Reflecting on 2019 – Part 1: Gaming

At the end of 2018 I was in the process of rebuilding after a couple of busy years that included moving away from my regular gaming group in Wycombe and then floundering about for a while failing to find a new, consistent game. After moving to Liverpool I’d started running semi-regular one shots at Sugar & Dice but really, what I wanted was a weekly game.

As 2018 came to close I got that, with The Immortals, a (somewhat) regular D&D game that ran all the way through to November of this year. I chanced into that game, as a colleague at work had picked up the starter set and was planning on running it even though they’d really rather have played. So I volunteered myself as DM, with a group of players that were pretty much brand new to the hobby. As I discussed during the round up D&D will never be my go to system but it was a fun campaign and it was refreshing to play for people that had yet to experience so many of the tropes that I’ve come to take for granted.

While our D&D campaign comprised the bulk of my sessions I was fortunate to be able to fit in a number of one-shots, primarily with the main group and occasionally at Sugar & Dice. Those covered a mix of systems and included playtests of material that I was writing for publication (which I’ll talk about more in Part 2). Including D&D I think I ran six distinct systems this year, which isn’t as high as I’d have liked but not too shabby. There were some systems that I’d planned to run but didn’t get around to, most notably Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition and The Cthulhu Hack so I’ll have to ensure I get around to them in 2020.

Beyond gaming with a regular group 2019 was also the year I got back to conventions. Starting with UK Games Expo in June I then managed to follow-up with a series of one day events, BurritoCon 3 and BurritoCon 4 over in Manchester before rounding the year out with Dragonmeet (and a pile of con loot). While I found Expo to be a little overwhelming it was definitely worth the trip just to see how well the hobby is doing right now. The two BurritoCon events were at the complete other end of the spectrum – small, personal and focused on playing rather than selling. It’s pretty much a given that I’ll attend them again in the future. Then, finally, there was Dragonmeet. After a few years away it felt like returning home, an impressive feat given how much it has grown in those intervening years.

Despite all of that the one thing I didn’t do much this year was play. I’m used to being the GM and it is my preferred role but looking back I’ve played in a total of only three sessions this year and each of those were convention games (Victoriana, Marvel FASERIP and Goblin Quest). I’d like to play more but have struggled to find the right games (>90% of everything available locally is, no surprise, D&D).

All of that re-engagement has carried over here to the blog. Compared to 2018 I’ve written twice as many posts, doubled the number of views and more than doubled the number of visitors. While I can attribute those increases to a small number of specific factors (I did daily posts or RPGaDay while over half of the additional views came from my review of the D&D Monster Cards) it is still encouraging to see posts building some traction. I’m under no illusion about the reach of this blog, in the grand scheme of things my numbers are tiny but growth is growth and I’m going to do my best to continue building on that in 2020.

That desire to maintain, and build on, the momentum of 2019 is my core aim for 2020. With the conclusion of our D&D campaign it will include the start of a new Demon Hunters campaign, interspaced with a mixture of one-shots. I’m also going to do my best to expand my gaming beyond my regular group, not only as a GM and player but locally and nationally given how much I have enjoyed getting back to conventions. All in all I think 2020 should be quite a year.

Closing Thoughts: Wrapping up a D&D campaign

Earlier this month the D&D campaign I’ve been DMing for a group of work colleagues reached its conclusion. We’ve been playing for close to a year and for most of the players it was their first extended foray into the hobby. While it has been a slog at times overall I have enjoyed running my first campaign in any iteration of the “world’s greatest roleplaying game.”

I’m not, however, in any rush to repeat the experience.

The campaign has really reinforced my belief that the d20 system just isn’t for me. There are just too many elements where I feel like the mechanics are working against what I want to bring to the table. Can I work around them, or even accept why they’re there? Sure, but that doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy them.

Monsters & Mayhem

One of my biggest issues is D&Ds core focus – combat. The extent to which 5th edition revolves around it is both admirable and unbelievable. 4th edition may have a tighter combat system due to its design goals (I will forever think they should have released it under a separate line such as ‘D&D Tactics’) but it is still at the core of 5th edition.

So what were my issues? First off the attrition mechanic that is HP and how it scales. Shooting or stabbing somebody and then only knocking off 8 of their 50+ HP is boring and gets repetitive quickly. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that it’s meant to represent wearing down luck or a person’s stamina but honestly if that is the case it needs to be renamed and characters should have a small, separate wound track.

I found HP especially frustrating given the challenge rating of many monsters are increased simply by upping their it but without increasing anything else. Too many creatures have large HP values relative to their damage output. I got around this using two of the more common approaches – first off I halved the HP of pretty much every monster if it was above 20. Secondly for anything that should have been a proper threat they always hit with max damage (for everything else I used the average damage just to speed up combats). I also ported over the concept of minions from 4th edition – hard hitters that went down after 1 or 2 hits regardless of the damage.

My second issue with the combat heavy nature of the game is how much D&D leans on the use of monsters. Yes, they’re iconic and fit the established dungeon crawling that D&D is actually all about but I like to have intelligent NPCs that the players can interact with. Unfortunately the system doesn’t make it easy to create them and there aren’t a massive number of examples in the basic game. Time and time again I found myself reskinning monster stat blocks to be city guards and tavern owners. It helped that we’d established from the start that no race was inherently evil so it wasn’t unusual for the PCs to encounter goblins or orcs that weren’t automatically out to get them.

As with HP I understand why D&D uses monsters so often but honestly I feel like unless you’re playing a West Marches game or just focusing on dungeon crawling that it would benefit shifting to include more individuals and better rules for quickly statting them up. This is one aspect where I suspect the published adventures improve on the game but given I don’t use them I don’t have access to the repertoire of NPCs in their pages.

Epic Storytelling

Despite all my complaints about the system my aim was always to lean in to one key aspect – epic storytelling. By the end of the campaign the PCs had worked their way up to fighting against Fate itself, which in our storyline manifested in the form of a dragon. The characters had been unwillingly chosen to be its immortal heralds in the next age of the world – theirs would be power and control at the expense of progress. They chose to fight against those ties, toppling the previous immortals before turning against Fate in an epic showdown with the dragon Rivqah. They opted to forgo the stagnation of stability in favour of progress and ultimately won the fight to let the world move forward and forge its own path.

What they didn’t succeed in doing was severing the ties to their own souls, rendering them immortal in a world that was moving on. This wasn’t something I’d planned, it just came down to the PCs achieving their main goal without first completing a second objective during the heat of combat. What it does mean is that we have the opportunity to revisit the characters in a later game, so my mind is already considering the possibilities. Maybe a fantasy spin on Deadlands? Or a look at how the world progressed as it entered its modern era? The options are open and I’m looking forward to seeing what the characters have been up to.

But not yet, there’s plenty of other games to play first.

#RPGaDay2019 31st August: ‘Last’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 31: Last

The last game I was in was D&D 5th Edition, a campaign that I’ve been GMing since the start of the year. We’ve entered the final arc and I’ve got to admit that while I have enjoyed it I am looking forward to a change of system. d20 will never be my system of choice, there are just too many parts that I don’t enjoy. Perhaps the biggest is combat. I am really tired of trying to make combat more interesting when a hit rarely does anything more than whittle away HP. I want each and every hit to have a narrative consequence, not ‘you get hit by an arrow for the 5th time this combat, lose 7 HP’. I’ve got workarounds but ultimately the issue is with the system. We’re probably moving on to Demon Hunters next, which utilises narrative conditions. I can’t wait for the change in pace and the opportunity to introduce the group to the wider world of both the setting and role playing in general.

And with that we bring RPGaDay 2019 to a close. It’s been an interesting challenge responding to the daily prompts and I hope that people have appreciated my stream of consciousness approach to it.

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.

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.

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.

Diving into… my first D&D campaign

I’ve been slowly re-engaging with the hobby since moving to Liverpool earlier this year and one of the things I have really had to get over is my apprehension at playing D&D. I’ve blogged about this already but in short – the game is everywhere and if I want to play regularly then it is likely that it will have to be D&D.

So when the opportunity to run a game for a group of almost entirely new players at work came up? I grabbed it. No hesitation, no grumbling about better games. We had our first session at the start of the week, which covered character gen, a little bit of world building and a single introductory scene. While we’re going to stick to a fairly traditional game I’m making use of the fact that they are new to gaming to just slide some indie approaches into it. The main one – shared world building. I presented them with the following outline

The known world is comprised of six great Empires, encircling a vast wasteland that legend tells was once itself a powerful domain. The Empires are ruled by individuals that, collectively, are known as the Immortals. It is a time of relative peace but not prosperity. The Empires are locked in a permanent cold war, to attack one neighbour would leave them open to assault by another. In response the Immortals have turned inwards, isolating themselves in an attempt to maintain absolute control over their citizens. The old ways and religions are regulated, persecuted or driven underground. Only in the wastes can one truly be free. Bands of adventurers and rebels seek out lost riches and safe havens while merchants risk their wares for the chance of greater profit. Legends and prophecy, spoken only in whispers, speak of the Immortals and their origins.

but beyond that I want them to fill in the details. Who are the Immortals, what are the Empires like, what do the rebels seek? I have a couple of ideas for world-changing events, including a few set pieces. I’m also thinking of introducing something akin to the Last Breath move from Dungeon World. That way I can dial up the lethality while expanding on elements of the setting (fictionally the move will be associated with a possible backstory for the Immortals).

I have no idea if the game will take off, or whether it will fall foul of scheduling problems and player drop out, but for now, I am looking forward to it. I’m excited about D&D, I’m excited about building a campaign and getting to introduce some new players to this weird and wonderful hobby.