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.

New Release: Talentless Hacks Adventure Starter for Demon Hunters RPG

Hollywood. People go missing all the time, it’s a big place and people don’t tend to announce when they’ve decided to give up the dream and head back home. So when a 3rd rate mystic was apparently possessed live on daytime TV the Brotherhood took notice and your team got the call. Track down the mystic and find out what’s really going on. They’re probably just another run of the mill fraud but if not we need to find the spirits and this group of talentless hacks before whatever they summoned gets loose.

Talentless Hacks is an adventure starter for the Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG by Dead Gentlemen Productions. Inspired by the Demon Hunters Slice of Life bonus episode Feed the Beast this adventure starter provides a framework for DMs to adapt and run an adventure for their home groups.

Within it you will find a mission overview, breakdown of important locations, intel, threats and a collection of NPCs to populate the adventure. With an open ended structure it is up to you and your group to decide how the adventure will unfold

Will the Chapter save the day? Possibly. 

Will they be lauded as heroes? Unlikely.

Will the chaos and destruction that follows them be captured on camera and risk exposing the entire Brotherhood? Almost certainly.

Talentless Hacks is available now from drivethruRPG and itch.io as a Pay What You Want release. Paid purchases, feedback or reviews are greatly appreciated and keep me motivated to produce more material.

Revising the Badness Table

At the start of November I talked about my issues with the Badness Table in Demon Hunters and how, despite it being a central DM mechanic, I consistently underused it. In that post I included some of the new options that I have started adding to the generic table and after a little bit of work I now have that table written up as a one page release. The document isn’t final and I will likely update it in future when I start a new campaign in the new year. This release also includes a test of a new layout, rotating to a more traditional portrait orientation and incorporating a new background. It still needs some tweaks but for a first draft I think it looks good.

Download the alternative badness table.

Con report: Dragonmeet 2019

After attending a number of excellent events earlier this year I knew that my final convention of the year had to be something special. That really meant I had only one option, Dragonmeet this past Saturday (November 30th) in London. As I’m no longer based in the South East I went with the there and back again stupidly long day option, taking a 06:45 train down from Liverpool and then rushing off to catch a 18:07 train home again. Was the 16 hour round trip worth it? Absolutely.

The Convention

The last time I was at Dragonmeet (2015 I think) it had just relocated to its current venue, the Novotel West hotel near Hammersmith. In that time it has grown substantially, with the trade hall now spread over two floors and they have finally (!) replaced the game sign-up process with online booking that limits the sign-up scrum that the convention had become infamous for.

I spent the morning in the trade hall, saying hello to people and browsing the stalls and even conducting an impromptu interview for the Rolistes podcast. After working on the Crystal Heart kickstarter I also finally got the chance to say hello in person to Eran and Aviv from Up to Four Players and I can’t wait to see how that world progresses over the next year. I handed out business cards with free download links to a few people, so hopefully that will help with getting my work seen by a wider audience. (This is something that I find excruciatingly difficult so sorry to anybody that thought I was avoiding a conversation!)

Overall I was really impressed by the range of products on offer and thanks to expanding onto the second floor it never felt too busy (unlike the chaos of Expo). Dragonmeet is built around RPGs and it was good to see that while it has grown there were still dozens of independents mixed in with established small studios and some of the larger publishers such as Modiphius, Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press.

I’ve posted a separate loot post but suffice to say I had no problem in spending more than I’d initially planned to and was happily over budget by half eleven. There were a few further products I did consider picking up – Carbon 2185, which looks really nice but from my perspective is a difficult ask given my apprehension towards 5E derivatives. There was also Broken Shield 2.0, a brand new iteration of an interesting dark future-noir setting. Unfortunately I’d bought the original game many years ago and got burned by the clunky, old-school system so was reluctant to jump straight in. I have, however, downloaded the quick-start so will give that a good look through.

Indie Games on the Hour

After playing in Games on Demand at UK Games Expo back in June I volunteered my services to run games in two slots at indie Games on the Hour (iGOTH), organised (primarily) by Josh Fox from Black Armada. I offered two games – Project Cassandra and Demon Hunters, which are probably the only systems I know well enough to comfortably run in under two hours for strangers.

During my first slot I had three players for Project Cassandra and we played the Ich bin ein Berliner scenario that is included in the minimal playtest packet (which will be receiving an update soon). The players seemed to really enjoy themselves and dived in to the game, with one player liberally spending premonitions to the point that they had run out with half an hour still remaining.

From a playtest perspective this session was extremely valuable. On the positive front it demonstrated that with a proper use of difficulties the switch back to using premonitions to re-roll dice that didn’t already add a success wasn’t game breaking. The players still failed an appropriate number of times and didn’t rely on the same small set of skills. It also reinforced my belief that the game is best with three players – that provides both a wide range of skills while ensuring that they are sufficient gaps to allow for challenges to arise naturally.

The session also picked up on two trends that I’ve spotted previously and that I’d now say form a pattern of potential issues. Those centre around powers and pacing. On the powers front they are generally underused and players tend to save them for big scenes. Not an issue but definitely something to take note of, especially during one shots. The pacing is a bigger issue – after reaching Berlin the first thing the players did was head to the site of the coming assassination attempt. Which is a perfectly logical approach but somewhat breaks the tension. I’ve got some ideas on how to go forward and will incorporate them into the next playtest.

By the time of the second slot the interest in iGOTH had seemingly exploded and all of a sudden we were swamped with players. Thankfully an additional GM was able to step up, ensuring that almost everybody got a game (I think a few late comers may have been unable to). At first count I had 11 people express an interest in Demon Hunters! While I’d have loved to accommodate them all that’s just not feasible and in the end I ran for a table of 6, which included two younger players (aged 10 and 7) and their dad plus 3 other adults who all stepped up to help make it a silly, family friendly game. To say it was chaotic would be an understatement and I found myself making numerous on the fly additions to the Missionary Opposition scenario, including a magically reanimated, vampire rabbit (inspired by a memorable scene from Dorkness Rising). I played fast and loose with the rules, knowing it was necessary to keep the kids interested and I hope that didn’t impact too much on the rest of the table. In the end the day was saved, pets were rescued and Albrecht even got to walk away with a big stick. I’m considering the possibility of simplifying the system as a way to offer it in a dedicated child friendly way without losing the flavour but that’s something for future me to think about.

Closing thoughts

It’s been a few years since I last attended Dragonmeet so it was great to see that in that time it has continued to grow but without sacrificing the welcoming feel it has always had. This isn’t a giant impersonal event like Expo – it still feels like a friendly, small convention despite being perhaps the biggest UK event focused primarily on RPGs. I don’t know the final numbers and didn’t explore the spaces dedicated to organised play or pre-booked games, I would guess in the 2-3000 over the course of the day, but it shows that the hobby is vibrant and alive. It was great to see an improved gender balance and increased visibility of queer creators but there are definitely still gains to be made, especially in drawing in non-white gamers but I also think that is (unfortunately) reflective of the UK RPG scene as a whole.

I’ve already answered the question of whether the excessively long day was worth it, which is a resounding yes. Dragonmeet remains a friendly convention that I will try and attend again next year. As I progress into this little adventure that is publishing I can see it becoming increasingly important for me as an opportunity to catch up with other indie developers. Even if that wasn’t the case the combination of gaming opportunities and chance to interact directly with traders in a relaxed space would make it worth it. In an ideal world I’d be able to make a full day of it rather than rushing off in the early evening but those sort of logistics are an issue for future me, right now I have loot to enjoy.

New Release: The Synth Convergence

Initialising subroutines… decryption protocols active
(cy2.12) CaseHD@AlphaC
Password: *****************************
Identity confirmed… Welcome back runner

Encrypted message incoming
RouteTrace.ise: Interrupt error 2.5 – dumping log
Message begins:

Welcome to the future hackers and runners, mercs and shadows. Welcome to The Synth Convergence from LunarShadow Designs.

It takes time and money to be a professional which means one thing – jobs. Off the book, spec-ops jobs run by deniable resources that work outside the Corporate system that runs the Sprawl and every other one just like it. The Synth Convergence provides teams with a trilogy of new missions built around synthetic lifeforms. Push the limits of technology with independent, autonomous artificial intelligences that require no sleep, no wages and no rights.

In The Tannhauser Investment (also available as free demo from drivethruRPG and itch.io) your team are brought in to negotiate the tricky process of a hostile Corporate takeover – all while evading the awareness of the synth consciousness built into the super-luxury hotel the target is holed up in.

The Infinitive Extraction takes the team to the beating heart of the entertainment districts as they seek to extract Infinitive Cascade, the hottest DJ on the circuits from an exploitative contract. But do your employers want them for their musical talents or the military codebase at the core of their personality matrix?

Finally in The Vanda-Weiss Demolition the past catches up with your operatives as they face off against The Evolved, a radical fringe group dedicated to wiping out synths and returning humanity to the true path before they are toppled by their own creations.

Get in, do the job, get out. It’s never that simple but if it was they wouldn’t have hired professionals like you.

The Synth Convergence is available to purchase now from driveThruRPG or itch.io. The Synth Convergence requires a copy of The Sprawl RPG to play. Purchase it from Ardens Ludere on driveThruRPG. Support the creators – buy the game.

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.

Con Report: BurritoCon4

It feels like it was only yesterday that I was reporting on BurritoCon 3 (was it really all the way back in July?) yet I find myself back from BurritoCon 4, held once again at FanBoy 3 in Manchester. Organised by @OldScouserRPing I had another amazing day of gaming that just highlights what small events can achieve. Games were once again split into two three-hour slots with five tables a piece (though one morning game was unfortunately cancelled due to GM illness) and a host of systems on offer (none of which were D&D!).

For the morning slot I gravitated straight to Goblin Quest, a comedy, semi-narrative game of incompetent Goblins attempting to complete tasks that are beyond their feeble capabilities. It was an utter blast and I’ll be keeping an eye out for a copy of it in the future. Somehow, despite our many deaths (each player has a small contingent of goblins at their disposal) we completed our simple task of putting on a play and even avoided being fireballed by evil Wizards at the end.

The well-seasoned clutch of Yark, N’Gargh and Mesk. None of whom survived their mission.

For the afternoon slot I had volunteered to run a game and keeping with the comedy theme I went with Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. I’ve been working on Talentless Hacks, the latest Slice of Life adventure starter, so this provided an excellent field test of the material.

With only 3 hours I chose to cut a number of the investigative elements, to the extent that I was worried about finishing early but we came in almost exactly on time. The game was great fun and all of the players really got into the characters and setting, culminating with the fight against REDACTED. There were definitely elements that could be improved and I don’t think the PCs were ever in any real danger (it is one of my consistent weaknesses as a GM) so I’ll be upping some of the threats during editing. Overall though the adventure works so it’ll be my priority once The Synth Convergence is released.

One of the nice touches of Fanboy 3 is their approach to supporting GMs, players pay £3 per session while the GM not only gets to run for free but receives £1 store credit per player! I’ve been consuming snippets of Cthulhu inspired material recently so my credit went towards the Mother’s Love hardback for The Cthulhu Hack, an excellent lightweight take on the genre. I don’t tend to run much in the way of prewritten material but flicking through the adventures in the book they grabbed my attention so hopefully I’ll get a chance to run some players through them soon.

While there are no immediate plans for the next BurritoCon I can say for sure that I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one as the event and venue have been excellent each time. My next and final convention attendance of the year will be DragonMeet at the end of November, an event I’ve not been to since moving away from the South East. If you’re going to be there give me a shout.