Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Overheard last weekend at my FLGS

Last weekend I spent a good chunk of time sitting on a stool at Games Plus playing in Chgowiz's Dark Ages campaign. When my thief character wasn't fighting goblins and pillaging ancient libraries, I listened in on another D&D campaign taking place one table away. Here's a random sampling of the quips I overheard:

"A month passes and the rains finally stop."

"All your hair falls out, so that means your Charisma decreases by 2."

"Alright, it's just you guys and the one-armed shapeshifter left in the room. What do you do?"

Heady stuff, eh?

I asked them what they were playing and got a pretty gratifying answer: "Well, it's D&D—but we're using little bits from all the editions, and it's worked for us for a long time."

The thing was, they couldn't have been older than high-school age, all of 'em. So for them to be talking about playing for a long time, even a few years, well that suggests that these enthusiastic chaps have been playing D&D—specifically a mishmash homebrew arrangement—from a pretty young age.

And that's pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bridging the gap of the miniatures debate

The great miniatures debate perplexes me. Do I need to use miniatures in my fantasy game? No.

But do I like miniatures because they are super cool and a nifty way to visualize characters and scenes? Yes.

I use miniatures only because they're awesome, not because the players are threatening to revolt if we don't map out every square inch of the battlefield and place our figures accordingly. We spend half our time simply pawing through the piles of figures, finding unnoticed gems in my collection and wondering when they'll make an appearance in the game. Miniatures also serve to plant the seeds for a new character concept. (Example: "Whoa—what do you think that sorcerer is carrying in his backpack?")

I use D&D minis and Mage Knight pieces because they're affordable and because I can throw them in a cardboard box between sessions without having to worry about chipping the paint. Yes, I play wargames and paint miniatures myself. I'm just not particularly inspired to paint minis for roleplaying games, y'know?

The point is, my group uses miniatures not as a crutch, but as a way of enhancing our gaming experience. The system we're using (Savage Worlds) is actually written to accomodate and encourage the use of miniatures, but we've had no problem using the rules as-is without leaning on minis.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fully formed characters springing forth from the brow of Zeus

One of the things I'd do over with my Autumn Frontiers campaign is to curtail my instinctual desire to give the players pretty much whatever they want at character creation, within the bounds of the typical "buy what you what with your starting money" setup.

We're now 10 sessions into my campaign, which is set up as a location-based fantasy sandbox and interpreted through Savage Worlds. What I'm seeing is that the players are quite content to use their starting funds ($500 in Savage Worlds) to buy a few really cool bits of gear—and then cling to these items throughout the campaign, forsaking anything else that might come up during their exploration of the wilderness. And it's tough to deny them these pieces of equipment because they're so essential to the players' character concepts. (Example: "I want to play a dark elf who fights with a sickle. Can I buy a sickle?") This concept has backfired because nothing they find out there comes close to being as cool as the neato stuff they bought at character creation. I mean, the sickle-wielding dark elf isn't going to put aside his trademark sickle unless it freakin' breaks apart in his hands.

This is pretty much at odds with classic fantasy campaigning, where characters would encounter new and better equipment, weapons and spells, trading up as they went along to increase their overall potency in the campaign.

Here's another example: Out of an abundance of shared enthusiasm and generosity, I allowed our paladin character to pay a ton of money for a magical sword during character creation. It didn't boast outrageous damage, and it fits really well with his character concept (a paladin serving a flame goddess). It's all well and good—but no other magical sword will ever interest him as much as the one he's carrying right now. After 10 sessions, this character has begun to feel like a toy action figure that was taken out of its box, fully formed and ready to kick ass.

I recognized this during our last session, and I did something about it—I had the ghouls scavenge the paladin's magic sword and his large shield from his paralyzed body during a particularly brutal battle. They ran off with it, and the paladin scourged the lands in search of his special sword, which he found at the session's end.

But I felt lame about the whole affair, like I (the GM) was somehow punishing the player for something. We talked it over afterward, and there were no hard feelings, but still.

Should characters get whatever they can afford at character creation? The answer is probably no, but at the same time it's important for GMs to understand that not every player wants to start off as a bottom-of-the-barrel fighting-man who has to go after goblins with naught but a sharp stick and some lucky dice rolls. Heirloom equipment is fun. How can it be employed to both reward players and keep them excited about venturing forth again and again into the wilderness?

I also think I just need to play up the notion of equipment breaking and degrading over time out in the wilderness. Shields and bucklers don't last forever. If a backpack gets wet, it could ruin stuff stored inside. Chainmail rusts and weakens under repeated blows. Cloaks and robes can mildew and rot in damp weather. And magic swords become instant targets for monsters with more than a shred of intelligence...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Piecing Together a Megadungeon

Like many RPG bloggers, I've lately been bitten by the megadungeon bug. As I mentioned earlier, my sandbox fantasy campaign is moving into adolescence, having hit a few important milestones recently. The story is now largely in the players' hands. With that in mind, I'm starting to think about a tentpole dungeon thematically tie together a lot of the threats they've faced so far in the wilderness.

The thing is, I've never designed a megadungeon, and right now I'm content to spend my free time actually playing our game, not necessarily creating stuff to put in it. My creative period was last summer, and it was grand. Now, I'm more excited about playing.

With that in mind, I'm going to start piecing together a multi-level megadungeon using various free dungeon levels available on the net. I'll fit these floors together as logically as possible, retaining the monsters and traps that "fit" with my overall idea (and there is one!), trimming off passageways and chambers where necessary and generally jettisoning the stuff that just ain't right.

The goal isn't to create a funhouse dungeon or a mishmash of rooms bereft of any logic, and I freely admit that I may have to take drastic liberties with the material. With any luck, though, I'll be able to string together at least a few floors to create a mysterious, scary dungeon to anchor a fairly large portion of my wilderness map.

I've got a lot of fodder to work with: Amityville Mike has been reliably cataloging his work on Stonehell; Jeff Rients offered up a wealth of information via Under Xylarthen's Tower; James M. started things off with The Ruined Monastery in Fight On #1.

Looking elsewhere, I hope to snag a level or two from Sham's Dim Expanses. Likewise, The Darkness Beneath (itself a collaborative dungeon) has been getting a lot of attention in the pages of Fight On! And Chgowiz's handywork will surely make an appearance via his nifty one-page dungeon adventures.

See what I did just then? I name-checked a bunch of prolific bloggers while casually informing them of my desire to take their creative works, pull them apart and reassemble the pieces in odd ways. I think that's the ethos of the old-school renaissance, and I flatter myself with the thought that they--and the other half-dozen gamers out there who will no doubt provide fodder for my megadungeon--would be pleased.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sandbox Recap: Into the Wilds

I gamed twice in the last couple weeks, most recently in Chgowiz's OSRIC/1e game, which is modeled after the West Marches approach to group adventuring. So far we've played three sessions in that campaign, and the player mix has been different each time. In fact, Chgowiz and myself have been the only two static players; everyone else has rotated in and out.

Prior to that, I refereed the 7th session of Autumn Frontiers, my own sandbox fantasy campaign we're playing with the Savage Worlds ruleset. We've reached an interesting point in the game; several of the players are about to move into the "seasoned" experience bracket, which is my signal to start weaving a few of the disparate plot threads together.

True to form, Autumn Frontiers is set up like a traditional sandbox, with location-based encounters populating a largely unexplored wilderness setting. But each region of the map is rich in detail and mystery, and at this point the players have explored perhaps 30 percent of the whole wilderness.

I'm also handing over a few in-game tasks to the players. The shared table map, which I've been tidying up between games, is now theirs to use or ignore. It's got most of the main stuff penciled in already, but the rest is up to them. Same with dungoen mapping--next time we delve into some ruins, it's up to them to keep a running map of where they've been and how to get out. This particular task is quite a lot of fun, actually, as last Saturday's game with Chgowiz showed. My character has been mapping out the kobold-infested mines as we go along, and there's certainly a sense of accomplishment when the referee's description matches up with your own hand-drawn map.

In any case, that 30 percent (a relatively small area) has yielded up a lot of hooks, encounters and characters. There are a few common threads holding everything together, and over the next few sessions I'll start investigating how it all fits together. If the players show interest, we'll advance the plot together. If not, well, there's always another adventure waiting just over the next hill--quite literally in this case.