Saturday, April 17, 2010

GURPS and Me

Our schedule for the apprentices has been uneven lately without either of them being here for an extended period of time at the same time in some time. This has frustrated my attempts at furthering the Basic D&D campaign so I've been looking at running some different games depending on who is here on any given weekend. We also have an aspiring apprentice who's a little young but doesn't like being left out, so I've been looking at some simpler games too. There will probably be a few posts like this one in the next week or so as I share some thoughts about different games.

Looking at games on the shelf, one thing I noticed was an entire shelf full of GURPS books. I started playing GURPS in late 1988 while I was in college and had a new group of friends who played a lot of non-TSR games. My first experience with GURPS was when we switched a then-running Fantasy Hero campaign over to GURPS when we changed GM's. I liked it and went and bought the rulebook right away. We later played some GURPS Mechwarrior and several iterations of fantasy. My best friend picked it up too and ran a few fantasy campaigns and a space campaign for our other group too over the years. Being a longtime Traveller player too I picked up most of the GURPS Traveller books as well, though I've never run a game of it.

I like GURPS a lot and think it handles realistic levels of game quite well. It does get a little strange at the supers/ultra-tech end of things though, where you might be rolling 20d6 for laser rifle damage, but at the gritty fantasy/Traveller/ Mechwarrior end of things where you are basically a normal human doing fairly normal things plus maybe magic and psi, it works very well and is pretty easy for the new player to pick up. It's pretty easy to adapt/convert things as well.

I was a little sad when they went to a 4th edition in 2004 because my 3rd edition rulebook had been good for 15 years and I was sorry to see the compatibility break, but after reading 4th ed it's not all that different, really. I have most of the 4th ed books now though I have never run or played GURPS 4 - thanks to an amazing deal on eBay. All of the GURPS books are excellent resources on whatever subject they cover - my brief Classical Age/ Arcana Evolved camapign relied heavily on my GURPS Greece and Egypt books.

The most fun I had playing it was when a friend ran an anything goes time travel campaign so I used a combination of Ultra-Tech and Supers to make a hi-tech intelligent car that was invulnerable to most forms of damage - the Baron Industries Five Fifty, or B.I.F.F. We only played a few sessions but it was fun and the sci-fi runs were pretty straightforward but the old west adventure was challenging in many new ways.

All that said it's never really taken off with my main group of players. Some of that is that we were big into Hero system first, so if we're going generic or dimensional hopping or time traveling or super heroing then Hero is our first choice. Some flavor of D&D is always out first choice for fantasy, and Warhammer makes a strong case there too. For Traveller the GURPS books capture the default universe very well but the system is so different from classic Traveller mechanics that it feels off - MegaTraveller was my system of choice in the past but that has been replaced by the new Mongoose Traveller, which is simply great.

So I think the problem with GURPS in my groups over the years is that it's been at best a 2nd or 3rd choice for systems and doesn't have any compelling settings of its own to make it a 1st choice. Banestorm is a blast for history buffs (if you are one check it out) but most of my players are not that into it. Besides that one I can't think of a supported original setting for GURPS comparable to the Forgotten Realms, the Third Imperium, Deadlands, Warhammer's Old World, or the World of Darkness and I think that keeps it in the "tinkerer's system" niche rather than a full-fledged AAA system of its own.

As for me, if someone I knew wanted to run a campaign in it, I'd sign up for it in a minute, but I'm not going to start out a bunch of totally new RP'ers with it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April Campaign Plans - D&D 4th edition

Now that I've posted my thoughts about the two games I am actually running, here's another one about the game I am still ... planning.

I've settled on the Phlan Option for my great experiment which meant I had some reading to do:
  • I've re-read the PHB (focusing on Heroic tier powers and feats and magic items), the DMG, and the MM.
  • I picked up the PHB2 from Amazon since it completes the required D&D races and classes in my mind (gnomes and half-orcs, druids and barbarians, plus Goliaths make a nice stand-in for Half-Ogres). Read it, liked the added options
  • I already had Adventurer's Vault from last year when I skirmished with 4th edition again. Read it, looked over Heroic tier magic and it all looks pretty good.
  • Re-read Ruins of Adventure and made some notes on what lives where and what levels should be good for each section of the city
  • Made up some initial campaign notes as far as the goal of the campaign (get to 11th level) and what books will be allowed
  • Picked up the 4th edition Forgotten Realms Player's Guide & Campaign Guide and Martial Power in a very nicely priced ebay auction. Those should arrive soon and I will have more reading to do there.
  • Started listening to Radio Free Hommlett, a 4th edition podcast, from Episode 1 onward. It's pretty good and gives a nice view of things as the game has developed with each new supplement.
With all of that accomplished I wrote up the encounters for the Slums and Kuto's Well. I am strictly following the guidelines in the DMG and I am using monsters from the MM, no homebrews yet, and it's a pretty straightforward process. D&D4 assumes 10 encounters = 1 level for a 5-man party and sets out an XP budget for each encounter based on the party level, saying "this much XP value of monsters makes a good fight at this level". You can add in some higher level beasties to make it tough (up to 5 levels higher is said to still be beatable without an easy TPK) and you can throw in some lower levels to make it easier (well, once they get past level 1 anyway). I am going to try trusting that these guys tested all this thoroughly and see if it works.

One option in the DMG is to give XP awards for completing "quests". A major quest (something given to the whole party) gives XP equal to 1 encounter while a minor quest (typically something given to a single character) gives XP equal to 1 same-level monster. I like this idea, especially for this adventure, so I am using it. The major quests will be clearing out each section of the city - this lets me leave it at 9 encounters per town section and cuts down on the grind. These will be assigned to the party by the town council - those of you who played Pool of Radiance will be familiar with this. Minor quests will be assigned by individuals and organizations within the civillized section, but not by the council itself, to individual characters. As an example, here are the quests for the Slums:

Major: Clear the Kobolds and any other hostile groups out of the slums. Bring the head of their leader before the council to show this. (This will come from the Council)

Minor: Retrieve the holy gear from the altar of the ruined temple of God x - this may end up being Mystra, I'm waiting until I get the Realms books to see which gods survived to really nail this down. This will come from a temple tied to one of the players and the ruined temple in question will be one encounter area (might expand to two) featuring undead. This will also allow a new-in-town character to show his loyalty to the temple.

Minor: Burn down Nat Wyler's Bell tavern. This will come from the Thieves' Guild to a rogue or some other shady character. Nat Wyler is doing some gambling, running a brothel, and fencing loot from his seedy tavern in the slums and he's doing it without the guild's approval. He's been warned with no result and now he's going to pay. Burn it down and become a respected member of the guild.

Note: There's no reason this couldn't be added to other additions of the game, even if 4th is not your cup of tea. Make majors equal to 10% of a level's worth of XP and minor's equal to say 2 % and it should work just fine. I'm going to use these a lot in this campaign, with 1 major and 1-3 minors per section. One of the complaints about 4th has been the grind of bashing combat encounter after combat encounter and this will alleviate that somewhat. I'm even thinking of expanding it a little more and putting 5 minor quests in each section, to shave off another encounter if all of them are completed (a standard encounter in 4th = 5 monsters of the same level, so 5 minor quests = 1 encounter's worth of XP) but I am afraid it may not be reasonable to have that much going on in 1 section. I do think it can be done spread over 2 sections though.

I have also rethought the campaign length a little bit. Originally I was thinking of getting the party to end up at level 11, entering Paragon Tier. Looking over the adventure though I have more areas than I need for that - 20 to be exact. Even if I make some of them half-level sites or single encounters, that's a lot of room to work with. Plus I want to sandbox it and not force them to go in a set order of things. Many of the outside of town areas - the lizardmen, the hobgoblins, the thri-kreen, etc will be cut down to single encounters. Besides this though, the Castle itself, the final part of the adventure, was pretty tough and to make Tyranthraxus appropriately nasty he needs to be fairly tough, probably in the level 15 solo range like an adult red dragon. So what may happen is to let reclaiming the rest of the city and the surrounding countryside be the initial goal and let the party get to level 11 doing that. Then, their first Paragon - level task is assault the castle and slay the leader behind all of this. I could see a level getting through most of the castle then a level clearing out the boss and his bodyguards, so maybe ending at 13th.

As for after this? This whole thing could take quite a while and I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I may take a look at Revenge of the Giants, a 4th ed adventure that's set up for levels 12-17, so it would tie in nicely with my plans so far.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

April Campaign Plans -- Necessary Evil

Another planning post since there's been a little bit of a gap here as well although the next session is scheduled for Friday, so more notes on that coming this weekend.

The game has gone very well and I am very happy with the system. I think for a campaign with a definite starting and ending point that it works extremely well. For a more open ended, let's just start some characters and play type of campaign ala most of our old D&D games it might not work as well but even there I can see some strengths. I can say that 4 sessions in (one character building and 3 play sessions) that I have no issues with the rules and no plans to house rule anything. The players seem happy with it too, no complaints so far. Not having to track hit points for multiple bad guys is just a revelation, it dramatically decreases the overhead for the DM.

So long term, there are 10 encounters that form the spine of the campaign but there are numerous other adventures that can be done along the way and there are tables for random mission and opponent generation included as well. Assuming we meet twice a month and get 1 encounter done per session, I could easily run this through the end of next year.

But I won't.

Here's why: I've noticed over the last decade or so of playing D&D3 that there is some real-world time fatigue that sets in with most campaigns. Even when I have planned out a set timeline for the game, or even a set deadline as in "I'm going to run this through December and we get where we get" that sometimes we don't get that far. People may be really excited when the game kicks off with shiny new characters and a clean slate, but schedules change, players miss or drop, new players come in halfway through, if there's not enough scenery changing it becomes a grind (this happened with Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil and even with Tomb of Abysthor) but with too much scenery change it starts to feel like disconnected parts and not a continuous campaign (this happened when I mixed the Savage Tide Adventure Path with the Freeport Trilogy). I am guilty of this as well - I may be all fired up to start a new game but when I am reading the same set of adventures a year later, my enthusiasm may have dropped quite a bit. Some of this is having too many games and not enough time, and some of it is falling in love with adventure paths so that everything is pretty much planned out in advance, a bit of a downside when you realize it's going to take 2 years of biweekly play to get through the whole thing.

Anyway, back to Necessary Evil - I like this book too much to kill it with apathy. So I'm figuring twice a month for 8 months left in 2010 - that's 16 sessions. The players have gone though one spine episode and one side episode at this point. That leaves 9 sessions to cover the required episodes and 7 for side adventures, spill-overs, and missed sessions and we wrap it up at the end of the year. Sounds good to me - we will hit the highest points in the adventure, have a lot of fun, and have some good stories to tell when we're finished, and it will leave some of the material unexplored for the next time I run it, maybe with the apprentices in a year or so. I might reskin it to make it Marvel or DC or use City of Heroes as the background next time - COH is our only MMO in this house - shout out to Aluminum Man!

That's the plan for now. It could change drastically if schedules suddenly changed or if the player's took a dislike to the game - I don't see that happening but you never know. I f I can have this and a game or two of D&D going at the same time I will be a happy gamer.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April Campaign Plans - Basic D&D

Since we've had a bit of a dry spell with the Basic game I thought I would share my longer-term plans for it. We should get to play again this weekend so I'll have more notes on that next week.

Right now the party is deep in the sample dungeon in the Holmes basic book. I had been planning to open up the lower levels using In Search of the Forgotten City but I'm rethinking that now for two reasons:

1) It may level them past the Keep on the Borderlands

2) I have no attachment to it - one of the reasons for doing this was to run the apprentices through some of the classics, and it's not one. It's fine as adventures go, but it's not special.

So once they clear out this level they should have some gold and some magic and the thieves may have advanced a level. I may put in some extra gold to ensure they all make it to 2nd level (and give them the challenge of hauling a big heavy treasure out of a dungeon) but I really want to get them to the keep and get things rolling there. There was a time when I could run through each numbered encounter and tell you what the monster was, how many, and what the treasure was but that was a long time ago. I'm curious to see how it holds up so many years later.

After the keep I am assuming the party will all be level 3-4 (Those thieves level pretty fast) and the second iconic module is of course The Isle of Dread. We should have a lot of fun there too.

Assuming things go well the party should be lvl 7-8 after the Isle and I am not totally sure what I will do after that. I thought about some homebrew stuff and that's probably what I will do for a bit if they want to keep on going with B/X D&D but I would also like to introduce them to another game...

AD&D was where I spent most of my early D&D time, more then basic. One of the classic AD&D campaigns (which has the bonus of being very Greyhawk-centric too) is the Temple of Elemental Evil, followed by Against the Giants, Followed by the Drow modules, followed by Q1. Having found this article I see that the XP's work very well and I probably won't need a lot of side adventures - I really want to run them through this! I may even invite a couple of my older friends to go along with them as I don't think we ever finished a complete run of all of these modules in any edition! So yes, now I'm looking at the B/X game as a kind of training ground to get to the main Greyhawk campaign run later this year.

Now that I have a rough plan for things, some details to consider:

1) I'll need to pick up some PHB's. Fortunately they are not insanely priced even nowadays at used bookstores and on Ebay.

2) I'll have to look at houserules when we get there. Plenty of time for that.

3) When I first looked at doing this I thought about letting them bring over their characters from B/X and convert to D&D but I've been rethinking that. The B/X campaign could be picked up at any time again and it's not set in Greyhawk, so I'm not going to do this. I'm going to have everyone start new characters at 1st level and we'll go from there. If I keep it in the family, they can each have 2 characters to give us a party of 6. If some friends join in then we'll go for 1 apiece. I have plenty of other modules to bring replacement characters up to speed if we need to, so I think this will work well.

Anyway, that's the plan - the Basic characters will end up around 9th -10th lvl most likely and then will probably go on the shelf while we dig into old school AD&D to play some more classics.