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.

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Review: D&D Monster Cards 0-5 by Gale Force Nine

One of the things I’m slowly coming to appreciate with D&D is just how central monsters are to the game, more so than for any of the other systems I have run. Combat is a central thematic pillar and the majority of the time the expectation is that those combats will involve Monsters as opposed to intelligent NPCs. That one of the core books is the Monster Manual should be a massive giveaway here. As part of our Fall of the Immortals campaign, I’ve been trying to utilise a wider array of monsters than I am naturally inclined to thanks to my previous GM experience.

It quickly became apparent that keeping a copy of the Basic Rules on my tablet for reference just wasn’t going to cut it. Interesting combats should include a variety of creatures, which meant that I found myself flicking back and forth between pages every combat round to double check stats and abilities. It slowed the game down and was generally just a pain to deal with. Printing off the monster stats in advance helped quite a bit, right up until my players turned left and initiated an encounter I hadn’t planned for. Fortunately, Gale Force Nine produce a product that is ideal for this situation – Monster Cards, with sets covering CR 0-5 and CR 6-16.

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The CR 0-5 set covers 177 monsters, presented as a mix of standard and double sized cards. The front features artwork depicting the monster in question while the reverse covers the game statistics, with the double width cards employed when creatures have a number of special mechanics. Due to the size constraints of the card format there is absolutely no descriptive information, you’ll need to refer to the Monster Manual if you need that.

Overall, the Monster Cards do exactly what I need them to – provide a quick reference for in-game statistics. I’ve taken to clipping them to the top of my GM screen during play, allowing the players to see what keeping the multiple stat blocks right in front of me. The artwork is high quality and primarily lifted from the Monster Manual (from what I can tell). There are a few variant pieces featuring backgrounds, primarily used for cards representing tougher versions of a standard creature. Each card also includes a clear artist credit, an especially nice touch that many products would have omitted. The layout is just as professional and ensures that the details are clear and easily readable despite the condensed nature of the card format. Long term I will probably sleeve the cards to protect them, they only just fit the box and I’ve already seen one card pick up a small amount of damage just through the process of opening the box.

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So what’s not to like? I have one main issue, which is the contents. There are a number of creatures that are present in the Monster Manual/basic rules but absent from this set. The various beast forms that a druid might shift into are prominent examples, so if you were buying the set for that you’re out of luck. Similarly, there are no NPC type cards, no guard or bandit etc. While I can’t complain at the sheer number of cards included these seem like they should have been clear inclusions given how often most groups are likely to use them.

That these cards are missing is particularly frustrating because Gale Force Nine don’t list this fact or include the set contents anywhere on their website. Thanks to some research I knew about this going in but given these are officially licensed cards it would have been reasonable to expect either all of the relevant entries from the Monster Manual or a card listing. This problem doesn’t seem to be limited to this set, a number of comments online suggest that the CR 6-16 set omits a number of the most iconic Legendary creatures that grace the pages of the Monster Manual. Presumably, they’ll be included in a third set in the future but the omission is striking.

So would I recommend the Monster Card CR 0-6 set? For a GM seeking a quick reference tool, the answer is yes so long as you know that you will still need to refer to the Monster Manual for a number of entries. For players? No, this really is a GM orientated resource. Even if it included all of the forms a druid could shift into I still wouldn’t recommend it, there are simply too many cards that would go unused. You’d be better off checking the basic rules or SRD and getting the attributes from there.

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All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.

 

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.

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.

RPGaDay 2018 Round-up

RPGaDay has come has reached its end once again. Having completed it on twitter this year I thought it would be worth collecting my answers together into a single post. So, here they are:

Day 1: The social aspects. I can sit down at a table with strangers and know that there is at least 1 common thread between us that will be the focus for the next few hours. For somebody that finds mixing/socialising difficult having that focus is liberating. Then there’s the social aspect of gaming with friends, again it allows you to be social without the normal pressures. Bad day but don’t want to talk about it? Dive into the game. In a great mood? Dive into the game and make it more enjoyable for all.

Day 2: Honestly I don’t know any more. The Expanse Kickstarter has left me unsure by failing to get me interested in a property that I already enjoy. I wonder when it comes to a new game if it is the sell, whether I need to see some real excitement from the developers

Day 3: Setting and writing are perhaps most important. I need to enjoy picking the game up time and time again outside of the sessions. Rules are second to that, which is odd given my interest in game design. Prime examples: @CorporationRPG has an amazing world and writing I go back to but the rules are a hot mess. Fate Core is the opposite – great system but dry writing meant it wasn’t until Atomic Robo that I really appreciated it.

Day 4: Memorable for all the wrong reasons but during my first Firefly campaign had an annoying, whiny NPC who had been promised berth on the ship by somebody that didn’t own it. The players hated him. I hated him and while he was only present during a single session he made an impact of how not to do it.

Day 5: I’m going to cop out on this one because I’m struggling to think of a good answer. So instead I’ll go with one of the alternate prompts: Most memorable character retirement, which goes to a player in an L5R game I ran last year. It was her first ttRPG, she had no knowledge of the setting and picked the disadvantage that she was a brainwashed Kolat sleeper agent. I explained the likelihood she would die dishonourably.

She went with it.

During the wedding of another PC2 (who was marrying this PC1s true love) there was a murder. The suspect was the Kolat handler, who triggered her programming. She was a shugenja and all hell broke loose before she was ultimately captured. She was ordered to commit jigai to cleanse her family honour. The Scorpion governor gave her a choice – die or fake her death and become a scorpion. She chose the latter, not knowing her loyalty would be enforced by PC3 by addicting her to opioids. In the climactic battle, knowing she was going to die she redirected her final spell to target PC3. He drowned in the middle of the battlefield seconds before she fell to the spectral horde. It was epic and all because a new player went all in with their choices

Day 5: Wait, I want to also answer the original question! Am I allowed an NPC from an AP? If so then most memorable NPC has to be Ueda from @happyjacksrpg first L5R Inukai campaign. The PCs helped him redeem his honour and he spent his life literally repaying their trust.

Day 6: Help to build it. Introduce details at both the high level (NPCs, factions, background) and the low level (scene details). Both encourage buy-in, the first provides depth to the world and potentially grounds the PCs by giving them existing connections. The second gives players buy-in to individual scenes and helps build a consensus mental picture of what is going on. The fantastic @Upto4Players provided a great recent example of the latter with their Crystal Hearts comic:

http://www.uptofourplayers.com/comic/heart-of-stone-page-11/

Finally, they can put some effort into learning the setting background. Some games (such as L5R) have detailed settings and I wish more players would invest just a little time outside of sessions to learn the basics of them.

Day 7: Make it personal and build on day 6. When a player introduces something use it. Put it in the middle of the action and find out what the player will risk to protect it. And if they fail, make the consequences reflect its importance.

Day 8: Make it accessible and diverse. Twitch and APs are a great tool for this and we’re already seeing a boom thanks to it. Now we need to build on the momentum and promote more shows with diverse casts to really show that gaming is for everybody.

Day 9: I don’t know why but anytime a game hits me with the feels it surprises me. It’s not like I don’t expect it to happen but the ability of games to unexpectedly sneak past emotional barriers always gets me and I love that they can do that. Even though I’ve not had a chance to play as many of them as I’d like I love the fact that there are now a broad range of games where that’s the intention, that aim towards that intense emotional experience.

Day 10: I’d like to say that it has made me more confident and outgoing but I’m not sure that’s the case. It has, however, helped me find who I am and provided a constant grounding when times have been tough. I wouldn’t be who I am now without it.

Day 11: Blade Terrell from an early BESM 2e game. Carried a final fantasy type oversized sword but refused to use it unless he felt his opponent was enough of a challenge to be worthy of him drawing it.

Day 12: Easy answer, Doyl my @DG_DemonHunters caffeinomancer who also happens to be my favourite character to play.

Day 13: I was really stat and gear focused when I started with RPGs, a carryover from my time as a wargamer (seriously, 40K 2e allowed each space marine in each squad to have a unique loadout, a bookkeeping nightmare). I slowly realised it wasn’t the stats that I enjoy, it’s the descriptors and options that the gear opened up in the narrative. It’s why I’m a big fan now of descriptive tags as opposed to 10’s of pistols with negibly different range/damage/cost combos

Day 14: I made the mistake of describing offhand an interesting location to a group of @DG_DemonHunters players finishing with ‘and it’s off-limits for reasons you don’t know’ thinking that would be it and we could start the actual adventure. Of course, the players had other ideas and went to explore. I literally screwed up my existing notes, threw them away and called a beer break 5 minutes into the session so I could quickly rejig. I was upfront with them, they had completely thrown me off. Thus we started my first entirely improvised adventure. It was amazing and later ended with a player led near-TPK as the paranoid PC sniper attacked the newly turned PC vampire. Under attack, she gave in to her urges and turned 2 PCs before we faded out.

Day 15: Difficult question. Best example would be a playtest of Project Cassandra @Dragonmeet – I received a lot of critical but valid feedback that at the time was difficult to hear but extremely valuable and caused me to go back and redo the entire skills system.

Day 16: My next scheduled game is a #Firefly one shot using my Niska’s Race scenario. I’m looking to promote more non-D&D games where I play (@sugaranddice in Liverpool) starting with some well-known franchises before I broaden out into smaller indie games.

Day 17: This is easily having my original Demon Hunters adventure Channel Surfing used as the demo scenario at #GenCon this year. It’s available as a PWYW download from here:

Channel Surfing

Day 18: I actually wrote a whole mini-series of blog posts about inspirational artwork which are at: https://lunarshadowrpg.wordpress.com/category/inspirational-artwork-2/ … but in typical fashion haven’t actually ever used any for the basis of a campaign.

Day 19: Nothing that comes to mind. I’m not a big music person and really don’t enjoy music at the table. One of my pet peeves is when GMs bring portable speakers to con games and conveniently forget they’re sharing the space with other tables.

Day 20: Complications on success, such as in Cortex when you roll a 1. Really like the ‘yes and…’ element and way that it can add an unexpected twist, especially when you get the players to narrate it.

Day 21: I’m going to go with something I’ve yet to actually try out – Resource dice from The Black Hack (and spin-offs such as @cthulhuhack). An elegant and simple way of dealing with limited resources that doesn’t require too much bookkeeping.

Day 22: Non-dice system eh? Hell 4 Leather, a great pick up narrative game of supernatural revenge by Prince of Darkness games. The tarot system provides great flavour and its just so much fun to watch characters get hunted down scene by scene. In terms of a non-dice mechanic then the pathways and relationship map of Smallville, such a great way to set up the relationships not only between characters but also the environment by highlighting places of significance from the outset.

Day 23: How long do you have? Seriously, my play again list is almost as long as my yet to play list but to pick just a few: Smallville, Dresden Files, Torg, Demon Hunters, L5R

Day 24: Again I could provide you with a long list of games here, especially given that here in #Liverpool #DnD just seems to swamp everything else. I’d also love to say Project Cassandra but given that’s still not out (one day!) that feels like a cheat.

Recommendation 1 – Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors by @deadgentlemen and @boymonster. An amazing game, with a great setting and my favourite implementation of Fate like rules (I’d place it as somewhere between Fate and Cortex)

Demon Hunters

Recommendation 2 – Remember Tomorrow by @gregorhutton / BoxNinja – A lightweight cyberpunk game focused on the needs and wants of the characters and their desire to escape the bonds that define their lives

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Recommendation 3 – Another @boymonster game, Smallville RPG. The Drama iteration of Cortex Plus didn’t get the recognition that I feel it deserved and I’d love to see some non-supers uses of it, its perfect for hospital dramas or over the top soap opera.

Day 25: Part of me want to hates that this is my answer but #Dnd 5e. My gaming has been rather sparse over the last year and it’s only through the fact that D&D is having such a surge in popularity that I’ve been able to game at all.

Day 26: Is a regular non #DnD game aiming too low? Because I’d be happy with that. Aiming higher? Publish Project Cassandra and more Demon Hunters material plus attend some conventions.

Day 27: There’s only one AP I regularly listen to: @happyjacksrpg though I limit myself to 1 game at a time (currently the #L5R Inukai Saga). Seriously don’t know how they manage to fit so many games in! #rpg

Day 28: This is another question where I could reel off a long list so I’m going to cheat a little by saying the members of GUGS during my time there.

Day 29: Again too long a list, the vast majority of my close friends since finishing school I’ve met through gaming of one sort or another. Hell, my twitter list is almost exclusively made up of gaming people which is probably why I post here far more than on FB. I flew to the other side of the world to attend @StrategiconRPG in 2015 with people I’d only ever interacted with online. Absolutely amazing experience, forget GenCon, that was the best 4 days in gaming for me and I’d do it again if I could afford to. And when I got married earlier this year many of the attendees were friends I’ve made through gaming, including my best man @emzyesque who I’d have never met without this crazy hobby of adults playing make-believe.

Day 30: I mostly GM so in terms of NPCs – that they’re often the weakest part of my games in terms of characterisation. Something I’ve been working on since the start. In terms of PCs – Often my characters are very reliant upon the mood of the table around me. For example Doyl, my DH caffeinomancer, really needs an upbeat group for me to play him as the painfully cheerful character he is meant to be.

Day 31: Why do I participate? Like podcasts it keeps me engaged with the hobby on a day to day basis, which is important to me given how much my actual gaming time has varied over the last few years.

Engaging from the start…

I ran my first session of D&D 5e this week and despite my issues with the d20 system in general I think my response on twitter summed up the experience:

Why did it feel so good to get back to the role of GM? Partially because I have always preferred it to being a player. I like the role of setting up scenes and watching them play out. I like having to gauge the impact of PC actions on the bigger picture. Most of all I like seeing the response of players as they realise what is going on or come up with a solution I couldn’t have foreseen (as the Happyjacks hosts are fond of saying the GM should create problems, not solutions).

The other reason it felt so good was that I went in with a plan to engage the players and I feel like it worked. I was GMing in what is best described as a community campaign akin to the Adventurers League. There’s a pool of players and GMs but each session will see a different combination of them come together. The big difference though is that there are no parallel sessions of the same adventure. Every session is a unique and self-contained standalone adventure set within the wider campaign world. The starting point for any adventure is the players, they state what their character is investigating or up to and then put a group together.

It’s not the easiest way of doing things. Individual sessions can be a little disjointed with only loose tie-ins to those that came before. For this, my first session, I had to prep an adventure based on brief summaries from one player and the previous GM. Not the easiest of asks, even for an experienced GM. It also had to engage the players in such a way that they would want to follow up on it, to generate enough interest in the events that it could become a plot in its own right.

This meant having a plan – introducing a new faction that could make an immediate impact and that had the potential for being a long-term threat. So in came a heretical cult within the ranks of Lathander that place particular importance on the divide between day and night, for the sun can only rise if it has first set. To establish their importance I put the party in position to witness (and ultimately disrupt) a ritual that had taken place hundreds of years before. It explained why nobody had ever heard of the cult and presented a clear threat to the established status quo in the present.

For me, as the GM, it also presented a way to engage long term with the wider setting as I’ll be able to build up the details of the threat over multiple sessions if and when the players engage with it. Given one of them is already planning a follow-up I’d count it as a success.

Not ranting about D&D

I’d been planning to make this a rant about D&D, about how frustrated I am with it and the fact I’m struggling to find a group playing something else while D&D games fill within minutes of being posted.

But then on the bus this morning I started to think should I really be ranting about this? My answer was no. Does it annoy me that a game I’m not overly fond of is popular? Yes, immensely but right now it’s popularity is part of a resurgence of the hobby I love. The combination of D&D 5e and actual play streams have raised the visibility of tabletop games to a level I honestly didn’t think we’d ever see. I still don’t know if I would call RPGs mainstream in the way that board games might now be but certainly, the level of awareness is reaching that level. I didn’t roll my first skill checks until the mid-2000’s, so I never directly experienced the stigma that was often associated with RPGs during prior to that but as a minis gamer during the 90’s, I knew what it was like. I knew what it was like to have the nerdy hobby, to be labelled as a gamer at an age when I wasn’t confident enough to truly embrace it.

So no, I decided I’m not going to rant about D&D today. It will never be my preferred system, I find the rules clunky and I’ve had one too many negative experiences with gamers that propagate the worst stereotypes of the hobby. But I’m not going to bash the people that have joined the hobby because of it, that enjoy it and flock to it. If it’s the only gaming that’s available then I’m going to damn well step forward and give it a try. I’m not saying I’ll stick with a game or group that I don’t enjoy but I’m tired of holding myself back just because it isn’t exactly what I want.

And who knows, maybe I can introduce a few more people to the joys of other systems while I’m at it. Nothing says anybody has to just play D&D…