Friday, 24 October 2014

Tough Love

Here is a little bit of GMing philosophy - when you play in my game, I am on your side. I really hope that you do well. I just won't do anything to ensure that you do well. Want to attempt something unusual? I will entertain what seem to be reasonable arguments. I will assign what seems like a fair chance, to me. The odds are good that, if I make a ruling, that ruling is skewed in the players' favour.

But the dice still fall where they may, and I will fudge neither rolls nor statistics nor monster behaviour to ensure either your success or your survival. I want you to succeed - I really do - but I want you to succeed in a meaningful way. That means giving your opponents the brains that they should have, and it means allowing bad things to happen as well as good. That means allowing a TPK to happen. And happen again. And happen again after that. Unless you do something to make it not happen.

When I brought this up on DragonsFoot, I was told that this was smoke and mirrors - the GM cannot both be on the players' side and act as an impartial referee. Let me rephrase that, because what I am saying is that the GM can be on the players' side and still understand the importance of refereeing impartially. Just as a player can advocate for his character fairly, without cheating. Hoping for a good outcome does not mean you screw the game in order to ensure it occurs.

If I was acting against the players, or even creating a completely impartial scenario, it would be all too easy to create situations where TPKs were inescapable. I would have a thick folder filled with the dead, and no players at the table, because, really, what would be the point? Even a "killer" dungeon like Death Frost Doom or The Tomb of Horrors is more player-friendly than a similar situation would "realistically" be.

And I play games with people I like. I feel for them when they lose a beloved character. I am happy for them when they succeed beyond hope.

I am on their side.

But I won't do anything to make them win. And the dice may not be.

And it is not always obvious to the players that I am on their side, either. It's fun when the going gets tough, and I am grinning like a hyena waiting for a wildebeest to fall. Even though I hope they find a way out, I relish the tight spot for what it is. 

These are not contradictory positions to take. Any player worth his salt relishes the dangerous moments as well. Although she might not be able to focus on her enjoyment of those moments at the time (being busy with trying to find a way to survive, or mourning the loss of a character), but those are the moments that are relived through gamer chatter days, months, and years later. 

A good GM is on the side of the players, and wants them to do well and have fun, but is not on the side of the characters. A good GM knows that pulling punches removes the value of choice from the players, just as a good GM ensures that context is available for choices, but doesn't force context on the players if they choose to ignore it/not look for it. A good GM allows the players to make choices, and allows the characters to live or die by the quality of those choices.


A GM who punishes characters when the players make good choices, or coddles the characters when the players make poor choices, is undesirable. Both remove the greatest value that the tabletop game offers over other forms of entertainment.

Some players may think they want easy victories, or even guaranteed victories, but handing crap like that out is not what someone on your side does.

Call it tough love.


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Updates

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front because I have been busy elsewhere. The earlier part of 2014 was slow going for me, and I suffered massively from writer’s block. It is tough to be prolific when you feel the words you are penning just don’t convey what you want them to. It isn’t that I got nothing done, but everything I managed to complete was a lot more difficult than it should have been.

The material I composed for Goodman GamesPeril on the Purple Planet kickstarter seems to have gotten that out of my system, and I am firing on all cylinders again. That stuff was just easy and fun to write, and it seems to have gotten me back into the groove. The end result is that I have a lot of projects piled up at the end of the year, which means you’ll be seeing more Daniel J. Bishop titles in 2015 than you did in 2014.

The initial text for FT 2: The Portsmouth Mermaid (Purple Duck Games) has been playtested, and was well received. I was a bit concerned about how easy the text would be to follow – I have run this sort of adventure before, where the PCs can literally change the whole course of the game by their decisions – but this is the first time I have tried to make sure that my notes were as useful to another GM as they would be to me.

In a typical dungeon, descriptions of what is where, and how it interacts, are adequate for play. In a town, you need to describe the players and the factions, the town itself, what events will occur if the PCs don’t change things, what events are likely, and supply a slew of material for when the game curves unexpectedly. You’ll be getting all of that and more with The Portsmouth Mermaid.

The next two CE Series campaign elements for Purple Duck Games are nearly complete. In addition, there is a nifty project Perry Fehr and I will be working on for Purple Duck.

I have some other work for Goodman Games (see the Gen Con program guide) and Purple Duck to get off my plate as the year closes, but everything is progressing smoothly there. Going into 2015, there are some secret projects in the works; I have been asked to help with something near and dear to my heart, and which I think the DCC community will be rightly excited about. It’ll be my first time writing for the company involved.

In my home game this Thursday, I expect more exploration of the Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which I am using with Dungeon Crawl Classics. The PCs have explored most of the Gatehouse, and have opened the way to the dungeon proper. They just began to explore the first level when the game ended last week. I cannot praise Patrick Wetmore’s work on ASE enough.


The Judge Js on Spellburn disagreed with me regarding The Wizardarium of Calabraxis, which I continue to rate as a Critical Hit and regard as the #1 “must own” adventure for DCC. YMMV.  But you should absolutely also pick up Prayers of the Forgotten and Stronghold of the Wood Giant Shaman, also recently reviewed on Spellburn. Very, very good stuff there.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

They Came to Umerica

Three weeks ago I picked up a new player via the Dungeon Crawl Classics World Tour 2014 program and running games at Fan Expo Toronto. Combines with some of my existing players expressing a wish to get their hands on firearms, or playing mutant characters, and the appearance of a funnel adventure in Crawling Under a Broken Moon #3, I embarked a new set of adventurers upon the path to glory, gold, and an untimely death.

Two weeks ago, I ran the first part of The Mall Maul from CUaBM#3, a bit of awesome sauce that, frankly, I mangled in the translation. This was due to a lack of prep on my part; although I read the adventure thoroughly, I should have prepared some flavour text ahead of time. Perhaps I should also have photocopied the map onto graph paper, and used coloured pencils to indicate main thoroughfares (mall walkways), service walkways, etc. I don’t spend enough time in malls to have done the setting justice.

For those of you not getting Crawling Under a Broken Moon, the setting is post-Apocalyptic Umerica – think Thundarr the Barbarian meets Mad Max meets Gamma World meets Dungeon Crawl Classics and you won’t be that far off. In the funnel adventure, the PCs are filling a tribute truck to buy off some raiders – when they hit 200 “tribute truck” points, they get 10 XP and level up.

There was some bitching about this from some quarters. I have been running the game where, when the 0-level PCs hit 10 XP, they level. This led to overly cautious play, where every item to PCs started with had to be considered as to whether or not it could count as tribute, and the players simply refused to explore the stranger areas of the mall until they were absolutely sure that there was nothing left in the mall proper. Each step of the way was handled with the sort of mind-numbing thoroughness that only comes with not having made driven home a time limit before the raiders arrive.



By the second week, for part 2 of The Maul Maul, I was a little better prepared. One thing that helped was a list of random items, effectively dungeon dressing for the mall. We had ended with the defeat of the main Malllock nest, and the tribute truck still not close to full. The second half of the mall is cooler than the first, but it is also harder to describe. Again, better prep in this area would have served me well. In any event, they hit the food court, filled the truck, levelled, and we ended it there.

Some notes:

  • If I was doing this over, I would prep descriptions better, and perhaps scour the Internet for applicable visuals.
  • Instead of dealing with TT values, I would simply have granted 1 XP per 20 TT found, and give the players a rough idea of how full the truck seemed to be.
  • I would have copied and coloured the map to give me visual cues as an aid in describing places.
  • A list of random junk on the first session, to aid in descriptions, would have helped.
  • I had to make calls about leveling using Crawling Under a Broken Moon. Are mutants a race class? Can they take another class? I ruled that they could use half-levels, or they could use race-as-class. There was some pretty vocal bitching about this. Tough. When options are added, if you don’t like them, don’t use them, but don’t drag the game into a bitching match about the options you would use if you were running the game, unless you are actually prepared to do so.


Part 3 got off to a better start, as the players determined that they had cleared out the mall. There was a lot of talk about them keeping the stuff they had gotten for the tribute truck, or just keeping the tribute truck, but in the end the fact that they liked the local priest of Kizz got them to take his advice and leave their Podunk little town and head east towards Denethix….the raiders work for the wizard Dundee the Crocodile Lord, and in this part of Umerica, known as the Land of One Thousand Towers, the best you can hope for from any wizard is that they ignore you.

Along the way to Denethix, they meet two caravan guards, and go to rescue a merchant in the lair of several sick lion-like humanoids known as Moktars. This leads them to a cave atop a nearby mountain, which promises the possibility of loot. They decide to go to the closest (very poor) village and get some help – a new batch of 0-levels for everyone. All have a group of 4 PCs (mixed 1st and 0-level), and head back up the mountain.

When last we left off, Suicidal Steve the 0-level Elf was hit in the head with a trap made of a swinging pipe. So far, no inhabitants of the newly-opened dungeon have reared their head, but the signs (literal signs on doors) indicate that there may be some useful technology around somewhere.


And that is where we pick up tonight……


(In case it is unclear, I am adapting Patrick Wetmore's excellent Anomalous Subsurface Environment to Dungeon Crawl Classics. This is a good fit, especially for the post-Apocalyptic environment of Crawling Under a Broken Moon. ASE also contains the means, via Michael Curtis, to connect the world of CUaBM with one's regular game, so that this new chapter is just the long way 'round to going "home" to where the regular PCs are. I think that's cool.)

Saturday, 27 September 2014

W is for Walrus.....A Hung Jury

I am going to use both versions of the scrimshaw rod from the "W is for Walrus" contest, and I am going to give both contestants a print and pdf of the adventure they will appear in (FT 2: The Portsmouth Mermaid).

Contest closed.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Review: Prayers of the Forgotten

Prayers of the Forgotten
Stormlord Publishing
By Carl Bussler and Eric Hoffman

Brief review: Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and yet again, wonderful.

Longer review: Take a simple premise: forgotten gods and alien philosophies exist in the Appendix N, sword & Sorcery style worlds that Dungeon Crawl Classics emulates. Sometimes, those gods are not dead, but merely forgotten. Sometimes, they want to be worshiped again. Sometimes, bold adventurers encounter the remains of these cults. Now devise mechanics to reflect this.

That’s what Prayers of the Forgotten does – provides a simple framework to create unique mechanics for your forgotten gods, philosophies, arch-demons, and so on. The rest of the booklet is devoted to three specific examples of the same. These specific examples come with what are essentially mini-adventures that can be dropped in your campaign as desired. An added bonus: The mini-adventures are not only good, but they are diverse.

In addition to the obvious “treasure” of becoming the favoured soul of some forgotten god, this booklet sparked some interesting ideas for “Quest For It” adventures in my mind. If the last component for a spell can be found from the lips of a forgotten god, what might that god demand in exchange? What is something the PCs want – even something as mundane as a lost sword technique – can only be gained as a boon from a forgotten god?

Anything that makes the judge consider the supernatural world in which the PCs operate is a good thing. Anything that gives the judge extra tools to model the interaction of that supernatural world with the PCs is a great thing.

This is a great value for the money. A must have for the serious (or even the not-so-serious) DCC judge.


“There is no such thing as a dead god. Only dead followers.”

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Agony Columns

Following the failure of the FTL Communications Network and generally upheld interstellar law, it became possible to hire out jobs that had formerly been illegal under the Terrestrial Alliance.  The “Agony Columns” are similar to Classifieds in a newspaper, or a dating service – an individual pays to post a request, with a contact number that is provided by the local System Agency. 

System Agencies pay a nominal fee to spike drive ships to carry information from one system to another, thus providing updated Agony Column information across nearby systems.  The downside to this is that out-system listings may already be filled or closed by the time they reach a local System Agency, and it may be some time before the listing is updated.  Those responding to out-system listings are cautioned to use their own best judgement!

In some systems, the local System Agency may use viral transportation to encode packets onto outgoing ships without the knowledge or payment of the owners.  This is frowned on by GalSysCom, but is not illegal in most systems.  A ship that discovers a System Agency packet hidden in its computers may delete or sequester the packet without fear of prosecution.

(Sequestering a packet prevents it from uploading to local System Agencies, thus limiting access to the information contained within...at least until such time as it is provided by another spike drive ship.  Parties possessing the packet may then decrypt it in order to “claim jump” any interesting tidbits they may find.)

The Agony Columns are used not only to offer clandestine employment, but also list potential job offers with various corporations and other places of employment, personal messages, birth notices, death notices, wedding notices, and anything else a user is willing to pay 1 credit per 10 characters to post.







Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dungeon of Crows 2: Avatar of Yog Sutekhis

Another Pay What You Want instalment of The Dungeon of Crows is available.

I've included a sample below, but the real treat is the Avatar of Yog Sutekhis.

43.  Crypt with Demon:  The passage goes 10 feet into another chamber, some 30 feet to a side, with an archway in the centre of the right wall.  The walls are composed of triangular burial niches, some filled with piles of bones separated by type – you can see niches that contain only jawbones, or shinbones, or ulnas, for example – but many seem empty.  The ceiling is about 10 feet high.

Two monkey demons hide within the niches, one behind several skulls in a niche on the east wall, and one in an otherwise empty niche on the north wall (which cannot be seen into from the doorway).  A 2 in 6 chance notices the first, but the second cannot be noticed until the room is entered (1 in 6 chance) and may well have a chance to act with surprise.  Monkey demons look like red-skinned black-furred monkeys with wizened, evil, almost-human faces. Anyone bit by a monkey demon must make a save vs. poison (Will DC 10) or permanently lose 1d4 points of Strength.

Monkey Demons (2): AL C, MV 90’ (30’), AC 3 (17), HD 1, hp 5, 8, #AT 1 (bite), DG 1d4 + Strength loss, SV T3 (Fort +2, Ref +5, Will +2), ML 8, XP 16.


There are 300 niches in this room, but only about a third contain bones.  Searching them takes a single character 30 minutes, and uncovers a leather bag containing 250 polished bone discs with crude faces scratched on one side of each disc.  These are “money” of the Boneknapper’s Guild on Level Three, and can be used to barter with any ghouls met in this dungeon.

Breckinridge Elkins

Robert E. Howard is well known for characters like Kull, Conan, Bran Mak Morn, El Borak, Cormac Mac Art and Solomon Kane. He also wrote stories about many characters that are perhaps less well known these days – Sailor Steve Costigan, Professor John Kirowan, Turlogh Dubh O’Brien, and Dark Agnes – although no less worthy. Among those characters who have achieved less notoriety is Breckinridge Elkins, Howard’s brawny-but-not-brainy, tough-as-nails character whose humorous Western exploits take place in and around Bear Creek, Nevada.

I had read very few of the Breckinridge Elkins stories prior to going camping in Algonquin Park this August, but one of the books I brought with me was A Gent From Bear Creek*. Although more than half a continent lies between the Sierra Nevada of Bear Creek and the Appalachians of Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer tales, it seems to me that a “Breckinridge Elkins”-type character would fit in quite well with the Wellman-inspired Shudder Mountains of Michael CurtisThe Chained Coffin.

Without further ado, then, here is Breckinridge Elkins, statted out for the Dungeon Crawl Classics rpg.

Breckinridge Elkins:  Init +0; Atk punch +5+1d10 melee (1d3+5+1d10) or hurl stone +5+1d10 ranged (1d8+5+1d10, range 100’) or firearm +1d10 ranged (1d6+1d10); AC 9; HD 8d10+32; hp 80; MV 30’; Act 2d20; SP DR 10, iron constitution, “get mad”, Mighty Deeds, incredible strength, impossible to kill; SV Fort +20, Ref +4, Will +4; AL N.

Breckinridge Elkins is a giant grizzly bear of a man, well over 6 feet tall. So iron is his constitution that he can drink jug after jug of moonshine without serious inebriation, and any damage he takes is reduced by 10 points. If any damage gets through this reduction, Elkins “gets mad”, gaining a +1d bonus on the dice chain to both Action Dice.

Breckinridge Elkins gains a Deed Die (1d10) as does a warrior or dwarf, and he criticals as though he were a giant. Although his attacks can be devastating, they are never lethal – an opponent reduced to 0 hp is knocked senseless, coming to after 1d6 rounds or minutes (judge’s choice) with a full Hit Die restored. The character does not lose a point of Strength, Agility, or Stamina as with the normal “Damage and Death” rules on page 93 of the core rulebook.

Likewise, Breckinridge typically uses his Mighty Deeds to comical effect – limiting opponent’s attacks, chawing on ears, dazing opponents, or placing them into unsavoury circumstances. The judge is encouraged to have Breckinridge use his Deeds to throw folks through windows, jam them into barrels, slide them down the bar counter, or whatever else seems over the top.

Breckinridge Elkins is incredibly strong; it is, in fact, impossible for a normal human being, unaided by magic, to beat him in a Strength check. Even against a superhuman character, such as Lin Carter’s Ganelon Silvermane, Elkins adds his Deed Die +5 to any Strength check. He has been known to break through solid timber walls, carry his mule, hurl a mountain lion into a cabin, and throw rocks with explosive force.

Although incredibly strong and tough, the gent from Bear Creek isn’t terribly smart, and is easily fooled. Discovering that he has been tricked is liable to make him mad, however, and an angry Breckinridge Elkins has been the end to many a villainous scheme.

Finally, if reduced to 0 hp, Breckinridge Elkins is merely stunned, and sits down, falls down, or wanders off as the judge deems appropriate. He recovers a full Hit Die in 1d6 minutes, or immediately upon being attacked. He regains another Hit Die each hour until his full Hit Dice are restored. Breckinridge Elkins may well be impossible to kill.

If the judge’s campaign includes firearms, Breckinridge usually has a primitive cap-and-ball pistol on his person.

Cap’n Kidd: Init +2; Atk hoof +8 melee (1d6+5) or bite +4 melee (1d4+5); AC 16; HD 8d8+32; hp 50; MV 90’; Act 1d20; SP DR 5, difficult to mount, buck and throw, impossible to kill; SV Fort +12, Ref +10, Will +15; AL N.

Cap’n Kidd is Breckinridge Elkin’s horse – the only horse strong enough to carry him. He allows only Breckinridge or Glory McGraw to ride him, and in Breckinridge’s case, Cap’n Kidd bucks or rolls a few times before he can be ridden. Anyone who attempts to ride Cap’n Kidd is targeted by a single hoof or bite attack as a free action, and must make a DC 20 Reflex save or Strength check to get on the horse’s back. Failure allows another try, but Cap’n Kidd gains another free attack. Once on the horse, the would-be rider must succeed in 3d7 Strength checks (DC 1d10+10) or be thrown from the horse for 2d6 damage (with any natural “6” indicating a broken bone).

Similarly to Breckinridge Elkins, Cap’n Kidd ignores the first 5 points of damage from any source, and if reduced to 0 hp is merely dazed, gaining a full Hit Die back in 1d6 minutes. If a PC reduces Cap’n Kidd to 0 hp through nonlethal combat, the horse should allow itself to be ridden by that PC, much to the amazement of all around (especially Elkins).

Glory McGraw: Init +3; Atk punch +1d5 melee (1d3+1d5) or firearm +3+1d5 ranged (1d6+1d5); AC 12; HD 4d8+8; hp 25; MV 30’; Act 1d20+1d14; SP Mighty Deeds, possibly impossible to kill; SV Fort +4, Ref +8, Will +8; AL L.

Glory McGraw is Breckinridge Elkin’s love interest. Although not as physically intimidating as the gent from Bear Creek, she also has a Deed Die (1d5), and probably cannot be killed. I leave this last to the judge’s discretion.

It is highly recommended that the judge read some of Howard’s original prose before running these characters. Further inspiration can be found here or especially here.


* It should be noted that the stories in A Gent From Bear Creek were not all originally Breckinridge Elkins stories. The collection reworks some stories from similar Howard characters into Elkins stories, in the same way that the Conan stories were padded out with edited stories originally attached to other Howard characters.


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Fan Expo 2014

Photos courtesy of Toronto Area Gamers
As previously mentioned, I was scheduled to run three games at Fan Expo 2014, having been asked to volunteer by the wonderful folks in the Toronto Area Gamers.

On Friday, I was scheduled to run The Imperishable Sorceress, which had been published as a Free RPG Day adventure by Goodman Games in 2013. On Saturday, I was scheduled to run The Arwich Grinder, which appeared in Crawl #9. On Sunday, I was scheduled to run The Thing in the Chimney, which was initially available as a free adventure for Christmas 2012, and then made a part of Perils of the Cinder Claws, along with a sequel adventure, by Purple Duck Games for the 2013 holidays.

Friday went well, with a TPK occurring in the cold halls of Ivrian the Unkind. The players failed to listen to Ivrian’s instructions, and the cleric attempted to invoke divine power to deal with the first demon. And failed. They also failed to obtain almost all of the treasures that could have helped them with the adventure – being initially afraid even to touch the magic sword. With very little oomph left to the group, the survivors perished when they met the waspmires on the face of the Cleft Mountain. Still, it was fun.

Saturday, I started with five players, but one was taking care of a baby. One should not take care of a baby and play in The Arwich Grinder. He bowed out when they reached the attic. Of the remaining 16 0-level PCs entering the funnel, 14 were still alive when we were warned that the room was going to close about 45 minutes before the game was scheduled to end. They had just begun to examine “Hell on Earth”, so they might not have done as well if we had continued. Still, it was amazingly impressive, as the dice showed the game’s Judge no love, and player caution prevented them from doing anything truly stupid. And it was a lot of fun. Letting the dice fall where they may, if nothing else, ensured that the players knew how exceptionally lucky their 0-level PCs really were.

Sunday, I didn’t have enough sign-ups to run through The Thing in the Chimney, but last-minute players allowed me to run for a foursome. They burned through the adventure, avoiding most of the potential combats, but all dropped when a pair of hands came from the chimney. “You are drawn up into the chimney, one by one. There are some crunching sounds. Then your boots fall into the ashes.” Lovely. Especially in contrast to the humorous tone of the rest of the scenario.

Because there was so much time left, I ruled that the fruitcake helped them (because the halfling ate it all), giving each 2d6 hit points back, and allowed them to face the Cinder Claws himself. Yes, this was a fudge – but it was also a fudge in a one-shot game, where everyone knew it was a fudge (no lying about it!) and agreed to turn the clock back. They also knew what the “real” events had been.

In the ensuing battle, two PCs dropped again before the Cinder Claws was defeated. When rolled over, after being dragged through the portal, they were discovered to be dead. A fruitcake can only do so much.

But the players had burned through the adventure so quickly that I still had half the time left. And they were asking if I had another scenario on me. Having the core rules, I had them generate three 0-level PCs each and ran them through Joseph Goodman’s The Portal Under the Stars. It was well received. In the end, two new “heroes” emerged from the adventure site, and they were the two who ran.

One of the players then asked if he could join my weekly game. This was a young gentleman who had never played DCC before, but who really liked the pace of the game. A lot of things can happen, and you don’t always know what they are going to be!

NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS

I was recognized from having run other DCC promo events in the past, which was nice.

You can, apparently, be voted MVP by the other players if you do a good job role-playing being cursed with a desire to eat human flesh.

The big draw this year seemed to be 5E, but Pathfinder retains a strong hold on the Toronto crowd. I didn’t see anyone playing older edition games, which was a bit sad.

The Goodman Games swag program continues to surprise players. I was repeatedly forced to tell people that, really, they could have that mechanical pencil, that button, those bookmarks, that graph paper, etc., because the publisher provided it to me to give away to players.

It was very kind of the Toronto Area Gamers group to invite me to run games this year, and I would certainly be willing to do so in the future. Next time, though, I will be running all-new never-before-seen material, and players willing to chance their PCs’ fates on the dice and my gentle adventure designs may be able to gain playtest credits as a result!