Saturday, February 26, 2011

Playing with Monsters - The Gruntok

So I'm toying with the idea of an old-school megadungeon after reading too much about them over the last few weeks and feeling a rush of old-school thrills while doing so. I really liked the Alexandrian's write-up here and it's what really got the ball rolling. The Apprentices are going to be around a while and this is the kind of thing that we could work in and use for years without it taking up a ton of specific preparatory effort once the basics are outlined. Knowing this I decided I wanted to throw in some new stuff, not just for them but for anyone who ends up playing it, and this means that certain well-worn races need a face-lift and some new wrinkles to make them both interesting and unpredictable again.

Yes, those are classic pig-faced orcs up there. Yes, my players have faced so many orcs already in their short careers that I don't want to put them in the megadungeon. Yes, I have played Warhammer and 40K for a ridiculously long time and yes those orcs are very cool but they belong in the warhammer world, not in my D&D dungeon. Plus the guys you see above were never depicted as over-muscled hulks grunting and shouting in cockney accents while wielding improbably huge jagged meat cleavers as weapons and I want to get back to that earlier flavor. Thus the Gruntok

Gruntok are smallish humanoids that top out around 5'. They are not heavily muscled but are quite tough for their size having tremendous healing abilities, better than almost any other race short of Trolls. Hearing is average, and their sense of smell is outstanding, They can see in the dark. Female gruntok are nearly indistinguishable from the males to most outsiders and fight alongside them in combat. Gruntok have achieved perfect sexual equality in that they just don't care about it at all for anything except mating.

Gruntok society is tribal or clan-based, meaning that most bands consist of one or a few family groups. They tend to be somewhat nomadic but once a tribe finds a suitable homestead they will settle in. Once settled the tribe will begin storing food when possible, crafting better weapons, and breeding. As the tribe grows, eventually part of it will split off, forming a new wandering band that begins the cycle all over again.

Gruntok breed very quickly, with the young ("runtlings") nearing maturity in just 1 year. Due to this rapid growth cycle their brains are still developing even after birth and they continue to do so for quite some time.  This means that older Gruntok tend to be smarter than the younger, and the oldest gruntok are dangerously intelligent foes. They also tend to be the leaders of tribes which makes this race even more dangerous than their raw physical traits. Battle seems to spur increased breeding among gruntoks (perhaps a side effect of males and females fighting alongside each other?) so a series of raids against a troublesome gruntok tribe can actually make the problem worse as the numbers swell over the next year and force the tribe into even more raiding with a now stronger force.

Gruntoks have one notable trait in that they are omnivorous in the most brutal sense of the word - they will eat anything, including other sapient races. Oddly enough the one thing they will not eat are other members of their tribe, though gruntoks of other tribes are fair game. They do prefer meat, specifically cooked meat and there is always at least one big cooking pot over a fire in any stable gruntok lair. Grains, berries, paper, cloth - all vegetation is considered a garnish with meat the main course if it is at all available. If it isn't, a hunting party will be formed to go and get some. Underground they might have to make do with rats, worms, and mushrooms but 'toks prefer some variety in their diet and will take risks to acquire new meat.

There is not a lot of deception in the average gruntok. They live in the now and tend to go by what their senses tell them. They are quite up-front with opponents about their likely fate (the aforementioned cooking pot). Honest is one word that could be used, blunt is another one, making them almost naive in a way and a smooth talker may be able to use this to his advantage in desperate circumstances. Leaders tend to have more deception in them but even then it's rarely anything sophisticated. Preparing an ambush along a well-travelled road or dungeon path is about the extent of it.

'Toks spend much of their lives in combat and so make for tough opponents. They favor the heaviest armor they can find and generally the leaders will have the best equipment.  Gruntok led by a canny leader will use ambushes and even will fight in ranks using polearms and formations. Younger gruntok sometimes have trouble grasping these tactics and so formations will be made up of older, smarter, and more experienced members of the tribe while the youth form up in warbands and use the traditional frontal rush assault to disrupt the enemy in advance of the main body. Gruntoks will also use missile weapons, primarily bows, but have been known to construct catapults when the need, materials, and brains were all present. There are rumors of a gruntok empire east of the mountains and 'toks from these areas are said to favor curved swords (scimitars) and round or half-round shields in combat, along with medium to heavy armor. Leaders often wear ornate helmets as a sign of rank and are protected by one or more bodyguards even tougher than normal 'toks.

Gruntoks are not great builders but are very clever enhancers and adaptors, fortifying, tunneling, and shoring up ruins and caves that they find. They are fond of using pits, moats, and other static defenses but do not typically engineer complex mechanical traps like pressure-plate spikes or crossbows. Most Gruntok defenses are obvious and effective.

Grnntoks  do tend to follow the most effective leader. Often this is the smartest one, but tribes will follow a leader from another race if he proves stronger, say by killing the current chief. Ogres, trolls, and Minotaurs have all been reported leading bands of gruntok. Smart chiefs know this can happen of course, and will often swear fealty to a stronger creature rather than die at its hands, biding their time until they can find a way out of the predicament.

'Toks do not know magic and cannot effectively learn to use it. They also do not have a racial god or religion or strong religious beliefs. They are mostly concerned with survival in the here and now and so have no wizards or clerics or shaman or witch doctors among them. They will occasionally take prisoners of these types if they sense a need but this is not common. Individual tribes can also be browbeaten into following a particular god by a stronger creature but it's not a natural state for grontoks.  They do know about magic items and will make great use of them if available.

Game Mechanics:

  • Typically man-sized (topping out about 5'), 1+1 HD, AC 7(grunts) to 3(leaders), Move 90', Alignment LE
  • Normal Gruntoks always have at least 7 hit points - this means they survive at least one hit from a normal man with a 1d6 weapon, giving them their reputation for toughness
  • 'Toks that are not killed outright heal all damage within 24 hours due to their outstanding metabolism. This does not regenerate limbs but can otherwise be treated as a slow form of regeneration. This is somewhat dependent on being able to eat, especially meat, but this isn't an actual rule.
  • Detect Ambush: Outdoors gruntok's sense of smell lets them detect an ambush 4 out of 6 times unless the ambushers have taken steps to conceal their scent. Indoors and underground, where there is less movement of air, this drops to 1 in 6.
  • Grontoks have no spellcasters
  • A Grontok hunting party can be quite stealthy, tracking or pursuing prey for miles with shuffling feet and low grunts for communication interspersed with snuffling sounds followed by numerous high-pitched squeals when their quarry is discovered, possibly signaling other hunting bands of their success.
  • Grontok leaders can speak common (learned form occasional prisoners) but most tok's do not, entering battle with a variety of grunts and squeals and snarls and ignoring words and comments from opponents
  • Grontoks prefer defense over offense in many ways so they never use a two-handed weapon by choice, instead preferring sword & shield and armor of some kind. Polearms are an exception to this for 'toks fighting behind other 'toks,especially in close confines like a dungeon corridor, but even they they carry a sword and shield sheathed and slung for use if needed.
  • Runtlings go through tremendous growth during their first year and as a result have voracious appetites. Invading a gruntok nursery (usually kept locked form the outside) is not a prelude to slaughter but is instead an ambush waiting to happen as a horde of half-pint gruntok swarm the intruders en masse in a feeding frenzy that would make sharks envious. Call them 1/2 hit die creatures, AC8, 1 atk/rd for 1d4 dmg. Runtlings have a knack for surprise as they know the scent and the sounds of their caretakers (whom they cannot eat) so when an unfamiliar party approaches they get very quiet and hunker down to spring on the first edible thing that comes though the door.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Notes from a Campaign that Failed

Whatever tone you set and whatever level of campaign buy-in you are comfortable with, it's also important to make sure that's where the other participants are too.

In the early 90's, Champions was our Superhero game of choice. By 1994 I was ready to start a new campaign and over several weeks wrote up the background for "Miami 2000" which was set in Miami... in 2000... which seemed like a good idea at the time. I did a lot of research on the real-world Miami, gathered maps and travel guides, then imposed a few changes on the city to make it more of a near-future superhero setting. Characters were discussed and created - a mentalist, an energy projector, a brick, and others were all written up and reviewed.  and we were ready for my semi-serious Bronze Age campaign.

First session opens up as PC's discuss their characters and we have a bank robbery - heroes respond. Within one round "The Rose" has used her Thorn Blast at full strength on the escaping villain "Pulsar" which is enough to kill him outright, and he tumbles out of the sky over the bank and crunches onto the street. This triggers her code against killing and she shuts down. The other heroes flee the scene, grabbing her on the way, looking suspiciously like THEY had committed the robbery. I decided to go with that and give them some trouble with the police. They went underground like the X-Men and it looked like we were set for a slightly darker game than I had planned but I was ready for it. Then the mentalist adopted the name "Professor Y" and things disintegrated. 

Now The Tick was on TV and setting our circle of friends on fire at the time and I blame this completely for the ruining of that campaign. Once the dam cracked it was all over - it's Professor Y and the Y Men ("Y? I'm glad you asked!") running all over Miami talking in funny voices, coming up with newer dumber costumes and flipping the bird to anyone who has serious questions for them. Ugh.

I tried to get on board by introducing The Hedgehog (also known as Weapon P), Hogan to his friends (because if adamantium spikes coming out of your hands is cool, adamantium spikes coming out all over your body is clearly even better). He's the leader of a crazed band of underground rebels who all think they're mutants (even though most of them are not) who hide out in an abandoned amusement park and hear about/start/make up crazy stuff all the time which Hogan takes very seriously and asks the PC's to handle but it was too far gone by then. We played for less than 3 months total and then I had Godzilla step on them all, ending the campaign.

Clearly there were some different expectations here. I was thinking bronze age to gritty supers and so were the players when we talked about it. Then The Tick came out and completely changed the environment. I tried to roll with it but the campaign was just not built to run that way and I fought it indirectly. I should have just started over from scratch and ignored what I had written up before but I could not do it. We could have had a lot of fun with it but I was not really in the mood to break my vision and just ended the campaign rather than try and adapt. Sometimes that's just the way it has to be. 

So I would say my lesson learned here was to make sure everyone has approximately the same view of how the campaign is going to run and try to keep the focus there. If there a planned "premiere" session then send out some teaser emails to reinforce the sense of the game and maintain the momentum and interest. Also make sure there is some level of buy-in for the characters - pick a name, pick a home area, pick an organization to be a part of, something to ground them in the game and keep them there. Also:
  1. Never let characters with an overpowered killing attack take "Code Against Killing"
  2. Always set your games in coastal cities as Godzilla lives in the ocean. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A 4th Edition Campaign based on Greek Mythology

I talked about this once before here. This is pretty much a straight dump of my outline for the campaign that I wrote up last fall.  I planned and ran (briefly) a game like this using Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved back during one of our 3E D&D breaks and my players did not go for it. I think I could have changed the rules or the setting but I probably should not have done both at the same time with a game system so close to 3E D&D.  Lesson learned, I'm going to try it with 4th edition as its own thing. Some form of this campaign would work using anything from GURPS to Savage Worlds but using 4E lets me cover two bases at once and keep some current system synergies up and going. I also do know about Mazes and Minotaurs but it's not really what I'm aiming at for this game, though I may steal some things from it. 

One of the interesting things about this kind of game as I was making my notes is that it's really more defined by what you cut out. Much of the flavoring comes from the removal of some standards and the pushing to the fore of some not-previously-spotlighted elements of the game - like minotaurs.

The Achaean League Campaign

4E D&D with a Greek Mythological Flavor
  • Races
    • Humans are most common race in the league
    • Minotaurs rule the Fortress Island of Crete and do trade and are sort of friendly with the Achaens (think Klingons in later generation Trek) 
    • Eladrin are strange and exotic beings of the woodlands (really nature spirits) and the feywild that do not spend time in the cities but are not hostile and have their own society apart from humanity
    • Gnomes are semi-magical beings who live in the woodlands away from most large settlements
    • Wilden are creatures of the wild places & the Feywild and tend to be solitary
    • Some races do not exist in this world: Half Elves, Half Orcs, Goliaths, Devas, Tieflings Halflings, Elves, Genasi, Drow

  • Affects power sources
o Martial is most common
§         Fighters, Warlords are common
§         Rangers, Rogues uncommon

o Divine is next most common
§         Clerics are common
§         Paladins dedicated to one god also common
§         Avengers, Invokers are uncommon and feared as everyone knows what they are - agents of divine wrath

o Arcane is least common
§         Wizards are the “normal” arcane type in Achaea, often thought of as learned scholars more than combat types – not a standard part of an army
§         Warlocks uncommon, regarded with some suspicion
§         Sorcerers uncommon, not widely known as a “type”
§         Swordmages more common among Minotaurs than anything else

o Primal (barbarians, druids, wardens, shaman) is not found in Civilized Achaea - Primal will be "unlocked" if the players end up traveling north into Europe and encountering the barbarian tribes, dwaves, elves, dark elves, and giants that dominate those lands. The Norse gods will probably come into play there as well. This might make a good path for Paragon Tier.

o Psionic (Ardent, Battlemind, Monk, Psion) is not found in Civilized Achaea - Psionic is down with the Egyptian culture to the south and will be discovered with the exploration of that area. Devas and Shifters (favored of Bast?) seem like appropriate races to feature here along with Shardminds and maybe half-orcs. Stuff from Dark Sun might work in here as well if it ever comes up. 

(Go far enough East and maybe Tieflings run Babylon? Dragonborn run Atlantis to the West? Genasi dwell in Hyperborea far to the north?)

  • Affects monsters – no orcs or frost giants, lots of giant/dire animals, human opponents, spawn of classic greek beasties like Hydras and Harpies and of course Undead. Centaurs, Satyrs, Dryads and the like wander the countryside and forests and are not always friendly.  

  • Affects Deities
    • Zeus - Storm Warpriests
    • Apollo - Sun Warpriests
    • Artemis - Maybe a few longtooth shifters are "Favored of Artemis"? 
    • Athena
    • Ares
    • Hephaestus
    • Hera
    • Aphrodite - Pacifist Clerics
    • Posiedon - Storm Warpriests
    • Hades
    • Hestia
    • Demeter
    • Dionysus
    • Hecate
    • Hermes - popular with travellers and thieves
    • Nike - popular with warlords
    • Pan - demigod but popular in certain circles.
    • Tyche - popular with travellers
Each god has an oracle and a main temple somewhere in the area to be discovered/consulted/restored. May associate one per major city - not really historical but could give more flavor.

    • Various fluff/flavor changes
      • Weapons and armor are bronze – no game effect but masterwork types should be bronze or iron, not steel. No change to available types
      • Armor and weapons may look different
      • No crossbows
      • Spear/Javelin & sword are the main weapons of the typical warrior. A notable few use hammers or axes but are far less common.
      • Magic arms and armor often created by temples so while not common are not always rare and exotic 
    • Feywild is known, domain of Pan and Artemis
    • Shadowfell is home to Hades

    The concept of the campaign is to set it in the time after the first rush of heroes - Heracles, Jason, Perseus etc. - have passed on, when the cities of the Acheans have declined and turned inward while roads and trade and travel have declined as dark forces, no longer checked by the heroes of the previous age, encroach upon the lands. I think the power level of 4E and the general feel of it makes it especially suitable to following in the footsteps of these legends and creating a second golden age 

    I don't have a particular big bad guy in mind right now, maybe use Ogremoch or Imix as a titan once imprisoned by Zeus that is breaking loose. The main goal if there is one I see would be to unite the cities of the Achaen League, perhaps in response to an outside threat, perhaps because it's just a good idea - I would probably let my players drive this one. The campaign would begin somewhere near Corinth as I have a ton of information on it from that older campaign. A lot of the early challenges would focus on travel to other cites and shrines and freeing sacred places from darkness and recovering artifacts from the earlier age to help reunite the league - or form it, I'm not sure there needs to have been an earlier one, maybe my pc's get to start it. 

    There is also the threat of the older, pre-classical gods that no one speaks of anymore, and all Aberrant creatures are tied to this older pre-human age. Mind-flayers, Beholders, Grell, Aboleths - these are ancient terrors that can still be found in deep or hidden places of ancient power. The whole Far Realm story is out but the nasties are still useable.

    For Paragon levels once the League is united then there could be an invasion from Atlantis or Persia (A Halfling empire? That would be different) and they might need the help of the Norse to fend it off. Could end with a nice big mass combat scene. This might involve a world-spanning quest of some kind to recover some truly exotic artifact or material or dead hero.

    For Epic 4 titans (one of each element) could break loose and need to be destroyed, maybe with the PC's taking their place in the order of the universe as lords of that element. Maybe a final face-off against a 5th and more powerful Shadow Titan

    I need to go back and look at some of the backgrounds and feats and flavor them with some more appropriate names and imagery as at least some of the apprentices will be looking for some kind of divine heritage ala Percy Jackson. I think it's doable. I'm also thinking about working up a custom character sheet and outlawing the character generator for this one but I haven't decided yet.

    I'm curious if anyone else has tried this and if so how it went.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011

    Campaign Dissonance

    So I started off the year with a plan to get a little more out of my game time by focusing on just a few games for the year. This has worked alright to some degree but not 100% the way I had hoped.

    • The ongoing Ruins of Adventure 4E game is cruising along just fine and getting back on schedule this week. After a few skips in the schedule to allow me to play in some one-shots for a change everyone is ready to finish off the tomb of the ogre king and explore the rest of the city.
    • The old-school Basic D&D game is played intermittently but going well and we are all happy with it.
    • I have restarted the Apprentices 4E campaign set in Impiltur and played one session so far, which they seemed pretty happy with at the time.
    • We switched the Star Wars game over to Saga and launched it with a bang.
    • Mutants and Masterminds started off with Atomic City Issue Zero as a playtest of the system and has gone precisely nowhere.
    I'm happy with Phlan and with Star Wars but the rest is sort of in limbo for now. I had high hopes for Atomic City and I have one Apprentice that really wants to play it and the others are interested but not bugging me every time I see them. I also made some noise about running an AD&D 1E game and one of them is fired up about that. One of them would probably go for a Star Trek campaign too (down Bark!) but only that one, making it not really an option. That's nothing new - about half the time they don't want to eat the same food or watch the same shows either - but it's the first time it's spilled over into the gaming arena. All of them though have been talking about the Ancient Greece game I brought up a while back in an attempt to appeal to their Rick-Riordan fueled mania for gods and heroes. The problem is there's really not a slot for it on the schedule

    Which is the real problem - you would think that having multiple kids in the house would make for an easy time getting a game together. I did. Part of it is that with 4 kids spread across elementary, junior high, and now high school, there are practices and homework and social occasions and programs at all kinds of times. Plus, being a blended family there are the usual schedule complications of who goes where when. We've recently ended up with several weekends where one set of kids is present but not the other, making it impossible to keep a party together. This kind of stuff happens but we've had a longer than usual stretch lately and it's really killed the momentum.

    Plus I've spent way too much time at Ars Ludi re-reading the West Marches posts and trying to figure out how I could work a campaign like that in while also reading a bunch of posts at The Alexandrian on how he runs his Mega Dungeon and thinking I need to work that in as well. When the actual playing and running slows down the distractions start to creep in.

    I was thinking that a commitment to focus on just a few games would let us get more out of them but what it really has done is make it sting even more when we can't stick to any kind of regular schedule. I have material, I have players, I just can't coordinate schedules enough to make things work.

    So I'm going to talk to the apprentices tonight and see what they really want to play in March and beyond and try to get back on track.  It may turn out that one 4E campaign + Star Wars + occasional red box adventures is all we can really fit in, and that one 4E game may be Heroic Age Greece and not Impiltur. The Supers game may get set aside for a time until we can really spend some time with it, like this summer. 

    I realize it's a good problem to have (as opposed to the typical teenaged sneer at anything mom or dad think is cool) so I'm not unhappy with it, just a little frustrated. 

    I'll post up some of the Classical Greece concept tomorrow for ideas and comments.

    Grounding Characters in the Campaign

    We're not munchkins -we all took 4 ranks in Perform,  we just never use it.

    Barking Alien had a thought-provoking post recentlly here.

    (That's nothing new- I like the road he travels on that blog so he provokes a lot of thought here)

    It got me to thinking - how "into" the game do I need my players to be? How :into" the game do I need to be? The short answer is "It depends" and the long answer is below.

    A lot of what I play is D&D. D&D sets up a fair amount of character buy-in for you. Every edition of the game has Alignment, Classes, Races, and Ability Scores, and those 4 things give a player a pretty good start. Once you have them you have some idea what a character looks like, how they act, and what they do for a living. Even within a class this makes a difference -A Str 18, Con 16, Int 8 Fighter? The classic big dumb strong guy. A Str 13 Dex 16 Con 12 Fighter? More of a finesse guy. It's fairly easy to pick out an archetype or even a stereotype and run with it, like Scottish Dwarves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Legolas-type elven archers. Then mix in "Lawful" or Neutral" or "Chaotic Good" and you have a pretty solid picture of a character's broad traits, ready to be refined by violence and looting.

    This is probably where my minimum buy-in falls: I need a name, a personality or hook, and preferably a place of origin somewhere in the campaign. If you have that much then I can work with it and the rest of your character will be defined by what happens in the game. A paragraph or two is fine. How you got your powers is fine. The name of your tribe and your father or best friend is fine. A sentence describing the reason why you went adventuring is fine. The name or type of your most hated enemy or most desired goal is fine if you have one.

    What I don't need is pages of background story because in most games it has no bearing on things and none of the other players are going to care about your not-so-short story. They care that last session you scored a critical to bring down the red dragon or that you fumbled when you tried to bring down the dragon, not that your hometown was raided by gnolls when you were 6. To me its largely a waste of time and because I don't feel obligated to use any of it you're probably better off not doing it. Plus, if we decide that it matters later on down the road (like say in a supers campaign) then when we decide to cover your origin story and tie it to a major villain, I can't easily do anything with it because you went and wrote a novel before we ever started. If it's going to matter in the campaign then let's cover it during the campaign not before. Would Indy be cooler if he had explained why he was afraid of snakes in Raiders or was it cooler if it just came up a few times then we finally got to see why in the opening of Last Crusade?

    Now some games encourage background development mechanically and that's very cool:
    • Traveller and Star Trek and Cyberpunk and Mechwarrior 3E and Mekton all have a kind of lifepath system during character creation that will build a framework of a background by mapping out the character's professional development and usually include mechanical effects based on it, from your skills in Traveller to what kind of mech you start with in Mechewarrior.
    • Hero and GURPS have advantages and (mostly) disadvantages that players can take for things like psychological issues (code of honor, bloodthirstiness, fear of snakes), dependent NPC's (Aunt May), to physical issues like missing limbs to enemies and allies actively hunting or assisting your character. It's probably a good idea to nail down some of how that came about but even then it's not required. If a set of blue-gloved ninjas ambushes your team a few times then your teammates will be a lot more interested in your story than they will if you bog down the first session with a long pre-written tale.
    • Shadowrun has a system of Contacts and even if you have identical powers the character who starts with a bartender and a squatter as contacts clearly has a different story than the one with the Media Sensation and the Mayor as contacts. I don't need a 5-page story about it, just think about it, make a few notes and we will work it in.

    Plus some games are just more character-centered. If we're playing the New Justice League then I might want to know more about your character to work in shared enemies or allies or that we need a hanger in the base to park your jet. If we're playing Keep on the Borderlands then all I really need to know is that you're a sword & board fighter or a magic-user who knows sleep and we're good to go..

    Licensed games are also a little different here. You're playing a wookie? Cool, got it. A Klingon? Great, I know a fair amount you already just based on that one word. You're the Red Ranger? Noted. Cimmerian? I have a picture in my head. Browncoat? Awesome. Intelligent talking car that's impervious to damage and can superleap? I may know a bit about your background. Autobot? Nice. All of these words convey a wealth of images and information that take care of a bunch of the stuff that is typically associated with a character background.

    History is valid here too for the same reasons: Spartan? Check. Roman? OK. Doughboy? Alright. Flapper? Sure.

    Published game worlds fall into a similar category. "I'm from Cormyr" tells me something different than "I'm from Chult" if we're playing in the Forgotten Realms. In Greyhawk a Keolander and a Frost Barbarian will likely look and act differently from each other. In Shadowrun a Sioux Wolf Shaman is very different from a Sidhe Hermetic Mage.   In Traveller being from a TL 4 planet will shape a worldview quite a bit different from that of the character with the TL12 homeworld.  There won't always be mechanical effects for these, it's more of a look and an attitude and it's up to the player to decide how much to emphasize or use it.

    So anyway, my point with all of this is that there are such widely varying levels of expected buy-in for the RPG's we play that it's probably worth bringing up before you start a new game. Everything from names to advantages/disadvantages to contacts can be affected by this. Is it a one-shot? Is this an ongoing campaign? Is it a sandbox or a limited or plotted campaign? That all matters too. Even with people I've known for years some of them won't assign a name until the character makes second level while others will write 3 pages of backstory before they roll any dice, and I've mostly been treating them the same way. It's something to think about before the next session to try and make the game that little bit better.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011

    The Power Rangers Model of Campaign Design

    Ha!, Bet you didn't see that coming! So what do I mean by this? First, let's look at Power Rangers.

    Despite being a fan of Japanese giant rubber monsters I was not a huge Power Rangers guy when they first came out, mainly because it was kind of after my time. It was a pop-culture thing though so I was aware of it. Some years later though, after introducing the Apprentices to Godzilla and Robotech I noticed some form of PR was running on one of the cable channels and we started recording it. I watched it with them so I learned a lot about it - more than many might want to- and after coming across it again recently I started thinking that it's not a bad model for a campaign. So here are the important points:

    1) Progression: Each season begins by introducing the characters, introduces the concept of the Power Rangers to the characters, then slowly escalates both their powers and the power of their enemies along the way to a final confrontation with the master villain that ends with a titanic battle that challenges them to the utmost, sometimes requiring great sacrifice to win.
    This screams "LEVELLING!" to me. Having watched a few seasons of the show they start off inexperienced and need a lot of help from the mentor figure, but by the end they are confident and competent and taking on vastly more powerful foes than when they started. It wouldn't even have to be a strictly D&Dish form of levelling. In M&M it could be as simple as raising the power level at certain intervals.

    2) Characters: Each season features 3-5 main characters including the young untried potential heroes and a master/mentor figure. During the season at least one new Ranger or non-ranger powered hero joins the team. There is typically one master villain with several lieutenants of varying power and competence and a whole lot of minions along with a few expendable villains of the week.
    Hmmm, the main characters sound suspiciously like a typical party in most RPG's. The new character joins in and sometimes is someone they have known all along (NPC promoted to PC) or may want to work alone at first (the mysterious new PC) or may even be mistaken for a bad guy and end up fighting the other heroes in one of his first appearances in the finest comic book tradition.

    3) Archetypes: The characters are individuals but the show doesn't lose sight of the focus - Action -  so they tend to be archetypes: the Jock, the Nerd, the Artist, the Surfer, the Daredevil, the Old Master, the Not-So-Old Master, and others.
    I find this is an acceptable level of characterization in most games that fall in the "Action" end of the RPG spectrum - D&D, Shadowrun, Star Wars. At the very least it's a good starting point that can be modified or explored as the game progresses.

    4) Environment: The heroes usually have a base area (often hidden and secret from the world) but lead otherwise normal lives in a typical society in a peaceful home town that is threatened by the enemy. There is not a lot of traveling, the story is usually centered around one region.
    This really fits low-level D&D and Supers campaigns in my experience. Shadowrun can use it as well (Seattle) as can Gamma World and even Star Trek if you set it up that way.

    5) Action - there are multiple levels of challenge in each episode. Sometimes they fight mooks and win easily then try to figure out what they were doing. Sometimes it's a single tough opponent that they cannot defeat as individuals. Sometimes several of those opponents team up to challenge them.  Sometimes it's a lieutenant trying to prove himself to the master villain. Sometimes the master will try to subvert one of the heroes in a more subtle attack but even then it usually leads to big fight at the end of the episode once the hero realizes what is going on. Regardless of the exact type of action, there is always conflict in each episode, often more than one scene's worth.
    So this is like every version of D&D, many Pulp games, many Supers games and really most RPGs I have played. Drama, angst, and introspection have their place but this type of campaign is probably not best for them, at least not as the focus of the experience.

    6) Closure - each season begins with a new group of heroes and a new villain in a new location. The show unfolds, the characters progress, and in the end there is a fight with a big bad which the Rangers win but give up their powers afterward or drop into the background. It has a beginning, a middle,and an end, telling a complete story.Someone coming in next season needs no knowledge of the previous season (or any previous season) to jump into the action. They may learn something about history along the way, but they don't need to know it to start.
    This is something that makes it different than many campaigns - there is a definite end point. D&D 4E follows this model in this way but many earlier versions really did not - there was no end game. this type of campaign really depends on having one and it's one that is figured out in advance: you're going to fight Lord Zedd or Orcus or Lolth as they are the one behind all of the problems you've been facing.

    7) Continuity - in spite of the closure mentioned above there is continuity. Often, one of the characters from the prior season will end up being part of the new team in the next season. One of the early season leaders ends up being the mentor for another team 10 years later! Plus, almost every season includes a crossover episode featuring the team from the previous season who join in and then together they handle some shared menace - either an unusual one-off threat or an alliance of bads from both seasons. One special episode featured the team leaders from the first 10 years of the show teaming up to defeat an old menace and even as an adult I thought that was cool and showed that the creators cared about what they were doing.
    This softens the blow a bit from #6 - yes the campaign is over but your other games still happened! Throw in artifacts, news, NPC's, even guest appearances by PC's to connect THIS campaign to THAT campaign in some way and you are building a richer world than you might realize - it doesn't always have to be one long run with the same characters. Sometimes knowing that other groups are out there makes the story that much better and the world that much deeper.

    I think this would be really appropriate for any level-based game but in particular it works for D&D and Supers campaigns. I also think it would work for Feng Shui, Mekton, Mechwarrior, and even Twilight 2000 with the right setup. I can see a Star Trek game working under this premise as they try to defend a particular sector from some new enemy (I might even say that DS9 follows this premise to an uncanny degree). That said, the more cinematic the game system the better as they tend to feature a more action-oriented play style and allow for rapid recovery between fights.

    Now this is a heavily plotted campaign - it is the opposite of a sandbox or West Marches type game as it has both a scheduled end point (Session #X), possibly a calendar endpoint (December 31st 2011) , and a plot climax (the PC's face off against Iuz in the ruins of his capital as the armies of Nyrond surge into the city). This is (weirdly enough) almost required for some groups and anathema to others, so know your players! Telling a lot of D&D players that you're not going to track XP's is going to cause some eyes to bug while telling a Mechwarrior or T2K player he doesn't have to worry about tracking ammo between fights is likely to bring tears of joy.

    Say you decided at the end of 2010 to run a new D&D campaign in Greyhawk and the concept is that you are fighting Iuz to free the Shield Lands from oppression. You let everyone know you're going to run it for one year, twice per month (so 24 sessions) and that you're not going to worry about XP - leveling will happen as certain tasks are completed or enemies defeated and it will pretty much be once per session so that at the end the group will be 20th level for the final confrontation. I would sketch out what the major opposition would be for each session, come up with some villain plots that are being carried out, then roll with it! Let the players go and see what happens. There are some hurdles here that the show does not have to deal with:

    • What if somebody dies? Well most games have a raise dead mechanic - use it. if not then the new character joins in as an experienced member of "that other team you've been hearing about" - you were dropping hints of another team right? or an envoy from a distant ally "The King of Nyrond has sent us his best knight to aid us in our struggle". Give him a nice entrance and move on.
    • What if the PC's lose a big fight? Well, they say you learn more from failure than success so let them level up anyway then give them a challenging Plan B to make things right. They couldn't stop the enemy agents from recovering the magic crystal? Let them raid the enemy fortress where the crystal-bearer has stopped for the night. Let them go after the anti-crystal hidden in ancient shrine at the top of the world
    • What if they lose the big fight? Then the badguy wins and you have the plot for your next campaign, possibly featuring a crippled survivor from the previous PC team as a mentor.

    So my initial idea was that this show makes for an interesting framework for a limited campaign (something I've discussed before) and might help someone get the idea of how these non-traditional campaigns would work. I think it also shows that you do not have to give up many of the good points of those campaigns just by doing this. The biggest difference from my previous manifesto is that this style of game doesn't blow up the world - the heroes saved it, so it's going to be around for the next campaign. This let's you build those stories up over time The whole point is to have a complete campaign in  a finite number of session (or episodes, or issues) so that you can move on and do another one later.

    In a Trek game,maybe it's the story of the Federation in the 23rd century as they struggle to hold off first an ambitious and ruthless new Klingon Warlord, then are challenged by a new Romulan faction then maybe even a mutant Gorn who rises to power among his people and sends the whole race off on a crusade against the non-reptilian races of the quadrant. Maybe the admiral who takes command of the starbase featured in the Gorn campaign was a PC captain during the Klingon campaign, or maybe one of the enemy captains from it is an ally in this new one.

     In a Mechwarrior game you could be loyal House Davion troops holding back an invasion by a ruthless Kurita noble bent on conquering your duty planet and in the end you face off against him and his personal bodyguard. Or maybe the other way around. Or maybe you're a merc unit made up of gladiators from Solaris 7 caught in the invasion. Or maybe it's a civil war. Maybe some of those come later. Then you all get caught in the clan invasion and get to deal with that, fighting alongside your old Kurita opponents.

    In a Mekton're a group of teenagers entrusted with incredible ninja powers and a set of powerful giant robots that you use to fight off an evil alien bent on conquering the Earth...

     One final note: "Plotted" does not have to mean "Railroad" - it means I have an outline of what the bad guys are going to do, leading to their ultimate victory. It's the players' job to change that. If your players decide to go on the offensive and attack an enemy outpost but you didn't have that written up it doesn't have to be a disaster. Get a feel for what they are thinking at the end of each session, try to spur some conversation between sessions, and adapt the outline to what they do. Some groups are fine being led though a fairly tightly plotted game, others will not and all you can do is hit the high points as "plot points" and let them take control in between. In that case, if you make the bad guy bad enough, or annoying enough, and powerful enough, then by the end of the campaign they will want to face off with him, and it's not railroading if the PC's go after him because they want to - it's a satisfying climax.

     I'm actually thinking about retooling my Atomic City Supers campaign to better fit this model, making the focus more on one long term enemy than the somewhat scattered plan I had before.  I'll let you all know how that turns out.

    Monday, February 21, 2011

    Weekend Update

    Well the long weekend game is over and we survived. It was much like the old days - Much junk food was consumed. arguments were had, actions were debated, babies were entertained (that one is not like the old days) and in the end a dragon was slain and the threat to the people of Urnst was ended.

    This 20 hour plus run also confirmed for me that running for 8 players in 4E is just a bad idea for  an ongoing campaign. For a one-off it can be managed but trying to do that every week or every other week while balancing things and keeping everyone involved is going to turn into work pretty quickly, and that's not why I do this. In a mechanically simpler game like Basic D&D or Labyrinth Lord I can see it happening, but not 4E.

    At points it did run slow but everyone was having fun and that's the main objective. With D&D being the Common Tongue of RPG's it's probably the only game that could have pulled in that kind of turnout (although I think a supers game would have been a blast too).. Even so, some players were not especially familiar with the rules and everyone was playing new characters so it took some time to work out how the group should work together. I won't claim it was smooth by the end of the run but it was better than when we started.

    Lady Blacksteel's character and mine did work pretty well together. Our knock-em-down-then-stab-them-on-the-ground team inflicted serious damage and meant that at least we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do when a fight broke out. The Goliath Warden and I worked well too and spent a fair share of the time taking our beatings from the enemy to help make our team look good.  Playing my first defender type in 4E was enlightening and it is very different than fighters in earlier versions. Many powers key off of the actions that others take so that I had to constantly pay attention to what was happening to see if I had a chance to inflict punishment on an unwise enemy - many thanks to my spotters at the far end of the table who caught things I might have missed. I also discovered that Orc archers can be extremely nasty when left unmolested and with the party bunched up - next time we're going after them first.

    The only arguments that really sprang up happened because of  the only real recurring issue I've seen with 4E: Powers and effects are given names and flavor text to describe their mechanical effect. Sometime people get too focused on the description or the name and expect things to work mechanically different because of that. Stealth, Superior Cover provided by arrow slits, the Prone condition, and a few others generated some spirited discussion and I wasn't concerned until the magic words "but in the real world..." were uttered but we shut things down pretty quickly after that. That particular phrase is a peeve of mine when gaming and I'm glad it didn't drag out.

    We fought a black dragon at the end and he had a hard time of it facing off against 8 characters. At one point he was Marked, Quarried, Knocked Prone, Slowed, Immobilized, and Bloodied, was inside at least 2 magical zone effects and was also flanked by at least two characters and that with him fighting from water against characters on a bridge and ledge! His rider didn't fare much better  caught in the storm of area blasting magic that came down on the dragon he proved to be far less durable and went down almost as an afterthought

    It's probably been 20 years since I've done anything like that and I had a really good time. Now I'm thinking it should at least be an annual occurrence.  I'd be tempted to make it the same characters but use different versions of D&D every year, but I'm not running it and that's probably better for everyone. Thanks to my friends for running it and for hosting it and to everyone else for showing up and sticking with it. I'm looking forward to next time.

    Motivational Monday