Friday, December 30, 2011

Evil PCs: An Epilogue

Early in December of 2011, I wrapped up my year-long experiment in running a Pathfinder campaign for evil PCs. I tried my best to document the process here on the GM SIG Blog, but that effort fell behind as life got busier and busier. The story they wove was far too convoluted and crazy for me to write down in its entirety; at times I felt as though I were losing my mind just running the game, and I'd certainly do so if I continued to write about it with the same level of detail I did in my previous posts. I did want to post a follow-up message, though, to talk a bit about what developed and what I learned from the experience.

1. Players get tired of being the knights in shining armor.

I've heard this from many players whose GMs try to shoe-horn them into games where they have to be the good guys. Most players, at some point, want to run a character that is at least morally ambiguous, if not downright evil. In particular, D&D and its many iterations perpetuate the idea that the game just isn't made for villains (with the obvious exceptions of the few rare products that facilitated the idea, such as the Books of Vile Darkness). I think this is one reason (among many) why D&D players flocked to the banner of White Wolf's World of Darkness games in the mid to late 1990s - WoD was offering an outlet for that sort of play experience, publicity be damned, while D&D was still fighting a media-perpetuated image of Satanic overtones and didn't want to acknowledge that the moral spectrum of PCs was as wide as that of everyday people in the real world.

At some point, being the last beacon of light struggling against the encroaching darkness becomes tiresome. You're playing a character with seemingly untold power in the game world who often can't do what he most wants to do with those abilities because of the in-game repercussions, or the assumption that a good guy just wouldn't do that. That's fine if you're in the right mindset, but sometimes a villains game is just the thing players need - you take the training wheels off and see what they can do without a moral straitjacket confining their abilities.

2. Villainous PCs who do nothing but loot, rape, and murder get old fast.

We learned this lesson in our game when the (infamous in some circles) anti-paladin Edgar became too much for his comrades to handle. Edgar, the epitome of Chaotic Evil, started conflict everywhere they went - he mercilessly slaughtered people who insulted him with total disregard for local customs and laws, he made powerful enemies among angelic races for committing unspeakable acts against their celestial brethren, and his master, Osric, double-crossed the party, setting them up for failure as a means of inciting conflict among Osric's own peers.

The other villains, being a more subtle and insidious sort of evil, got tired of it. And once it became clear that Edgar was a liability, they murdered him. And I don't just mean they faced him down and took him out in a fair fight. I mean they waited for him to dispatch his own master, and then launched a calculated strike utilizing every bit of firepower they had at their disposal - including 44 fire mephits simultaneously targeting the anti-paladin with scorching rays to make damn sure the bastard went down and stayed down.

(Of course, Edgar was also a very effective and terrifying villain. My campaign world might well be more interesting with him than without him... and that should definitely worry my players.)

3. Non-standard monster races used as PC races can be troublesome for a GM.

This problem became particularly evident with regard to two particular characters: the devil Al'galon, and the umbral dragon Grigorovax (Edgar's replacement). Creatures with fast healing and high resistance levels are great as opponents in a campaign, because your PCs suddenly find their options limited and have to think outside the box to overcome the challenge. But being on the other side of that equation got frustrating really quickly for me, because if I didn't do enough damage to drop the devil, he would always spring back ready for the next fight in mere minutes (and sometimes not even that long). Similarly, having a dragon PC in the party was a challenge for me as a GM, because now one of my players had control of a creature type that I usually only pulled out as a capstone encounter - a creature that dealt tons of damage with a single breath weapon and could attack up to 6 times a round when locked into melee. I'm thankful for the experience, though, because it taught me a lot about how pulling in non-standard elements changes the power dynamic in an OGL game; simply put, Challenge Rating becomes meaningless when the limits on what players can run are so loosely restricted.

It's also worth mentioning that the character that consistently gave me the most problems in terms of providing sufficient challenges was the one that was a fairly standard build: the evil elf sorcerer, Vid Iza'thir. While Vid did eventually become a lich by the end of the game, he wasn't much more formidable as an undead than he was as a mortal. How does one deal with an opponent that cannot be seen, and uses spell effects that cannot be countered by most virtuous creatures? Many a time my carefully-crafted heroic NPCs found themselves melting into oblivion in the bottom of one of Vid's acid pits, and the player who ran him taught me much about patience, if I learned nothing else.

4. Letting players sculpt the bad guys and the campaign world makes them feel like they're part of the bigger picture.

This point just can't be overstated. By the end of this campaign, I had about four villains added into my homebrew world's canon that will almost certainly return to terrorize heroic PCs in the future. I am looking forward to the delicious day when I face down their next batch of "good" characters with one of the colossal horrors they themselves built. I can't decide which one to use first!

It goes deeper than that, though. I had a lot of vague and undefined things happening in my campaign world that still didn't have explanations or backstories. The best example of this is the necropolitan nation of Shadia, a large area of the world that is dominated by liches, vampires, and necromancers. In heroic campaigns, Shadia didn't need an explanation; it was just there to serve as a foil for the good guys and a source of trouble. No one ever went there, or cared about the country's political structure - hell, I didn't even know who led the damn place beyond a few token NPCs I had conceptualized. But having PCs working and living in Shadia, delving into its machinations, and in one notable instance becoming major power players in the political body of the necropolis all forced me to think about why this country was there. Why hadn't the "good" nations long ago stormed into Shadia and brought it to its knees? What were the goals of its leaders? How did day to day business get conducted, especially when a good third of your population can't walk in daylight without bursting into flames?

My players helped me answer these questions (along with some advice from guys like Andy Miller and Nathan Walter, who gave me some great ideas during a coffee-fueled brainstorming session at It's a Grind). In playing the game, they brought my world to life. They're invested in it - and that makes me more likely to want to come back and see what happens in it during the next campaign.

5. Sometimes the bad guys are also heroes in their own way.

Edgar was (is?) beyond redemption, and the evil dwarf pirate captain Caballo Graybeard (a PC who didn't get any screen time in my previous posts here) is a selfish, blackhearted mook - but the same might not be said of all the villain PCs. The lich Vid Iza'thir is ruthless, to be sure, but compared to the people he dispatched to get to the top of the political heap in Shadia, he's a warm fluffy kitten. Vid is more interested in maintaining the status quo and arranging events to his own benefit than any harebrained Foozle-type plan to slaughter the world. The devil Al'galon might want to enslave your soul for all eternity, but like Vid, he realizes that if the world ends, so too does his ready supply of contractually-bound victims that his next promotion depends on. Grigori was pretty likable for a dragon borne of pure negative energy, and his leadership of the nightwyrms of Shadia has made the nation a more formidable military power and changed the power dynamic among the Overlords that run the country - perhaps for the better, in terms of the greater good of Arinia's common citizens. The nightwyrms are now an autonomous unit, not subject to the whims and vagaries of the former Overlord who once dominated (and whom Vid and Grigori made quick work of in an aerial duel).

There was also a villainous NPC I conceptualized for this game that became very near and dear to my heart by the end of it all: Vid's master (mistress?), the mysterious transgender lich Nezariel. Originally, Nezariel sprang forth from desperation - I needed to introduce a new character who would act as a mentor to the PCs and deliver much-needed exposition. Pressed for time, I hijacked the voice and visual style of Tim Curry's Dr. Frank N. Furter (a character that, I hope, needs no further introduction in these circles). Nezariel was meant to be a gag, a one-note joke that would soon become less important as time went on.

And then something weird happened: Nezariel started growing on me. I started thinking more and more about what this person was like as a mortal, and why she (yes, I began to think of Nezariel as a woman even though she was born a biological male) would help Vid ascend to the status of Overlord. I fell in love with the character, at the risk of opening up myself to many, many jokes, and in doing so I wove a tragic tale of lost love and mourned innocence into my game world. Nezariel's tale, as it turned out, had a happy ending - with Vid's help, she regained her mortality and set out to live out her life with the man she most loved, and in exchange for Vid's assistance, she gave the newly risen lich the knowledge needed to cement his power base as the youngest - but most influential - of the Shadian Overlords.

Running this game didn't just allow me to tell my players a good story - it let them tell one back to me, and they inspired me to plumb my own creativity for greater, more fulfilling characterizations. For that, I am truly grateful. I had a blast.

But damn, it was a lot of hard work. Running this game felt like conducting a statistical cold war on a bi-weekly basis - and as a result, I don't intend to do another villains game any time soon unless my players are running low-level goblins. I guess, in the end, there truly is such a thing as rest for the wicked.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dressing up the Gaming Table, Part 2

Have you given any thought to using maps, miniatures, music and props to enhance gaming sessions? Have you immediately dismissed those thoughts as too time consuming and expensive? In the is series of articles, I'll go over the benefits and pitfalls of introducing visual and mood-enhancing elements, and give you my take on what works and doesn't work for me.

This is the second in a series of articles addressing using game-aids, such as props, maps and miniatures.

 Part the Second: How and why I Dressed up the Table. How and why I didn't Dress up the Table.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dressing up the Gaming Table, Part 1

Have you given any thought to using maps, miniatures, music and props to enhance gaming sessions? Have you immediately dismissed those thoughts as too time consuming and expensive? In the is series of articles, I'll go over the benefits and pitfalls of introducing visual and mood-enhancing elements, and give you my take on what works and doesn't work for me.

This is the first in a series of articles addressing using game-aids, such as props, maps and miniatures.

First, let's talk about... me.

I'm a long-time gamer. I played my first D&D game in the summer of '78, at the tender age of 14. Before that time, I had played historical wargames with my friends, and D&D was a fantastical extension of that hobby. At the time, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were all the rage, and we wanted to slug it out between the elves, dwarves, men and orcs. We were primed for something more than the Civil War, Western Front, or the Battle of the Bulge. In the Summer of '78 my main gaming buddy Mike took a trip to the beach, and came back with the news. He played of another sort of game that might compliment our need to kill orcs - and it was called Dungeons & Dragons. It came in a little white box, but there were beginner versions of the game. We invested in the basic D&D set, the one with the "blue book" and "wax" dice. I bought the one with the Dungeon Geomorphs, and Mike bought the one with "B1, In Search of the Unknown". From there it was a race to buy modules and miniatures and play, play, play. We wargamed from time to time, but D&D was the game in the spotlight.

Fast forward 33 years. My gaming career had dovetailed with a historical reenacting career. When I was playing one, I had sold everything from the other to finance it. Then finally my body told me one day "I'm through with reenacting". To the current time that I restarted roleplaying again, I had played mainly 1st and 2nd Edition D&D, was just starting into playing 3rd Edition, had played Top Secret, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, and some Morrow Project. I dabbled in GURPS, and Gamma World/Metamorphosis Alpha. During that time, I seen what worked, and what didn't. I pondered why, and came up with a few answers. In playing Call of Cthulhu, I found I loved dark atmosphere. I also found I liked mood music and props in most of the few D&D and CoC games I got to play in. I liked to paint miniatures. The only thing was... that I never used  miniatures to any considerable amount. I had at one time, tons of unpainted minis like most gamers, but really lacked the time to paint them all.

So, late in my gaming career, I decided to wipe the slate clean and try again. I wanted to dress up my gaming table and do it right.

Bringing my experience to bear, as best I could, I devised a plan to start using minis, maps, music and props and anything else I could muster a mood. So this article is also a recounting of what I tried and what strategy I've devised to bring all the fun back to the table.

Part the One: Discovering I Have Limits when it comes to the Gaming Table

Friday, July 22, 2011

Complete Campaign - Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 3

After finishing up the first campaign that I’ve intentionally completed, I have contemplated the lessons learned. This was the most character driven and story intensive game I had ever run. In this short series I’ll be sharing a few examples from the Solo Ravenloft campaign. Hopefully you’ll end up inspired to try something different for your next campaign.

Random Awesome!

Since this was very much a sandbox campaign, I wanted the player to feel like he could take his character anywhere in the Ravenloft domains to accomplish his goals. This meant that there were times when he drifted off in a direct I did not expect. Rather than panic, I employed a series of automated and random tools to help me keep the game going. I would record the results from the random generators for later use and to keep things consistant if the player chose to send his character back to those places at a later time. Here I will review the sites that I found so helpful during that game.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Evil PCs 4: Welcome to the Neighborhood

New developments, and some details I may have left out last time:

At the end of the last session of play, Algalon's rival, Don Luis Fernando Cruz Hernandez, was sent to Hell by the tiefling cleric Bellius when he attempted to kidnap the mage Radford Andros from the villains and take credit for their bounty. Shortly thereafter, Bellius himself was summoned to Hell by his lord, the archdevil Belial, and chastised for sending the mortal Hernandez into his realm. Belial had marked Hernandez as a good candidate for corruption by an infernal agent - but Hernandez had already made a pact with the yugoloth king Charon, and since the scoundrel was effectively killed during his journey to the Nine Hells, Belial lost the opportunity to recruit a potentially powerful ally, and had to send Hernandez directly to Charon's domain. Bellius managed to calm his lord's fiery temper with silvered tongue and honeyed words, and was forgiven for his hasty actions... this time, anyway.

Though Bellius was only Below for about an hour to his own reckoning, he had actually been gone for nearly a week - giving the villains time to take Andros back to Numethril and claim their bounty, as well as sell their ghastly collection of humanoid body parts to the strange occult merchant Syon Telba. The elf lord who took Andros into custody foolishly released the mage from the feeblemind spell placed upon him by Vid, hoping to interrogate the mage. Unfortunately, with his mental faculties restored, Andros managed to bark out the word he'd been sputtering since his capture: "Puh-puh-puh... puh-puh... PEPPERCORN!" His word of recall spell whisked him away from the grasp of the Numenil elves, putting the elf lord in very hot water with his superiors, who jailed him for gross negligence leading to the escape of a captured enemy.

The newly anointed imp Algalon, now going by the less formal Al, decided to turn the elf noble's predicament to his advantage. Visiting him in his jail cell, Al promised the elf lord freedom if he'd simply sign a contract promising the imp his soul. The lord agreed, and Al let him out of his cell... and then barked a warning to the guards, who promptly executed the escaped prisoner.

One down, nine to go.

Meanwhile, Edgar and Vid traveled to Syon Telba's curio shop to sell off the body parts Telba had requested - mostly feet. The shop was locked up, and their knock went unanswered, so they went around back to see if they could hear or see anyone inside. Sure enough, they did - an unglamoured Telba, exposed in his true form as a ghoul, enjoying a hearty snack of pickled humanoid feet. A few minutes later, they knocked again and Telba let them in, paying them for their wares. The villains asked Telba if he'd be interested in closing up his shop and working for them instead. Luckily for them, the old ghoul had always dreamed of retiring from his business and taking a position as a bartender in a quaint little country tavern, and accepted their offer to serve as concierge of the new inn.

After settling all of their business in Numethril and purchasing enough foodstuffs and spirits to begin serving customers (as well as hired guards), the villains returned to the burial cairn, where a group of dwarven stoneshapers had already come and gone, using their powerful earth magicks to renovate the cairn to Vid's exacting specifications. They began setting up and stocking the inn, and soon thereafter Bellius returned from Hell. While they were giving the tiefling the grand tour of their new digs, one of their hired guards reported that a large undead army carrying Osric's standard was positioned about a quarter mile south of the inn. The army did not advance; instead, a large hulking figure detached from the regiment and approached the inn, and the walking dead disappeared as suddenly as they arrived. As the dark figure drew closer, the villains realized that it was a walking statue of rough obsidian, nearly ten feet tall and covered in runic script. The golem seemed to defer to Edgar, requesting that the antipaladin escort it to a safe location. They tucked the golem away in the icy caverns far beneath the inn - presumably, this was the artifact which Osric had charged them with guarding.

The villains spent the next three days recruiting undead and other creatures to serve in their new dungeon: wraiths, spectres, chaitrakhan skeletons, a cryohydra, golems of clay, flesh, and ice - plus organizing their waitstaff (including some vampire prostitutes) to accommodate the coming influx of guests. Bellius was hard at work raising undead minions and performing enchantments to unhallow and anchor large portions of the complex. Also, Edgar made contact with a night hag to request some favors - namely a large-scale anti-detection spell to mask the presence of evil in the inn, and three totenmaskes, powerful undead creatures who keep their victims barely alive to feed on their suffering and can adopt their prey's physical form so long as the unfortunate wretches still live. The night hag, Grizelda, granted his request for the anti-detection spell, but said the totenmaskes would come at a great price: she commanded them to kill a great linnorm which lives north of the location of the inn.

At noon on day three, a group of five vikings were spotted on the horizon by Vid's scouts, who reported that the warriors seemed fatigued and were carrying the carcasses of large wild bison. Their leader, a huge human named Vosskgar, had the body of a freshly-killed smilodon slung over his shoulder. The vikings treated peacefully with the "innkeepers", and Vosskgar shared some valuable information with the villains that convinced them to travel east and visit the viking stronghold of Throssvaast. Vosskgar also advised Edgar to give up the foolish quest of slaying the great linnorm, which he referred to by name as Haglslask. The viking warrior explained that Haglslask was an ancient servant of the demon prince Demogorgon and is worshipped by his people as a representation of the inevitability of death. A great two-headed serpent who breathes frost and ice, none have ever managed to best Haglslask, according to Vosskgar - and daring to speak of such an act would be tantamount to heresy among the more superstitious of the humans of Ondur. On the other hand, anyone who could manage to slay Haglslask would be regarded by the Ondurians as a god.

The villains had voiced an idea earlier about the prospect of setting up a distillery to produce their own spirits for the inn and also to create an alternative revenue stream for their operations, so with the information gleaned from their new contact, they struck out to the east to visit the city of Throssvaast. Upon arriving, they ran into Vosskgar, who escorted them to a mead house for a good round of drinking and carousing. They asked him if he would be willing to introduce them to Olvar, the Lord Regent of Throssvaast, and Vosskgar agreed, suggesting they attend a moot of small council with him the following morning.

While the humanoid villains drank and whored, Al the Imp spent his time in the mead house tempting concubines with promises of beauty beyond mortal compare and knowledge of carnal prowess beyond earthly understanding in exchange for their mortal souls, netting himself one more sucker toward his quota. He also noticed an undue amount of attention being paid to his fellow travelers by an older man dressed in the robes of a court officiant; he followed the eavesdropper to the chambers of another, younger man inside the stronghold's main keep. He overheard the conversation, but since he couldn't understand the Ondurians' native tongue, he didn't glean much useful info.

Minutes later, Al reported back to his teammates in the mead hall. Soon thereafter, the young man whom the older man was talking to in the keep came to them with some information and a missive. to deliver a letter to the city of Skaalgaard. He introduced himself as Vradr, and explained that Lord Regent Olvar, in his advancing age and creeping senility, mistakenly felt it necessary to raid Skaalgaard in a holy purge of the hated celestials - but the celestials were no longer there. None dared speak against Olvar for fear of being denounced a traitor and losing their heads, but a group of shadow diplomats had written messages to contacts in Skaalgaard that would alert them to the invading force and give the Skaalgaard troops battle plans that could repel Throssvaast's warriors with minimal bloodshed. Vradr asked them to deliver the letter, contained in a sealed scroll tube, to his contact in Skaalgaard - an innkeeper named Jarrlag. Vradr ordered them not to break the seal, for his messenger would not believe its contents if it were disturbed.

Suspicious of his motives, Vid cast a tongues spell on Al and sent him to follow Vradr. Vradr reported back to the older man, Friedrig, inside the keep, and Al heard the men hatching a different plot: to frame the Lord Regent himself with high treason and have Friedrig take his position. The letter was written in a forgery of Olvar's handwriting and sealed with his wax stamp, stolen by Friedrig after a council meeting.

Al waited for Vradr to leave and appeared to Friedrig in the form of a black cat, telling him that the gods who watched over Throssvaast were pleased with his cunning and skill, and offered him a chance to ensure that he would rule in Olvar's stead by swaying the votes of the other small council members to appoint him Lord Regent. All it would take was his name on the dotted line of an infernal contract... and Friedrig accepted. Al assured him the others would be bribed or coerced before he would be eligible for Olvar's position.

Of course, when Vid and Edgar revealed Friedrig's treachery at the small council moot the following morning (aided by a well-timed zone of truth from Bellius that caused Friedrig to implicate himself), Al was relieved of any responsibility to fulfill his end of the contract. Lord Regent Olvar agreed to allow Edgar to prepare Friedrig for ritual sacrifice to Orcus on the condition that his head be displayed on the battlements to discourage any other ambitious small councilmen from rash actions. As Edgar drew his sword back for the killing blow, Al (once again in cat form, eavesdropping from behind Olvar's iron throne) hopped onto Friedrig's lap and said, "See ya soon."

Spurred on by their new allies, the villains have traveled onward in search of this city of celestials, but they've gotten side tracked a few times meeting their new neighbors. Bellius' sister, the aasimar archer Lucia, ambushed the dastardly quartet with her eladrin henchmen, and before she escaped, she dealt the villains a decent amount of punishment. The two-headed linnorm Haglslask, still pledged to Demogorgon, was sent to express his master's displeasure at their glorification of Orcus within Throssvaast. The villains barely escaped this encounter with their lives without scoring so much as a scratch in the linnorm's scaly hide, and also stumbled upon a cavernous nest of alien, crab-like creatures who drew them in with telepathic lures and disrupted their magic - another close call. They've also made contact with a group of ice trolls who regularly ambush a mountain pass between the Inn and Throssvaast, and after killing several of them, arranged a truce of sorts (and a promise of tribute from the humbled troll warchief).

In the next installment, they'll meet a new friend (another poor soul actually wants to play this game?), glean some info about their subterranean neighbors, and learn why their latest shipment of foodstuffs for the inn hasn't arrived yet!

As an added bonus, here's my stat block of the week - the ice trolls of the Ssuulp tribe, fearsome warriors from Bestiary 2 upgraded with the Mighty template from the Genius Guide to Simple Monster Templates.

Ssuulp Tribe Ice Trolls

CR 9
XP 6,400
CE Large humanoid (cold, giant)
Init +9; Senses darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision; Perception +9

AC 22, touch 18, flat-footed 13 (+4 Dex, +5 dodge, +4 natural, –1 size)
hp 95 (6d8+68); regeneration 5 (acid or fire)
Saves Fort +10, Ref +13, Will +7
Immune cold, mind-affecting, sleep, paralysis
Damage Reduction 2/-
Spell Resistance 16
Weaknesses vulnerable to fire

Speed 60 ft.
Melee battleaxe +12 (2d6+9), bite +7 (1d6+7), claw +7 (1d4+7) or bite +12 (1d6+9), 2 claws +12 (1d4+9)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Special Attacks rend (2 claws, 1d6+11)

Abilities Str 19, Dex 18, Con 16, Int 9, Wis 10, Cha 7
Base Atk +9; CMB +14; CMD 33
Feats Intimidating Prowess, Lightning Reflexes, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Intimidate +12, Perception +14, Survival +9
Languages Giant

Environment cold mountains or underground
Organization solitary or band (3–6)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Genesis and Anatomy of Running an Event - Part 1: The Backgrounder

As a Meetup, Raleigh Tabletop RPGs (RTR) has cleared large 9 events and are looking at more in the future. These have gone from the wildly successful to just enough for a table.

At each I've asked myself, "what made this event successful?" or "why did this event not live up to expectation?". Sometimes I even ask myself "why do I do this?", but that question is only asked when I stress myself out. The good news, is that all these events have been a positive learning experience for me. I think I'm the better GM for it, and I'd like to share why.

I also want to share with anyone looking at doing their own event, the ins and outs, what makes success how I see it, and what makes not-so-success. Also, I'll share what works and what was cast to the wayside.

What do we define as an "event"?
As a Meetup group, RTR is pretty busy. We cater to private games and gathering gamers together socially. In short, we provide places and reasons for gamers to network. Occasionally, RTR goes a bit bigger in order to net more gamers and put an interesting spin on the games we play. These larger gaming gatherings are our "events". We usually set a theme, and everyone who is interested in playing volunteers to host a game and RTR gathers the players. We hope that in the process, we bring more gamers together to sample each others handiwork and gaming skills. A proud moment is when gamers find the games and gamers they like to share a table with.

Why do I do this?
Apart for being one of those questions I ask when I stress, there always has been an answer for it. I've never been one to run big things, although I am a stickler for group cohesion and morale. Although I've been a gamer for a bit over 30 years, I've also enjoyed other hobbies, namely military reenacting. As a reenactor, you can either participate in events that are 1 to 8 hours away, or you can create your own mojo locally. I've seen where a well organized event can energize a reeacting group's desire to do more events, engage its members and bring in new people. I've since wondered the same about a gaming group. Would holding local gaming events help dormant players come out? I thought - "you don't know until you do it!" - which has since become my personal motto.

Less is more
The biggest fact I've learned is that gamers like new and shiny. That's not a bad thing, it's rather good for the game publishing industry. They also like things they can plan to go to and savor the new and shiny. This is where I learned that less is more. When RTR scheduled and hosted its first event, Dark Carnival (which was a World of Darkness themed event) in 2010, it was mildly successful in terms of players who showed. Everyone who showed really enjoyed it, and for its size, was the best rated event that RTR has hosted. There was a spark that made it special, and set the pace for the next event three months later, The Age of New Wonders.

Aside from some minor venue problems, The Age of New Wonders was another hit. This is where I experienced a little bit of hubris. I had the idea of going from quarterly events to bi-monthly. I took in ideas from the membership. Soon, I was backed and stacked with an event every month from July to October. Many people voted on these ideas and I had dreams of larger and larger gatherings. Or so I thought.

The Space Opera event happened in July and wasn't as big as we hoped. It attracted about 20 gamers, whereas the Age of New Wonders attracted 28. I was shocked - everyone liked sci-fi - that I couldn't attract more people. I had giveaways and freebies even! I wrote it off as the fault of the season - summer. The next month was Arabian Nights, swords and sorcery was sure to attract. Again same result, 20 gamers. I was beginning to feel that a fatigue of sorts was setting in with everyone who showed up. September was Talk Like A Pirate Day, and despite the enthuastic response when it was a mere idea in the months past, all we could do is a table on which we played a board game and an RPG. We topped out at 6 people, and was the low point to the event season. CthulhuFest, which we thought would have a great return, was downgraded to a single session with 14 gamers showing up, but I saw something good here. The next event was a bit of a comeback with Zombie Apocalypse with 19 players showing up.

At the end of Zombie Apocalypse, the organizers all were beat. We determined that we were cutting back to quarterly events and there was some suggestions of cutting back even further to twice a year. My dreams of recruiting more members seemed to be an unrealistic dream. I looked back at the year and surmised that things started unraveling when we decided to change horses in midstream and upped the number of events on the calendar. Too much becomes common and stops being shiny. I was killing the golden goose.

When the 2010 season was heading into the home stretch, we had already laid some plans for the 2011 season in the form of Dark Carnival 2011. I had asked Melissa, another organizer to head this event since she was also heading up the World of Darkness Special Interst Group (better known as the WoD SIG), and allow it to become a WoD SIG sponsored event. Melissa had some different ideas about how to work events, and slowly built up interest in Dark Carnival by means of organizational meetings, WoD SIG meets and postings on her blog. Response was good.

The main fear for Dark Carnival was the fact it was a month separated from the Zombie Apocalypse event and that the old spectre of "gamer fatigue" would come up again. At this point, we had to think like true marketers. World of Darkness players make up a sizeable portion of the Meetup, and RSVPs were OK around the beginning of the holidays. Melissa started marketing specifically to the World of Darkness players, letting Meetup cover the general population. RSVPs picked up a bit, but seemed that RSVPs stalled in the final weeks. In the final week or so, with Melissa's permission, I personally appealed to the WoD players to attend. This was a great decision, for it convinced some members who were either new or who were lurking to come in and play. RSVPs picked up and we were able to deliver a quality event that attacted 28 people - 10 more than the previous Dark Carnival. The spark seems to be back.

The slow build worked, so we determined to apply it to the next event, the Game Master's Fair. We're also looking at the summer event by advertising at this event by doing a preview game and advertising it heavily.

Next: The Anatomy of an Event

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Complete Campaign - Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 2

I’m wrapping up the first campaign that I’ve intentionally completed. EVER. I’ve learned a lot from the process and am quite thrilled at the idea of finishing a campaign on purpose with a fairly tidy ending (I hope). I feel that this was one of the most interactive and fun to GM campaigns that I’ve ever run. In this short series I’ll be sharing a few of the lessons that I learned along the way with examples from the Solo Ravenloft campaign. Hopefully you’ll end up inspired to try something different for your next campaign.
Smaller is better! – Focus on the details to make the story stick.

This game was built outward from a very basic setting. The first half of the game took place in Nidala, a domain of dread that isn’t very fleshed out. The second half of the game took place in Kos, a domain of dread created based on the player character’s background. By expanding on small details, the story really took root.

 NPC’s – a few basic backgrounds brought the game to life:

Elena Faithhold, the Dark Lord and ruler of the land was a crazed paladin bent on destroying evil in her land but her obsession lead her to rule her people in a tyrannical manner and kill many innocent people. She worshiped Belenus, the official state religion. She even used a fake dragon scare to keep people in line and to cover for her razing “corrupt” villages. Under Elena’s rule music, alcohol and public promiscuity were all forbidden. A myriad of laws were given out every week in her attempts to curb all evil. This NPC is briefly mentioned in official source materials.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Evil PCs 3: Micromanaging for Dungeon Keepers

Whew. Hiya kids, it's been awhile. Between holidays with family, work deadlines raking me over the coals, and participating in the yearly RPG writing contest whose judges I have yet to convince of my absolute genius, I haven't had much time to devote to the blog. So, let's pick up where we left off, shall we?

In summation: Two evil elves - Vid, a sorcerer, and Algalon, an assassin - are on a mission given to them by the Septane, the nominal leaders of their home city of Numethril, to capture Radford Andros, a human mage who's believed to be a spy for a foreign power and is wanted for questioning. The mage is believed to be heading north through the arctic wastelands of Ondur toward an ancient burial cairn where the barbaric humans of the north laid to rest their warlords and kings centuries ago. They are accompanied by the human antipaladin Edgar, who seeks to slay an ancient silver dragon who long ago provoked the ire of Edgar's master, the skull lord Osric. And then there's the tiefling cleric Bellius, a favored servant of the archdevil Belial, who was charged with clearing a burial cairn (coincidentally, the home of the aforementioned dragon) of its celestial guardians.

So, the heroes blunder their way through the first level of the dungeon, which is a bit too easy for them. After falling prey to a nasty cloudkill trap triggered to go off if anything of non-good alignment enters that particular hallway, they open a grand set of double doors inscribed with holy runes and meet the guardian of the cairn's first level - an astral deva who very nearly hands them their proverbial asses. Before the battle, the deva calls forth an angel of light who peers into the villains' souls, showing them the most horrible thing they ever did and making them see how their lives might have been different if they had made a different choice on that fateful day. The angel of light disappears, and the deva, seeing no repentance in their eyes, does her sworn duty to slay any intruders of evil intent. The villains triumph over the angelic warrior, but only barely, and they are forced to rest for the night in her throne room before continuing onward.

In the night, Vid is awakened by a ghostly figure standing over the head of the antipaladin's bedroll - the spirit of the boy that Edgar killed in the mimic house during the last session. The childlike ghost does his best to disrupt Vid's rest and prevent him from preparing spells. So Vid wakes Bellius up, and the dark cleric uses command undead and tells the boy to leave.

Hmm. Not as effective as I had hoped. But I'm not going to drop this NPC just yet - vengeful spirits never rest easy while their killers still walk, after all.

The next morning, they find a switch that reveals a stairwell hidden beneath the deva's throne, leading down a spiral stairway nearly 80 feet underground. The next segment of the game used a map from an old issue of Dungeon Magazine and was built as a playtest for a new rules system that the Pathfinder RPG will incorporate as an optional feature for spellcasters, allowing you to build your own spells. You can download these for free for a limited time by clicking here. The details of my playtest, a battle with a quartet of constructs, can be read by clicking here.

Oh, and as a bonus for you guys, here's the stat block for my mithril choppers that are mentioned in the playtest writeup.

Warmech, Mithril Chopper CR 7

XP 3,200
N Medium construct
Init +3; Senses darkvision 60', low light vision; Perception +10

AC 25, T 13, FF 22 (+3 Dex, +12 natural)
hp 69 (9d10+20)
Fort +3, Refl +5, Will +4
Damage Reduction 10/-
Immune construct traits, magic

Speed 30'
Melee +13/+8 (1d8+5/19-20) or +11/+6 and +12 (1d8+4 and 1d8+3/19-20)
Special Attacks Vital Strike +13 (2d8+5)

Str 14, Dex 16, Con - , Int 12, Wis 13, Cha 10
Base Atk +9; CMB +11; CMD 24
Feats Exotic Weapon Proficiency (two-bladed sword), Two Weapon Fighting, Vital Strike, Weapon Focus (two-bladed sword), Weapon Finesse (two-bladed sword)
Skills Acrobatics +12, Climb +11, Perception +10
Languages Common, Draconic

Treasure +2 two-bladed sword

After destroying the constructs, the villains advance to the northern area of the map, where a 50' high wall surrounds a great circular arena-like floor. Pillars built into the arena are set at varying heights, and each pillar bears a depiction of a creature. As the sorcerer and cleric begin to investigate the pillars, they are attacked by a pair of large steam elementals from the balcony above.

These monsters are Pathfinder rebuilds of the steam quasi-elementals originally detailed in the 2E Planescape Monstrous Compendium III. Their stats are roughly equivalent to a large water elemental with Resist Fire 10 and the following special abilities.

Conductive (Su): If a steam elemental is dealt lightning damage, any creature that occupies the same space as the elemental takes half the damage dealt by the attack.

Engulf (Su): A steam elemental may occupy the same space as another creature, scalding it with its mere presence. Any creature whose space the elemental enters takes 6d6+6 fire damage (a DC 21 Fortitude save
halves this amount).

Once the elementals are defeated, the party examines the pillars and find that they are all part of an elaborately constructed puzzle. The pillars can be moved, after triggering certain other events in side chambers located off the balcony above them. These are all minor encounters, though one does result in Edgar getting a new mount, thanks to the Crocodile Dundee-like animal handling skills of a new companion they discovered tailing them in the cairn, a halfling ranger named Brigid (played briefly by my wife, Jenny).

With the puzzle solved by adjusting the height of the pillars in the correct sequence, the path to Ostyax's resting place is opened. They descend into the icy cavern below the burial cairn, where the mage Radford Andros, under the cloak of a greater invisibility spell, uses his powers to disrupt their spellcasting, forcing every party member that can cast spells to make concentration checks prior to casting a spell. Vid, himself invisible and using a see invisibility spell, uses his mage hand cantrip along with a Bluff and a Knowledge (local) check to convince Andros that he is an emissary of Andros' masters with a message, telekinetically floating this parchment over to the mage:

"The funniest thing about this parchment is that by the time you're done reading it, it will be far too late to prevent the activation of Sepia Snake Sigil (make a Reflex save)."

Unluckily for Vid, Andros makes his save. Ostyax is soon awakened from his slumber and blasts the party with his breath of ice. Bellius uses a wall of stone to hamper the dragon's movement for a few rounds, giving Edgar and Algalon ample time to wear the dragon's hit points down. Meanwhile, Vid and Brigid corner Andros and the elf sorcerer feebleminds the human mage, reducing him to a gibbering fool who keeps saying, "Puh-puh-puh-puh-puh-puh... Puh-puh-puh..."

Though the elf assassin Algalon is slain in the combat, the noble old dragon Ostyax soon succumbs to their onslaught. The heavenly powers have failed to protect their sleeping servant from evil, and the villains have struck a daring blow against the forces of good.

When Lord Osric arrives, he congratulates Edgar and uses a magic item to raise the dead dragon as an undead thrall, taking the wyrm as his personal mount. He instructs the villains to rebuild and populate the burial cairn with loyal servants - for soon, he will charge them with the care of an artifact that will require protection of the highest caliber.

I have given them a map of the complex and an XP budget of 150,000 for restocking creatures. They can hire elf mercenaries up to CR 7 and undead up to CR 11, though their more exotic requests for undead minions have forced them to bargain with a night hag who does nothing for free. There are plenty of ogres, trolls, and giants in the frozen mountains of Ondur to recruit - they'll just have to be strong-armed into service first.

The villains are spending a considerable portion of their budget and extra gold besides to remodel the top level of the cairn into a lavish inn and send forth bards bribed to spread word of the location to adventurers in sundry locations.

Oh, and Algalon... well, he kind of made a deal with a devil before Bellius could manage to raise him from the dead. He's now an imp, charged with harvesting ten souls to get himself a promotion in the infernal armies.

This game is getting quite interesting, indeed.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Complete Campaign - Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 1

This weekend I will be wrapping up the first campaign that I’ve ever completed. EVER. I’ve learned a lot from the process and am quite thrilled at the idea of finishing a campaign on purpose with a fairly tidy ending (I hope). I feel that this was one of the most interactive and fun to GM campaigns that I’ve ever run. In this short series I’ll be sharing a few of the lessons that I learned along the way with examples from the Solo Ravenloft campaign. Hopefully you’ll end up inspired to try something different for your next campaign.

Communication – Have THE conversation with your players!

In the past I’ve TOLD players what a campaign was going to be about. I’ve given them an idea as to the theme or the nature of the campaign. I’ve told them the location or the setting information. It’s usually a fairly one-way conversation… This is totally wrong I realize. For the Solo campaign that I’m wrapping up, I made sure to ASK the player what he was interested in happening for his game. It was very much a two-way conversation. These are the important questions I’ll make sure to ask each player in the future when I plan on running a campaign:

1) What are the player’s goals?
  • It’s important to know what the player considers fun and what the player actually wants to get out of the game.
  • How relaxed will gameplay be?
  • Is the player looking for a very serious, focused RP session every game or is casual conversation at the game table ok?
For the Solo campaign, the main focus was to have fun. It was a very relaxed game, we got off topic many times but had fun. In some other gaming groups that I’ve been in, off topic conversation is totally taboo. But since we were gaming for 6+ hours at a time and happen to be chatty folks, this was not an issue for this game.