Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Running games for large groups of people

Participating (and especially running) games for large groups of people can be a difficult enterprise, but it can sometimes be quite rewarding. I recently participated as a player in two different large gaming get togethers. The first of these was to restart a gritty/old-school/fantasy/low-magic/wilderness/sandbox savage worlds campaign. The second was to continue a fairly long-running D&D 2e campaign with an overlapping group of people that's much more magical, goofier, and pulpier in tone. I really enjoy both. Although neither of these games have involved huge numbers of people at any period in time, many have flitted in and out of the games. The games respectively involved 8 and 9 participants in our most recent sessions.

In the gritty/old-school/fantasy/low-magic/wilderness/sandbox game, we didn't actually play - we simply introduced our characters (which took a little bit), checked out some of the old maps and rehashed some of the old plot threads, and devolved into heroclix and magic tables. Wow. I guess I'm a geek.

Anyway, you could feel the enthusiasm for the game building. Pat, the GM and main writer on this site, was leery of GMing so many people, but man, people wanted to play. That said, we have players of all different experience levels with the campaign, savage worlds, and rpg'ing itself. It'll be a challenge for sure.

My D&D game a couple days later game me some insight into the nature of the challenge. It went off pretty well. Lots of fun around the table, but there were some expected problems. First, it was a little slow. I was the "caller" for the group to speed things along, but with 8 players, that's just what happens anyway. Second, there were some very inexperienced players (including one who was a pure rookie), and DM conversations with them naturally slowed down the game. Third, we were focusing on picking up the pace so much toward the back half of the game, that some of the visuals and details faded into the background as we focused on systematically checking out all the rooms of the dungeon and ploughing through the mechanics of combat.

So, what are the lessons of all this?

(1) In combat, the DM should press people for fast and hard responses about what they're doing, or else they do nothing.  It is combat, after all.  More leeway should be given to beginners.

(2) Newbies should have a buddy to make sure they know what they can do and don't hold up play in the middle of a fast paced sequence.

(3) A caller out of combat is good.  But the players need to breathe when they're out of combat and make collective decisions about some things (e.g. not which way to turn at a dungeon intersection, but definitely how to storm the keep or whether to turn back home).  Still, it's worth it to set a clock for these sorts of conversations (maybe at 10 minutes or so?).

(4) The newbies matter most.  Some of the newbies thrive on character stuff.  For example, we had one newbie talking in character like bob dylan for 3 hours.  The newbies also get a real kick out of the descriptive stuff, both hearing stuff from the DM about the environment and making up for themselves how their magic missiles look ("how do your magic missiles look, newbie dude?" "Uh... hmmm... like glowing bright blue arrows emerging from the outstretched palms of my hands that arc instead of going in a straight line." "cool!").

But it's worth noting that some newbies just fade in a big group like this, especially outside of combat.  I'm not really sure what the solution is for this. Except for maybe introducing these people to gaming in a smaller setting.

(5) Don't skimp on the descriptions and the character moments. This is probably the first thing to go in a big group, but it should probably be the last for the kinds of games I'm most interested in. If I want a more tactical game, I'll play heroclix or something. But if I'm playing Prometheor of the Righteous Flame in Savage Worlds, I want to imagine his self-righteous paladin ways, his flaming sword, and his placid smile as shit hits the fan. And I want to do it while he's having a disagreement with Adabraxes Stormcrow, the White Wolf of the North, his shapechanging friend who's a barbarian psychic detective. It's weird, but it's one of the biggest reasons why I play these games.

(6) If you're going to shoot for any ideal, shoot for the Justice League (says the comic book fan). At least with the classic lineup, there was some niche protection, but some nice areas of overlap. The villains and scenarios could be interesting in themselves, but the real joy was to see the team interaction - both in terms of powers/tactics and personality - in these wacky scenarios. Somehow, the spotlight still needs to remain on the characters... as a team. Not the DM. Not the players. The characters. Without that, any ensemble lineup will fall apart. And that's what this is really all about - how to make an ensemble game hum.

My SAGE submission - Random Treasure

I almost forgot, but I jumped on board Zak's Secret Arneson Gift Exchange in honor of Gygax's birthday. I was sent a random request by one of the 50 or so folks who chose to take part...my request was to come up with a list of 20 or so random non-magical treasure items, so here they are!

Roll 1d20:

1. A small leather purse containing six pearls. The pearls themselves are valued at 75gp each, but rumors persist that each contains a kernel of platinum at its core. So who wants to smash one open and find out? The pouch and pearls weigh one pound.

2. A medium-sized urn filled with three double handfuls of ruby dust and sealed with wax. The ruby dust is a vital component of certain magic spells, though it is not magical itself, and wizards will pay varying prices for doses of the stuff, from 100gp for a pinch to 1,000gp for a handful. The filled urn weighs 25 pounds.

3. A leather-bound copy of Tales of the Southern Prelates, by Master Magician Hoeth. The book weighs 7 pounds and is valued at 800gp.

4. A small icon of a hawk in flight, wrought in silver and wrapped in rough green felt. The trinket fetches 30sp, but it holds special significance for dwarves, who will pay 15gp for it. The idol weighs less than 1 pound.

5. A pair of supple calfskin boots, each with a silver buckles. The pair is valued at 30gp, though the clasps could each sell for 10gp. The boots weigh 16 pounds.

6. A boar's tusk upon which the word "Vainglorious" is etched in an elven dialect. The boar's tusk is valued at 200gp and weighs 2 pounds.

7. A roc's feather, which is at least as long as an adventurer's leg but weighs just 5 pounds. The feather is quite unwieldy, being so large, but it is valued at 1,100gp.

8. A necklace of polished agate weighing one pound and valued at 90sp.

9. A hollowed-out wyvern egg the size of a large dinner platter weighing just 1 pound. Its surface is painted with beautiful scenes from a high lord's court, but it is very fragile, requiring a saving throw if it is jostled or dropped. It is valued at 400gp.

10. A matched pair of giant beetle mandibles weighing 9 pounds. They are glossy black and valued at 150gp.

11. A fist-sized chunk of amber with a jeweled ring encased inside. The amber piece weighs 3 pounds and is valued at 215gp. The ring would need a professional appraisal to determine its worth...

12. Three sticks of wax, each the size of one's finger. The wax has flecks of gold embedded in it and each stick is valued at 15gp. Each stick weighs 1 pound.

13. A tarnished brass trumpet wrapped in animal hide. The trumpet is valued at 90gp and weighs 12 pounds.

14. A prancing unicorn crafted out of brass and enameled in a rich purple color. Fittings and latches suggest that the small decoration was once affixed to a helm. The unicorn weighs 15 pounds and is valued at 230gp.

15. A sundial made of polished silver and carved with elven runes. The sundial weighs 40 pounds and is valued at 750gp.

16. A set of jeweler's tools in a leather case valued at 100gp and weighing 8 pounds. Hidden inside one pocket is an uncut diamond valued at 500gp.

17. A drinking horn banded with alternating gold, silver, and platinum rings. It weighs 10 pounds and is valued at 450gp.

18. A bolt of patterned silk valued at 100gp per square yard — or more, depending its rarity. The bundle of fabric weighs 15 pounds.

19. The arm from must have been an ornate throne. The arm alone is carved from mahogany and encrusted with six 500gp gemstones.

20. A potted plant in a stone urn weighing 30 pounds. The plant is an eastern lotus, which produces 1d6 blossoms each month (with proper care and feeding). When burned, the blossoms have a powerful intoxicating effect. Each flower can be sold for 1,250gp. The plant itself is beyond value.

I should also mention that my own request, sent to a random participant, was answered as well. I asked for quite a bit...in particular, I wanted a map for a particular area of my wilderness campaign. And my SAGer delivered! I'll look over the submission and hopefully post it here soon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unique scrolls in fantasy RPGs

I never was too keen on generic magic items, to the point that I ended up running a low-magic fantasy campaign specifically to get away from them. Ring of invisibility, bracers of defense, wand of paralysis...it all struck me as way too goofy. Same with scrolls — the charm of fantasy falls flat when I describe how the wizened mage hands the characters a scroll of water walking. Eh.

The obvious solution is to come up with unique names for spells, magic items, potions and scrolls. Which I've resolved to do, starting with scrolls. In particular, I like the idea that they're part of some larger body of research or some school of magic. So it's not a magic missile scroll, it's Vendamyr's Annotations on the Application of Force. A piddly light scroll becomes Deleterio's Bright Idea. Protection from evil becomes A Survey of the Nether Voids and Their Denizens, by the Arch-Wizard Foclis. And so on.

Not all generic names are bad. Renaming just a few injects a lot of character into my milieu, and it also has a powerfully beneficial effect on my creativity.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Play report: Song of Blades & Heroes

I downloaded Ganesha Games' Song of Blades & Heroes last month with much anticipation. Here, I thought, was the miniatures game I was looking for: fast, rules-lite and beholden to no particular manufacturer of miniatures. I could paw through my miniatures collection, scrape together a motley handful and create a warband in 10 minutes flat.

All these expectation were exceeded in my first game, which took place last weekend at Chicagoland Games. I met up with Brian, a friend and fellow player in ChicagoWiz's Dark Ages AD&D game. Brian was in the same boat as me: he wanted a super casual minis game that retained a bit of tactical appeal. Like me, he had tried Mordheim but found it lacking.

Anyway, we were joined by Tim, who had actually played Song of Blades & Heroes before (and boasted some keen custom miniatures to boot). We played two games: the first with about 8 models per side, the second with about 15 models per side (it was a two-vs-one game where Brian and I teamed up to take on Tim).

In the game, players take turns activating miniatures one at a time, generally using them to move, shoot and attack where appropriate. To activate a figure, players roll between 1 and 3d6. Each dice that rolls at or higher than the figure's Quality value (one of only two stats for each figure! simplicity!) grants one action. BUT if a player ever rolls two failures on a single activation, his turn is over. This means that if you get greedy and try to squeeze too many actions out of a low Quality figure, your turn can end prematurely — leaving one whole flank exposed, as happened in my game against Brian.

So there's some risk — and some tactical decision-making — that goes along with activating your troops. Do you roll three dice for your lizardman warchief, knowing that if he fails your turn will be over? Or do you play it safe and roll one dice, knowing that you will only be able to do one thing with your guy?

Beyond activation, combat is a simple d6 roll with each figure's combat score added to the result. A few other modifiers get thrown in as well, stuff that's pretty familiar to anyone who's ever played D&D 3.x. If you double your opponent's score, he dies. If you beat him without doubling, a couple other cool effects can happen.

In any case, the sheer speed of the game and the fact that you can use a huge variety of miniatures won me over. I daresay this game would be an excellent wargame option for folks seeking to add a little strategy into their D&D campaigns. And it's perfect for my beer and pretzels miniatures crowd.