Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cheap Shots

A few things that caught my eye on DriveThruRPG:

  • "Moon Dust Men" - It's Kenneth Hite, it's for Gumshoe and you're chasing aliens in the 1970's for some reason - it's bound to be weird. I've been hearing about Gumshoe for a while now and I couldn't tell if I needed another book or what but I went ahead and spent my $2.95 this one to see. It's not complete - you need one of the other bigger Gumshoe games to get the rules - but it looks like a good enough treatment of the investigating-UFO-crashes-in-1978 genre if that's anyone's thing.

  • Monster Hunter International RPG - looking here this is apparently a licensed game based on a book series that is using the Hero System! It's been awhile since I've seen anything licensed or new for Hero so I was kind of pumped. Then I started reading that it has the setting AND complete Hero System rules in a 300 page book ... hmmm ... that seems ... unlikely. Considering Hero 5th editon's core book was 372 pages, how could anyone fit a decent setting plus those rules into that size of a book? Then I checked Champions Complete ... and it's only 240 pages! OK, maybe this is possible. Maybe they finally have Hero moving in a more sane direction than it was going. It's a pleasant surprise. I'm not buying this particular book, but it's a nice thing to see.

  • "100 Hungarian Sounding Names" - WTF? Is that a product or a google search? It's only 50 cents, but seriously, you would have to have internet service to get this product, and if you can do that you can type "Hungarian names" into your favorite search engine and have in seconds. Like this page. Beyond that, I can't think of a time I've ever said to myself "I really need a Hungarian-sounding name", although in one of my old Top Secret, James Bond, or Superhero games I might have used a few. It's a free market but this seems like effort that isn't going to see much use.

  • "Evil Wizards in a Cave" - Wow, we are really scraping the bottom for adventure titles now aren't we? Not even trying anymore. Look for the sequel "More Evil Wizards in a Different Cave" coming soon. Title aside it's 88 pages long and appears to be a sandbox valley environment for OSR games - it may be fine as far as content. It's clearly no threat to my "Lots of Monsters in Really Small Rooms" megadungeon project.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Wrath of the Righteous - Campaign Prep

In case it might help someone else here's what I've been doing to get ready for the WoR campaign.

Rules Stuff - it has to be addressed so I tackled it first:

  • Ability Scores: Pathfinder has several options for generating ability scores. As much as I like rolling the dice for this I thought we would try the new-school approach and make this another set of "interesting choices". I went with 20 points, which in PF terms is "High Fantasy". It gives good but not godlike scores, typically 16/15/13/12/10/8 or 17/14/12/12/10/8, slightly lower if someone wants to get rid of that 8, or more peaky if someone wants a full 18 before racial bonuses.
  • Races: Core Book, standard D&D races. There are a lot of options for swapping out racial abilities in the Advanced Players Guide and I would probably let someone take them if they were interested but it didn't come up.
  • Classes: Core Book + Advanced Players Guide. I included the APG mainly to bring in the Cavalier, which fits the theme of the adventure almost as well as the Paladin. I'm not a fan of all of the classes in this book, but I don't have to play any of them so it's not a real problem. When we get to the prestige class levels I'll probably add some more books to this list.
  • Traits: An optional Pathfinder thing that ties into one's background, I kept them optional. Most of them took at least one and a little more flavor doesn't hurt.
As far as the rules in general I don't have enough experience with these rules to feel the need to change anything yet. I'm not going to try and solve problems that haven't come up, so we're going as-is for now. The only potential wrinkle I can see is that non-magical healing is almost as slow as in 3E and I find the whole "we'll just spend another day resting up to heal" to be a real momentum-killer in the middle of a time-sensitive adventure and throwing extra random encounters at the party to get them moving again is risky at the low levels. I'm going to ride it out for now and try not to make assumptions based on the older edition's rough spots.


I am deliberately choosing to run this campaign using Hero Lab/PC Gen + Pathfinder Combat Manager instead of my usual on-paper approach. I've played around with it on some superhero games but not really used it for D&D. This changes some of the session prep work as most of the monster stats are already available, but I have to "build" the NPCs to use them. This is actually a positive as it means I am much more familiar with their capabilities after rebuilding them as it seems to stick better for me than just reading it off the page. It also means I can see what kind of shape my PC's are in during a fight and what resources they have expended too. So far I am enjoying it a lot.

Also, I'm not using a screen for this one. I always use a screen - except for ICONS - and have for years. This time it's rolling in the open, let the dice fall etc etc. I'm not big on fudging anyway, and with most of the monster stats on the laptop screen there's not much to conceal. I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Prepping a Published  Adventure:

I read it once all the way through before doing anything else for the campaign This initial read-thru is really just to see what it's about - I read it about like I would read a book. Does it look like fun? Does it make sense? Is there any stupid sh*t  or things my players are going to hate in it?

Most of the things my players hate boil down to "forced railroading", stuff like the trap or fight that automatically knocks everyone out, etc. Most of the stupid sh*t boils down to a plot pivot or a writer being overly cute. I'm sure most of you know what I mean.

This adventure had no real problems. It begins with a somewhat forced situation and is fairly linear but then pretty quickly widens out into a sandbox set in a ruined city before focusing back down to a major confrontation with evil. I'm willing to accept a narrow beginning to kick off a new 1st level campaign and I like that it eases up soon after. The structure is good, the events taking place are interesting, and it does feel like there is a point to it all in my opinion.

A week later I read through the first half again from a "what are my players going to be doing" perspective. I look at how much plot and how much freedom the players will have. I look at traps and monsters to see what's in the mix, stats,  and how they might work together. I look over the maps and see how everything connects, sequences of  and if I understand the layout of each dungeon or wilderness area or city. 

Maps are critical. For a dungeon, maps show the connections between encounters and pretty much define the choices available to the players at any given time. Maps are also where sandbox adventures tend to fail, whether it's a printing error, a disconnect between the key and the map, or a simple lack of clarity. If I look at two maps and can't tell how Map A connects to Map B (where are the stairs to the next level? Where is this building on the city map? Where is this monster lair on the overland map?) then it's a problem, and it happens more than it should.This adventure looks good so far.

Monsters are important but are easier to replace or fix than almost anything else. I think I have spent 57% of the last 3 years of game time running kobolds. From Basic to 4E I have run kobolds. If this adventure featured kobolds I was probably going to swap them out. Fortunately this was not a problem. There are also plenty of notes about how different enemies in certain areas will cooperate, or not, and why, and that's how it should be.

One somewhat different aspect is that there are some NPC's that go along with the PC's for the early part of the adventure. They are higher level, but each is handicapped in some way so as not to overpower the party. they are capable enough to not just be helpless victims, but their individual problems keep it under control. The whole point is that the PC's relationships with the NPC's as it develops during the early adventure can open up some good and bad things down the road. It's interesting, but I' m glad it's limited and not assumed to be continuing all the way through the thing.

The only thing I didn't really like - and that's probably the wrong word - was that there is a heavy focus on one or two NPC's gender and orientation. I don't care about it on the surface, but instead of "like" let's say I think it's overkill and largely a waste of space for an NPC in a D&D game. Current gender is relevant, sure. The fact that it used to be different doesn't seem relevant at all as I can't see that coming up in a convrsation with strangers (the PC's) in the middle of a fight with monsters. Orientation, well, frankly that doesn't come up much in my games and I can't see a campaign that focuses on a desperate, heroic crusade to stop a demon invasion having a whole lot of time for worrying about that anyway. Sure, go ahead and note that these two female NPC's are married (and faithful), fine, but I don't know that I need a full page or more of text describing the entire history of their relationship. It's not a huge problem but it seemed like an odd sidetrack for an otherwise tightly written adventure.

Anyway, this one is a good one and I don't really see a need to change anything. Sure, I may retcon some relationships between certain PC's and NPC's as they are encountered, but the maps are solid, the monsters are not the usual fare, the plot stuff makes sense, the sandbox part is handled well, and the NPC's are well done. I don't mind a little railroading to kick a new campaign off "en media res", especially with a new mix of players and a new system to worry about. 

If I was changing something I typically use post-it notes on the relevant pages or I just rewrite the entire section in my notes and note that down in the book. I haven't needed to here yet but we'll see what develops in play.

Finally, a day or two before the first game I went through the entire adventure and made sure the monsters were all available in my tool of choice (Combat Manager) and if they were not (such as some of the monsters with class levels) then I built them in the tool. It's a little work but it's fun and makes things a lot easier during the game. The same goes for the friendly NPC's too - if it has stats it goes into the machine.

That might seem like a fair amount of work but it doesn't feel like it - and if it does then that's a warning sign. For me knowing an adventure inside and out is the key to a successful run. Writing your own means you are automatically familiar with it. The published stuff has a lot of advantages but this is not one of them - you have to make it your own on some level. Reading it, making some notes, putting some stuff into a program - this is what works for me. I'll let you know how it plays out.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Freedom City: Year One

The concept is to follow a number of new heroes during their first year of being superheroes. This is not a new idea, but one difference here is that I would set it in Freedom City, which unlike most of the comic book stories of this type already has a well-established and well-known super team known as the Freedom League. This would give the new heroes something to play against - are they aspiring to membership? Do they see the league as allies or competition? They are not the first heroes, nor are they the most powerful, at least at first. Then there is the opposite question ; how does the league see them? I don't normally like to play up an NPC group all that much when a campaign begins as it can make your players feel like they're playing the B or C team but I think I can make it work as a positive in this campaign. To set this interplay up one of the character creation rules would be that these new characters cannot have any defined relationship with the Freedom league or any of its members - we will develop that in play.

For players who don't want to play rookie heroes I came up with an option mostly inspired by Dark Knight Rises: you can play a hero coming out of retirement but it's been years, probably a lot of years, since he was active. This will take a little more background work to weave in but there is a lot to work with in Freedom City so I don't think it will be a problem. In this case the character may once have been a member of the league but resigned and has not been in contact with them for years.I'm also going to need some creative use of Disads/Complications/Limitations to reflect this whole state of affairs. I'm thinking something like Deadlands "Veteran o' the Weird West" where you get extra advancements but have to draw a card which tells the DM what interesting effects are lingering on from your greater experience.

Timeline-wise I have been thinking about moving things back and setting it right after Centurion dies (or right before) instead of 10-20 years later as in the book. He might be the reason some of the heroes do what they do, and regardless of the exact timing the chaotic aftermath of Omega's assault would be a good time for new heroes to appear. I like the idea of giving the players a chance to make some personal connection between their characters and the self-sacrificing Roman Superman of the setting - I mean, what's the point of having that in the background if you can't hook into it, right, and what better finale (or kickoff) than a dimensional invasion and a big sacrifice? It's there, it seems like I should use it for something! That would also let me use the "history" in the book as an outline for events for a decade or so if I want to use them. Moving beyond Year One we could look at our runs as the "big events" of a year or so in the hero business (kind of like Pendragon) and advance the campaign calendar at whatever rate we choose using out-of-session talk to cover the in-between times. Comic books aren't all that linear or consistent when it comes to timelines so I'm trying to come up with a looser approach to that whole thing. I don't need a bunch of mechanics around this just something I can communicate to the players. In the end I may just go with the default timing of the 2E Freedom City book and give up trying to outsmart myself with this but at the moment it's still something I'm working through.

So nothing earth-shatteringly original but a little more structured than than the way I usually begin a campaign.  With some of the published adventures to kick things off, then detours through whatever personal agendas develop in play, and then a "Season 1 Finale" - perhaps using Time of Crisis if I go with the more standard timeline - I could arrange a decently satisfying run. By the time we run through all this there's a good chance we're into next year and there's a new 3E version of Freedom City out presumably with a timeline advance, and we could jump things forward a few if we felt like it or just play through and see where our version of the city goes.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Non-Dungeon Stuff Update

It's been pretty D&D-intensive around here lately with the combination of Next, Pathfinder, and the ongoing 4E game - and there is more coming - but I wanted to talk about the other stuff.
  • Icons: nothing new really. I'm reading Stark City but we haven't tried to do anything with the game for a few months now. I may turn SC over to one of the apprentices to see if they want to try running something. Team-Up did finally come out but I'm not going to worry about it until we start playing more.
  • Marvel Heroic: The boys want to continue our Antarctic adventure but we haven't had time or have decided to play something else instead. these things come in surges and right now we're "surging" on D&D type games. It will come back around to this at some point though.
  • Savage Worlds: If we run anything here it will probably be Deadlands. I have an outline for campaign but I don't have a timeslot for it. Someday I'd like to pick up our Necessary Evil game too but I don't  have a slot for that either. And of course there is always Weird War 2 which pushes a bunch of buttons for me. Ah well, SW is in the "want-to" bin right now more than anything else.
  • Gamma World: I finally picked up the last box for the 2010/2011 edition of GW, "Legion of Gold" which expands the rules options in some nice ways and completes the campaign begun in the main boxed set with a trip to the moon of gamma terra. It looks interesting and one of these days we will play through it.
  • Vague interests, nothing concrete: Traveller, Trek, Star Wars, Rifts, Shadowrun - the usual suspects, always interested but never enough to actually bump something else and start a game.  
The one non-D&D thing we have played semi-regularly (though there's been a gap for the last month or so) is Mutants and Masterminds. It's been all 3E this year but despite my proclamation a few months back I'm back to leaning towards running a 2E game because I sat down and worked out an outline using the published material I have and realized I could probably run for a year on it alone. Given that pile of plots, stats, and maps, and the near-zero prep time, why am I not running this? 

I have a concept in mind I am calling "Freedom City: Year One" which is comic book terms would be following the adventures of a group of brand new heroes who all appear in the same one-year period and begin careers as superheroes in the shadow of the well-established and well-known Freedom League. No, it's not super-original but it is more specific "concept-wise as opposed to my usual "make up some heroes and we'll figure it out" approach. More on that tomorrow. In the meantime, yes, I am working on figuring out a timeslot to run this alongside my "dungeon overload" of late 2013.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dungeon Stuff - An Update

You'd think after playing this game for multiple decades there wouldn't be much left that I didn't already have, but they keep ... making ... more ... stuff! I manage to resist the collector/completist bug most of the time (I don't have "everything" for the first three editions of D&D) but I do like to have "main" books for any game I am attempting to run. To sort things out:

  • 4th Edition: Still running it as the main campaign. Picking up the last few WOTC books and looking over the small-but-maybe-not-as-small-as-you-think number of books published by companies other than WOTC. I have almost all of the WOTC stuff but I'm thinking the "endgame" of collecting 4E is picking up the D&D Encounters and LFR modules. There was quite a pile of stuff that was not put on store shelves and I expect next year's game will be to pick up that stuff if I'm still feeling it.
  • Pathfinder: Starting to run it as the "second" campaign and picking up the core books as I go. Paizo has published a LOT of stuff for this game so I'm trying to narrow my focus to only those things are relevant to my current campaign. The PDF's are very nicely priced at $9.99 each for the big rulebooks, but those are exactly the kinds of things I like to have in book form to pass around the table. To avoid overloading the budget I'm taking a "PDF's now, books later" approach where I can. 
  • Next: Running it for the Apprentices when time allows and thankfully there's nothing else to "get" for this one right now. Hopefully my Pathfinder library will be under control by the time they start charging for this one.
  • OSR type stuff: Don't need any more rules but I am looking forward to the second half of Stonehell coming out, even if our expeditions into the first half are stalled out. Adventures are about the only thing I look for when it comes to the older editions these days. 
I'm probably going to stop worrying about the other stuff - our "pure" basic game and our 4E ToEE, and even Stonehell - until the boys ask me to run them again. I may take a shot at converting Stonehell to Next but that will probably not happen in the immediate future. The others aren't going anywhere and can be picked up anytime.