An Update

Insert quote about “plans” and “life happening.”

Sorry this blog has been silent for over two months. This summer has been a series of personal and professional gut-punches, culminating in a pretty terrible August and September. A lot of things fell by the wayside, including this blog. As of now, things are getting better. I know part of that process is writing and communicating with like-minded folks. So apologies to anyone that’s been waiting for the next D&D update. I think it’s beyond my capacities to go back to the beginning of the summer and reconstruct each session from memory. I’ll be ending that “series” and instead post some general thoughts and observations from those games, plus whatever other gaming-related stuff strikes my fancy. Thanks.

Dungeons & Dragons – Session 1

SPOILER WARNING: I’m adapting James Wyatt’s 3.5 adventure “Queen with Burning Eyes” from Dungeon magazine #113, August 2004. I’m going to spoil the heck out of bits of it over the next few posts in this series. So:

1. I’m not sure if Paizo has this issue on sale online, but if you can get your hands on it do so. QwBE is a solid, cool 1st – 3rd level adventure.
2. This thing came out in a magazine 11 years ago. Don’t worry about me ruining some plot twists.

The session begins with the characters, having decided to form an adventuring company, looking for job leads at their favorite tavern in Brunwald, The Magpie. They are approached by Vestan Simul, a nobleman. Simul has recently acquired an old warehouse in The Chasm, a rundown neighborhood that is, quite literally, a hole in the ground. His workmen found an underground complex of tunnels beneath, and, in the course of exploring these tunnels, several workers have vanished. He needs hearty adventures to check out these underground passages.

So, once again we have a mysterious stranger giving the PCs a quest in the tavern. The original adventure gives several options to start things off without resorting to this old chestnut, and, as I’ve said before, it’s counter to my instincts. However, it seemed the most efficient way to get things going. Embracing the cliché means the players know what’s going on and their roles. The familiarity helps momentum. I’m pretty sure I first saw this advice in Last Unicorn Games Star Trek RPGs.

(Side Note: I try not to think about the LUG Star Trek games. Doing so encourages me to pull the books off the shelf and lose an afternoon paging through them.)

The players are pretty eager to get down into the ruins and do some dungeoneering. There’s some equipment checking, but no research on Simul. I’m sure that’s fine. (SPOILER) In the original adventure, the noble pays each PC 100 gold pieces, with the promise of more after they clear out the tunnels. I neglected to take into account the economic shift in 5E. 100 gps is a small fortune. This is particularly true when compared to the monsters’ treasure I generated using the appropriate tables from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The handfuls of copper and silver pieces seem paltry.

Anyway, there’s a fight at the entrance with some goblin guards and the discovery of a trapdoor leading to the tunnels. 5E combat is brutal. The combination of 1st level hit points and this edition’s bounded accuracy means that each hit matters and can do significant damage. What in 3.5 would have been an appetizer fight before the real action is now a knock-down, drag-out event. The PCs were probably saved by me forgetting about the goblin’s special movement abilities until almost the end of the fight.

More cautious now, and with the new catch phrase “first level sucks”, they send the rogue Copper to scout out the lower level. The half-elf misses the camouflaged Grimlocks and is walloped. He takes cover while the sorcerer, hanging out the trap door, fries the creatures with acid spells. (Wow, magic is dangerous in this game.)

Put through the ringer, the PCs decide to climb back up to the entrance room, using the trapdoor’s capstone to block access from the lower dungeon. Here, they take advantage of the Long Rest rules and try to heal up before going any farther.

Dungeons & Dragons – Setting

As I’ve noted before, I’m reusing a world I created for a Pathfinder game. However, while I wanted the broader strokes and flavor of the setting, I didn’t want this game tromping through the same territory as that one – both literally and narratively. I wanted this game to have its own distinct corner – The Last City.

The Frontier is a vast, lawless stretch of land across the top of the continent. It’s neutral territory between the Confederacy of Vorel City States, the Dwarf Kingdom of Dhar Daruhl, and the Elven Empire. Brunwald is the northernmost of the city states and the last civilized point before your reach the Frontier. It was founded centuries ago by the Dwarfs, but problems on their other borders and a lessening of dwarven power caused them to lose their grip on the city. It was either conquered by orcs and goblins or abandoned by the dwarfs, depending on who you ask. The city was later retaken by the human Noble House Helmorna and made part of the Vorel Confederacy.

Lady Tamsyn Helmorna rules the city, keeping hold of her family’s ancient claim to power. However, other noble houses and merchant-princes scramble for power. The Dwarf Kingdom, Brunwald’s nearest neighbor to the east, is flexing its growing influence. At the very least, an unstable political environment creates several potential employers for capable, well-armed adventurers.

Beyond that, the city’s history with dwarfs, orcs, and goblins means it’s riddled with underground passages. These tunnels lead to forgotten ruins, secret lairs, and gateways to the Underdark. Outside the city there are mountains with goblin holdouts and dwarf outposts, and then the prairies, plains, and tundra of the Frontier. Plenty of places for enterprising PCs to get into trouble.

For the first adventure I’m adapting an old Dungeon magazine adventure by James Wyatt “Queen with Burning Eyes.” For it being a 3.5E Eberron adventure, the adaptation had been pretty simple. Eberron’s punk/pulp aesthetic fits close with what I want, so that’s just a matter of changing place names and revamping setting specific creatures to more generic Monster Manual versions. Other than that I’m just swapping monster for monster, tweaking where I need and using my judgement and the internet for help. So far, so good.

Now, we crawl through some dungeons.

Dungeons & Dragons – Characters

Character creation suffered because of summer scheduling and my own preconceived notions. You can’t fault summer, only the month of December is a better impediment to gaming. Because of people being out-of-town and fluid work schedules what should have been one session of character creation was stretched out to three. The bigger roadblock was my own plans for the campaign.

I’m a big fan of collective world building, group templates, and other ways to tie the characters together. Whip up a batch of relationship knots and backstory hooks beforehand and you can coast for the rest of the campaign. I’m always on the lookout for ways to do this, and I had found several blogs with suggestions. Most recently, these involved players coming up with in-world factions and a mini-game during character creation to make relationship webs. I was super excited about these, and sent out numerous emails and Facebook posts to the players. However, when the time came to implement them, the players’ response was half-hearted at best. No one really wanted to engage with these activities. They all had great ideas about their characters; who they were, their history and motivations. But no none was clicking with what I was trying to do. It was a little disheartening and there was a small window where I lost the oomph to run the game.

I had forgotten two of the cardinal rules of game mastering – read the table and talk to your players. They weren’t in the mood to fiddle around with pre-loading the world building, they wanted to get to the action and play. Once we had everyone together I asked a few establishing questions and then jumped right into the adventure. Everything else we’re figuring out as we go, with me taking time to ask the occasional leading question to open up some of the world. So far it’s worked great, and I’m really excited about the game.

Our murder hobos:

Phann Sindarin – Wood Elf Cleric (War Domain), Background: Soldier (Scout)
Copper – Half-Elf Rogue, Background: Entertainer (Juggler)
Kairon – Tiefling Sorcerer (Draconic Bloodline), Background: Sage (Researcher)
Gaalmug – Dragonborn Fighter, Background Soldier (Officer)
Rinn – Half-Elf Warlock (Great Old One Patron), Background: Entertainer (Musician)

Phann and Gaalmug were obviously members of the same mercenary company, now looking for more fulfilling and lucrative work as adventurers. Copper remembers Phann as the mysterious traveler who passed through the half-elf’s childhood village. When the rogue left for the open road himself he sought to join up with his old friend. Kairon was raised in an academic enclave and is now out in the world searching for perfection. He was hired by the adventuring company as their resident expert on magic. Rinn says he’s Gaalmug’s brother. We’re not quite sure who’s lying there. We’ll deal with that when it comes up.

Custom Move for Apocalypse World – Hyperspace Navigation

This is obviously not D&D character creation. I’m going to drop random bits of gaminess into the blog as I find them. I was rifling through an old notebook and found a little bit of game design from last summer. Inspired by the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer, and a love for Farscape and Star Wars, I ran an Apocalypse World game set in space. Most of the playbooks and moves worked just fine in the altered setting with some cosmetic changes. We filled in the blanks with custom moves as we needed them. I found a Rogue Trader AW hack and adapted the Navigator move for our Hyperspace travel. This was a general move; none of the players were using the Driver playbook (in my estimate, the space equivalent of the pilot), so it made sense to leave it open to anyone on the bridge and directing the ship into Hyperspace.

Hyperspace Navigation

When you guide a ship through Hyperspace, roll +sharp. On a hit, the journey is safe and steady. On a 10+, pick one:

  • You arrive at your destination ahead of schedule.
  • Your arrival is cloaked from scanners
  • You can travel deep within a system before leaving Hyperspace.
  • You throw off any pursuit.

This move is based around rewarding success than punishing failure. The unspoken implication for the MC, however, is that on a miss things are not “safe and steady” and and make whatever hard move the fiction demands.

Dungeons & Dragons – New Campaign

The Star Wars game having run its course, I was looking for something new. I’ve been dying to check out Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition and this seemed like a good opportunity. The Tuesday night group was open to anything someone was willing to run, so this was a good fit. (My other group is die-hard Pathfinder players. Convincing them to play a WotC game is more politicking than I’m prepared to do.)

So, after some back-and-forth on what structure the campaign would be, we decided to revive the campaign world for a Pathfinder game I ran a few years ago. My initial description for this world was “it’s not steampunk, but you can see that from here.” All the stuff class-based dungeon adventuring murder hobos would expect, but with airships, top hats, and sword canes.

Here’s a link to the Obsidian Portal site for the old campaign:
https://dining-on-ashes.obsidianportal.com/

And the Piterest board I made for the new campaign:

Next, I’ll get into the roller coaster that was character creation.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire – Final Session

Characters:

• Clint-E
• Gand
• Luscious
• Fernando

Obligation: Clint-E (Family)

I wasn’t particularly thrilled with how this session went. This was on me. I was not into GMing that night and the game suffered because of it. Also, I wasn’t 100% on some of the rules, so I kind of glossed over some parts that probably shouldn’t have been glossed over (more on this later). However, the rules the group and I did have down were able to carry the game despite a flakey GM. This is a sign of a strong system, and something that’s going to keep me coming back to FFG’s Star Wars.

Anyway, because of family commitments, Felgru’s player is bowing out if the game. So, instead of taking the players’ advice that the Rodian exploded on impact from his jump, I hand-waved the wounded Felgru slinking back to the speeder. Clint-E’s Family Obligation came up again and I decided to just let the standard Strain threshold penalties stand. With the climax of the combat the droid would be stressed out trying to protect his “family” (the crew) and we wouldn’t need any further wrinkles to the story. After some Force Point rolls heavily favoring the Dark Side, we were ready to pick up where we left off.

With the camp in a drugged-up brawl, Fernando sneaks off to check out the old Trade Federation mining equipment. What he’s able to deduce, with sufficient successes and advantages, is the Fed mining operation was shut down because they ran into a local life form that was more trouble than it was worth. A silicon-based living volcanic ash cloud lurked beneath the surface. Naturally, the player wants to add to the chaos and wake the creature up. There is now a rampaging fiery ash monster burning gangers.

Meanwhile, the Gamorrean bodyguard managed to catch up to Luscious and Gand, pulling Gand off in a tumble. The bug and the bodyguard now square off, and it’s soon apparent the Gamorrean is too tough for the smuggler. It’s the fight between Indiana Jones and the German mechanic; the guy’s way too much to take out in a straight fight, Gand needs to use the chaos of the situation to get away.

Luscious struggles with Trollo the Toydarian, as the neurotoxin didn’t completely take out the small gangster. Trollo squeezes free, only to be picked up and bashed against the ground by the Trandoshan. With their target knocked out, Luscious makes a run for the end of the gully. He’s blocked by the Gang Leader, having circled in on his swoop. The Leader had previously failed to gain control of his men, so he was going after the crew on his own. Since Fernando set the swoops on a delayed power drain last time, I ruled any Threats on the Leader’s role would cause the bike to shut down. A straight success meant it was still up and running.

(One regret was I failed to name the Gang Leader and the Gamorrean. I really like the Apocalypse World rule of “name everybody” and I think it would have given the NPCs an extra dimension. As it stood they were shallower than I wanted them to be. Plus, it being Star Wars, they would have names because they would have action figures.)

At this point the ash cloud is burning gangers, meaning they aren’t getting coordinated minion attacks on any of the crew, and Clint-E has climbed down to take on the Gamorrean himself. It’s a brutal fistfight between the two. Gand has caught up to Luscious and fires his blaster at the swoop. This is where things broke down. I thought I understood the vehicle rules well enough, but this simple action stymied me. The swoop didn’t have any armor, how did it soak damage? Did it just take all of the damage from the blaster shot? This lead to me flipping back-and-forth through the vehicle chapter, grinding the game to a halt. Eventually I just said the heck with it and ruled that the shot had indeed taken out the swoop, and it was now sputtering smoke and drifting to the ground.

Luscious then takes this opportunity to attack the swoop with his vibroaxe, rolling spectacularly with numerous Advantages. I had encouraged the players to contribute on deciding Advantages and Threats’ interpretations and almost as a whole they decided this meant the swoop exploded. This was probably outside of the rules’ scope, but several factors played into me going along with it:
• It was getting late and we needed to wrap things up.
• My fuzziness with the vehicle rules meant I couldn’t counter with a stricter interpretation.
• One of the game’s GM advice is to not let combat drag too long.
• They were very excited about it.
• It was cool.
The Gamorrean still had 1 wound and the Gang Leader was untouched. Playing out every knock-down, drag-out step of the combat would suck the life out of it. So the swoop explodes in one of those action movie fireballs that knocks everyone off their feet, but doesn’t do any real damage. The villains are in no condition to keep fighting, and the crew is able to make their escape and collect their bounty.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire – Session 2

Characters:

• Clint-E
• Gand
• Lusciuos
• Fernando
• Felgru

Obligation: None

A full house for this one, so it’s back to our initial adventure thread. Our Heroes are out to claim the bounty on gangster defector Trollo. First off is the Obligation roll. With all five characters in the mix, the crew’s total Obligation tops out at 95. That’s huge, and there’s no way somebody’s Obligation doesn’t get triggered. Naturally I roll a 98 on the percentile dice.

Felgru’s player wasn’t there for the last part of this adventure, so we needed to fit in the character to the action. I wish I, or anyone else at the table (I opened things up to suggestions), had something brilliant and creative, but we did not. So we went with simple: the Rodian slicer was securing the ship and had just caught up to the rest of the crew. He was now perched on the rise with Clint. A little hand-wavy, but it worked. Felgru checks out the antenna array, noting it is acting as a beacon for an incoming ship. Advantages on the role mean the ship is not nearby.

Gand continues working the crowd among the swoop gangers, handing out spice and encouraging a distracted party atmosphere. As the evening builds, he sows a little dissent among the now high gangers, making the appropriate Deception and Charms rolls to get the chaos of some fistfights and shoving matches.

Meanwhile, Fernando has sneaked over to the generator recharging the swoops. He attempts to rewire it so the bikes’ power is drained instead of refreshed. Success with Threats. I gave the players two options on how this could be interpreted. With the Success the swoops are definitely drained, however: 1) the power is drained at much slower rate than planned or 2) the power is drained immediately, dropping the bikes to the ground. The players opt for the slow drain, taking the safer bet of a delayed pay-off rather than the sure thing that tips their hand immediately. Fernando gets the generator to begin siphoning power, but the display is full of spinning wheels and progress bars that move at a crawl. The astromech then checks out the old Trade Federation mining equipment in the gully. Some of it is still operational, with the monitors detecting strange underground activity. The players file this away as a potential future distraction.

At this point the ruckus in camp has caught Trollo’s attention and emerges from his tent, shouting at the gangers to restore order. Luscious takes this opportunity to make a grab for the Toydarian and it’s time to roll initiative.

Luscious tackles Trollo, getting him in a hold. Success with Advantages mean the Trandoshan begins to run off with their quarry in a bear hug. The Gamorrean bodyguard goes next, and wallops Gand with a vibroaxe. Clint takes a shot at the Gamorrean, and his two advantages translate to the axe being knocked out of the pig alien’s hand. Gand then tries to jump onto Luscious’s back and dose Trollo with a neurotoxin. This seems complex, but interesting, and I’m wondering where the player is going with this. I allow the attempt, throwing in a couple of black dice into the mix. The main action is the drugging, so that’s a Skullduggery roll, something the character excels at making it a success.

Felgru then attempts to join in the fight. He tries to slide down the antenna cable, from the top of the ridge into the camp and fails with one advantage. I had previously determined this was long range and checked the falling damage rules. Oh. Thirty points of damage. A Coordination check yields one success, but that would only mitigate one point of damage. Rules-as-written, the Rodian should be splattered. I don’t want to punish a player for trying a cool move, one I encouraged without fully knowing the consequences. So I decided the cable slowed his descent enough that, while being bashed around on the rocks, Felgru was just down to half his Wounds and Strain total.

That’s where we ran out of time. Next session we’ll see if the crew can escape the doped-up biker gang.

Featured image: Grey Planet by Aaron Wilkerson, https://wilkersonart.wordpress.com/

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire – Flashback Sidetrack

Characters:
Clint-E
Felgru
Fernando
Obilgation: Clint-E (Family)

A small wrench was thrown into our continuing saga. Felgru’s player was able to make it this week, but not Gand’s or Luscious’s. This made continuing the hunt for Trollo where we left it problematic. But, people still wanted to play, so off to Plan B. I would scrape together something using the introductory adventure in the Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook, Trouble Brewing, and make it a flashback adventure.

Now, I had read Trouble Brewing on my first pass through the core book and I had felt pretty “meh” about it. Too much of the early part of the adventure involves the characters wandering around the spaceport, talking to random NPCs, and taking in the atmosphere. Which is fine if that’s what works at your table. But for me, this ends up frustrating the GM as he tries to drive the characters towards the interesting bits and frustrating the players if they don’t feel they have the agency to make things interesting. I would prefer just to start the adventure with everybody already at the interesting part. Additionally, this is a weeknight game with adults-with-jobs; we’re lucky if we get two total hours of playtime a session. The players themselves will waste enough time with meandering tales of half-remembered Venture Brothers episodes. There’s no reason for the characters to tangent off as well.

Trouble Brewing is all about tracking down a stolen astromech droid, R4-W9, on Formos to retrieve its navigational information that leads to the bounty hunter Big Bad. The adventure has a confrontation with the smuggler gang droid-nappers about midway through. I decided this would be the crux of my reskinning. Taking a clue from Clint-E’s triggered obligation, R4 was one of Clint’s old crew and had gone missing. The emancipated astromech was full of valuable Kessel Run data, making him a target. Clint put a new crew together, consisting of Felgru and Fernando, and tracked the droid to Formos. This is where we began.

http://fashionablygeek.com/t-shirts/the-kessel-run-12/

Here’s where I promptly violate my own above rule and start the game not at the action, but with the investigation. Felgru and Fernando are predominately non-combat characters, so it made sense to give them an opportunity to shine a bit before the blasters came out. The crew begins at the spaceport cantina, a droid-friendly establishment run by a Devaronian named Dobah. (This version of the owner came out of me skimming the description as I’m trying to run the game – species, name, attitude, go.) With Streetwise and Underworld roles some Gamorrean dockworkers tip them off on Daro Blunt’s smuggler gang. The gang has been making a name for itself lately and the workers point out one of its members at the bar – a scrawny punk named Spir Fraxis.

The crew tracks Spir back to the gang’s warehouse, hoping this will lead them to R4. Fernando attempts to case the place. He fails with threats. I determine that he not only finds no easy access points, but also feels the infrared sights of a rooftop sniper. Clint takes a position on a nearby building, but fails to cleanly take out the sniper. The assassin droid is wounded in the ensuing gunfight and score a final hit on the sniper. It’s a success with threats. The sniper tumbles dead through the roof hatch. If the gang didn’t know the crew was there already, they do now. This seemed good cliffhanger to end on.

Some takeaways:

• I’m still unconfident on the dice mechanic. I like it, but interpreting the results aren’t always easy. I’m trying to stay focused on keeping the action moving and not throw up roadblocks. Make failure interesting and all that.
• I’m not sure if and when we’ll get back to this. It may get completed on its own, or parts of it may be incorporated into the other adventure.
• The Gamorreans had an Ugnaught hanging out with them. It seemed reasonable.
• There was one tired musician in the bar playing the “Cantina Band” song. We decided that song is the Star Wars equivalent of “Freebird” – much to everyone’s annoyance somebody always requests it.

Using Pinterest for Gaming Inspiration

As part of my preparation for the Star Wars mini-campaign, I put together a Pinterest board of inspiring images. I got the idea from a blog post interviewing Contessa GMs on what tools they use. Pinterest was one of those social media sites I was initially excited about, then rapidly lost interest once I couldn’t figure out how it was useful. It took several years and a lightning bolt from the Contessa post to reach the realization of “RPG campaign inspiration.”

Pinterest works like an online bulletin board. You take pictures from around the internet (or other Pinterest boards) and “pin” them to your themed board. I knew my initially inspiration for this campaign was classic Ralph McQuarrie concept art and Spaghetti Westerns. So I created a board and started pinning. This has drifted to pictures of ships, robots, aliens, characters and landscapes. Anything that spoke to the feel I wanted for the game. I’m a particular fan of in-universe propaganda posters.

Star Wars propaganda poster

Found on cunaka.deviantart.com

When I was planning the first adventure on the ashy mining world of Brucolac, I pinned several landscapes and concept art pieces of barren, grey mountains and volcanic badlands. This created the visual cues for me to help the setting come to life.

It’s been surprisingly fun to find pictures of armored trooper and cyborg bounty hunters to be the basis of future villains to plague my PCs. I recommend it as a great tool to shake out some inspiration.

Here is my Edge of the Empire board: