the PC’s greatest deeds. The former following all the characters explorations and fights, while the later one is limited to the highlights.

Career-based campaigns where kind of the default in early RPGs and are still the default mainstream among oldschool fans. The PCs learn about a ruin or mysterious place and simply go checking it out to see if they find anything interesting or valuable. Pretty much all D&D adventure modules from the 70s and 80s follow this approach and the same principle scaled up is essentially what most sandbox campaigns are about. Sometimes amazing situations happen, but mostly it’s about looking for treasure or doing paid mercenary work. If the PCs perform a great deeds and legendary battles, it’s often almost by accident and you’ll neven know when it will happen. Almost all campaigns I’ve either ran or played in also followed this approach. Self contained jobs that provide XP and treasure, but no deeds of note.

Continue reading “Campaigns of Heroic Deeds”

No time like the present

I’m currently reading again the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding (it’s that damn good), and it got me once more thinking about the role of history in setting design. Lots of settings have backstories that cover thousands of years, while for the players the only thing that matters is the present. Past events only matter when they return and become a problem in the present day.

But stories of ancient heroes and how they shaped the present world are often pretty cool ones. Sometimes even more than the things that are happening right now. It’s a common standard that the golde age of great heroes is long gone and the present day is just a shadow of it. I understand why Plato and Tolkien loved the idea (to tell the rest of the world how much they suck), but this isn’t contemporary criticism, this is roleplaying! Why should we play in the boring times after the interesting things are mostly over?

So I was thinking, that I like the idea of campaigns where the players are not just drifting around in the wake of great history, but are actually riding the crest of the wave. However, paradoxically, I’m not a fan of epic stories. My interest lies much more in the outstanding individuals among the common folk. I also loath metaplots in campaign settings and am still considering the option of a small-scale public release of my own setting. How to solve these conflicting goals?

I think one quite interesting approach is to make the timeline rather short and most of the defining events rather recent. Why set the current year for a campaign in the year 2437 when you can also set the date to 437? The great city state does not need to be 900 years old. If it’s just 90 years old, thats still longer than anyone can remember. A setting does not need to be still entirely dynamic, but it’s sufficient to have things seeming to be settling down instead of being firmly established. Drastic changes like new empires or collapsing ones might be unlikely in the lifetime of todays people, but the long-term survival of recently established dynasties could still be uncertain and specific borders not yet be set in stone. I think one reason histories are often set at such long periods are because elves and dwarves live for so long, and something just doesn’t seem that ancient if your grandfather has told you how he has seen it with his own eyes. But the simple and obvious solution here is just not making such races that extremely long lived. If elves live only for 300 years, that’s still amazingly long for a human to consider. But a 150 year old elf wouldn’t ever have talked to anyone who was alive just 500 years ago.

Since I haven’t yet nailed down a clear timeline, I’m quite curious how it might turn out approching it from this perspective

How about not saving the world?

End of the World plots are popular because they are easy. Characters don’t need any personalty or background to save the world. Everyone wants to live and the end of the world is the one situation from which nobody can simply walk away. It’s the absolutely lowest common denominator, there isn’t anything more basic in storytelling than that.

If you want a different kind of threat, then the characters need to have something they want to protect. Bob the chaotic neutral human thief does not value anything but his life. Why should he care and not just run away?

Continue reading “How about not saving the world?”

An alternative way to track character wealth

Coins in RPGs have always been something that seemed more like an annoyance to me than something that makes playing the game more fun. Sure, finding treasure and buying better equipment is often one of the most enjoyable parts of an adventure, but all the accounting that goes into keeping track of all your coins is right at the opposite end of the entertainment-scale. In many games, most mundane pieces of equipment have prieces that are completely negible, being counted in silver or even copper coins. When you’re carrying around thousands of gold coins, buying such objects isn’t even felt in your purse. And if you’re playing in a fantasy campaign in which there are no magic items for sale in stores, you can easily have the best weapons and armor that money can buy by third level. You have more money than you could ever spend on most mundane expenses like food, lodgings, and clothing. It is very tempting to simply tell the player not to bother with substracting the 2 silver pieces and 7 copper pieces they just spend. I’m also no fan of pure dungeon crawling, and the hunting for treasure isn’t a priority in my games. It’s something that happens more by accident at the side while the PCs are fighting their way through a place to find a person of item of special significance.

However, I am also a fan of the Sword & Sorcery genre and a big part of it is heroes being completely broke at regular intervals, being forced to get by with barely anything more but the shirts on their backs and having to climb back up towards fame and especially fortune. Especially in some OSR games, you also have some focus on hiring mercenaries and raising small armies of followers, who all need to be equiped, fed, and paid. And I don’t like to just handwave such things and let the players have whatever they want.

Encumbrance is a similar annoyance with all the fiddly accounting involved, and I’ve adopted the simplified Encumbrance system from Pencils and Papers, which has been working out really well for us so far. So I’ve come up with a similiar idea to simplify the tracking of character wealth:

Under this system, players do ignore any costs that are negible, but what constitutes a negible amount of money depends on the amount of money the character currently has in his coinpurse.

  • Platinum Class: A character who has more than 100 pp worth of coins (1,000 gp) tracks his money in platinum pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 pp (10 gp) is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Gold Class: A character who has more than 100 gp worth of coins tracks his money in gold pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 gp is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Silver Class: A character who has more than 100 sp worth of coins (10 gp) tracks his money in silver pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 sp is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Copper Class: A character who has less than 100 sp worth of coins (10 gp) tracks his money in copper pieces. Any prices the character pays is substracted from his wealth.

It’s up to the GM to judge when a purchase is considered to be a single item or the character bought something in bulk. While a character in the platinum class might buy a shield worth 5 gp and not substract the amount from his wealth, buying 100 such shields (500 gp/50 pp) to equip his guards would be a single purchase that does get substracted. Similarly, a single roll of linen cloth wouldn’t count as treasure for the same character, but a whole wagon load of linen could still be sold and add to his wealth. If something is bought or paid for on a regular basis, I think a smart way to handle it would be to check how much it costs the character per month. In Pathfinder, the daily wage for an untrained hireling is 1 sp. So a character of the platinum class could have three such servants in his home, and since their wages total up to only 90 sp (9 gp), it would still be negible and not be included in his expenses. Another important thing to note is, that there can be a difference between the wealth a character has stashed in a vault at his home or is carrying in a coinpurse while on adventure. A character could easily have piles of gold stored in his home, but when his coinpurse gets stolen, he may have to pawn some trinkets just to get back to silver class until he returns home. And when you’re really low on money, finding cheap ways to get a place for the night is getting interesting again. Being a high ranking officer and having to sleep in a barn would be an indignity that greatly enhances the game. (Really, indignities are the best driving force behind great roleplaying. There’s only two ways to hurt a player: Stealing their money and hurting their pride.)

Game Review: Bound by Flame

I saw this game a few weeks ago and had never heard anything about it before. Reviews have been very mixed, but usually being either ver negative or quite positive, so I looked a bit closer at what things people thought were bad or good, and decided to give it a try. The biggest issue with the game is, that it’s clearly overpriced, it’s not a 45€ game, and I bought it second hand on ebay for just 20€.

With that in mind, I was otherwise pleasantly surprises. The game has some similarities with the first Witcher and Dragon Age 2, but is clearly more low-budget than the big games of the genre from recent years. The craftsmanship isn’t anywhere near Mass Effect or Skyrim. But other than that, I think it’s quite decent, and personally I’ve been growing to its B-Movie charme. After all, Sword & Sorcery originated in pulp magazines and all movies are B-movies of questionable quality, so the game is in good company here.

Bound_by_flame_5I particularly like the combat, which is the meat of the game. And instead of the combat systems in Dragon Age 2 (press attack really fast) and the Witcher (press attack at a steady speed), you actually have to think a lot more when you strike and when you block and even use quick reflexes to evade in split seconds at times. On a few times I died quite a lot because I wanted to get through without potions, but even then the autosaves are really good and you always start right before the fight in which you died,with no repeating of previous enemies. The other quality of the game are its style and looks. The engine isn’t great and the levels no huge monuments, but I very much enjoy the experience, like in Mirror’s Edge or Shadow of the Colossus. You are in a band of mercenaries in a world overrun by the undead hordes of a group of mysterious sorcerers and help out a group of sages who have an idea how they could improve the chances of survival for some people by summoning a spirit of fire. It doesn’t work quite as intended, but you end up with special powers and fire magic, which give you a significant edge aginst the undead and the demons leading them. It’s not great literature, but a decent enough background story for a quite fun game with both swordfighting and sorcery.

I would rate the game 4/5, though with the added advice to get it for less than full price.

New Witcher 3 Trailer

A new trailer for Witcher 3 has been released a few hours ago.

If you remember a bit about the kinds of games I’ve been describing in previous articles, it won’t come as any kind of surprise that I love the Witcher games. This trailer looks really good, though it’s also a strong reminder why I usually don’t watch trailers or read previous for games I am interested in. This one does give away some details of the story, that would have quite surprised me if I’d be playing the game for the first time without knowing anything about it. It’s nothing major and thinking about it, it was mostly just me being dense that I hadn’t seen them coming since the moment I finished Witcher 2. It does, however, do it’s job of making me really excited about seeing how everything will actually turn out in the final game.