Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beyond Taverns and Mysterious Strangers

Then again, taverns have some allure --
such as information on where the best
eyeshadow may be purchased in town.
(Thanks to Xhuul for the pic)
"You all meet in a bar."

A trite-and-true (ahem) method of getting the party together, particularly if you don't really want to waste any time and just get on with the adventure. However, if you want to change things just a bit, here are some alternatives to the campaign beginning.

In Medias Res

Many organic campaigns started this way, because we didn't know what a campaign -- complete with backstory and metaplot -- were. We started at the entrance of the dungeon, with everyone knowing why they were there, what they were after, and what stuff they'd brought with them to get the job done.

Nothing wrong with going back to this. It gets the players focused on the adventure, rather than planning or preparation or discussions on how to get to the damn dungeon.

If you really want to get fancy, you can insert some judicious flashbacks to a tavern mission briefing to tackle things like rumors, foreshadowing, and reminders about things that may have been missed by the players in all the excitement.

Caravan Capers

I actually used this in a 3rd Edition campaign for the Forgotten Realms setting, though it was based on the annual Gnome Caravan of Karameikos from the mountains down to Specularum.

In essence, it's regular trade caravan -- many traders big and small travel together for protection and consolidated costs. PCs can be hired muscle, or perhaps relatives of the merchants, or even paying 'merchants' themselves hoping to take advantage of the relatively safe journey through the wilds.

Adventures will tend toward wilderness encounters, the occasional ambush, and perhaps an interesting location that intrigues the PCs enough to peel away from the caravan to investigate.

Adventures can also accommodate some city adventures, as the caravan cast will shift as they pass through different cities.


And then there's the expedition. Some faction of considerable power and wealth has decided that an evil must be vanquished, a great treasure must be found, a lost artifact must be recovered. The expedition is formed, filled with numerous PCs and NPCs who must undertake various labors to achieve the overarching quest.

There may be rivals and traitors mixed in with the pool of colorful characters and back-up PCs waiting in the wings -- but all will be revealed once the adventures play out.

An Approach to Troupe Style Play for Fading Suns (Part I)

Here's the first part of the initial draft of the Troupe Style Play Charter for our Fading Suns group:

The primary philosophical approach for multiple gamemasters in a single Fading Suns campaign is similar to those held by the editors and writers of shared world anthologies like Thieves World and Wildcards: each gamemaster represents a different point of view of the multi-faceted universe of Fading Suns.

Keep this in mind when tackling the proposed guidelines for handling the system and setting.

We’re currently using the 2nd Edition (Revised) ruleset as the starting point. Gamemasters are free to make slight tweaks and add a few house rules to their individual gaming sessions.

Rationale: This allows GMs and players to use the same set of rules to create characters that can easily shift between the various GM sub-settings with minimal character conversion. It also allows some experimentation for each GM to modify the rules to fit his/her particular philosophy on their individual session gameplay “tone” or “feel”. Some GMs, for example may want deadly combat and role-played interpersonal reactions, while others may prefer more “wahoo” adventures and prefer to let the dice rule interpersonal interactions.

In general, the Fading Suns 2nd Edition (Revised) rulebook is considered canon, along with the Fading Suns Companion. Within these books, anything written in 3rd Person POV is considered canon, while the story vignettes and 1st Person POV segments are considered apocryphal – they may or may not be true depending on the GM.

Rationale: These variances can be chalked up to GM preference and/or the size and sheer variety of experiences in the worlds of the Fading Suns.

Books concerning the Empire, Nobility, Clergy, and Guildsmen are all considered ‘timestamped guidebooks’ meaning that the material in these books were true at one point in time. However, that may not necessarily hold true at this point in the timeline.

Rationale: This allows GMs to start from a common base, but not be shackled by canon for their adventures.

Each GM will select a world in the Known Worlds Jumpweb as their primary setting. Most of their adventures will take place here, or at the very least, start there and shift to adjacent worlds. Ideally, no two GMs should have chosen worlds adjacent to one another.

Rationale: This grants a GM complete setting authority over a given location big enough for most adventures that he/she will want to run.

Furthermore, certain worlds are to be identified as off-limits for selection due to their importance to all GM settings (such as Byzantium Secundus, Holy Terra, etc.). However, GMs may use these worlds as settings for their adventures so long as they do not substantially change them (blowing up Holy Terra, infecting Byzantium Secundus with a large scale husk plague).

Rationale: This helps ensure that certain key elements of the setting -- ones that most GMs will be relying on -- will remain the same.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thoughts on Troupe-Style play for D&D and Fading Suns

In the dim corners of memory, I remember first encountering the mention of Troupe Style play reading posts on message boards about using it in the game Over The Edge.

There were references to the RPG were the term was first (?) mentioned -- Ars Magica -- which I did not have access to.

Now, I'm returning to the concept because a small band of Fading Suns players and GMs are trying to set up a regular weekly gaming session without having to be solely dependent on a single GM (or even, it must be admitted, any required PCs), and troupe style play seems to be the answer.

Fortunately, many game blogs in the blogosphere seem to have written about it, and many of the metagame philosophies that have been (re)introduced by the OSR -- sandbox play, emergent storylines, PC-independent adventures, Player empowerment, the constantcon flailsnails charter, etc. -- have added more ideas to the pot.

First, though, it's good to outline what the goals of the Fading Suns group charter would be:
  1. For the participating GMs, a broadstrokes base of that should not be violated, with guidelines on how to allow for inconsistencies that will inevitably pop up between games of different GMs.
  2. For the players and PCs, guidelines on character creation, how characters can transition between different adventures (and what happens if the character is currently on another adventure), experience and growth, and keeping of certain artifacts.
  3. For the entire troupe, a sort of guiding philosophy on the ownership of any "plotlines" tied to certain planets, factions, or even characters (PC or NPC). Just so that other GMs can mess a little with the ideas of a given GM without necessarily violating that GM's secret canon for his adventures and NPCs.

Fading Suns as a setting is a little different from standard D&D sandbox play in that societal institutions have greater influence over the lives of PCs. And yet, local variances and tolerances for norms and behavior may vary from location to location -- like the classic Traveller RPG set-up, travel distances and communication barriers between planets make each planet the equivalent of a fief/city-state/nation. This means we can still take (I think) majority of the approaches espoused by OSR troupe style play.

Some Links of Interest:

Friday, September 23, 2011

D&D Modules: Read, Never Played

I've never really played in actual classic D&D modules. Much of what I played in during my time in Beresford were homebrew settings and dungeons; my familiarity with the D&D and AD&D modules is primarily due to me collecting them and reading them!

Which modules did I want to play in?

Interestingly enough, the first module I wanted to play in -- not for the dungeon but for the home base -- was T1: The Village of Hommlet. There's something about the mix of potential allies, outright villains, and a dash of interesting characters here and there. It makes returning to your base of operations and hanging out there just as interesting as the outright adventure. Well, in this case, more so than the actual adventure.

X1: The Isle of Dread was another one. The idea of an unexplored island, mixed with the need to explore, mixed with some genuinely interesting creatures to encounter and maybe overcome -- magic. It really triggers that thrill of exploration and sense of wonder.

X2: Chateau d'Amberville was yet another one. It was able to evoke a sense of weirdness and horror in a large, yet enclosed space filled with unusual dangers that allow the player to slowly piece together what happened to the strange inhabitants of the chateau -- hopefully dropping them enough clues to figure out what to do to escape.

I wanted to try out classics like the Against the Giants series which segues in the Vault of the Drow. But I was never able to get all of the modules together in my gaming youth.

There were some that I wanted to try more out of curiosity -- the killer dungeons like White Plume Mountain and Tomb of Horrors.

I'm sure that there are others I've forgotten, but I'll post more as I remember them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Return to Sutek - The First Batch of Characters (Nobility)

Classic depiction of a Hawkwood from the
Fading Suns rulebooks.
The first batch of characters in GM Bobby's Fading Suns campaign is nobility heavy.

Most notable -- due to the number of times that the other characters used his name -- was Baron Kendrake Hawkwood. Relatively inactive in the beginning of the game, but often talked about and used as a source of convenient authority throughout the investigation, he eventually became central to the resolution of the first phase of the adventure.

As an interesting counterpoint, there are two members of House Decados clan -- traditional rivals of House Hawkwood. Fortunately, these Decados were no longer directly affiliated with their House. Lt. Sincerity Decados owes at least part of her allegiance to the Charioteer Guild; the other Decados (whose name escapes me right at this moment) has given his allegiance to the Emperor and is an Imperial Questing Knight.

Last of the nobility was my own character, lifted straight from Redbrick's Adventure Shard "A Road So Dark" was Sir Raimon Keddah. My character was fairly instrumental early on with his use of the cybernetic Spy Eye to record the escape of the suspected murderer from the deceased Sir Gerald Hawkwood (Imperial Questing Knight)'s room.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fading Suns: Return to Sutek

It was cool to game again with GM Bobby and a lot of other folks I used to game with back when Fading Suns was a major portion of my gaming life.

GM Bobby brought us to an interesting corner of the Fading Suns universe -- Sutek. Supposedly the first solar system that the jumpgates took humanity to, it has held some interesting allure for him on a meta level. His first campaign also started there.

This time, however, there was an interesting mix of older players in a different time in their gaming lives. The game was an interesting mix of classic game elements (mysterious death, factional intrigue) and off-beat role-playing (PC rivalry and miscommunication).

And it was fun! Don't know how much time I can dedicate to this campaign, but I hope to eke out some time for it while it lasts.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Thoughts on a Superhero Campaign

Issue #0 of the new Kirby: Genesis series to be
done by the team of Busiek and Ross.
Been thinking about how to structure a series of 5 posts on creating a superhero campaign. I know that I normally go through a series of steps, but would they break down into five?

Before we get into that, there are certain assumptions that I'd make: (1) I'd have to tell my players the type of superhero campaign I'm thinking about, and probably give examples, so that I can manage their expectations and help them by giving them an idea about the types of adventures their characters are getting into; (2) I'd have some measure of character approval -- concept and execution -- so that I can keep track of things like NPCs, Nemeses, and other genre elements; (3) I'd have to have some sort of limits to the campaign: power levels, the setting, and possibly types of themes and storylines that I won't tackle (like women in refrigerators).

At the same time, I'd also probably make a list of things I'd like to see in the campaign: favorite bits from comics, riffs off my favorite heroes and villians (maybe even straight transplanting into the game universe), and things that would make my GMing experience enjoyable as well.

Finally, I'd try to wrangle things so that I wouldn't have to build characters (PCs and NPCs) that much. Tweaking is much easier that starting each character from scratch, so a quick look at existing resources for the campaign would be ideal.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Inspiration: Furies of Calderon

I'm deep into Jim Butcher's first book of the Codex Alera pentalogy: The Furies of Calderon.

Now, I'm a fan of Jim Butcher's other series work involving Harry Dresden, and there are certainly echoes of the strengths of those books as well: interesting primary and secondary characters, clever interpretations in the nuances of magic, interesting dialogue exchanges, and multi-sided confrontations of individuals with their own agendas. Actually, that latter one seems to be ratcheted up a bit more here, given that the POV is in 3rd person omniscient manner, unlike the Dresden 1st person POV.

However, there are also echoes of another aspect of Butcher's writing -- the long, let's-speculate-all-the-possible-plans-of-the-various-factions explorations either in mindscape (the thoughts of one of the characters) or in dialogue. At the right length, these are fine, but sometimes they ramble on quite a bit and I find myself skipping over them.

Gaming Uses

Of course, Butcher himself is a gamer (though I can't recall the exact gaming history in those articles) so for this series more than other fantasy novels, I try to look for applications in FRPGs.

First thing that comes to mind is -- of course -- the magic system: crafting. Crafting seems to be a take on element-based spellcraft but with wood added to the traditional water-earth-fire-air grouping. Also, this is achieved by bonding with spirits of those elements and essentially commanding them to effect those abilities.

Second thing that comes to mind is the light use of the Roman culture (an empire of humanity against the barbaric hordes, legionnaires, slaves, and a pseudo-senate) merged with the more traditional feudal system we're familiar with. A little bit of flavoring to change the pace just a smidge.

Lastly, the first book has two ways it starts the action where it has traditionally begun in these multi-book series: in the wilds. One is a mission into the woods to find out what mischief a rumored ghost legion is up to; another is the classic farming / borderlands community with the young boy who turns out to be not-so-ordinary after all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

From the Fading Suns Blogs: a Misfit and some Updates

I'll be honest: for a while I kind of shut off on Fading Suns, waiting for that seemingly imminent announcement that the first book of Fading Suns 3rd Edition is out.

However, that hasn't happened and I've hopped onto the official blogs to see what news there might be.

On the blog The Reborn Sun, there's a very recent example (Aug 31, 2011) of character creation that shows how far you can bend the character creation system to make a given character concept. In this case, you have a misfit who -- apparently -- was given metahuman abilities after being subjected to experimentation of the Li Halan world of Rampart.

On the blog Void Transmissions, there's an older post (June 2011) with some bits of news about work on the Gamemaster's Guide -- and some of the decisions I heartily agree with. In particular the choice to shift the tone away from in-game narrative to a bit more straightforward 3rd person omniscient (although some coyness from the authorial voice is acceptable) sourcebook is one I'm happy with -- it should shorten some of the writing and be more to the point.

So it looks like that Fading Suns 3rd Edition is still alive. Whew.

I wonder if they need any help on this thing -- it seems like there's a lot of heavy lifting on very few shoulders.

Monday, September 5, 2011

D&D and rules abstraction

In combat, the combat cycle tends to be broken down into the following stages (in general):

  1. attacker determining "attackability" of target ("can you hit your target from where you are?")
  2. attacker determining if attack is successful ("did you hit your target?")
  3. attacker determining if attack manages to do damage ("did you penetrate the armor?")
  4. attacker determining how much damage is done ("how badly did you hurt the target?")

Of course, the stages are already abstractions in themselves, and the amount of time spent doing each is dependent on how the rules are stated and interpreted.

In D&D, it breaks down like this:
  • Step 1 tends to be very simple for HTH combat, potentially more complicated for Ranged combat if you're not in a dungeon corridor or small room, and simple to complicated for magic spells (depending on the spell in question.
  • Steps 2 and 3 are actually combined by the Armor Class system, a bit of elegance that is sometimes misrepresented when the DM is describing what happens -- they sometimes equate the failed attack to a miss, when it could be a failure to penetrate armor. This was addressed by some added complexity of splitting up the AC bonuses for agility vs. armor on the character sheet in later versions of the rules.
  • Step 4 is, of course, the damage roll.

Compare this to something like HERO, where:
  • Step 1 is simple to moderate difficulty (especially if you're dealing with special senses, special ranged powers, and mental abilities)
  • Step 2 is the attack roll and determines whether or not the target was hit (and optionally, where the target was hit)
  • Step 3 and 4 are "combined" in that the damage is rolled and is modified (usually reduced) by various types of defenses, before they're applied to the target.

Why bring this up? It's because I used to disparage the so-called "abstract Armor Class" system, but having come back to it -- I realize that it also contributes to streamlining of combat. It can perhaps be further tweaked (as was done in a somewhat confusing manner in AD&D and later in 3rd Edition), but it is a powerful tool in simplifying combat rounds.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Enigmundia: Underworld Elements -- Sleep, Dream, Fantasy, and Nightmares

As part of some research I did for a short story, I happened upon some interesting stuff that got me thinking.

First was a small collection of Gods and Daemons that belong in the Underworld but do not deal directly with some variant of death or hell: Hypnos, Morpheus, Phantasos, and Phobetor.

Gods of Demos Oneiroi

Fantastic depiction of Neil Gaiman's Morpheus
that evokes that feeling of a daemon. Art is by
Scott Hepburn and appears here.
Hypnos is the God of Sleep, and is usually portrayed as father or brother to the other three gods. My take would be to make him a distant parent, as his realm and purview seems to dwarf theirs. However, the argument for brother could be made with Hypnos as the eldest if you follow the parthenogenesis argument for the creation of these gods -- the only three named Oneiroi of supposed thousands. In fact, this latter argument seems to echo the origins of the kami from Japanese myth. Hypnos is sometimes portrayed as being asleep, with the Oneiroi in attendance around him. This is interesting, as it would seem that he would be more powerful asleep than awake. And if there is such a thing as sleepwalking in the real world, you'd better believe that the God of Sleep can do some serious sleepfighting.

By the way, does anyone remember the Brotherhood of Sleep from the movie The Prince of Darkness?

Morpheus, outside of H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, tends to get better publicity these days due to Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic book series (an excellent read for most of the storylines and one-shot stories). He is the God of Dreams, and is, like his brothers, sometimes described as a black-winged daemon -- which is not a demon, but a winged representative or herald (or messenger?) of the gods. Morpheus is also apparently the leader of the named trio and excels at creating dream imagery involving humanity.

Phobetor is a lesser known brother who is the God of Nightmares, and excels at creating and portraying imagery dealing with living things (birds, beasts, serpents and monsters).

Phantasos is another lesser known brother who is the God of Fantastic Dreams, and excels at creating and portraying imagery of inanimate objects (earth, rock, water, wood, and -- it is assumed -- other things crafted by humans).

The Oneiroi reside in Demos Oneiroi, which is considered part of the Underworld, the realm of Hades. So somewhere amongst the various rivers (Acheron, Cocytus, Phelegethon, Lethe, and Styx), someplace away from both Tartarus and Elysium, you can find the realm of slumber and dreams.

I'm thinking it would be placed near the river Lethe, which probably feeds into the very different pool of Lethe. In fact, perhaps both the pool of Lethe (forgetfulness) and the pool of Mnemosyne (memory) can be found in their realm.

Magical Item: Dreamcoins

Dreamcoins are a pair of coins made from a mysterious black metal that is always warm to the touch. Rumor has it that it was mined from in the depths of Tartarus and cooled in the burning waters of the River Phlegethon.

When placed on one's eyes prior to falling asleep, a person will find himself at the edge of a river with the ferryman Charon approaching. If paid with the dreamcoins, the dreamer will be ferried to Demos Oneiroi to enjoy an audience with Morpheus, Phobetor, and/or Phantasos. They will answer three questions with dreams of reality, nightmare, and fantasy and will ask favors in exchange.

If the supplicant is particularly favored, he will receive a ring carved from the horns of one of Phobetor's dream beasts. It will allow parley with chimerical creatures of the waking world.

If the supplicant is particularly reviled, he will receive a cursed ring of ivory from one of Phobetor's dream beasts. It will attract the wrath of chimerical creatures in the waking world.