Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Cursed Man

I’ve been walking through my old stories and D&D memories lately. In keeping with that I thought I’d post a story about an old friend’s character.
Jeff was part of the group I ran through the Pools of Radiance. It was notable as the first large scale story I had run. When rolling our characters we used a book full of random background charts that helped you give your characters a history. The charts gave you things like raised on a farm, at sea, or in a thieves den. You could learn about forgotten fortunes, lost magic, and overthrown kingdoms. In Jeff’s case his character was the son of Clangeddin Silverbeard, the dwarven god of war. As a result of this Paden Deckhandler had a strength of 20 in a system where 18(100) was the maximum a player character could have.
Paden carried a wrecking ball sized flail, wore heavy plate armor, and tended to carry the majority of the party’s treasure because we used the old encumbrance rules. They help clear the town of New Phlan. The town had once been a thriving metropolis and was now overrun by hordes of evil. The group was one of a band of mercenaries who answered the call to clear the old sections of the town in exchange for some amount of money and any treasure they found.
The players formed a party, entered the city, and started taking jobs to clear the area in and around New Phlan. This included a graveyard north of the city. A graveyard that housed an immense ziggurat. The party entered the undead filled area and battled their way to the top of the ziggurat, destroyed the necromancer in his throne room, and gathered his treasure. One of the many things they discovered was a magic ring.
Paden took the ring and after identifying it as a ring of strength he put it on. His strength jumped by four points to a massive, world shattering 24. He was now on par with giants, dragons, smaller titans, and lesser gods.  The group took their just rewards and headed through the graveyard and back to the city proper.
Unfortunately, there were two things the group had not accounted for. First, they had not cleared the graveyard and there were still a few pockets of undead roaming the area. The second, was that the ring was cursed. They discovered these two things in rapid succession.
A band of patrolling skeletons had attacked the group. The skeletons were a minor threat. The party had handled groups twice their size many times and felt that this would be no different. Paden, excited to try his new strength, prepared for battle. He drew his mace, told the rest of the group to stay back and let him handle it, swung the mace above his head to twirl it in a show of bravado, and fell over backwards. He was now pinned to the ground by his armor, weapons, and the half ton of treasure he carried in his backpack, several sacks, and a small chest strapped to the top.
The ring was one of weakness not strength. It worked like this. It boosted the wearer’s strength artificially while quietly sapping one point every thirty minutes until the wearer was reduced to a strength of 1. They had camped in the necromancer’s throne room to wait for healing and spells. Long enough for the full effect of the ring. However, in a move that was purely diabolical, the ring only reveals its true nature when the wearer is under duress. Like entering combat.
The group’s main form of damage and protection was now pinned to the ground. However, as I said, the skeletons weren’t much of a threat and the rest of the party was easily able to dispatch the beasts. Afterwards, they removed Paden from his armor and tried to figure out what had happened. It didn’t take long for the wizard in the group to determine that the ring was cursed. To remove it would require one of two possible methods. They would need to go back to New Phlan and have remove curse cast upon it. However, they’d have to leave behind most of their treasure since no one else could possibly carry it.
Then there was always the other way.
Paden burrowed a dagger from the king of thieves, (that background book had some intense swings), took a lit torch, and walked into the graveyard alone. He walked away from the path in a graveyard that was eternally shrouded with thick fog. A fog that blocked the light of his torch. He found a quiet area near a tomb. He looked for a grave marker that denoted a holy man. He took a moment to pray to his father. It was a simple thought, a quiet moment between father and son. There was no response save a warm breeze amidst a cold night. Paden then rested the hand with the ring on it atop the tombstone, used the dagger to remove his finger, and the torch to cauterize the wound to stop the bleeding.
Then he was attacked by the patch of skeletons he’d walked into the middle of.
Because of the fog it took the group a couple of rounds to find him, despite his cries for help. It also attracted the last two groups of monsters in the graveyard, which included an undead Minotaur. Wearing no armor, wielding nothing but a dagger, and reduced to a strength that included massive penalties to hit and damage, Paden held off death until the rest of the party arrived.
The other thing I remember about this night, the one thing not written in my notes, is how Jeff reacted to the events. He smiled. Jeff had been happy the entire time this happened. He was having fun.
I’ve played with a lot of people over the years. Through home groups, local clubs, and conventions. I’ve played with all manner of players. There are many who would not have taken the events of the evening as well as Jeff did.
I like playing with Jeff. It was always fun to sit at the table where Jeff played. He loved getting into character. From the solemn moment spent praying to his father to playing an actor pretending to be a paladin in cardboard armor at a convention where he stood on his chair and pantomimed trying to kill a fly with his rapier for a little girl’s frog. Jeff is always a trip.
I don’t expect everyone to play like Jeff did. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever played with anyone like Jeff. I’ve had role-players at my table, I’ve had roll-players at my table, but mostly I’ve had a happy medium. No one has ever played their character as hard as Jeff did.
I think it’s why I appreciate players who really try to play their character. It reminds me of the early days and the lunatic who fell over backward and got pinned to the ground in his own armor and was happy about it.
In recent times a conversation comes up from time to time about playing with the folks who stream games, usually Critical Role. I’ve never wanted to play with them. I know I can’t keep up with what they do. However, I’d love to watch Jeff take a crack at it. I think he’d hold his own in that group. It’s probably why I enjoy those shows so much.

Monday, May 20, 2019

What’s Old is New

I watched the D&D Descent live stream that happened this weekend. While I have no doubt I’ll talk about what I saw and what is coming at a later point. Right now I want to talk about how it got me thinking about what came before. I’ll explain in a bit, but first I want to give a little context.
Let me tell you about Thayrel. He is an angel. Once a mighty warrior. He led armies against the forces of evil and chaos. He battled demon armies and dark gods. In one particular battle, fought on the edge of creation, he sacrificed everything to save us all. In one move, he lost his wings, his leg, and his eyes.
Before the war, he had been an artist. He painted sunsets for mortals to see. He chose vibrant colors and washed them across the skies. He gave that up to a sword stroke from a long dead deity that no one remembers anymore. With his eyes gone he’d lost his first love, color.
He was retired. Given his reward of choice. He asked for a little place to call his own. A small shop where he might find people to feed, strangers to make friends, and a world he might bring a small amount of joy to. He was given a shop in Sigil, the city of doors. He sold coffee and baked goods. He smiled at every customer and welcomed them in to his space. He was loved.
And until recently, I had completely forgotten he existed.
Recently, I talked about an old villain I created a long time ago for Planescape. In that piece I talked about how I found a treasure trove of old notes and ideas. It got me looking over older characters that I used as merchants, enemies, quest givers, victims, folks in need of rescue, and just people they came across on a daily basis.
All of these notes were in an old box of D&D things that I packed away when I moved two or three times ago. They never got unpacked for some reason. Probably shelf space and laziness.
Planescape existed in this place between realms where anything and everywhere were connected by portals and gates. This allowed me to use creatures I’ve never used before. Not just as monsters but also just people they knew. One of my players had a landlord from one of the lower planes. This was a unique world to exist and play in. It let us do so many new things.
I’ve often wanted to go back to Planescape to revisit those characters and ideas but there was never a time for it. I never had a setting that felt appropriate.
Now, Avernus is coming to us. We’re going to see one of the Hells. A place of war, chaos, and grim deals. A place filled with Devils, demons, and warlords.
I can bring back Grishnak the Unkillable, Destroyer of Worlds, a Kobold Barbarian with a quest for a warband. I can give him a crew of lunatics and some war machines. Let them run across the planes of Avernus in search of soul coins and power. I can dredge up Thayral. There’s a caravan that travels around Avernus that offers safeish harbor. I feel an Angelic baker might fit in there.
These wonderful friends I haven’t seen in so long can come back now. Every merchant, villain, quest giver, magic item, organization, and hapless side character can come back. Even the ones I had forgotten.
The long point of this story is this. If you’re a new DM and are building worlds and characters; moving them to and fro. If you’ve created a setting, campaign, or just a one shot adventure. Try and save your notes. I never expected Grishnak to become a thing, and yet he is fun to play. Thayral started as a faceless coffee shop owner and baker before I added the rest of the story when the players decided they liked the bakery and asked questions of the smiling blind man behind the counter. You never know who will be a grand thing. Who you will need years later.
When we stopped playing in Planescape I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to go back. I still may never get that chance. However, because I kept those notes. Because I got so lucky and found them at just the right time. I may get to use them again.
Keep your notes. Hoard them like a dragon’s treasure. Because you never know when the dwarves will open the gates and let you fly again.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Accidental Antagonist

The first recurring villain I created for my D&D group was an accident. I had set an end fight for the first adventure of a new campaign. The monster at the end went from a one off combat to a continuous thorn in their side. It all happened because of a failed saving throw. That was how my villain’s story began.
We had decided to adventure in Planescape. The city of Sigil was a new setting and we were hot off of flying around Spell Jammer and wanted to try a more on the ground setting. Sigil was our first city campaign. The adventures were all going to start inside the city limits but would be able to branch out into where ever we needed them to. This was mostly based on the unique quality of Sigil that made it the City of Doors.
Since we’d never played a city campaign before I had decided to start everyone with a slight bit of familiarity. I sent them into the closest thing I could come to a dungeon; the sewers.
They were chasing a couple of kobold thieves who had run off with a small piece of the group’s property. They followed them into the sewer system for Sigil and trailed the thieves back to their warren. It was fairly standard adventure from there. They moved from section to section looking for traps and killing kobolds. The enemies were mostly standard kobold fighters with a couple of shamans. I think there were a couple of pet attack rats thrown in for good measure.
As they neared the end they began to hear whispers of Grishnak. Some of the kobolds mentioned him and what the terrible violence he would wreak against the players. I used wreak a lot back then; less so now, it sounded fantasy to me.
The group began to wonder what sort of monster Grishnak was. A goblin or possibly an orc. He couldn’t be an ogre. They were only level one. I wouldn’t throw an ogre at a first level party.
They entered the final room. A large area decorated with furs and stolen, broken, and discarded furniture. It was built across a large chamber where the wash from the sewers gathered into a rushing torrent. The floor was the metal grating over the rapids of filth that raced towards a large waterfall into the abysmal depths below.
Standing in the center of the area was Grishnak the Unkillable, Destroyer of Worlds; a level two kobold barbarian. He wore slightly too large studded leather armor that had clearly been made for someone larger. A scar down one side of his face hinted at previous combat. In his claws he carried a battle ax that glowed with an inner light.
We had come across the rules for giving monsters class levels and I decided to give Grishnak two levels of barbarian. I was even playing around with voices for some of my characters. In this instance I went with high pitched and a bit squeaky. Think Invader Zim.
I remember creating the description to fit the party. One of the members of the group was a Halfling and the armor would have fit him. Glowing with an inner light was our group’s cue that the weapon was enchanted, in this case a +1. It would have been the first piece of magic treasure for the group aside from a couple of potions.
I liked the fight because I’d given Grishnak an ability that let him shove people around if he hit for enough damage. I thought it would be fun to knock a couple of PC’s off the platform into the water below. I’d come up with some rules for what would happen. They got a save to grab the edge of the platform as they fell. If they hit the water there was enough space between them and the falls to make a swim check. They could either hold their position or if they rolled well enough get to one of the ladders on either side of the water. I also made allowances for another party member to throw them a rope and help them.
As is often the case for any Dungeon Master, I didn’t account for one thing. One of my players also had knockback on his character.
The fight started pretty well. The players dwarf fighter got hit and went off the edge. He made his save and was able to grab the ledge and start pulling himself back up. Grishnak got in a couple of more good hits. He focused the healer who was quickly in a bad way. The fighter made his climb check with a little help from the mage and was back in the fight.
The dwarf ran forward and struck Grishnak with his flail and launched him backwards towards the edge of the walkway. Grishnak failed his save and went over the edge. The group fired arrows and spells at him to get him while he was in the water. They mostly missed. Then Grishnak had a chance to save himself with a swim check. It wasn’t even a particularly difficult check. Most likely he’d survive. He had a good strength and could make the swim to shore roll fairly easily. Even if he didn’t hit that it would be really hard for him to fail the stay in place roll. I rolled a two. Grishnak, his armor, and magic axe sailed over the falls and he was gone.
This should have ended the epic story of Grishnak the Unkillable, Destroyer of Worlds. Except, I ran a Christmas adventure. We were approaching the holiday and I wanted to run something fun and a little silly. The group was around level five and I wanted to give them some fun stuff to deal with.
I decided to have Santa Claus hire the group through an intermediary. They were to go liberate a small town from a local lord who had gone mad with power and taxes. Using the power of Sigil I sent them to a small more traditional fantasy setting. To defeat the lord they needed to infiltrate his keep. There was a small side entrance that wasn’t as sturdy as the main way into the keep. The group decided to use this. I had them encounter some traps. Fight against a blind swordsman with a sword that had a permanent darkness spell cast on the blade so when it was drawn everything in sixty feet was cloaked in shadows.
Just before reaching the lord they faced Grishnak. I’d leveled him up a bit to match the party and gave him some better equipment, a lot more health, and a couple of minions. These included a kobold shaman.
The fight went well. The group waded in and started hacking away at Grishnak’s war band. The shaman cast a couple of buffs on Grishnak making him stronger and ramping his armor class. Grishnak spent one round taunting the group for what they had done to him. Then, with a bellow of rage, Grishnak got stuck in and nearly one shot the warrior with a critical hit.
The priest immediately responded with by fearing Grishnak and running him out of the room. The spell forced Grishnak to move as fast as he could directly away from the caster. This sent him sprinting deeper into the dungeon. Past the lord and into the treasure room.
At this point Grishnak made a partial save and stopped moving. He was still feared but unable to move. This condition lasted until the group arrived and began fighting the lord and his men. It faded as the group was finishing off the room.
I decided that Grishnak would see this and opt for the better part of valor. He grabbed what he could carry, a sack of gold and a girdle of giant strength. With full hands Grishnak ducked out through an emergency secret door into another part of the keep. He then bailed on the entire job and left the castle through the main gate while the players were mopping up.
Grishnak would return a couple of more times. He worked for a mage, a lich, and mob boss. Every time through a failed save or moment of opportunity he would end up ducking out the back through a treasure room with sacks of gold and a magic item or two. He was always wearing the items he’d stolen from the previous adventures. Taunting the group with their past failures and escaping once again.
I’d love to tell you how Grishnak’s story ended. Unfortunately, like most campaigns, our Planescape journey fizzled and died. Lack of time and new and exciting interest in other things took hold. Grishnak is still out there wreaking havoc.
I used him one other time. He was an opponent in an X-Crawl I wrote for my friends. They battled him in DJ Drexel’s Dayton Crawl. Unfortunately, none of the players were the same so there was no recognition of who he was. I will use him again. If we venture into D&D in the near future Grishnak will return in some form. Perhaps he finally got that war band he always dreamed of and is now ravaging the northern lands. He may even have conquered a small barony or fiefdom.
I hadn’t meant to create Grishnak. He was essentially an accident of dice and circumstance. I’ve created other villains who were specifically designed to challenge the party and force them to suffer. To be thrown at them again and again. Sometimes there was a level of success and sometimes not. However the rest performed, Grishnak was my first. I’ll not say best, but then he’s the only one they never killed.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Hero Deaths

I like the player characters. I’m invested in their story. I want them to win, to succeed, and to defeat the villains. Because of this, I’m one of those DM’s who doesn’t like to kill his plyer’s characters.
That said, I’m willing to do it.
It’s just I like to give them a heroic end. I want them to have a glorious death, a moment in the sun, and a story worth the telling. I want them to feel like the enemy earned that characters death or at the least paid for it.
Because of this, I’m torn by one of the mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons; Death Saves. For those of you unfamiliar with this bit of game play. When a hero is reduced to zero or fewer hit points they fall unconscious and begin making Death Saves on their turn. They simply need to roll a ten or higher on a twenty sided dice. As long as they accomplish this they will be continue to be one of the living. However, if they fail this test three times then they die and will need to consider rolling a new character or finding a way for the party to bring them back through magic.
I understand this in theory. It gives the players a buffer so their characters don’t just die but also keeps the fear of death very real. It gives the rest of the party at least three rounds to do something to save their friend. They can heal them, bind their wounds, or end the fight. All of these conditions save the character giving them a second lease on life. With healing magic it even gets them back in the fight. They can help take down the big bad. These are all great things and let the players worry about death without living in terror of it.
The problem I have is that if a player fails three Death Saves they die. The character performs the equivalent of bleeding out on the floor. An act I don’t find particularly heroic.
Yes, there is a tension there. I’ve been at tables where everyone is trying to get to the point where they can heal that player after the second failed save. I’ve even been the cleric who’s had to choose between healing fighter who will drop if I don’t and healing the character who just failed his second Death Save. There is real tension there.
Still watching someone fail that final Death Save and silently bleed out just sticks in my craw. It never feels satisfying. It sucks the fun out of the game.
Sometimes it’s sad, sometimes dramatic, and sometimes they can be used for a call to action. Still there’s a moment where the game sort of stops because we couldn’t do anything about that. This hero who has had grand adventures has just died. Passed on into the night and is gone. It’s hardly epic or amazing.
When do players get their Boromir moment? That point where they take one arrow after another. That point where they have died several times over but keep fighting because it’s necessary. When do they get a moment like Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, Vasquez in Aliens, Tony Montana in Scarface, V in V for Vendetta, and most of the 300?
To be fair the Death Save does have one more part. If you roll a natural twenty then you get a restored to health and jump back into the game. I’ve seen this happen as well. It’s truly a great moment. It feels good. It’s not the same. That character lived.
My point here isn’t about the ones that lived. It’s about the ones who fell.
When I’m not playing D&D and someone dies, I like to give them one last action. I give the player bonuses, maximum damage, and tons of fun little boosts. They can’t save themselves but they get one last drive to turn the tide, save the day, or hold the wall.
Then they die.
One last chance at glory. One last moment to shine.
The problem is that with the Death Saves, I feel like I’m robbing the moment as well as enforcing it. If a player fails their third death save and I have them suddenly leap up and be epic after lying their bleeding for three rounds. It doesn’t feel epic. It feels silly.
I like to give them some last words, maybe let their eyes flicker open and time slows so they can whisper a brief phrase of encouragement to a nearby party member. It’s a quieter moment, a sadder moment. It feels good but not the same epic moment that the other way falls.
I’ve considered giving players a choice. Maybe let them think their way through. Possibly get one last shot off with a ranged weapon, spell, or maybe a good throw dagger.
I don’t know. I may never know.
What about you? Have you ever come up with a different way to show character death?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Campaign Diary. Running a One Shot

We’ve gotten our group and have a rough idea about the type of story we want to tell. Where do I go from there? We have a lot of questions going forward. Do we like the system, the setting, and how everything works together? Because of this I’m going to run a one shot adventure.
I’ve decided to do this for a couple of reasons. First, I want to try the system. None of us have played in Cypher and it’ll be fun to give it the once over before we dive deep into it. This will give us a chance to see how things shake out and how we like the rules without getting too deeply in.
Second, it let me get familiar with the character creation system. This way I can walk the players through it if we decide to move forward. I’ll be able to give them the necessary tricks and tips I’ve learned from making the one shot heroes.
Third, we’re going to get to play in a superficial bit of the setting. We’ll get to play in the world and see how things shake out. I’m looking forward to getting a look at how these spies run around and do their thing.
In the end we’ll be able to see the system and setting, see how we like them, and then decided what to do going forward. If we like the story I’ll keep setting things up for that. If we like the Cypher system we’ll plan to keep using it. If one of these things falls flat we’ll try and come up with something new. If both of them are a bust then maybe we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.
Because I’m going to run the mission as a one shot it’s going to let me try some things. First off, I’m going to run this as a, “men on a mission,” story. I expect very few of them to live. I’m making six characters for a three person party so they’ll have some backups if a couple of them die. Ideally, if anyone is killed during the game we can slot in one of the other characters.
One of the long term reasons for this is that it’ll set up my villains. With the group having played against them and seen PC’s die, it will hopefully give them a sense purpose. I want my players to hate this group. I could do this with a regular game, but then I’m killing PC’s that the group spent time on. By doing it this way, I’m only killing pre-gens and not characters they’ve put effort into. It will build an emotional connection to the villains without putting undo stress on the players.
To further slam that home, I’ve given them the code names of high level members of the villain’s organization. I’ve also given them descriptions of all but one of them. It’s my hope that when we get down to the last pre-gen I’ll be far enough into the story that I can have that character be revealed as a traitor. I know it’s a cheap trick, but I think it will focus their rage at the group and the betrayer. That way, when they get to create their own characters and go in it will focus them. I want this to add stakes to their missions. Push them harder when they’re going after this group and frustrate them when they have to go after someone else.
I’m also going to use the one shot to test a mechanic that’s not a part of the Cypher system. I want to add a flashback mechanic. I’m going to give each player a poker chip and at any point during the game they can turn in their chip to have a flashback. I won’t be able to effect this at all. This will be them showing the moment where they bribed a guard, got a piece of specialized equipment, picked up a map, or infiltrated an area to drop something off for when they went through later. Basically, I’m letting them do the heist film moment where we see the heroes in trouble only to flashback to four hours earlier when they left a set of handcuff keys in the cell.
I’m doing this because this is a spy game and I’m trying to recreate the fast moving style of the films and television of the 70’s and 80’s I don’t want to get bogged down in planning.  This is another reason to try this in a one shot. If it doesn’t work the players might want to plan their assaults and missions rather than getting thrown in. If they would rather plan we’ll drop this and let them plan. My thought is that using flashbacks will make up for limited time and allow us to drive the story.
Anyway, that’s a couple of the reasons I’m running a one shot of the Cypher System to see how the game works. In the end it may not matter. I’ll see where we go and how we get there.
I’ll be back next week to talk about something else. What would you like to hear about? Any questions?

Monday, April 8, 2019

My Best D&D Story

With my Cypher game waiting to get off the ground I decided to take a little time to tell stories about my best memories from D&D and other RPG’s. Today, I’m going to talk about my best memory from running Dungeons & Dragons.
I had applied to participate in and was accepted to a fantasy and gaming themed gallery exhibit in Chicago. The Co-Prosperity Sphere and Pentagon Gallery tasked me with creating a low level adventure that would last for the entirety of the exhibit; eight hours a day over three days. I created my own story, created some characters in case people coming wouldn’t have any, and organized the entire package into folders, baggies, and pouches so that everything would be ready to go with little set up.
The entire week end from start to finish was amazing. I had so much fun. It was great to be a part of the weekend and I can’t tell you how good it was to be there.
My adventure set the players against a cult that was attempting to summon Loth the Spider God. It started small with a couple of missing children and wet forward from there. I moved the players between several towns and had them enter crypts and tombs to face off against the dark forces arrayed against them.
The area we played in was built to look like a typical 70’s era basement. It had a folding table, a hideous couch, and orange shag carpet you could lose a small dog in. It was amazing. In place of a lamp we had a light up Santa Claus. In addition to this, our space was backed by a theatre area that was being used to show D&D inspired fantasy movies over the course of the event. It gave the event a certain air of life.
It was the middle of the second day and we were getting ready to break for lunch. They had just finished delving through the second tomb. They’d followed the cult down into the depths. The villains had taken some children with them. After the first ritual the group interrupted they knew these children were going to be used as part of the ritual. The tomb had a stone slab over the door with an inscription around the key stone that would seal the way locking everything inside. However, they needed to save the children and entered.
The tomb showed signs of combat. Several skeletons lay scattered around the halls and alcoves. Interspersed with them were the bodies of cultists. It was clear they had to fight their way in to reach the ritual site and the group would have an easier time of dealing with them.
The group reached the grand chamber at the end of the tomb. The cultists were gathered around a large ritual circle where the head acolyte chanted in a long forgotten language. In one corner half a dozen children were tied with ropes and clearly terrified. The acolyte turned to face the room and saw the players standing in the main door.
At this point I called for initiative.
At this exact moment, on the other side of the wall, Conan and his friends entered the tower of the Snake Cult in Conan the Barbarian and the soundtrack began the slow steady rhythm of stealth.
The players immediately jumped into action. The healer gathered the children and guided them into the hall and to safety. The tank placed himself in between the fleeing children and the cultists. The melee spell caster started launching area spells into the cultists. The archer began firing into the crowd trying to do as much damage as possible.
The cultists charged the group. The tank keeping them at bay. The caster kept hurling spells into the crowd. The acolyte cast a spell and tore into the flesh of the tank nearly crippling him. The healer paused to cast one of their few range heals to keep the tank standing. The archer took aim and critically hit the acolyte; killing him instantly.
The acolyte screamed in pain as a small portal the size of a softball opened and he was sucked through it. His body breaking and tearing as he was pulled in. The last thing the group saw was his head as it was crushed to fit into the portal. With the head through the opening the portal ripped open revealing an army of demons standing shoulder to shoulder on a narrow bridge trying to fight their way into the real world.
At this point Conan and his friends were discovered and the soundtrack soared.
The players quickly began retreating down the hall as demons began stepping through the portal. One of the children screamed in terror as the dead cultists littering the hallway behind them stood; a zombie. The group realized they were surrounded. The archer put away her bow, drew a sword, and lay into the zombies in order to protect the children. The priest turned what they could. The zombies were numerous and kept coming. The caster threw spells first one direction then the other.
The group began making head way. They found a rhythm and used it. Kill a target, move a couple of feet, and set for the next assault. They had hope in their eyes.
That’s when one of them noticed the demons in the portal. Through the crowd a large demon, huge and bulky, was advancing up the bridge. It was shoving the smaller demons out of its way and off the bridge. It reached the portal and stepped through. It roared so loud it shook the walls.
The group gave up an even push and shoved for the entrance way. Launching every spell and weapon at the zombies in their path they made their way up through the tomb and reached the stairs. They healer led the children to safety. The archer followed and took charge of the kids as the healer prepared the ritual to seal the tomb. The tank and caster worked to move the giant stone slab into place and started piling everything heavy on top of it.
Then the spider demon attacked.
A creature made of nightmares bound from the shadows. It was the acolyte stitched back together in an unholy way. Limbs protruded at odd angles. He crab-walked around the room, his head firmly fixed the wrong way around glared at the players. It screamed in pain and terror as it attacked the player. It tried to focus the healer as he worked the ritual. The rest of the team alternated between killing it and protecting the healer and the children.
Rounds went by and the healer made one check after another until the ritual was complete. The demon died shortly after that. Silence fell over the tomb.
The high priest of the snake god’s temple fired an arrow that slew the Valkyrie. The music in the movie ended.
This is my best memory of D&D. My players hadn’t all met before that first night. They came in pairs. Two of them hadn’t ever played D&D before. That weekend was filled with great moments. I had the joy of describing the villain for the third time and having one of my players announce, “I fucking hate this guy.” I ran an adventure I wrote in a museum surrounded by art, music, and other games and gamers.
That moment was a combination of the encounter working just the way I envisioned it. Moving with highs and lows as the players fought against them. It went from getting the drop on the cultists to being discovered. Killing the acolyte only to have him open the portal and free the demons. Finding a balance with the demons only to have the huge ones begin to spill into the room. Getting out of the tomb to be attacked by the spider demon. Every moment had a counter point. Every low cam with a boost. The explosion of the portal opening killed cultists. The large demon roaring destroyed demons. The balance of these things worked fantastically.
Add to this the players themselves were a huge part of this. As much as they swore when something bad happened they told jokes. They laughed at critical failures and cheered critical hits. Without having ever met they jelled in such a great way. They all told me what a great time they’d had and how much fun it had been. Everybody enjoyed themselves. They worked together in a way I rarely see seasoned players function as a team.
Finally, the music. I don’t know how I did it. I know I’d never succeed at it if I tried to do it on purpose. Somehow that fight lasted exactly as long as the sequence from that movie. From one end to the other it just flowed. From the music starting when I asked for initiative to the last note playing as the spider demon fell. I can’t imagine how it happened or worked.
I love D&D and other role-play games. I’ve have many experiences both good and bad over the many years I’ve played. Some of them are games I’ve run some I’ve played in. Some are D&D and then there are other things as well. I’ll share some of them here as I go forward.
Next week I’m not sure what I’ll share here. If we move forward with the spy campaign I might jump back into what I’m doing there. If we don’t maybe I’ll talk about my friend Scot’s Undermountain campaigns.
Let me know, what was your best RPG moment?

Monday, April 1, 2019

Pitching a New Campaign

The time came to pitch a new campaign to my players and see what they though and if anything interested them. I decided to take a page from Matt Coville’s book. (Find the video where he talks about it here.) I decided to send out ideas for three separate campaigns. I later amended this and added a fourth.

I picked each of these to appeal to different levels of ideas and play styles. Through the Breach was meant to be more thoughtful and role-play based. There would be a little bit of combat but overall I wanted to focus on solving mysteries and puzzles.
X-Crawl was used because I wanted a setting that would be mostly combat but could still give players the ability to roll play. Even with the focus on combat encounters can still have puzzles attached to them.
With the Cypher system pulp game I wanted to go with a more balanced approach. I figured some combat and puzzles with a fair amount of easy pulpy roleplay could work.
I added the spy setting a few days later when I was watching a video where they asked about old cancelled PC games. It reminded me of an old spy game called the Agency. I was very disappointed at that games cancellation and was struck by an idea for a campaign.
Here is the first list I sent out with the added campaign idea tacked on to the back.

Through the Breach
The story begins: you receive a letter from Doctor Hershel G. Beaufort. He’s a well-respected member of society. Trained in the forensic sciences and criminal law he is known in certain circles for dismantling several criminal organizations. He has invite you to join him in Malifaux.
A series of disappearances has overlapped with a case he’s working on and his investigation has lead him into territory he is unfamiliar with; the supernatural. Do to your knowledge, reputation, or history he has invited you to join him at the Beaufort Manor in Malifaux to aid in this case.
Types of characters: someone who can lend skill and knowledge to a supernatural investigation. Mages, professors, researchers, and such would be useful here. Additionally, the mystery could involve dealing with more mundane threats as well so anyone with skills in that area are necessary. Also, in Malifaux, a legitimate strategy for dealing with ghosts is to shoot them in the face.
Types of problems: Most of the story will revolve around the mystery at hand. People are disappearing and Beaufort needs to find out why and if it’s connected to his case or something else. To this end combat will be light. It will happen, there will be shooting and punching, but for the most part wits and ingenuity will be involved. There will also be a series of puzzles that become a part of the story.

Cypher System
The story begins: You are a team of archeologists/adventures rolling around the 1930’s. You travel the world finding lost artifacts from forgotten cultures. While going through a dig in Brazil you come across a new group that appears to have a no regard for history. It’ll be up to you to beat them to the artifact and get it to the British Museum so the world can learn from it. Of course, there is also the mystery of the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the walls of crypt in Brazil.
Types of characters: Adventures, researchers, and social persons. You’ll need to be able to survive running through dart traps as well as punching a mysterious foe. You’ll also need to be able to interact with the locals making a linguist or translator of some sort necessary. A good smuggler or someone who has lots of friends in those sort of places could be useful. Honestly, look to Nathan Drake, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones, Evelyn Carnahan, and Ben Gates for inspiration.
Types of problems: Puzzles and fighting; sometimes simultaneously. You’ll need to be able to hold your own in a fight against the group put against you. You’ll also have to deal with criminals, mercenaries, and more esoteric threats. Puzzles will be more of the: what switch, pictogram, or spot do I press, step on, or avoid. I look to have a more pulpy adventure here.
Possible issue: I’ve not used the Cypher system before but I think for the purposes of the story I want to tell it should work pretty well here. I like a lot of the item rules and how checks are done. It comes with one shot items, decent dice system, and challenge ratings that should make throwing stuff at you on the fly pretty easy.

The story begins: you are the new up and coming team headed to Division 3 for the first time. Entering the full lethal category of X-Crawl is nerve wracking but exciting. You’ve trained, worked as a group, and are ready to go. It’s time to run that dungeon.
Types of characters: X-Crawl uses Pathfinder rules because they haven’t translated the X-Crawl classes to DCC yet. That said, pretty much standard adventure classes here, though I would recommend trying to work in a little bit of the X-Crawl specific classes. Instead of a cleric maybe go for a messenger; that sort of thing. Even multi-class could be useful here as you’ll all start at I believe 4th level. One thing’s for certain charisma is important. It’s at least a secondary stat for X-Crawl so you can get the crowd on your side.
Types of problems: This is going to be mostly a combat focused game. There will be puzzles but they will be in the realm of looking good on tv. I like to do stuff that takes part outside of the dungeon but nothing too strenuous. This will mostly be quick character moments with little beats of getting to know the locals.

Task Force Theta
The story begins: world-wide corruption has reached a new peak, nations are tearing themselves apart with civil wars, and new extremists groups are rising to power with unprecedented power. Some believe that there may be an as yet unknown shadow organization behind the entire thing. This is shrugged off as an internet conspiracy by everyone, well…almost everyone.
Damien Samuels, ‘former’ security chief for the UN, wants to see if there’s any truth behind the rumor. You’ve been selected and recruited from the best of the best regardless of nation to form this group. Your first mission, infiltrate a charity event in Monte Carlo. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Types of Characters: Like Egypt game above, I’d like to use the Cypher system here because I like the rules for enemies that will allow me to give you enough disposable mooks while still throwing the occasional lieutenant in your direction to challenge you. The skill system is easy enough to create scenes on the fly without having to over think it too much or look up a lot of charts and architypes. Plus the “artifact” rules make it easy to include things like grenade cufflinks, tricked out cars, laser pens, and tracking devices.
For characters, I’d basically use any type of spy character from whatever country you feel would be fun to play. Want to be a Russian, awesome. French, sure. American, what the hell. North Korean, we’ll figure it out.
Types of problems: let’s be honest, at this point you already know what sort of stuff you’ll have to face off against. Hulking brutes with metal teeth, Japanese guy with a deadly hat, and an acrobatic young woman who’s replaced her legs with razor sharp stilts.
I’m not saying I’m going to rip off every spy movie ever, but I’ll certainly be looking in their general direction.

The Meeting
After I sent this out we met for our regular game group and discussed which setting we preferred. People and their favorites and the settings they didn’t like. One person hard passed on Through the Breach because they didn’t like that there wasn’t an organization that were the good guys. A couple of people passed on X-Crawl because we’d just finished a dungeon crawler and they wanted to try something else. The final person passed on pulp adventure because they felt that they didn’t know enough about those type of stories to contribute. This left us the spy game. Which met with only one criticism. Someone didn’t like the name. Which I had intended to change anyway.

From here I sent out a list of questions.
Modern politics
Is the President of the United States Trump or Jackson?
Who’s developing nuclear weapons, North Korea or a rogue African dictator?
Is Isis or Oxomo a major terrorist organization?

Do you want to play just one character or do you want to have a stable of characters and choose which you’ll play before or after the mission briefing? This setting can easily be the IMF method where everyone is good at everything but fantastic at one thing or the GI Joe method where everyone is specialized to the nth degree and you pick who fits the mission and Snake Eyes.

Level of cheese
There will be a level of gadgets and technology where on the scale would you like to be?
Matt Helm
A Team
Moore Bond
The Avengers (Peele and Steed)
Brosnon Bond
Dalton Bond
Connery Bond
Craig Bond

An additional question came back, and that was which era were we playing in? I had assumed modern day but put the question to everyone else.

In the end, we went with the 1950’s which removed the politics from the game. Since we wouldn’t be reflecting modern life we didn’t have to worry about causing any uncomfortable conversations to occur. We’ll be focusing on the Eisenhower era so no one has any particular feelings about his as president and we can just play the game.
For PC’s we’re going with the IMF model of everyone being all-rounders with a specialization. This let’s each player focus on playing a specific character and not trying to remember bits and pieces of a stable of characters.
For level of goofy, I think we’re touching down somewhere between the Avengers and the Roger Moore era Bond. This gives me access to some fun gadgets while still having threatening villains with dark stakes. I’m quite happy with all of this.

Finally, there has been some question as to the system we would be playing. I recommended Cypher in the initial email but Genesys from Fantasy Flight Games has come up and that could be a possibility.
To this end we’re going to try a one shot to see what people think of what I have planned. We’ll try Cypher and see how that works. I’m creating some PC’s for the adventure. I’m looking to do a men on a mission sort of story.
I think I’ll save that for the next time I write about this.
I’d love to hear what you folks think. Are there any good spy RPG’s with the right feel I’m looking for that could work here? I’d love to hear your thoughts.