24 January 2014

For love of Arduin

Mm, I know, I've had a couple months off.  First it was the holidays and the burnout from my extreme rehearsal/concert schedule towards the end of the year, then I was quite seriously ill for a month, and haven't yet really recovered.  Still, 'tis time to get back on track.

At the dawn of RPGs, White Box D&D was so seriously and obviously broken that pretty much fifteen minutes after it was published, a bunch of people came out with sourcebooks of new classes, races, plug-in systems and other material to juice it up.

Happily, I started GMing a couple years after that, enough time for some of those people to get their stuff into print.  There was the seminal APAzine Alarums & Excursions, where dozens of people from around the world sent in contributions and discussions, back in the pre-Internet forum days.  (It’s still being published, too.)  There was Judges Guild, an outfit that created the first large scale setting and the first published RPG city.  I was a contributor to A&E for a few years, and came upon a lot of rules that made it into my VD&D campaign, as well as made a number of contacts.  The JG City State of the Invincible Overlord was my first campaign setting, and my game world still is based off of the original JG “Wilderlands” maps.

Then there was the Arduin Grimoire.

The work of Dave Hargrave, a Vietnam vet living in the San Francisco area, the Arduin campaign was an artifact of the West Coast gaming scene in the 70s -- that gonzo, very high-entropy era of the multiverses, where characters hopped from one VD&D campaign to another and no one worried about system incompatibility, and 70th level characters weren't self-evidently ridiculous.  Hargrave was the first known GM to do cross-genre runs – light sabers and blasters and wizards and demons and all.  Self-published, in tiny print, and with the quasi-amateurish illos common to RPGs of the time, the three original books of the Grimoire had a disproportionate impact in the pre-AD&D era ... not only in rules, but in setting detail that no one up until then had attempted.

The only contact I had with Hargrave himself was in the pages of A&E (I still have a warm glow from him calling me a clever guy), but like many another gamer in the seventies, I mined Arduin like I was strip mining silver.

The calendar.  The moons.  Star-powered mages.  Deodanths.  Phraints.  "Flesh tastes bad to monsters."  Special abilities charts in general.  Rune weavers. Prismatic walls.  Spell Of The Red Death.  Blaze Of Glory.  The ever-popular Curse Of Tindalos!  The very concept of modifiers for facing.  The dreaded critical hit #37-38 (genitals torn off).  Weather tables.  Air sharks.  Kill Kittens!  The optional appearance chart.  All those lovely variant classes.  "A core hit is like a shell going off between your legs."  Multiversal's extensive price lists.  The Red Shiva Society ("Red Death to all!").  Owned and inherited equipment at startup. The revised hit point system. Aphrodisiac Aura.  The Shadow Assassin. Tamra Shadowfire walks my world, as does the Trinity, and though she has never yet been encountered, the mere rumor of Shardra the Castrator has send decades worth of parties a-tremble.

I've run GURPS for nearly thirty years now – and, alas, Dave Hargrave passed away not long after I started – but it is surprising in retrospect how much of Arduin still colors my gameworld.

11 January 2014

Starting From Scratch (pt VI)

The Dessert Menu

So here we are at the end of the series -- for now, anyway -- and it struck me to include a menu of miscellaneous tips to make the startup a bit easier.

The first is, I find, crucial: save everything.  This won't pay off in the short term, but it will in the long term.

I have a folder in front of me, a battered old thing labeled "Old Adventure Stuff."  Random notes and scribblings, cheat sheets for enemy hordes, maps, clipart, adventure writeups, notes players have slipped me, town handouts, mercenary companies, TOOs for set-piece battles, descriptions of books.  There's an excerpted scene I wrote from a play (the group were masquerading as actors, and I evilly forced them to read through the scene), there's poetry I wrote for divination purposes, there are lists of pirate ships.  The oldest slips in there are notes I scribbled during workbreaks in the mid-80s.  Thirty years on, it's about two inches thick.

You can recycle these.  One of those notes from the 80s I never did use, until I pulled it out about six years ago, and it turned out to be crucial.  The castle design you use with your party next month may turn out to save you time with another one five months -- or five years -- from now.  Beyond that, since I run a sandbox campaign, there are just times when I prepare materials that just don't get used.  The players pass on going into the ancient ruins?  They stay in the city, so they never encounter the bandit gang?  They decide not to split the party and stick instead to Strongpoint B, so the key NPC who assaults Strongpoint A never gets used?  Don't growl in frustration and tear those up -- stick them into the Old Adventure Stuff folder.

The second, a tangential item, is to put mook NPC lists up on your computer.  I've got an example on the right, of a well-connected gang of thugs one party had to deal with.  Most of it is, of course, system mechanics, but there are a number of symbols and abbreviations which tell me race, background and other key bits of info, and moreover there's a line or two on each that personalizes them.  Not a great deal, but enough to make them more than faceless red shirts.

This is the third iteration of, roughly, the same bunch.  I've changed the names, fiddled with some of the weapons, fiddled with some of the descriptions.  The players never knew, and it took me all of ten minutes to do that much.  The more you do this as word processing files, the more you can play with it at will.  And, after all, a gang or a bandit band does have some of the same archetypes: the leader, the sullen lieutenant who'd like things rougher/kinder than the boss, the friendly fellow, the psychopath, the one who knows just enough magic to get in trouble, the heavy hitter, the wannabe with more balls than experience, the sneaky skirmisher, the committed one, the coward.

The third is this: unless you really get off on it, and you've got the spare time to do it, don't put in more detail than your players will be enthusiastic about.  A run sticks out in my memory of a GM who, when our party was taking a trip on a ship, insisted on reading out the curricula vitae of every damn member of the crew, down to the scullion and the bilgesweepers.  I wasn't the only player with glazed eyes, fifteen minutes into his recitation, because I really only care about the NPCs with whom I interact (quite leaving aside that I ought not be hearing about the details of NPC lives when there's no realistic way for me to have known them!).  I've known GMs to give loving details about the furniture in rooms, describe in minute detail the different fabrics and styles of bodyguard garb, insist on pointing out how many tiles of which color and pattern are on that floor there.

There are several reasons why this is a no-no for startup campaigns.  First off, you don't want to bore your players out of the gate, and this style will do just that ... even if it wasn't the case that a lot of players just want to know who to whack and what the loot is.  Secondly, it builds a lot of delay into run sessions, not only in all the descriptions, but in players assuming that there's a reason why you're so intent on telling them the exact style of the inlays as well as the woods being used.  It's very difficult to get players away from the sidetrack once they've convinced themselves that it's a key plot element ... why would you have mentioned such a seemingly trivial detail otherwise?

Fourthly, steal liberally.  There are a lot of excellent materials out there from a lot of companies: Columbia Games' Harn and Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder, whether or not you're a fan of the Harnmaster or D&D systems (and I'm most certainly not), both have published excellent setting works.  There are also websites full of free stuff you can use -- lythia.com (which has Harn fan material) and santharia.com are two of my favorites.  Just change names, file off the serial numbers, and you have heaps of NPCs, businesses, customs and plots to use in filling out your setting.  

Finally, in a startup campaign, you just don't have the prep time to waste.  Even in the low-key startup setting I recommend, there are still the dozen or so businesses to create in that small village ... the dozen key NPCs, some background detail on the region, the exact particulars of the first adventure, setting details about the world, its religions, its customs, those strange weird animals ... all of it.  You've gotten all that done already?  Very industrious of you, but much Sooner than Later, your players are going to be washing the muck of their home village off their feet, and head for the Big City.  That's some serious prep work: not a dozen NPCs or a dozen businesses, but a hundred or more.  If you've got the spare time early on, might as well get started!

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

04 January 2014

Starting from scratch (pt V)

The Main Course

Alright ... so you’re writing your first adventure.  Awesome!  There are some principles you should keep in mind:

* Format.  Something that might help you is the Darlington format I cite in this post.

You need a hook (why the players want to do this), a problem (what is it that they’re supposed to do?), complications (why it won’t be easy for them to do it), resolution (what does solving the problem look like?) and fun stuff  (silly bits that will churn up the mood if things get too serious). 

All this is important; if you’ve got a party of newbies, you want to give them a reason to come back.  If you’ve got a party of veterans, you want them to think you’ve got what it takes to GM.

* Knowledge.  Know what your characters can do.  If possible, have copies of the character sheets.  One thing I do is to put together a quick-reference cheat sheet (an example at right) of the PCs, their key stats and combat info, and such advantages and disadvantages that might impact play.  It’s a problem if you design adventures that can only be solved through skills the PCs lack, or if you hinge your plot on solving a difficulty that a skill or spell you forgot can easily circumvent.  (That being said, those skills and spells are there to solve problems.  The result of a rogue who never gets to use her burglary skills is a grumpy player.)

* Time Management.  You’re creating a setting ... an entire world.  Even on the low-key scale I suggested in earlier installments of “Starting From Scratch,” you’ve got a lot to do.  So, rather obviously, you don’t want to spend twenty hours penning an adventure.  That’s a pace that’ll have you burning out quickly, even if you don’t have to hold down a job, raise a kid, get through college or pay attention to a SO or spouse.

So let’s keep things simple.  Don’t put a trap on every door.  Don’t create a magical item for every mook guard.  Don’t develop more information for NPCs than will really be needed ... you don’t need a full character sheet for each of those guards, you don’t need combat stats for the village schoolteacher.  Don’t spend all your time planning for the players to advance through the castle gate, when they might cross you up by going over the wall, or by bypassing the castle altogether.  Which leads to ...

* Options.  My opinion is colored in that I run a “sandbox” campaign, where – within reason – I let players go where they want and decide what they want to do.  The opposite way of doing so is a “railroad” campaign, where the GM wants the players to handle a problem in one particular way, and will go to some lengths to cajole, manipulate or (if need be) force them to do so.   I dislike railroad campaigns.  I want my choices to matter.  And your players likely will too.

So think about this some.  Your players just need to get past that door, huh?  A railroad campaign might require them to pick the lock, and if they don’t have a locksmith, tough.  Me?  Well, doesn’t some guard or steward have those keys, and how do we get them off of the person?  Is there a ceiling crawl space?  Can we break down the door without too much noise?  What side are the hinges on?

This often requires a nimble mind, because I guarantee that you can’t figure out every option beforehand.

So ... what’s that first adventure?  If you took my advice in Part III and have a party of teenage friends from the same village, you’ve got a classic ready-and-waiting: the party was out on a picnic/hunting frolic/visiting the next village over, and they saw a large pall of smoke over the homestead ... Dashing back, they find that a bandit/mercenary/orc raid came through, torching a third of the village, kidnaping some folk, and stealing anything they could usefully carry.  At least one PC has had his home torched; at least one PC has had parents killed.  Anyone who could meaningfully resist the bandits was killed or wounded.

So ... it’s up to the teenagers to save the critically wounded, organize the bucket brigade for the cottages that might be salvaged, and to chase after the bad guys to get revenge.  They’re going to be outnumbered, possibly badly.  They might have trouble overtaking the bandits, considering that the only mount left is the donkey that was out in the fields grazing.

The bandits will have some classic tropes: the brutal leader who rules through fear (and who is too tough to take on in a straight fight except through luck, guile, magic or treachery), the lieutenant who thinks he should be in charge, the bandit with a severe attack of conscience, the bandit from three villages over who was given the choice between crime or death, the insane torturer who’s devoted to the leader and loves to hear victims scream, and the enemy of the torturer who’s no goody-two-shoes but doesn’t care for purposeless cruelty.

Loot?  Well, you don't want your players to get rich too fast, and bandit gangs aren't wealthy (if they were, they'd retire!).  So you'll likely get what's left in their pockets after that last key debauch -- just a handful of coin, if that much -- and what trade goods they haven't ruined or spoiled.  But the key bit is in scrounged stuff.  Mounts are expensive, and the bandits will have them.  (Of course, this can get the PCs in trouble, because the mounts are certainly stolen from elsewhere, and some rich merchant four adventures down the road might recognize his favorite dappled gelding -- why, the PCs must be Those Bandits!)  The bandits will have weapons in good condition, and bits and pieces of armor in mediocre condition, which the players could use or sell off.  The leader might have some fine pieces of jewelry -- keeping in mind the aforementioned former owners -- and will certainly have the best weapon.

Have at it!

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions