Sunday, July 28, 2013

Freehanding Gone Wild

So the 35" x 25" aged 60-pound parchment paper arrived.

Map geek excitement building.  Dare I say my scroll case was pitching a tent.

I immediately developed two uses for my humonguous uber-paper for my Dunlyle campaign:
  • Tolkeinesque overland maps, in black & white -- and in Judges Guild style, a player's map showing the "known world" for their own use and exploration (and, yes, marking on it!) and my own DM's map;
  • Large freehand custom dungeon maps, in 1" = 5' scale for use as a gridless playing surface.  That's right -- no more wet-erase battlemat!  We will play on the map.  I will also take the opportunity to use color (pencils, mainly) where appropriate, though I'm going for a black & white aesthetic generally.
And then, when we're done with a particular dungeon map, the map will represent mapping by the player-characters.  It will be a map-log of the campaign.  I imagine the players will be making various notes on them -- much like their characters would.

Some practical issues -- obviously, I need to figure out a way to photocopy these before the players get their hands on them.  I don't want to have to redraw them.  Also, they are obviously vulnerable to spills, tears, etc.  Then there is the matter of storage -- I'm thinking of either buying a blueprint tube or getting a large luggage-like portfolio to carry them in.  Lastly, in game play I need to figure out a way to cover up the unseen map sections.

I'll post some pictures in my next post.  Exciting stuff -- it's a lot of work but I'm hoping my first playtest of Dunlyle with my home group goes well.  The first set of maps are for the campaign opening -- after that, at the end of each session I'll be asking them their next intentions so I can keep up with the mapping duties.

P.S. Next time, I'll order more paper.  At $.50 per page as of this writing, more than half the cost was shipping and packaging.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Getting the Band Together, Part 2

Let's use some specifics from my recent PC planning sessions (both in-person and via email) to illustrate some of the points from my prior post.  Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Player 1 is a roleplayer and enjoys both story elements and gamist elements and is a pleasure to have in the group.  She dove right in to my background and setting information and came up with a concept (scoutlike halfling rogue) that was tightly connected to the gameworld.  She developed a few NPCs (family members) and gave me some additional ideas for the campaign, writing out a backstory (and names!) for herself and immediate family members.  In this way, she became a contributor to the campaign itself.  I will have no issues connecting her character to the game or story elements and she provides her own motivation.  I just have to make sure I can incorporate her creativity and keep up with her work product!

Player 2 is a blended player with both roleplaying and powergamer tendencies but doesn't really have the time to create the extensive backstories of Player 1.  He told me what he wanted overall (a thuggish half-orc barbarian with a revenge backstory) and was eager for me to help fill in his details.  Via mutliple emails, we worked through his origin, came up with a name, and explained how his character has narrowly avoided imprisonment and being ostracized in the predominately human and halfling campaign area.  He also asked for a specific supernatural ability -- a sort of sixth sense -- we negotiated this and I have a secret "disadvantage" that I'll be springing on him in mid-campaign.  While I had to do a little more work with him on character creation, he will be relatively low-maintenance once the campaign begins so long as I can keep the revenge element present in a significant portion of the adventures.  We may have to shift his focus if and when he gets his revenge.

Player 3 is one of the DMs in the group and is a flamboyant roleplaying, team-focused, and storyteller type.  Typically, he waited for everyone else to declare their concepts and chose the "leftover" role for balance purposes and (predicably?) ended up as the cleric.  While I had something in mind for him, he very much wanted to go his own way and created a character with a dark yet whimsical secret.  He created his character but left the details of his insertion into the campaign up to me.  In this way he can be both a team player (as a cleric) while indulging in his desire for playing over-the-top, humorous characters.  As with Player 1, Player 3 will not require a lot of maintenance, providing his own motivation and enjoyment.

Player 4 is a returning player who last played in 3.5 edition games.  He's a powergamer that enjoys playing chaotic, id-driven characters as a way to blow off steam and have fun.  An analytical type, he is also one of those hyperintelligent players that likes to see if he can break the game.  Fortunately, he is good-natured and recognizes that creativity is not one of his strong suits.  I suggested a concept that fit his predilection (a Mad Martigan swordsman type with a background as a minor knight -- a character that I originally had envisioned as an NPC) and he was off to the races, diving into the character creation rules to maximize his character's potency.  He actually appreciated me supplying him with a concept, background, and name.  So long as I provide him with an opportunity to engage in his wild side and give him a chance to be powerful, he will be a fun and non-destructive element in the game.

Player 5 is a sardonic, introverted player with interest in both gamist and story-driven elements, though she is not a huge roleplayer.  She often plays a particular type of character (usually an elven druid or other support-oriented divine caster) and has decided to "branch out" a bit by playing a human bounty hunter that found religion/philosophy and became a monk.  As with player 2, I will likely be doing back-and-forth emails with her to get the story elements to her liking so she can enter the game fully-formed.  My challenge will be to provide her with engaging story elements and combats that allow her to be rewarded for her non-standard character choice.

Player 6, while a good low-key "blended" player, is relatively disengaged by the character creation and campaign launch process.  He hasn't replied to my many emails and has committed only to playing a Wizard.  No race, no name, no background ... utterly generic.  His wife (player 5) has warned me that he'll procrastinate to the end.  So I can either keep paddling upstream to get some more information out of him, simply assign him a character (as I did with player 4) which he will likely not appreciate ... or I can go with the flow and challenge my own need to develop everything.  Maybe I can let go.  Maybe I can just wing it and let Player 6 be the mystery man in the group.  Since I am going for a "sandbox" type of game allowing the PCs to do as they will unbound by a central story, maybe having a "sandbox" PC is okay too ... the PC that is in the process of discovering himself or possibly even revealing himself to himself via a curse or mental illness.

So there it is -- this process of character generation and campaign launching, played out with real players with differing motives and personalities.  By cooperatively working with the players to give them what they want -- but within your previously-established framework -- you maximize the likelihood that they will take ownership of their fledgling characters and the campaign.  This in turn will generate many story ideas and character interactions that you would not have imagined on your own, turning the campaign into a collaborative process.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Getting the Band Together

So you've decided to start a campaign and have identified a group of suckers, er, "players" to participate in your little fantasy world come to life.  Now what?

Tell Them About the Campaign

Unless you are intentionally going for a hodgepodge, anything-goes campaign, you need to tell them that you're running a post-apocalyptic world of mutations and magic, or whatever.  The key factors that players want to know:

Setting -- they need the gist of the world at first; later they'll need the "common knowledge" bits about the world, the assumed background information that any self-respecting PC would know from the get-go.  I use the "STAMPIERE" model, addressing the Social, Technological/Magic, Administrative, Military, Political, Industrial, Economic, Religious, and External factors relative to the starting game-region.  This is a tremendously helpful tool to communicate meaningful bits about about your setting.

Power/Magic Level -- if, for instance, you are running a low fantasy world for players accustomed to Faerun, they need to know to adjust their expectations.

Character Generation Rules -- you need to tell them how to generate stats for your game, available races, classes, etc.  They need to know what is possible and your overall parameters.  What races, classes, spells, and other character elements are allowed?  If you have new elements of your own creation, you need to communicate that.

Tone -- Players really want to know the sort of campaign you are going to be running.  Dungeon crawling?  Story-based?  Humorous? Exploration?  All of the above?  Basically many of them will want to know how their character fits in with YOUR expectations of the game.

Tone covers a lot of ground, including:
  • "sandbox" do-what-you-want vs. plotline
  • "points of light"/exploration vs. "known world"
  • seriousness
  • importance of combat
  • importance of roleplaying and interaction
  • importance of the rules overall
  • heroic vs. antiheroic/netural vs. evil campaign
  • static vs. dynamic content
  • quantity of wilderness content
The last point is surprisingly important for class and race selection. 

Lastly, you need to tell the players what you want them to tell you about their characters.  If you don't ask for their adventure motivations, family backgrounds, etc., don't be surprised if you don't get them.

The First Draft

You will then get the first drafts from players.  Some of them will be wonderful, evocative, creative characters needing little if any polishing; they are ready for insertion into your game-world as is and you congratulate yourself for having such a wonderful player.

The remainder will either lack a connection to your game world, have no identifiably interesting traits, need further translation to and application of the game rules, abuse the letter or spirit of your previously-set parameters, or all of the above.  Viewing the characters collectively, you may run into the additional probem that the characters appear to lack cohesion from a story or party-balance perspective, which, depending on your campaign, may be a big deal or a non-issue.

Your challenge is to address the character's unfinished aspects without (a) taking over the character or (b) offending the player.  Ask the player to flesh out the character and offer to help.  Some players are just not good at the game rules, making characters come to life, or connecting their characters to the game-world.  Help them.

Pre-Campaign Communications and Planning

As the PCs are coming together, communicate regularly with the group (email is great for this) to let them know how the roster is shaking up.  While a balanced group is not required, one of the nice things about a relatively balanced group is that everyone has a chance to shine.  Some players may want to change concepts after seeing what others are playing.  That's ok.

Once the roster is set, if you are running any kind of roleplaying or story-based campaign, you will need to develop a short background for each character anchoring them to the game world, the NPCs, and (possibly) the other PCs.  This is tremendously helpful not only for verisimilitude but also to help you coherently develop a feasible campaign opening to actually launch the campaign.

On that note, I find the easiest way to come up with a campaign opening (unless it is already preset in your campaign concept -- if everyone starts as a shipwrecked castaway, your opening is set) is to write down all of the PCs in a circle and draw connecting lines to each PC with a preexisting relationship.  Then add key NPCs and do the same.  You will start to see patterns emerge, a visual commonality/degree of separation.  That will help you link the players to each other and the NPCs that relate to your first session.

Even in the most "sandboxy" open games, you may find it useful to have the very first session be somewhat planned to at least set some campaign story hooks, introduce key NPCs in-game, and give the PCs some ideas on what to do next.

Next time, I'll get into campaign and NPC planning issues, for use in both story- and non-story campaigns.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Back in the Saddle and 5th Edition

There is no excuse for a 15 month blogging absence -- a virtual blog lifetime.  Other life elements intrude, excuses abound.  But like a bad case of the clap, I keep coming back to D&D.  Or it to me.

I have been sucked back, simply, due to 5th edition D&D (I refuse to call it "Next," unless they promise to call the next version after that "Last."). 

While the playtest versions (as of now) are only about 60-70% complete at best, it is in playable form finally and I like what I am seeing.  It's enough to get me to run a campaign using it.

Good News Part 1: the game has taken many of the best elements from prior editions and mostly merged them:

* ability checks a la many OSR systems are the new default, making skills both relevant and simple to execute
* simplification (relative to 3e and 4e, anyway)
* return to class-based design rather than MMO-inspired "role"-based design of 4e
* cribbing from a few of 4e's strengths such as at-will spells
* A flatter power curve (more like OD&D/2nd edition)

In sum, it feels like a streamlined version of 3e with 4e/OSR elements.  What is still lacking:

* The monsters overall have relatively low ACs.  This may be intentional.
* Multiclassing is still an unknown.  Whether it will look like AD&D (level up in multiple classes simultaneously, splitting xp), 3e (add a class as you go) or 4e (get a little multiclass functionality from a feat) is anyone's guess.  I am guessing it will be more 3e-ish, though the only way that worked for spellcasters was to use prestige classes or take feats to boost their caster levels.  I would be open to an AD&D version too, though once you took your classes you were locked in ...
* We still need a few more "core" classes, like the bard and (for me, anyway) the sorcerer.  I wouldn't mind seeing a warlock, either.  Essentially, if a class' features can't be added as a subclass to an existing class, or if it has some unusual mechanic, it needs to be its own class.  For my money, the 3e bard (bardic music effects), sorcerer (spontaneous casting/wizard alternative), warlock (eldritch blast, unique warlock powers and invocations) all justify their own classes; they can't be wizard variants, other than possibly the sorcerer.
* The spell list, magic items, and bestiary are sparse.  More content will be needed to justify an end product.

All in all, I am encouraged.  I want to play this version of the game. Moreover, I am encouraged that the designers are taking their time and listening to feedback.