Thursday, August 4, 2011

Campaigns and Maps

Following up on yesterday's topic of Campaign Management I have not been good at using map programs either. I really wanted to get into Campaign Cartographer but there is a learning curve and a cost and I hate spending money on something and then not using it. I tried and just could not get into it. It's so much easier for me to just grab some colored pencils and go nuts than to start clicking on tools and things. I know there is Dundjinni and there are probably others as well but none of them have really grabbed me. I have played around with Hexographer and that one I do get and it makes old-school D&D maps quite excellently. It's not much help for a Supers game, but for D&D or Gamma World and the like I think it's pretty cool. I've very slowly been working on a map for my Basic D&D campaign and I am pretty happy with it. I suspect my future in software mapping will be hand-drawing it then scanning it in and adding some separate DM-firendly and player-friendly layers to be used later.

One of the problems is that I long ago retired from the Detailed Map school of planning. I drew up big multi-sheet hexmaps of continents with cities and regions and geographical features wrtitten in. I once mapped out a city in 10' scale on about 40 sheets of graph paper with a master index and grid references. They were beautiful adnd scratched an artsy/geographical itch that I still have but they were also the opposite of how I came to run a campaign. Excessive pre-planned map details are the enemy of spontaneity and flexibility. Once you nail down where This is in relation to That then players will calculate exactly how long travel between the two takes and it gets a lot harder to be vague about things when you need to - "There's no way the city watch could be here by round 5 as it would take them AT LEAST 10 rounds to get here assuming they ran" - that kind of thing. You become somewhat bound by game physics, and violating that starts to mess with your players and damages the internal consistency of your world. Mapping everything out also uses up good names for no good reason - say you have an idea for an adventure that takes place in  a forest and you think the Howling Wood is a perfect name that hints at the theme of the adventure, but wait! You named that forest at the other end of the continent "The Howling Wood" and named the one by the PC's home base "The Greenfern Forest" - now you either have to change your map (which the players have probably already seen) or you have to skip worrying about the name and just go with it. How much easier and more satisfying is it if you had not nailed everything down at the start and just made a list of "good names" to be used as needed down the road? This is the approach I tend to take nowdays. It makes dropping things in and adapting to the actual play of the campaign a whole lot easier. My 20 year old self would probably still argue that I'm doing it wrong, but my now self says this works better for my games and players and myself NOW.

A lot of the above really applies to fantasy games more than anything else. Supers games tend to be set in the real world so mapping there is more of a tactical nature - a building, a street, that kind of thing. Good references to have there include Sprawl Sites for Shadowrun, Twilight 2000 2nd edition, and Millenium's End because they all have maps for modern type buildings that can be adapated. As far as software tools, well, Google Maps and Google Earth ain't bad. My non-detailed mapping philosophy comes in handy here too because most players don't need much of a large-scale map - "There's trouble in Florida let's go!" does not typically require hexcrawling for most Supers games. A general map of a city can be handy (Google) and then floorplpans of some typical buildings can be found online (or drawn from memory, honestly - exact measurements are rarely required) and even a satellite view of a particular street can be enough of a visual reference to have players start pulling up light poles and throwing parked cars. For post-apocalyptic games take the same kinds of things and mess them up! A marked up US map has served me well in everything from Gamma World to Rifts to Twilight 2K!. Used bookstores have atlases and city maps that can be a lot of fun to modify when prepping a campaign.

Just as an example I do not have a detailed street map of the civilized section of Phlan. I've been running the game for over a year and I haven't felt the need to make one, nor have my players asked to see one. I do have an overview map of the different sections of the ruins and how they relate to the civilized section and each other, but I don't have a detailed map of the entire ruined area either. This lets me drop in new neighborhoods without contradicting myself or screwing up a painstakingly hand-drawn map. I'm sure some people do it differently, and for a full-fleshed out sandbox type game I would probably do it differently, but this approach works for me for now. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Campaign Management Tools

I really like the idea of campaign management software and online campaign manager sites like Obsidian Portal. I like running a game, I like techie stuff, I work on software projects largely in an online environment...but I just can't make them work.Not in the technical sense, but in the usage and maintenance sense. My campaign notes are usually written up in a long Word doc (or Google doc) that starts with a general description of the setting, shifts over to mechanical notes (no drow!), and then outlines various adventures and NPC's and locations that could crop up. My world notes tend to be scribbled in spiral notebooks and stuffed in a binder overflowing with play aids, printouts of things I think are cool and fit well, old notes written on loose pieces of paper, and spare character sheets. It's not disorganized - I can find things in a pretty short amount of time - but it's not an instant-access hyperlinked kind of environment and it's not accessible by my players, which is a shame. Especially since more of them are starting to bring various electronic devices to our sessions (from smartphones to tablets) and some kind of campaign guide with links to various things would help avoid some of the "who was that guy again?" type conversations when an old name comes up.

Now a part of me says that I've been doing it this way for 30 years and all of my players are sitting in the same room with me during a session so since it works don't worry.about it. They aren't complaining so this isn't coming from them, it's just me. It's also not as if I haven't changed up what I do over the years so I don't feel like I've stagnated or anything, I just see where there might be some advantages to using some of the new tools that are out there. I tried using something called Campaign Suite back during the 3E days but it was mainly a glorified database and still required me to type in a bunch of crap - I was already doing that with Word and I didn't see much advantage to using this new program as it still wasn't visible to players and it didn't do anything cool like link info to a map or anything. So I dropped it and kept on going. I don't think the program is even available anymore.

Obsidian Portal is a different animal. The whole point of it is online accessibility and I do like that idea. Plus its theoretically available anywhere so that even if you didn't have all of your campaign papers in hand, you could access your notes from anywhere that you can access the net, another plus. Now I tried to set up an OP site for my last D&D 3E campaign but the campaign fizzled out before I really got going with it. I have been threatening to do it with the current 4E Phlan campaign and one of the reasons I am posting this is that it has been on my mind lately. I have a fair amount of material about the city, the NPC's, and I do have session logs, so it's probably a worthwhile endeavor, but it's going to take some time. I think a lot of the users of these kinds of sites/apps/programs like them because they do at least some of their gaming online and it makes that easier. I do all of my gaming in person so that aspect really doesn't help me. I'm still leaning towards doing it, but I have some inertia to overcome to start it.

...and no, it doesn't mean my notebooks will be going away. Who knows if Obsidian Portal will even be around in 2020? I can tell you who was present, which characters they were playing, and how many rounds my PC's spent fighting the priests in the Fire Temple in Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil during a session from 2004. I like having that kind of stuff and plan to keep on keeping notes on paper and on my local hard drive regardless of what nifty new things appear in the "cloud". But it doesn't mean I cant try something new. More to come.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rolling Up Characters with ICONS

So while traveling with the family we had a night in the hotel where I decicded to break out Icons and have everyone roll up a character. While I have played around with the system a bit and converted some existing characters as a system exercise this was our first real test of random character generation. One thing that instantly struck me was that using a 2d6 roll for power choices rubs me the wrong way because of the nonlinear distribution. There is some attempt to even things out and upon reading the game I thought it would be fine, but the way things are weighted still meant that we saw a lot of 6-7-8 rolls in practice. This made for some really odd occurrance i nthe course of rolling up 5 new characters.

Origins: We began with 3 transformed, one birthright, and one trained origin.

 Attributes: One of the Apprentices ended up with Prowess 1, Strength 1, Coordination 2, Awareness 5, Intellect 6, and Willpower 8. Another ended up with Prowess 6, Strength 8, Coordination 5 etc - Balanced? Not sure. Distinctive and easily turned into a character concept? Sure. Was Apprentice Red happy after rolling those first 3 stats? Absolutely not. Did he turn it around and make it into a pretty strong concept at the end? Yes he did. It was quite the roller coaster ride for him.


First, no one rolled any offensive powers. I've never seen a Supers game where no one took any kind of blasting power, so this rang false to me right away. We did see some chosen as part of other powers (below) but it was still odd.

Second, almost everyone rolled at least one Mental power. I don't know why, they just did. It is the "7" result on the table and so the most common, but it was still a little odd. I bought 2 brand new sets of Chessex d6's (12 red and 12 green) just for this game and this trip (the d6-d6 resolution mechanic is easier with the kids IMO if you can present it as green - red + attribute) and handed everyone their own pair of dice for this exercise, and we still ended up with 5 "7's" out of about 17 rolls.

Third we only had two movement powers rolled, one flight and one superspeed, which also seems weird to me. It's one of the more common things among supers and yet it seems fairly rare the way it's weighted in the tables.


Lady Blacksteel ended up with only two powers, roling Precognitive first and then deciding to take Danger Sense as her second (as allowed under the precog power). This seemed like a fairly limited power to have until I looked over the description and realized that it had a lot of defensive mechanical benefits so she used her origin bonus to pump it up to a 9. Combined with her 6 Prowess and 5 Strength she should have a pretty fun character to play both in and out of combat.

Apprentice Twilight ended up with an Elemental Control and some decent attributes before she bailed on us. Supers is about the only kind of RPG she's interested in  but she doesn't care much for random generation and was annoyed with the boys too. Ah well.

Apprentice Who ended up with Mind Control, Telekinesis, some average to decent stats, and a bunch of specialties and determination. I'm not sure letting the youngest play with a mind controller is a good idea but we will see. He liked the idea of being the trained hero like Batman so I'm looking up some material on The Shadow to help him understand how this might work.

Apprentice Blaster ended up with seriously high stats, Illusion powers, Super Senses, Mind Shield, and Transmutation - and Invulnerability 8! His high rolls were just amazing, especially compared to Apprentice Red's low rolls - bewteen the two of them they balanaced out quite nicely, but being on the low end of that is not much fun.

Apprentice Red had the terribly low rolls described above and then got Mind Shield and Alter Ego for his powers. Alter Ego...sigh - it's basically roll up another character and you can switch between the two. We did and got more crappy physical attributes, decent mental attributes  - apparently that was just meant to be that night for Red - but got Elemental Control and Invulnerability as two of his powers. I let him flip a couple of attributes and he ended up with a somewhat Stephen Hawking - like scientist who spends time in a wheelchair (Strength 1! That's "Feeble" on the MSH scale!) but can activate his cybernetic implants and transform his wheelchair into an armored chariot (Invulnerability) that shoots electricity (Electric Control). This does weaken his natural willpower as the computer kicks in (WP drops from 8 to 6 we figured that might mean it's easier to hack his brain) but it protects him from mental attacks quite well (Mind Shield). This character went the farthest from zero to hero both mechanically and concept wise out of all of them and was a lot of fun to work through.

It was late and we were tired so qualities and complications were not nailed down but options were discussed and before we run them through our first adventure we will set them and then begin. I hope to start Atomic City: The Animated Series this coming weekend and I plan to file a full report.