2019 Progress: Halfway there?

As ever time marches on and all too soon the first six months of the year have passed. Given my hope of this year being the one where I move a host of projects forward I thought it would be worthwhile to do an update on my goals for 2019.

Have dones

  • Written and playtested Ghosts of Iron for the Crystal Heart RPG. I’m in the process of revising the text before I submit it. Should be released to Kickstarter backers later this year.
  • Completed the draft for Trick of the Light, my next Demon Hunters adventure starter inspired by the Slice of Life web series. Currently editing and moving it to layout so should hopefully be released soon (ideally before GenCon).
  • Drafted three missions for The Sprawl and handed them over to @HyveMynd for editing / layout. Aiming for a release later this year.

Ongoing

  • Attending conventions – I made a 1 day trip to UK Games Expo 2019 and will be attending BurritoCon 3 in Manchester later this month. I’m also aiming to attend DragonMeet later in the year, if I do I’ll be running games as part of Games on Demand.
  • Progress on Project Cassandra! I posted up the current characters and a rules summary (which is now itself out of date) and am in the process of putting together a playtest packet for BurritoCon. First public playtest since the disaster of Dragonmeet.
  • I have notes for the remaining two Slice of Life adventures and have decided that the Clean-up Crew scenario will be a Fiasco playset given how well the episode meshes with that system. These will be my next focus after Ghosts of Iron and Trick of the Light.
  • The D&D Immortals campaign continues and has passed the tipping point, with the characters ensnared by Destiny and heading towards some epic showdowns with the previous generation of Immortals.

Will I evers

  • Patreon. With the change in how Patreon were going to charge creators I decided to sign up for one with the thought of actually starting it later in the year. Right now I’m sitting on it for the simple reason that it won’t work until I manage to build some interest in what I produce and the first step in that is to actually produce some material. I haven’t released anything since last year and right now I don’t have a core focus for any Patreon project. I don’t know if there is enough interest in material focusing solely on Demon Hunters while most of my other projects have been standalone. Regardless of whether I ever do use it my first goal has to be building up a catalogue of material I can point to.
  • The Kingsport Tribune one-page Cthulhu idea looks like it is going nowhere, just didn’t come together though it did give me some practice with a newspaper style layout.
  • Rocket Demons of Antiquity is on the backburner for now. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a scenario that will require an ongoing campaign to delve into as opposed to my typical one-shot playtests. Plus I’ve got at least three other adventures inspired by previous campaigns where I already know the story-beats to write up first.
  • DMs Guild material – While I have notes for a few products I’ve yet to make any move or progress towards writing them up. Although I expect they would be far bigger sellers than anything I’ve produced to date I’m fortunate enough to be in the position where that isn’t a priority so I can focus on the material that most interests me.
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My Top 6 Influencial RPGs

This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.

1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.

2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.

Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.

3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.

4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.

5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.

6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.

Rambling: Shifting expectations – From one-shots to campaigns

Until we started our current D&D game my recent gaming had been orientated towards one-shots or, at most, mini-campaigns. It was only following our most recent session, that it struck me how the switch to a campaign hadn’t resulted in a proper reorientation of my mindset.

The One-Shot

By their very nature, one-shot games are constrained by time. This is especially true for convention games which typically need to fit into a four-hour time slot. Typically that will include not only the actual game but picking characters, explaining the system and introducing the scenario. The format also requires the plot to take a specific shape. Scenes need to be concise and limited to only those that are directly relevant. Characters should be clearly defined, often to the point of exaggeration, to ensure that they are both easy to pick up and are able to shine during the adventure. Even if you are running a prep-lite game you need to be on the ball, responsive and focused. Anything else and you risk going over or having to trim down the game.

The Campaign

Campaigns are the polar opposite and I had thought that shifting to one would have led to a pretty instant shift in my preparations and expectations. On the surface it did. The adventures are now spread over multiple sessions, there is more time to socialise and go over rules and with a more relaxed approach to the plot, I’ve even found that sessions can comfortably run short. We typically end up with closer to three hours of gaming than four thanks to the knowledge that we’ll be picking things up again the next week.

Well of course there’s a difference…

Most people that have read the above are probably thinking that I’m pointing out the obvious and you’d be right, I am. In shifting my point of reference though I’ve been reminded how easy it is to overlook the obvious. The structure of a one-shot vs campaign starter vs mid-campaign session are all different. But with the transition from one format to another how often have I actively thought about those different structures?

How often have I paused and reminded myself of those constraints and what they force me to leave out?

The answer to that is not enough. It’s human nature to take shortcuts, which in the case of adventure prep means going with what you have become used to. When we started The Immortals I knew every session would have a followup and started thinking about multi-session arc and plots. Yet on a session to session basis, I maintained too many approaches that are better suited to a one-shot.

Most obvious – that our first few sessions all concluded with a mini-cliffhanger. On one hand that’s great, it can help maintain engagement but on the other hand, I was found myself leaning on the one-shot beat structure session after session. We’d start by resolving the cliffhanger, rest and recover, explore the new situation and then rapidly build to another point of drama. I was forcing the pace of each session to try and ensure it ended on a high because that was what I’d become used to. I did it without thinking, even though I knew I had time to spare. Even though I knew that we could end on a low or with the characters in the middle of something.

All because I had assumed I would automatically switch my habits back to approaches I’d learned when I was running regular campaigns.

Going forward its clear that I need to pause and reflect more often, not just on the big picture but on the fine details. I’m fairly confident that overall I run a good game but I don’t want to just run a good game, I want to run an amazing one. I’ve got a table full of new players and I want them to come out of the campaign wanting more. I want them to love this hobby as much as I do and that’s not going to happen if I just rely on past experience.

Note: Ok, so this post got away from me and just wouldn’t come together the way I wanted it to. Normally I’d work on it a bit more but the more I do the less I feel like it is going to go anywhere. So here it is, just some rambling thoughts that I hope make at least some sense.

A tale of how not to run a con game

Back in July, I sent an email into Happy Jacks RPG podcast (read on Season 22, episode 08) concerning a convention game of pure mediocrity that I had played in a number of years ago. That game opened my eyes to how not to run a con game, so much so that I have a set of rules I try to follow each and every time I am in that position. As I still haven’t gotten around to writing up the full list I thought I would instead share the email that I sent in.

Greetings Jackers,

Craig ( whodo on the forums) from the UK here. After the recent emails about bad con games, I want to share my own pseudo-horror story, which has become my go-to example of how not to run a con game. I say pseudo-horror story only because it can’t really compare to some of the ones you’ve received in the past, the GM didn’t seem like a bad person just a bad GM and not from a lack of experience. Before I dive in some context – During my time at uni, I was a regular attendee of the Student Nationals convention, which brings together university gaming societies from across the country for a weekend of drinking, gaming, chaos and some more drinking. The format is a little unusual, rather than signing up for specific games you sign up for a category and over the weekend play 2 long form games, one per day typically lasting around 6 hours. You also play with the same group on both days but switch GMs, which was the only reason I didn’t just up and leave.

So there we were the Saturday morning of the event. I’d ended up in the sci-fi category, our group had found the room we’d be in for the next two days and we were waiting for our GM to show up. 10 minutes go by, it’s clear he’s running late, which isn’t too unusual given its mostly students. 15 minutes, 20… before he finally arrives carrying a stack of Hero books and character sheets. He sits down, introduces himself… and promptly ignores us for the next 10 minutes as he finishes off the character sheets! Going forward this would form the core of my ‘how to run a con game’ mantra:

Rule 0: Do your fucking prep

I’m going to repeat myself here. Do. Your. Fucking. Prep! I don’t believe in a no-prep game, even if you’re running the most rules light improv game there is then you can prep. Read the rules, know how to set up and explain the game. Know how the central mechanic works! That’s prep. With a game like Hero finishing the character sheets is most definitely prep and not something that should be done at the table unless you’re giving the players a chance to customise characters (which he didn’t).

So we’re 30 minutes or so in before we even get to see the characters. It’s a Traveller-esque space opera setting, there’s an uprising on some of the planets and we’re all on a giant space station somewhere near the edge of the combat zone. The characters are pretty typical for the genre and I go for the one described as an underworld smuggler, thinking I can put a Lando type spin on him.

I look down at the character sheet and find that I have around thirty individual skills. I look at the GM confused. He’s busy going over something with somebody else. I look back at the sheet. I have close to thirty skills and almost all of them are a 1 or a 2. As far as I can tell I am the definition of Jack of all trades, master of none. Already running late I didn’t quibble, I’ve never played Hero before so maybe this is ok? (Seriously, was this OK? To this day I have never worked out whether the character was actually viable in the system).

Characters picked we finally start play. We’re all on the station (yay!) but we don’t know each other (boo!) and then… EXPLOSION! Somebody set us up the bomb! Maybe this is the plot, having to escape a dying space station as it… Nope. The station is ok but we’ve all been arrested as potential suspects. Ok, maybe the plot is escaping and clearing… No again. We’re quickly cleared of suspicion by a generic NPC and then in a surprising only because it’s stupid twist… hired as security for a top-secret mission. We learn from NPC exposition the bomb was intended for a delegate on one side of the uprising who was passing through the station on the way to peace talks. Therefore, as complete outsiders who were almost killed by the explosion, we’re obviously both trustworthy and competent enough to be the new security as the original team are all dead.

What the actual fuck?

Which brings us to:

Rule 1: Unless you have a plot-relevant reason have the PCs already know one another.

Seriously, we’ve all been there. You meet at a tavern, accept a job from a mysterious stranger despite not knowing one another and go on an epic quest only to be stabbed in the back by the douche who is “just playing their alignment.” It’s a cliche that needs to die in a fire. Just have the characters know one another from the outset. Have bonds between them that explain why they trust one another and aren’t waiting for the knife in the back.

I won’t bore you with the actual plot, in part because I zoned out so much of the game that I can barely remember it. Suffice to say it made little sense, there was the inevitable attack by separatists who just happened to comprise half the crew of the ship the delegate (and thus we) were travelling on. Then there was a religious cult and finally, an emergent AI which only one character could actually interact with. My jack of all trades smuggler, well of the 30 odd skills I had I think I ended up using no more than 5 over the course of the session and most of the time that was in a supporting role, hence:

Rule 2: Give each PC opportunities to shine

Another no-brainer here but if there isn’t an opportunity for each character to be in the spotlight then why are they there? A good con game should be filled with opportunities for each character to do their thing and have an impact on the course of the plot. This game didn’t but as the hours wore on we learned that the GM loved the characters and their previous adventures. Their numerous previous adventures. It transpired that each of the characters was lifted directly from his long-term campaign, that had been running for multiple years and that the events of this game were the compressed highlights of that very campaign, which provides an instant and easy…

Rule 3: The con game is not your campaign

I don’t care how cool your campaign was or how amazing it was when character x finally got retribution on big bad y, the con game is not your campaign. Now don’t get me wrong, one can inspire the other but if you, the GM, can’t separate the two and let them take divergent paths then stop and do something original. I, the con player, have no nostalgia for something I wasn’t a part of and won’t appreciate the jumbled up mess of a plot made up of supposedly awesome moments. Go back to rule 0, do your prep and actually plan out a coherent one shot.

Now based upon all that my final rule will come as no surprise:

Rule 4: Pay attention to your players engagement

Seriously, it’s not hard to see if people are actually paying attention. Are they contributing and asking questions? Are they playing on their phone or, as I was for most of this game, building dice towers? I was so unengaged with the adventure that during our lunch break I went out and bought extra dice from the trade hall so I could build more stacks. Should I have tried to re-engage with the GM and his story? Probably, but by that point, I’d checked out and just didn’t give a fuck while the GM was either oblivious or just didn’t care.

So that’s the basis of my do’s and don’ts for con games. I’ve added a few more since then, such as all characters should have female, male, neutral and blank options for names. The few times I attended the Nationals after it was always as a GM and I hope I never ran a game that was that mediocre. So maybe something good did come from that game, just a shame it wasn’t a fun lesson to actually learn.

Fall of the Immortals: Room for Improvement

We’re now four sessions into our D&D campaign Fall of the Immortals and it’s shaping up quite nicely. The PCs have reached level 2, the players are beginning to find their feet and we’re slowly establishing the details of the world in an approach that is somewhere between traditional D&D and the PBTA trappings of Dungeon World. I’m making an active attempt to ask the players to define details without overwhelming them.

There is, however, plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the screen and based on our most recent session one of mine is that I need to improvise less. This seems counter-intuitive in many ways as my progress as a GM over the last few years has been squarely towards improvisation. Going into our last session my concrete notes were little more than

PCs infiltrate noble party looking for the scroll. Upper echelons of gnome society; modron like mechanical creatures used as guards.

However, when it came to running the session I felt that while I was able to introduce scenes I felt like they lacked depth and that the connecting elements were paper thin. I had little sense of how the mansion was designed, of who the host was or of how the PCs might uncover the whereabouts of the scroll. When the PCs chanced upon an interesting location, such as the library where monodrones were loading and unloading books from cages that were slowly rumbling past, I then failed to provide proper context. The PCs decided to follow the cages of books, which led them to a room where dozens of shackled scribes were working away furiously on… something. My mind was blank, I just couldn’t think of a good explanation for them existing beyond trying to explain elements of the previous scene.

Fortunately, the PCs didn’t dig too deep and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players hadn’t picked up on my troubles but even so it is bothering me. The solution is likely that I need to prep more, taking those few sentences of notes and expanding them slightly. For example, going into the last session I knew the PCs were infiltrating the party so a few notes on the mansion would have helped. I knew they were after the scroll so I could have made notes on where it is and what might be protecting it. I’m never going to go the way of full on adventure paths, with every detail described in advance. I have neither the time or the inclination to put that much restricting prep in. But some more prep would have been invaluable without preventing the addition of elements on the fly.

Forward Planning: Sections overviews

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks dividing my time between a couple of projects, including the research for Ghosts of Iron. While I hadn’t originally planned to pick it up just yet this included purchasing Savage Worlds: Adventure Edition and getting up to speed on the changes to the system. This was made possible thanks to an unexpected conflux of events – the book being released in a near final format and the unexpected surprise that I had made enough from sales of my Demon Hunters adventures to purchase the pdf outright. So to everybody that has made a purchase – thank you.

My second focus has been pouring over the One Sheet adventures released by Pinnacle. When writing my Adventure Starters I have found breaking the text down into sections from the start is invaluable. It provides a clear focus and when faced with a limited word count helps me to judge the respective weight to assign to each part of the adventure. So how do One Sheets break down?

First, the obvious – They’re limited to one double-sided sheet. On average that breaks down into ~1500 words of pure text, including heading the many one/two character words such as d6 that are used for character or monster attributes. In the grand scheme of things that is officially Not Much.

From there, adventures tend to break down as follows:

Introduction & background – A quarter to half page setup for the adventure that details what has already happened and why the PCs would become involved.

The plot – A brief walk-through of the plot covering half to three quarters of a page. Due to the inherent limitations of the format this is usually presented in a simplified linear fashion based on the assumed progression of the PCs. Those same limitations often prevent railroading as the job of providing depth and details is left to the GM.

The twist/set piece – More often than not this involves a climatic combat against the major antagonist followed by a brief conclusion. Typically half a page long. For Ghosts of Iron my intention is to slot this into the middle of the adventure, to provide a transition scene between locations and to showcase a mechanic that is often underused (in my opinion).

One major antagonist and an Extra – A half page, condensed entry detailing the major antagonist, their stats. If space allows for it this may also include the stats for an Extra, although many rely on references to associated setting books to save space. Unless the adventure is combat oriented this is usually a quarter to half page in length.

So now that I have an a breakdown of the format how do I proceed? My first step, unusually, is to just ignore all of the above. Instead I concentrate on fleshing out the adventure via bullet points and notes. For this I mostly rely upon a design notebook that I carry in my work bag and I just jot down any and all thoughts that come to mind, connecting and cross-connecting them as the adventure comes together. The process is as much a way to stimulate my mind as it is to produce any actual output.

From there is the first bash at writing, the stage I am currently at. Using my section breakdown as a guide I start to put the adventure together. At this point word count isn’t important. While writing my PhD thesis I learned the hard way that I tend to overthink my writing and try to edit as I go. It’s not a process that works, I go round in circles trying to perfect a single paragraph before I even know what the rest of the page will look like. Part of why I maintain this blog is to work on this, I try and keep my editing on posts here to a minimum. They may not be as polished as I’d like but it forces me to just write and get my thoughts down on paper.

So that’s where I am – Working on the first draft, mostly during my commute to and from work and then slowly pulling it all together.

The Immortals and Ending with the Beginning

Like many gamers when it comes to campaigns I’ve found that the majority tend to end not with a bang but a whimper. They fall apart due to scheduling issues or simply fizzle out when trying to continue on from after epic and satisfying story arc. It’s an issue that has been on my mind with the start of the new D&D campaign – how to end it?

At the moment, two sessions in we have yet to touch on any real plot, the mini-adventure has seen the players investigating an attack on an apparent merchant caravan and trying to rescue the lone survivor. While the adventure is really just aimed as an introduction to the game mechanics I have tried to drop in a few hooks here and there. The caravan was carrying a scroll inscribed with the symbol of one of the Immortals (that burned up before the PCs could retrieve it – yay for natural 1s on investigation attempts) and was being guarded by High Elves, which we established was unusual for the setting.

But where is it going? What is the point of this all? That’s the question that I’ve been wracking my brain with for the last few days. The obvious answer to that is the Fall of the Immortals, the rulers of the Empires in our as yet unnamed setting. We have already established that two of the characters are survivors of a previous rebellion, so it makes sense that they would have an interest in seeing the downfall of the tyrants.

It also fits with a number of standard fantasy tropes. Authoritarian empires? Check. Unknown heroes rising up? Check. Normally I wouldn’t lean so heavily on those tropes, at least not deliberately. However, in prepping for this campaign I’ve been going back to basics. The first of which is that D&D is best when it is tied to those tropes. Indeed from a gaming perspective, many of them originated with D&D (which itself lifted them from the established traditions of the fantasy genre, both Tolkien and its pulpier counterparts). Secondly, I am running a game for a group of mostly new players. Players who haven’t played through those tropes before and who certainly haven’t burned out on them.

So keeping with the basics we already have an ending – The Fall of the Immortals. Thanks to the fact that we established there to be multiple empires we even have our intermediate goals, taking down the first couple of Immortals before building up to the strongest of them. All that’s left to add is a touch of Fate, which I plan to introduce through a little bit of prophecy and a whole lot of dragon.

We are playing Dungeons & Dragons after all.