Monday, January 18, 2021

Getting acquaintanced with the world

 In my next few blog posts I’d like to think about campaign structure a bit. I’ll revisit the campaigns that I’ve ran and played in and see what I liked of the structure and what could be improved.

For now I’ve decided on three topics to write about:

-          Getting acquaintance with the world as a player. Starting as a player can be difficult in a world you don’t know much about. How do we handle this?

-          Timers and pressure. I want the enemy feel dangerous and this means pressure to put on the party. When and how do we start putting pressure on the party (especially when they don’t know the world yet)?

-          An end goal and how to get there. This will also go into ‘how do I prepare my sessions?’ and introducing a BBEG. Also, how do the characters fit in?

 

Today I want to start with introducing the world I built to the players.

 

Getting acquaintanced with the world

 

I often feel a bit lost as a player when I’m thrown into a new campaign. My character has lived there all their live, but I don’t know anything about it. What can we do as DM and as player to help this?

As a DM I think it’s good to tell beforehand what kind of world it is, but there’s often no time or space to go into the nitty gritty details. I think the least you should do as a DM, when players have picked their characters, is to say how usually the classes are portrayed in society. A wizard can, for example, both be high class in some games, and prosecuted in others. This is very important to tell players beforehand. Maybe the thieves guild has been falling apart and there are now two in the city that are competing. Important information.

 

A thing I did in my own campaign, but was not very happy with in the end, was to have several session 0’s in different games. We had a worldbuilding session where we played the Quiet Year to set up a continent. Then we had Do Not Let Us Die in the Dark Night of this Cold Winter to set up a village in the winter. And we ended the worldbuilding session 0’s with the villagers that were left over fleeing to the city because of a troglodyte threat. On their way they were rescued by the final party for the campaign.

Although the games were fun and definitely not a waste, it didn’t work out enough with pulling my players into the world. Even though they now knew some more things, even had come up with several landmarks, in the end they just forgot about it because they thought the games had little importance or because of the time between the games. At least there was little reaction when they finally came at the evil hide-out that they had come up with themselves.

 

I think it’s important as a DM to have some examples in your first sessions on how different people interact with the world. Almost as an exposé, it must show the hardships that the party can solve, but they must also choose a side at the same time.

I tried this in my campaign in one session by having a merchant become a goblin king, because he fed them for a while. Under pressure of the Goblins he was becoming more chaotic and evil though. He wanted to escape, but was held there under watch.

 

As a player I do like to be pulled into the world building process of the DM or at least give myself the freedom to come up with stories and tales that belong in the world. When I was playing a Cultist in Low Fantasy Gaming, I told some holy tales in a sermon that I had written myself. These tales eventually lead to an adventure, finding an old temple I told about in the forest. I thought that was very generous, maybe too generous, of the DM, but it was a lot of fun.

I could see myself playing a barbarian telling the stories of my ancestors too. How they roamed the plains but now things have changed. Or a wizard writing poetry about the world. In any case, I am a writer at heart and I love these additions to put into a game as a player if there’s room for it. The problem is that I don’t often feel the room to do so.

 

In the Hotsprings Island game I’m playing in now, we had a lot of introduction to the game. Our first 5 sessions or so were just exploring back and forth on the island. Although we had missions and there was a bit of time pressure, it didn’t feel like there was pressure. We just had to survive and that was difficult but doable. Around the 6th session we were starting to mingle with the factions of the island. I think this was a bit of a too long introduction where the world was basically in stasis.

It’s alright to have a long introduction to the world, but the wheels should keep moving.

 

I really recommend talking to the players and see if they want to be involved with the worldbuilding and in what way. Worldbuilding should go on during the campaign, I think, and I think it’s very fun if I have the room to come up with my own tales and experiences of the world (and also if other players do).

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Experience gain for my planned campaign

In my blogpost earlier today I talked about a list of ideals and beliefs that the players would hand me before starting the campaign, that would line up with the faction goals and beliefs, but also contradict with it, or itself, in some ways. I’m hoping that this gives my campaign a bit more direction, a bit more sense of meaningful gameplay, as you get closer to communal goals, and although drama in a party can be fun, also a bit more cooperation.

To extend this I want to talk about experience and how to gain experience in the campaign I am preparing. I want to tie this closely to the beliefs and goals system I set up.

 

There are many ways of experience gains in RPgs that I’ve played. Experience for gold you’re spending (AD&D), experience for monsters you kill (5e), milestone experience (5e),  experience for a set of questions you answer (Maze Rats) or experience based on your class (Blades in the Dark).

I really like the question based experience, but I would make a few changes to make it better fit my style. Where Maze Rats (at least the version I played) has a few questions that are the same for everyone and Blades in the Dark has questions based on your Playbook, I would like to suggest experience based on personal goals, ideals and beliefs.

I’d let the players set out to write their own personal goals and distill some experience gain questions from it. A belief saying ‘we need to root out corruption by having a revolution’ will grant experience when you are inciting a village to stand up against the nobles. A belief saying ‘The Gods have more power than any Earthly power’ can grant experience when you are performing a sermon for a village or invoking the power of the gods as a show of power. While ‘All cultists must be exterminated’ can lead into a destroyed cult being the source of experience.

 

This can lead to imbalance between players, but it’s up to the DM to give equal opportunity to have the same experience gain in the campaign. It shouldn’t be that one is level 5 and one is level 1, while they started at the same point in the campaign. But this is also a matter of sharing ideals between characters. If they are all set up to do about the same thing, it shouldn’t matter much.

Also getting faction goals should always reward with some experience gain for the characters, just like they must be rewarded with promotions or other rewards to symbolize the gain in ranks and trust.

 

This is how I’m planning my campaign, and although it is a bit different from other campaigns, I hope I will reap the fruits and have a more serious and meaningful  campaign.

Meaningful games, alignment and morality

 Although the word ‘meaningful’ can mean a lot of things and would differ for anyone you ask, I would like to open this blog with the topic ‘How can I get a meaningful game?’ as I’m looking at the games I DM and I seem to feel a need there to improve. When I DM I usually don’t feel that a game I came up with is meaningful or mattered to anyone, but if I continue this train of thought, I always have to say: ‘every game is community building and a social experience and therefor it is meaningful in some way’.

 

But what I’m aiming at, in my games, is a feeling and giving space for the characters to grow. Allowing growth to a character is quite difficult when you are in a West Marches campaign and there are around 150 players with characters that all change from game to game. I think that’s what makes me long for a game where the character growth is a bit more meaningful and feels more free.

The games that I played in had some growth of my character. At least some freedom to do whatever I felt like and what I felt like was often building my character. In Low Fantasy Gaming I played a Cultist who performed sermons to his goddess, after he had been exiled out of the city to a remote village. We used the village as a base, so I really tried to ‘settle’ there for a time and help the locals out with reading lessons and teachings.

In the 5e official campaigns that I played there was often not enough room for character development and I always felt like my character was just swept away by the adventure.

In the 5e West marches campaign where I am one of the DMs, my first character had some growth thanks to the friends he made in his first games. My acolyte Barbarian befriended paladins and clerics that served other gods, but still shared a bit of his ideal. We did missions together that really bettered the people from the campaign and there was never a question what we should do. We worked from our ideals and by sharing them we grew together. In the end my Barbarian even multiclassed into Paladin because of their friendships.

 

I think what is most important for growth for a character is the ideals and bonds systems you find in 5e, but also in other games. I would do away with alignment myself, in the next campaign I run. Instead, I want the players to write down 5 to 10 beliefs of which at least 2 contradictory believes to another, but that you are still able to believe in the same way.

Examples: ‘I’m hate war and would never want to see war again’ vs ‘I want a revolution to free the people from a mad king.’ The revolution would be bloody and war-like, so these are quite contradictory, but can still be believed in a same way.

Other example: ‘All cultists must be killed and exterminated’ vs ‘I hope we all can live in peace.’ Where the cultists are not taken into account that they could live in peace too, because cultists are notorious for murder and summoning ancient gods.

 

This would give me a morality and ideals to build upon as a DM. Character growth can come easier then. I think I’ll also say that they will serve the same faction and that this faction also has its beliefs and goals. That means there are no people that suddenly go on a killing spree (like I had before) or betray the faction.

 

I really want to organize a campaign that feels meaningful to players ánd DM. Where we all grow and benefit from. I’m currently in a brainstorming phase and these are some early thoughts.    

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Session Prep; two sheets to fill in


Some while ago I made an Encounter Sheet with a basic questionnaire to help me think about the encounters I was making. Back then I was very unhappy that most of my encounters didn't matched up with the wants I had in my head: using more of the environment in combat and putting more tension in my games. I made a basic sheet that I could fill in that would tick all these checkboxes and some more. The following games were better games in my view. I had thought deeper and more serious about my encounters. 

After working more than a year with this Encounter Prep document, I now decided to make a Session Prep document and also update my Encounter Prep with some new categories (NPC, and consequences).

Also noticing I have a Bachelor degree in Literary and Cultural Analysis that I wasn't using, I tried to put some of my favorite structuralist narratology tools in my document. I used the Actantial Model and the Semiotic Square of Greimas and pasted the 31 Russian fairy tale tropes of Vladimir Propp in there, to see if I can spice things up a bit in my games. I think all of these tools fit D&D real good. Then I made an easy questionnaire to fill in to uncover the story structure and help with improvising during the game (NPC names, things of interest to explore).

The prep document became 4 pages long, which is quite a bit, and should be printed double-sided to bring to the game. Here you can find the link to my google drive: 

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Dsc8bEa5Yv_0bOwZFX3xaWhwb1QIBxdo/view?usp=sharing


Session prep tools:

I feel like I should explain more about the tools I put in the first two pages of the document. The Actantial Model is maybe quite clear. It shows a story structure that can be filled in on lots of ways. 

The sender is in D&D often the quest giver, and wants and knows about an object (could also be knowledge, or somewhat more broader as 'life' and 'death of a monster'). They send the subject (the party) on their way to get it. The object is the desire of the party, it's what they are on the quest for. They are helped by some things on their way (equipment, but also followers/NPC's) and are opposed by some powers (monsters, traps, puzzles, villains). If the party, the subject, gets the object, who will gain from it? The receiver. Probably the party a bit, as in a treasure reward, but also often the sender. 

This will easily uncover which parts of the story are important and who is in which role of the story.

Then we have the Semiotic Square, which is  more difficult to explain why it's in my Session prep document. It's a brainstorming tool for me, to see if you can give a fun twist to some of the tropes that are often used. For example, you could fill in Life in the top-left corner and Death in the top-right as a binary opposition. Things are getting interested as non-life can also be Undead in D&D, and non-death (things that never lived) can maybe be Constructs. Now, if I was to make a session about the fountain of life, I could make this square and think: Maybe I'll put a Lich there that is also searching for it (maybe to destroy the fountain?), but I'm also placing some Constructs (Golems) there that protect the Fountain from any visitors. In that way the Semiotic Square creates new connections to words I wouldn't have thought of before.

Another example would be: Cold opposite to Heat. Non-cold could be something with water and non-heat could be a heartless thing (with free poetic associations). So maybe I'm sending my party towards a cold landscape, where they find a heartless thing, a water elemental, that can use the geysers in the landscape to send scorching bolts to the players. This example leans a lot of association, but it works for me, and I would like to use it.

Then we have the 31 tropes of Vladimir Propp, who researched Russian Fairy Tales in the 1920's and reduced them to several tropes that came back every time. I think this is useful because some of the tropes are almost never seen in D&D and some are put in there a lot. Basically the stories body part always comes back, until the point where the villain is defeated. But it might be fun to do something with the other tropes too.

Encounter prep tools:

This is my Encounter Prep Document, which is much clearer than the tools in the session prep.

 
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ewSoJRMJ7tF9nStwQ06huSZmBIyvLUCf/view?usp=sharing

Map just gives some room to draw a small map, Location, obstacle and goal are quite easy to fill is. Location is the place of the encounter (A cave, the forge, bridge). Obstacle is what the party needs to overcome (monster, puzzle, trap) and goal is what they need to receive (a magical item, a chest, a door).

Damage, duration and distortion control are tools from Runehammer on Youtube, measured on a d6. It basically points out how much control you as a DM have on the damage, duration of the fight and the distortion that is happening during. 

Treats, Threats and Timers are also a Runehammer tool, though I changed timer into Tension. There needs to be a tension to push the players, give them a Treat (treasure or something to help overcome the obstacle with) and it's nice if there is a Threat (a monster or something that pushes the party to the limit).

Then we have some room for one or more NPCs to be in the scene and write down the consequences of the party makes it or fails. Not every fail has to be death!


So far my session and encounter prep. Hope you enjoyed it, and continue reading my blog.


Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Hag's Hut

There is a small hut in the swamp, deserted and empty except for a

small offering table. Offer a small critter to speak to the hag.


The hag accepts the offer and is busy with creating:

1. potions in a large vat

2. a large sjawl from animal furs

3. a clean and healthy environment to live; scrubbing her crystal ball

4. a golem made of leather

5. a scroll of curses

6. A dictionary of foul language


The hag wants:

Potions:

1. flowerherb

2. a few drops of blood

3. a fingernail

4. teeth of a goblin

5. wintersmell

6. eternal fire


Large sjawl:

1. rabbit fur

2. thread to sew

3. a giant’s hair

4. a last breath

5. flying powder

6. golden light


Cleaning up:

1. your underclothes

2. a piece of mirror

3. a silver spoon

4. ravens’ spittle

5. an alchemy set

6. silks


Golem:

1. ethereal thread

2. a human skull

3. potion of breathing

4. a silver sword

5. a scythe

6. Lyrics to a song of death


Curses:

1. a test person

2. a potted plant

3. last words of a woman

4. arcane parchment

5. inks of an octopus

6. tears of a king


Dictionary:

1. a foul word

2. arcane inks

3. a translation

4. rage of barbarians

5. fires of autumn

6. a publisher who is willing

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Wizard’s Roost

Located halfway up a very steep cliff, the Wizard’s Roost is only accessible by a daring climber with luck, or a spell with Flying capabilities.

Within the Wizard’s Roost is:
- A window to look across the ocean.This is where the Wizard meditates. [Shiny, but worthless pebbles strewn about in a ring]
- A small chamber hewn out of the cliff with a bed and wardrobe.This is where the wizard sleeps. [A fancy wizard hat]
- A two-story study with a desk and a full library of books with topics in interest to the wizard.This is where the wizard studies and transcribes. [Arcane inks, parchment and books]

The wizard is fascinated by:
1. Fire and flames. He wants to empower his fireball spell.
2. Summoning. To send back a demon he once let upon the world.
3. Abjuration and chronomancy. To protect the city with a timestop
shield.
4. Divine magic. He wants to know the magic he can’t cast.
5. Biomancy and psyche. He wants to prolong life and keep the mind healthy.
6. Planar crossings and astronomy. He is searching to stop mindflayers to enter this world.

Book titles! A wizard searching the library may find:
(Depended on the focus)

Fire and Flames:
1. Survival: Campfires
2. The Colors of Heat
3. The Hag’s Twist
4. Treating a Burn
5. Flame Lash
6. Extreme Power

Summoning:
1. Imps and their Mothers
2. Circles and their Meaning
3. Commanding Hell
4. Demonic Fortitude
5. Layers of the Abyss
6. Dark Tides

Abjuration:
1. Locks and traps
2. The Calendar Year
3. Groundhog Day
4. Circles of Seclusion
5. Stop the Clock
6. Shields of Time

Divine magic:
1. The Gods and their
Answers
2. Clerical Knowledge
3. Divine Shield
4. Arrogance of Mankind
5. Whispers of the Stars
6. The Climb to Heaven

Biomancy:
1. TreatingWounds
2. A Greater Mind
3. Phylactery and You
4. Salves andTheir
Effects
5. Mind-Altering Spells
6. The Great Escape

Planar Crossings:
1. Star-Crossed Lovers
2. Mindflayer Lairs
3. The Elder Brain
4. Constellations
5. The FireWithin
6. Cephalopods!


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Old School Renaissance or D&D5e; I love them both

Through some channels I’m in I often hear a boasting of people how they are lucky they are playing OSR and despise anything that has to do with D&D5e. I’m glad they’re feeling lucky and happy with the games they are playing, but I feel no need to kick other games down. I’m writing this article from a perspective of someone having ran many D&D5e games and having played and ran in many sessions that fit within the OSR. I love both mindsets of gameplay, and they are very different from each other, but they can still co-exist.

I see D&D5e much as a game that revolves around the character sheet, more than about the personality of the character. The 5e character has a lot of abilities and there is a lot of choice in what you want to do and can achieve during encounters. The pure range of all these possibilities is what attracts me to D&D5e, but, mostly during combat encounters, the games I’ve played in devolve into ability uses. The storytelling halts there; only the DM that recounts what happens is still interested in weaving all together and creating a single story out of it. Most players are just happy to roll the dice and say what attack they will use.

In the OSR games I’ve played [Low Fantasy Gaming, Maze Rats, Mörk Borg] you often lack abilities (and health) and are encouraged to use more of the environment and all the little things that can grant you advantage in combat. The players always look for other options, whether talking, shoving, grappling or stealthing, instead of engaging directly with a weapon. The storytelling is often done by players and DM alike during their turn.

I like the many abilities and choices that 5e gives and I think they could add a lot to the story. Meanwhile, I also like the searching for other means of engagement in OSR. In this article I want to see if the two can be brought closer together and what happens if you take the story-heavy progression of OSR and put that in 5e, and what happens if you take the many abilities and try to fit those in Mörk Borg.


I would like more story-heavy progression in D&D5e


This is true for me. A D&D5e character often takes a rest in a safe space and would find them self leveled up, full of new abilities and spells to use. With that last monster they killed, they has enough experience to gain those new powers. I’m not sure how they do it, but it’s a magic world. I’m going to suggest some things to make a character progression in 5e more believable, suggestions that would be found in the OSR community. After that I want to look at the character progression of one class and see how that fits.

– First of all, I think most characters would need a mentor of some kind. Someone to learn them the skills and tricks of the trade. You wouldn’t be able to progress if you don’t take the time to learn. The positive of this is that a mentor would teach you (in return for something?), but could also pose as a villain or ally later on as they already have a bond with the character. Negatives of the mentor are that it can cost a lot of focus on one particular character, while the rest sits idly by. Also it can take a long time for the players to reach the mentor if they are out in the Wilderness. The first negative can be caught by doing it in a personal downtime session, should you have time for that. I don;t think the second negative can be countered, it’s just how the story could be.

– The mentors can send characters on quests to retrieve items for them, as payment for their teachings, or could ask for a large sum of money (as economy in 5e is awful). They could also send you to places where you could learn more skills: think about pointing you towards a spellbook with great powers.

– I would keep the mentors around from 1st to 5th level. After that the players are mostly on their own. The mentor could come back later, after around level 14, to aid or destroy the acolyte they raised.

– Between 5th level and level 14, the players should be auto-didactic and should come across places and items that teaches them new skills. I would suggest making some spells and abilities only available in certain places and cultures. This encourages travel and seeing more of the world and also limits the abilities a small bit and adds story to them when they finally learn the power.

– I think between 5th and 14th level, the players should settle somewhere: a place called home. Even though they wouldn’t stay there often, it could attract people that want to serve as teachers and it could serve as a place for experimentation. I’m a big fan of the idea of a stronghold, whether a keep or a temple or a wizard’s tower. That should help them increase their powers too.

– When reaching High Level, their powers must come from a powerful enemy to beat. A nemesis. Or maybe as a gift from a God if you helped him. It should become much more rare to gain a new ability.


That’s what I propose for character progression in 5e, which will slow it down by a lot, but also make it, in my view, more interesting. It still doesn’t solve the combat problem though. For that, I have other ideas, which I will explain in a later blog post. It’s about terrain and environment to use within the 5e mindset, and I’m planning to write a whole book about the matter.


How to add more (combat) abilities to the OSR

I would like to see now how I could add more abilities to use in combat, to a game like Mörk Borg. I think the most important thing here is to start from the premise of ‘story is most important’. I think the Unheroic Feats in the Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory zine, is a good example of how you add more interesting powers to the characters by strengthening the story. I would like to propose a different, but similar form of progression for Mörk Borg.

Every class and character has it’s own weird habits like cursing to everyone, or collecting teeth, or doing other possibly detrimental things. I think it would be fun to explore that concept, which is written in the backstory, and really build on that.

A person collecting teeth could become an artisan of teeth. He now has enough (after an event) and wants to craft something out of it. Or the person could be really good at seeing how much a tooth or fang would be worth. In both cases, they could now gain a small benefit that is based on their story progression.

The person who is cursing, could become famous for the curses that no one heard before, and invited to a party to be entertainer. Now they have a contact, which is story progression and helpful.

Anyway, I think the Unheroic Feats of Feretory are great and do most of this already. Take a look at them, make more of them and make lists of small story progression steps players can gather during their games. I think that will increase the range of possibilities for OSR games.


Conclusion:

I like the mindsets of both OSR and 5e and I’ve tried to come up with some ideas to apply to the other side. I hope you liked this post. I’m looking forward to telling more about my ideas for making 5e combat more story engaging to players and DMs. I might add another post on this topic later though.