Friday, October 29, 2021

Adventure Work in Progress: The Queen of Decay

 "The Princess Bride"  by Ted CoConis ©1974 Ballantine
Inspiration can come from the strangest of places. I wanted to share the background on a work in progress I have about halfway completed.

A sci-fi enthusiast who discusses book covers followed by a lot of the people I follow on Twitter posted this image, which was a 1974 cover for The Princess Bride by Ted CoConis.

There was a lot of discussion about how poorly this cover represents the content of the book. Which I think is a fair appraisal. It's pretty clear that the artist did not read the book, or even have the vaguest idea of what was in it when he designed the cover.

He is, rightly, quite proud of his work and it shows up in his website portfolio. I love the work, but it certainly doesn't scream The Princess Bride to me.

One of the commentators in the original thread, Paula Richey, made this fantastic comment. About how the art loses its appeal given the context. But might be more appropriate for a story about "battling through a hallucinogenic swamp to rescue a hot princess held captive by an evil necromancer."

Needless to say, my Low Fantasy Gaming group were all in agreement that this was a fantastic idea. My GM recommended that we mock it up as a module for a laugh.

As I have my own adventure module template sitting in Google docs, and bookmarks to dozens of pieces of cool fantasy art, I made a mock module, in which I presented the hot princess and The necromancer, as well as a module premise.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Another Example of Campaign Pitches

I would like to share an example of how I write campaign pitches.

Whenever my group finds itself between campaigns, we open the floor too anyone who wants to proposing to run the next campaign. Over the years, my group and I have perfected the gardening one page pitch that tells us a lot about what the group members can expect about a given game.

This document also doubles as a campaign planning cool. And I have described how I use it as such, here and here

Generally speaking, I like to put forward two or three campaign pitches to my group. On a good day, many of the other players will put out at least one. I start with a title, and then a tagline invokes the kind of story I want to tell which is short and pain, comedy, saga, or one shot. I also include the genre intend to use, and some keywords to suggest tone.

After that I give two to three paragraphs that describe the premise of the world and the opening scenario. As well as suggesting some of the content they may run into.

If I felt a need to give a warning over a kind of content in the game, for example: if I plan on having a lot of sex in a campaign, I would mention it here.

I follow that up with one or two paragraphs and a second section talking about my ideas as a GM, this is where I include any important information like time limits, whether or not I'll be using homebrew or module content, and any really big rules adjustments.

Finally, I list some films on the TV shows, novels, and video games that I am using as inspiration for the game.

This most recent pitch document was designed to initiate a more serious and lengthy campaign, after the goofball five session game I ran of the wasted hack over the last month and a bit.

For the record, my playes chose Null Point, so my next step is to write a Primer

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Wargaming Has A Lot to Offer TTRPG Players

Drab Arguments & Dank Memes
Recently a crowd of story game developers started branding Dungeons & Dragons a "wargame."  I thought this a bizarre step in the eternal game of linguistic chess that people seem to like playing these days. D&D might be a lot of thongs, but it certainly isn't a traditional wargame, or even a Freikriegspiel. It is constructed to provide a very different challenge and experience to wargames, and has mechanisms they will never need.

Whether Dungeons & Dragons accomplishes the goals for which it was constructed effectively or not is it worthwhile question. But this is not really the discussion they are trying to have. 

Although, I suspect that part of the problem is that the people playing this game of nomenclature are operating from a narrow, story-telling and play-acting definition of "roleplaying." They are setting out to claim that Dungeons & Dragons is not a role-playing game because it does not exclusively encourage the type of role-playing they enjoy. Again, this has been a linguistic disconnect since the 1980s. They want to exclude versions of the hobby that don't fit their intentionally narrow criteria of it. Which makes their commentary less than useful

Honestly, it wasn't really worth taking the bait on that discussion, but it got me thinking:

I have played a few war-games in my day. GW's, Battlemasters and Warhammer 40,000, and FASA-era BATTLETECH mostly. With as mattering of small indie role-playing games here and there. And I do believe that they have improved my skill as  a GM and amateur game designer considerably. Mostly because it gives you a broader perspective on the whys and wherefores of TTRPGs. 

Here are some of the benefits I have personally gained from playing wargames. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Planning for a Mystery or Exploration - Driven Campaign

Last night I kicked off a campaign in Low Fantasy Gaming (my favorite retroclone!) and I had a very strong start. In fact, I would say it had the best buy-in I have managed to get from my players in a very long time. I chalk a lot of it up to an adjustment to my planning method.

I returned to Old-School games because I have less time for gaming than I used to; I needed games that were faster, lighter, and more flexible than Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons 5e. I have according ly also been working on trying to find the best combination of tools and techniques for campaign planning.

The Narrative Bumper Pool Method 

Narrative Bumper Pool Diagram 
from XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery
By Tracy Hickman
Illustration by Howard Taylor
Traditionally my campaign planning has always been done in a mind map and flowchart. I put together a map of the various conflicts and factions, and how they are likely to collide. Then I create a flowchart of how events from the first adventure can lead the players to following adventures and events in the campaign.

This creates a Narrative Bumper Pool like the ones described in Tracy Hickman's XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery. The hooks and opportunities offered at the end of each adventure moves the PCs around a grid of possible events and developments towards a number of possible conclusions.

Of course, players tend to add their own branches and events to the grid. It rarely remains true to the original design.

The bumper pool system is very narrow. You need relatively little information to dive into the campaign and get the players engaged. It balances dynamism with enough constraints to keep the planning moderate. If you are at point D on the chart here, you really only need to plan clearly for E, F, or H.

The problem with the Narrative Bumper Pool method is that you need to make sure players are invested heavily enough by points B or C that they are motivated to keep moving, which means that adventures A, B, and C have to do a lot of heavy world-building and get the players emotionally involved.

And that means you need to pack a lot into them to create that buy-in. It works best if you throw the characters into a struggle for survival, or to defend kith and kin. It predicates your campaign on setting a particular sort of urgent tone.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Powered by the Apocalypse Engine: An Overview

Cover to Apocalypse World 2nd Ed.
Art by Ivan Bliznetsov
©2010 D. Vincent Baker
PbtA Context

After my reviews of Dungeon World and Down and Out in Dredgeburg, it has become clear to me that it would be helpful to my readers if someone put an overview of the Powered by the Apocalypse engine up on the web that offered a neutral and detached view on it. So, I thought it would give the swing in explaining what Powered by the Apocalypse engine is, and what it is for.

Powered by the Apocalypse is a open game engine, meaning that it is a game engine anyone can use without royalties so long as they meet the relatively light requirements of the designer set out in the terms of the engine's system reference document. These are usually modelled on the Open Game License released for the D20 system back in 2000.

An open game engine allows any developer who wants to do to build a new game without having to develop the mechanics of the game from scratch. They simply take an existing game and modified until it is sufficiently different to fit their theme, world, or ideas.

Some other examples of open game engines include: 

  • The d20 system from Wizards of the Coast
  • The Forged in the Dark engine from One Seven 
  • The Mark of the Odd system by Bastionland
  • Every TSR-era edition of Dungeons & Dragons thanks to the legal safe harbor established by OSRIC
  • The upcoming Powered by the Middle Finger by DIY RPG Productions
  • The Open D6 engine.
  • FATE 2.0

What makes Powered by the Apocalypse stand out is that it is extraordinary popular, used by quite a few games. And it is one of two engines that has really defined the Storygame ethos.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Game Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World Cover
Art by Nate Marcel
©2012 Koebel & LaTorra

Authors: Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel
Publisher: Save Kobold, Burning Wheel
Marketplace: Amazon,  DrivethruRPG
Engine: Powered by the Apocalypse 

This is one that has been on my shelf over a year waiting for review. 

Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel is a game that attempts to hybridize traditional role-playing games with the more modern story game style of play by adapting traditional Dungeons & Dragons who run on the Powered by the Apocalypse Engine.

Friday, October 8, 2021

10 Tools for Making Memorable One-Shot Adventures

This post is inspired by Lord Matteus, who was asking about using pregens for Free RPG Day. 

I used to suck at running one-shots. I used to be a campaign - or-bust player, because I play at a slower pace and focus on building a very rich sensory experience that is heavy on intrigue and complex NPCs. My style fails to translate well into one-session play. Every time I attempted a one-shot it ended up a three-shot. At least my players felt it was worth coming back to.

But when a "Brian One-shot," became a joking way of describing a miniseries, I decided that I needed help. I scoured dozens of my favorite TTRPG sources for advice and kept a journal while running tons of one-shots. 

This is a mix of the good points I found online, and my own observations. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

On Deathtrap Dungeon, the Joy of Escape, and My GM Philosophy

Minimalist Cover Design for
Deathtrap Dungeon by
Guilherme Gontijo
(©2021 Guilherme Gontijo) 
I wanted to share a quick personal anecdote today. For no other reason then it's been on my mind. When I was 10, I fell between two boulders that I was climbing on and put my foot directly through the top of a wasp's nest. I was stung almost 40 times before I got my leg free. I spent part of that summer limping, because I had so many stings in the one leg that my muscle had seized up as a reaction to the venom. You can only be stung so many times by bees, wasps, or hornets before you become allergic to their venom.

I spent part of that same Summer with friends in the house in the Gaspereau Valley, my older friend Peter and I shared a passion for Dungeons & Dragons, but while I only owned the Basic Set, which is all I've been playing with for 5 years, Peter had the full set of AD&D1e manuals. He also had introduced me to fighting fantasy games, of which he had a lovely collection, including the entire sorcery set. I spent that summer enjoying the illustrations and ideas in Peter's huge collection of Fighting Fantasy game books. That is, whe  and I wasn't engaging him in lengthy battles of Games Workshop's Battle Masters game, or exploring some of Nova Scotia's parks.

During one of the expeditions we made to the sand dunes of Kejimkujik a bumblebee became very focused on Peter's leg while we were climbing a dune. It circled his leg over and over again and he was paralyzed out of fear that he would be stung.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Solo Play: What I have Learned

For the last few weeks, I have been playing a more in-depth solo game of BECMI Dungeons & Dragons using a DM simulation tool from Parts Per Milluon. To this point, I had used solo role playing entirely for play testing. For example, when I wanted to understand the mechanics ig Pacts & Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy, I ran a couple of dungeons out of Donjon in order to get a feel for it in play. I've done the same with Index Card RPG Core 2e, Overlight: A Roleplaying Game of Kaleidoscopic Journeys, and Tunnel Goons. 

Because it was so purpose driven, I missed a few things how about solo play that doing so for pleasure has taught me. Although, in retrospect, the way I reported my second and third play tests of Pacts & Blades should have told me how much I enjoy it and what I had to gain from it right away.

So here are a few observations for people who never tried it. Because it is very different from what you might expect.

I will start with the caveat that I went into play hoping to have something to share at the end of the day. I have been inspired by the Keep on the Borderlands comic, Roll to Save's Mörk Borg solo, and above all, the Tale of the Manticore podcast. All of which have created something truly enjoyable. Playing solely for yourself is a different experience as well.

Playing a Solo Game vs. Playing a Game Solo

First off, there's a big difference between playing a solo dungeon crawling game like One Shot in the Dark or Four Against Darkness, and playing a TTRPG made for a group of players using a solo dGMng tool.

Solo Dungeon crawlers are not built with a lot of depth in mind. They provide you with a challenge and a tactical puzzle or two, as you build up a map. You don't really get invested in the characters very much, and the experience is usually a simulation ofabout as vanilla a D&D game as you could ask for. That doesn't mean they're not satisfying: they are a great way to spend a quiet hour, and a great way to generate dungeon maps.

Other games designed for solo, Ike Alone Among the Stars, are purely journal exercises. Most of these provide no challenges and no puzzles, just a way to meditate while writing in a journal. Not my cup of tea, but I could see how some people would enjoy it. I'm not sure I would qualify it as a role-playing game by any stretch of the imagination.

Playing a traditional role-playing game, with all of its open systems and narrative requirements is a lot more challenging. And rewarding and very different ways.

I might put it as the difference between "Playing a Solo Game" and "Playing a Game, Solo."