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.

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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┬ádescision 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?

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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.

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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?

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