Saturday, May 14, 2016

Collaborative Campaign Building, Part I

Starting a new campaign is one of the most exciting parts of D&D.  New characters, new stories, new potential, and the promise of reaching that unreachable destination -- Best Campaign Ever.
Overshadowed, perhaps, by the thrill of the new campaign are those campaigns that failed.  The characters that didn't work, the stories that fizzled, the lost interest (either by players or DM), or the games that simply never went anywhere.  We are left to wonder what might have been, with a sort of vague awareness that something worthwhile just died.

Top-Down DMing vs. Collaborative Building

Consider how most campaigns originate.  The DM announces his intention to run a certain kind of game:  "We're playing Hoard of the Dragonqueen in Faerun."  The players say "ok, great, let me make a Forgotten Realms PC."

This is a top-down approach.  A substantial portion of the key decisions about the campaign have already been determined by the DM's decision to run a particular kind of game.  This is perfectly fine and can lead to fun and memorable campaigns, and this is how campaigns have been built for decades.  There are many games that turned out great when a DM challenged players by dragging them into a game-world in which they perhaps didn't know they wanted to play.

But think about your favorite books or movies.  What are these stories really about?  The characters.  The setting, the story -- these things exist as scenery in which the main characters operate.  The story and setting don't exist without the characters.  Hyboria exists as a place for Conan to have adventures.  The setting serves him.  Robert E. Howard may well have had some ideas about the harsh proto-Earth that his protagonist roamed, but that place was made to shape his themes and provide the excuse for our bronze-skinned Cimmerian to slay his enemies.

As DMs, then, we have an opportunity to be even more than authors -- we can enlist everyone in the creative process, to make every player a DM of sorts -- and to create settings that would not have existed but for the collaboration of all.  In this sense, a collaborative DM is more of a collector, editor, and synthesizer, particularly at the genesis of the campaign.

A Character-Driven Campaign

What if we had a character-driven campaign?  A story and setting built around the characters, instead of the other way around?

We started this precise process last December.  I sent out a blind questionnaire to the entire group asking essentially two questions -- what is the character you most want to play  in the Best Campaign Ever and describe the world in which (s)he adventures?

For many players, this can be a somewhat profound inquiry.   What do we really want to play, and why?  Most of us over the years have played characters we didn't really want to play, or tweaked our characters to fit the other players or setting, or otherwise settled for something suboptimal.  Forget that.

We decided everyone was going to play the character they really always wanted to play -- the uber-character they've fantasized about.  Maybe something they tried before but didn't get right.  Maybe something that is their own peculiar id expression.  Maybe something that they were afraid to play because of embarrassment or the feelings of the rest of the group, or something they could never do because of group dynamics.

The trick was, I didn't ask primarily about the character in game terms (class, statistics, etc.).  I was primarily interested in the character's identity and personality, and general background, but general types were fine, too.  The main thing was that we delved into each player's veritable gaming soul.  This required the players to trust this blind questionnaire process and just let go.

To make the experiment real, I did it too.  Yes -- the DM made a character.  Because it's my campaign too.
The Seven Steps to Collaborative Campaign

Step 1: Write the Character and Campaign Questions

This turned out to be critical.  I'll post our actual questionnaire.  It was designed to be aspirational and throught-provoking, generating true player preferences in a vacuum.

The Character section is vague.  Who do you want to play?  Who is this person?  Why is she an adventurer?  What makes her tick?  What is her name and family situation?  Encourage the players to build this ideal adventurer of theirs into a 'real' character.  The key concept: Why are we building a campaign around this character?  What makes him worthy of being an equal co-star of a TV or movie series?

The other section is the fleshing out of the game and campaign world.  What kind of a world does the character occupy?  What's interesting about it?  What role does the character play in the world?

Step 2: Send out the Questionnaire and Confirm Understanding

Get the questionnaire in the hands of your players and give them a deadline.  Make sure they understand it is a blind process and that they shouldn't speak of their responses until they're all submitted. 

You will likely get a few immediate, enthusiastic responses and then have to drag it out of other people.  Harass them and make them participate, but also accept that you may not get every player to respond.

Everyone can meta-game, but not everyone can take the further step back to peer into their own meta-gamer soul.  It makes us ask questions about why we game and what we want out of the gaming experience, things we intuitively know but perhaps haven't verbalized or openly communicated about.  Male gamers, in particular, are often reluctant to openly express their hopes and dreams in their fantasy expression.

You may need to assist some players in completing the questionnaire, or do it in Q&A / interview format with them rather than in writing.  They may need help articulating what they really want.  Part of your role in facilitating this is to be their interrogator and counselor, odd as it sounds.  Drag it out of them in the way that works for them.  They'll thank you for it later.

Check in with any players whose responses are vague or unclear.  Confirm with each of them that you understand what they want to play and the world they want to play in.

Step 3: Compile the Responses

Once you have your responses, you need a way of organizing the information.  I used a spreadsheet to track the responses so I could view them as a whole and shared it with everyone (with the exception of information a player wanted to be hidden from the rest).

The players -- longstanding gaming friends -- were very curious about the responses of their buddies.  The questionnaire both confirmed prior observations of players and yielded new insights.  The process allowed us to dig a little deeper into what makes each of our gamer souls tick.

Step 4: Ideation / Connections

We had a group chat (over instant messaging) regarding the spreadsheet. 

Some of the connections between player responses were immediate and obvious.  Player A wants to play a heroic noble fighter; Player B wants to be a member of a noble court with magical powers and a hand in everyone else's business.  That's a pairing that happened, and Players A and B immediately began collaborating on how they might know each other.

On the setting front, you will start to see patterns too.  I had asked many character/player preference questions -- tone, magic level, power level, genre, episodic vs. "story arc" play ... everything down to the climate of the "home area" and more details about the home area itself.

Other connections will be less apparent.  There are many high- and low-tech solutions to ideation, including programs like MindJet and just using index cards to help organize your thoughts.  Spreadsheets lend themselves to sorting and data analysis.  Trends emerge.

What's even better -- at this stage it will become apparent to you that players have great ideas too, and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  They will think of things you have not, and it will make for a better game and campaign that also happens to be geared to the exact things they want to do in it.

Step 5: Proposal

Share the data.  Share the thoughts.  Put out a deadline for campaign proposals.  Let the group come up with ideas.  You may get player concepts for a campaign and you may not.  That's ok.

Since you (ostensibly) are the organizer and in the DM chair for the moment, you need to come up with a couple of proposals that are (a) interesting (b) unique, both in terms of other content and from the other proposals and (c) keyed to the responses of each of the players in a meaningful way.  They each need to see that you have synthesized their answers.

That you have created a concept for discussion and elaboration.

In our game, I came up with two concepts, based on the responses of the group:
  • Dunlyle: A middle fantasy, city-based episodic game set in a coastal, oceanic climate, in a world recovering from a planet-altering celestial apocalypse.  The campaign would feature exploration, world-building/settlement, taming of the wilderness, and uncovering historical secrets. 
  • S.S. Coralis: A high magic, high-powered episodic game with the players as famous adventurers aboard a magic ship that sails the seas of the world solving mysteries, having adventures, and making stops in exotic ports of call. 
The players liked both concepts but elected for Dunlyle.  This was done via consensus, and at least 50% of the concept was the result of direct player input.

Step 6: Retrofitting / Fleshing Out

This next step can be short or long depending on the character concepts and the campaign concept decided upon.  Simply put, some of the characters are going to fit perfectly into the concept and others may not.

Your job is to make it work and change the campaign subtly to suit the character concept, not the other way around.  I cannot emphasize this enough.

Case in point -- I had a player that really wanted to be a psionic.  This was his dream, what he really wanted.  I had not planned on this, and really was neutral to it.  But let's say for the sake of argument that I hated it.  Bad experience with psionics in the past, it didn't jive with my concept of how magic worked in the game world, whatever.  I could have shut him down and said, "make a warlock or sorcerer instead." 

Your job is not to stifle the dream of your players. Your job is to make their heroic concept occur in your game.  So I put psionics in the game, and made a workaround in the campaign.  It's rare, interesting, mysterious, and fun -- just like the player wanted it.  He wanted to be special, and so he is.  And when he met the aberrant, grotesque and psionically-active Rat-Bitch of the Sewers, he was appropriately freaked out.

Accommodating your players not only makes them happy, but it allows them to be actual contributors.  Dunlyle has psionics now, and it's going to be cooler for it.

Lastly, remember that some players are going to require more handholding than others on this.  You may have an optimizer type of player that is all about game mechanics but is really foundering with this entire process.  Talk to her one on one and get the details from her as you can and accept that for some players, the character comes together as the game is played.  Not everything has to be defined and understood fully to start the game.

Step 7: Bringing it All Together

As things coalesce, it's probably time to put together a primer or mini-gazetteer for the game world to give the players a sense of the game world they've help build. 

Starting with a single region or city is probably easiest.  But before you panic -- I have to come up with an entire city? -- let me let you in on a little secret: you only have to create the parts that are necessary based on the players' responses and character concepts, and to engender a coherent plan for their coming together for adventuring.

The nice part here is that the players (who should largely be VERY engaged by this point) will likely have already had their own back-channel discussions with each other and made their own connections.  As a general rule, you need to connect every PC with at least one other PC, even if it's through a common NPC connection.  Chances are through this process seeds have already been planted to allow that to occur.

Now there's only one thing left -- to come up with an actual launch of the campaign that is conceptually appropriate.

In Dunlyle (a land with a Scots-Irish vibe) I determined to start with a festival, something that would both bring the characters physically together while also immersing them fully in the campaign world culture.  I wanted them to be a part of something.  We played three sessions in the festival and its various intrigues and side adventures.  I planned nothing further.  I wanted the players to have a sandbox flavor, for them to be the masters of their own destiny.

After the first adventure, Player A's noble character entered the drinking contest and ended up married the next morning, changing the course of the campaign.

Now that's player agency.  For better or worse.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

5e Champion Fighters -- Bring forth the Crit!

The Champion is probably one of the least-sexy archetypes in the Player's Handbook.  With a scant few paragraphs, it is easily eclipsed content-wise by the Battle Master, Eldritch Knight, heck even the base fighter class itself.

But underneath the bland exterior is a veritable rock star.  Let us explore the Champion.

Archetype Features:

Critical Hit Frequency: at 3rd level, you crit on a 19.  At 15th level, you crit on an 18.  This can be a substantial benefit -- remember that critical hits double all dice (but not modifiers) rolled.

Discussion: Well this is the main offensive benefit of being a Champion.  More crits = more damage output.  The Champion build discussion below will focus on how to best maximize this by getting even more crits per attack, more attacks (and thereby more crits), or more damage per crit.  Getting advantage is therefore paramount -- because advantage doesn't just double your chances to hit, it doubles your chances to crit.

Athletics: at 7th level, you get a 50% proficiency bonus on any Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution check that doesn't already use your proficiency bonus, and your running long jump is (STR Mod x feet) longer.

Discussion: This seems like a lukewarm poor man's jack of all trades ability until you consider that this covers every physical skill check out there.  Thirsty in the desert?  Check.  Walking along a narrow cliff?  Covered.  Taking a physical-stat character and making him even better at physical skills is a great example of maximization.

Additional Fighting Style: at 10th level, you get another fighting style.  Boom.

Discussion:  Everyone can benefit from another fighting style.  This ability can be used either for more versatility or to enhance your core party role.

Survivor: at 18th level, while under 50% hit points but over 0 hit points, you gain (5+ CON Mod) in hit points back at the start of your turn.

Discussion: This keeps you going, makes you more self-sufficient (and the envy of every other frontline damage sponge), and with a big pool of hit points, you extend the usefulness of this ability by having a bigger range of hit points for it to activate.

Overview & Analysis

The Champion gets enhanced offense from critical hits (and certain fighting styles) and enhanced defense via certain fighting styles and the capstone ability.

Getting critical hits is therefore key, and engineering critical hit opportunities (either yourself or via allies' abilities) is paramount to take advantage of your offensive opportunities.  Having the fighter multiattack base ability -- ending up with an obscene 3 attacks at 11th level and 4 attacks at 20th -- only makes the critical attacks even more frequent.

The archetype overall suggests a highly physical character, and given the base fighter class' extra ability score improvement feature (getting two more stat bumps / feats than every other class), the Champion is in a position to have very high physical stats by late game.

This in turn suggests that Champions should pair their racial selections with their intended build, so as to maximize their physical stats.  Dwarves, elves, stout halflings (yes!), humans, dragonborn, and half-orcs can all make good Champions subject to wise build selections.

Champion Types

Two-Hander:  The theme of the 2H Champion is Big Crits -- maximizing the damage done on a critical hit by using a big weapon like a greataxe, maul, or greatsword.  Because critical hits double dice, crits mean an extra 1d12 - 2d6 damage when using a two-hander.  The Great Weapon Fighting style is a must-have, increasing your base and critical damage significantly.  This character occupies an off-tank or melee damage role.

Half-Orcs, with their Savage Attacks ability, make excellent 2H Champions -- particularly with a Greataxe, creating a 3d12 + mods critical hit.  The extra critical chance afforded by Champions is arguably stronger than even half-orc barbarian's rage, and can create excellent burst damage opportunities.  Dwarves, Humans, and Dragonborn also make good two-handed champions, focusing on damage output with big weapons.

This is a great style choice for players that really want to pump up their stats.  Only a few feats are truly "necessary" for this style -- so boost that physical potential!

Fighting Style Options -- GWF, Defense, Archery (for variety)

Multiclass options: Rogue (more crit damage via sneak attack!), Barbarian -- reckless attack for instant Advantage and brutal critical can yield even more critical damage.

Feats: Great Weapon Master, Charger, Mobile, Resilient, Tough.  Great Weapon master will make even non-critical hits feel special.  Oh yes.  Pound them with your greataxe until they beg you not to stop.

One-Hander & Shield:  This character (offensively, anyway) is all about getting more crits -- via self-generated advantage created with the Shield Master feat and the shove action it affords.  Grab a shield, use your Athletics to knock down some enemies, and enjoy the extra crits that advantage garners you.

This style also favors a tanking role, based on a high AC with heavy armor and a shield.  Being a more feat-heavy role, and with less benefit from DEX than other types, you may want to focus strictly on STR and CON and spend the rest of your Ability Score Increases on feats.

Humans are obvious fits for this Champion type, with access to a feat at first level. Dwarves and Dragonborn are also naturals here with their STR and CON bonuses and other resilience-based racial abilities.  Thrown weapons (with their STR focus) are a natural for One-Hander Champions.

Fighting Style Options -- Protection, Dueling, Defense

Multiclass options: Not recommended.  You really benefit from the Survivor capstone ability.  If you must multiclass, consider the Devotion Paladin (more defensive / healing / smite abilities)

Feats: Shield Master, Sentinel, Tough, Heavy Armor Master, Resilience, Mounted Combat

Two-Weapon:  The TWF Champion is built around more crits via more attacks.  Because critical hits double damage dice (not mods), you want to use the biggest off-hand weapon you can.

This style is superficially similar to the 2H Champion -- offensive warriors focused on damage output.  But the TWF Champion is about getting more attacks in -- having a higher damage output via more hits but less burst damage.  Also known as death by a thousand cuts.  Because (at present) the style's primary benefit is the extra attack, this Champion is somewhat front-loaded to lower level play and is eventually outclassed in damage output by the 2H Champion, who is doing consistently bigger blows.

Because this style often (but not always) uses finesse weapons, high DEX characters (like Elves and Stout Halflings) in medium armor can make good TWF Champions, but with the Dual Wielder feat a high DEX is not required.

Fighting Style Options: Two Weapon Fighting, Defense, Archery (for variety)

Feats: Dual Wielder, Medium Armor Mastery, Mobile, Mage Slayer, Defensive Duelist

Multiclass Options: Rogue, Ranger.

Mounted: Often overlooked, the Mounted Champion "cavalier" (much like the One-Hander & Shield Champion) with the Mounted Combatant feat can generate his own critical hits simply by being mounted and attacking an unmounted opponent.  While this is dependent on (a) having a mount and (b) being in a combat where the mount can be brought to bear, it is potentially very powerful, particularly when you consider that Lances do 1d12 damage.  With advantage, a 15th level Champion gets a crit 30% of the time, and with three attacks per round, that's almost a guaranteed critical hit every round.  And a half-orc Champion cavalier does 3d12 + mods on a crit ... with a shield in the other hand ...

Most Mounted Champions are built like One Hander Champions, but with Animal Handling skills and a feat focus on Mounted Combat early.  The biggest challenge is finding (and keeping alive!) a worthy mount with this character, and being useful when the combats move indoors or underground.

Mounted champions benefit from using lances, which are heavy weapons and exclude small characters.  Humans, dwarves, elves, half-orcs, and dragonborn make good cavaliers.

Fighting Style Options: as per 2H Champions or One-Hander Champions.

Multiclass options: Paladin is an obvious fit for Find Steed, though staying with Fighter allows you to have the full benefits of both Mounted and 2H or 1H fighting.

Other Styles: The Champion Archer is probably outshone on a regular basis by a Hunter Ranger due to Colossus Slayer and the Hunter's Mark spell. 


Don't write off the Champion.  Nobody benefits more from critical hits and (with the possible exception of barbarians) raw physicality as the Champion.

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.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Current Project: Dunlyle

Well I've gone from posting twice daily to once every two weeks.  Rest assured this has not been idle time; the current project: Dunlyle, my campaign setting.  The end result is hoped to be a sandbox setting with optional "story line" elements, along these lines:
  • Spiral/"Wire-O" bound (so as to be durable and to open flat) and tabbed, on durable paper stock
  • Overview & Area Map
  • Important NPCs
  • Gazetteer & Local Maps
  • Multiple dungeons fleshed out in One Page Dungeon style
  • Campaign flowcharts and calendars
All of this, to echo my prior postings, will be done so that it is system-neutral though obviously flavored for D&D at its various offshoots and mutations.  In other words, the goal here is to be content-rich while maintaining utility to a wide range of games and DMs.  The book itself is intended to be both a campaign prep/background document as well as an in-game reference.

At present, the manuscript is completed but I am converting my traditional map & key dungeons into one-page dungeons and removing all system-specific references.

I would welcome your feedback on this proposed format.