Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Shorpy Sundays

I think it's about time this blog got a regular weekly feature, don't you? Therefore, in the spirit of Shatnerday and Simian Saturday, I hereby announce the launch of Shorpy Sundays!

(This was sort of a spontaneous decision--later Shorpy Sunday posts will pop up earlier in the day.)

For those of you who don't know about it, Shorpy is one of those great Internet treasure troves, an ever-growing collection of high-resolution scans of old photographs. I'm a big proponent of collecting visual reference information for running games. A picture's worth a thousand words, after all; whether you share the pictures with your group in-game or simply study them before a session, they can only help your GMing and scene descriptions.

Fortunately for a pulp/Cthulhu enthusiast such as myself, a large percentage (perhaps the majority) of the pictures cluster around the 1920s. Since discovering Shorpy about a year ago, I've found it to be an invaluable visual reference resource, and I'd like to use this post series to share some of my favorites.

The pictures fall into two general categories: locations and people. The people pics are great fodder for NPCs or even PCs, while the location pics are both evocative and informative. Ever wonder what a 1920s kitchen or nursery or butcher shop looked like? How about a typical street scene? Backyards, custom cars, swimming pools...the list goes on and on, and it's precisely these sorts of mundane details that are so easy to overlook until you actually find yourself needing to describe them.

At any rate, let's get on to the first post in the series. It's one that I feel is appropriate to the eventual subject matter that Shorpy pics inspire, and a little slice of both categories in one pic: just some innocent idol worship. (And doesn't it just scream out to have a Great Old One photoshopped in there?)


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Player Lifespans

No, I'm not talking about players dropping dead at the table. I had a thought the other day, however, about the lifespan of a player in a long-term campaign. Much ink (virtual and actual) has been spilled over campaign lifespans, by which is implied the arc of a GM's interest in running a campaign. But something I don't believe I've ever seen addressed before is the arc of a player's interest in participating in a campaign.

This may not come up that often because, let's be honest, it can be difficult to get a campaign to last for any great length of time. But if you spin our a campaign arc over a long-enough span of sessions, this will start to come up. In my own experience, the issue arose during my first big Pendragon campaign back in 2007-2008. Despite all three of my players vocally advocating for a long, multi-generational campaign, over time one player after another pooped out until it was just me and Des. So based on that limited experience, I hereby put forth the following sweeping general categories:

The Story Arc Player: This player will be committed to a campaign as far as a particular arc is playing out, but once that is done he quickly loses interest. In our Pendragon campaign, this was typified by a character who went through a "heel turn" (as they say in the wrestling world) before eventually redeeming himself through valiant self-sacrifice. It made for some particularly dramatic gaming, but once it was done, the player was no longer interested in the campaign. He tried a wide range of new characters, but none of them held any appeal. His in-game behavior became disruptive due to boredom, and eventually he stopped showing up entirely.

The Single Character Player: A variation on the Story Arc Player, this player will happily play through many character story arcs over the course of a campaign, but once his character dies or retires, the player is ready to move on to greener campaigns. In our Pendragon campaign, this attitude was typified by a player who was whole-heartedly committed to participating up until his first character retired. Despite attempting to play a new character, it just didn't take and ultimately the player admitted it was because he felt he couldn't do anything more with the campaign beyond what he'd accomplished with his first character.

The End of the Line Player: This player is in it for the long haul. This may be the most common type of player in your stereotypical old school D&D campaign, perfectly willing to roll up a new character when their old one gets mangled in a trap or killed by a grue, but it's never been terribly common in the groups I've played in. In our Pendragon campaign, only one player fell into this category, sticking it out to the logical end of the campaign and playing no less than three characters in the process.

There are probably other player types when it comes to long-term campaigns, but those are the three that I've come up with based on my own admittedly limited experience. I'm sure my esteemed readership will be able to come up with a couple more in the comments, right folks?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Of Elves and Dwarves

James M. at Grognardia lamented in a recent post his choice of including elves and dwarves in his ongoing Dwimmermount campaign. I can commiserate with his feelings. I've been giving a lot of thought to cultures in my Wilderlands campaign (the subject of a future post or posts), and I've come up with all kinds of (to me at least) interesting twists and ideas for all sorts of human and demihuman races. Yet when I come to elves and dwarves, there's just not a whole lot of inspiration there. They're too hidebound by Tolkien and four decades of D&D. There seems very little fresh ground there.

After reading some entertaining discussion on the subject of female dwarves, I had a thought that I could take a page from Castle Falkenstein and make all dwarves male and all elves female. The two species would be cross-fertile, and all male babies would be born dwarves, all female babies elves. This, of course, has obvious applications as a sort of jokey "battle of the sexes" comparison of dwarfish and elfish archetypes, and seems like a fun tack to take. One problem with that is that a PC in my current campaign is a male elf, and I'm not sure how he'd feel about a mandatory sex change.

Beyond such radical changes, I'm kind of at a loss for how to make dwarves and elves more unique while keeping them playable (i.e. not making elves into xenophobic fae or dwarves into reclusive earth sprites with crow feet, as cool as all that is). In my next D&D campaign, I'll probably ditch dwarves and elves entirely unless it's a setting that does something cool or interesting with them (like Dark Sun or Uresia).

Oh the irony

I had a funny thought the other day. In my ongoing, semi-regular Wilderlands campaign there's been a lot of tweaking and adjusting to get the PCs' race-class choices to be "just right" for Castles & Crusades. Two of the characters (out of a group of three) have custom "class and a half" classes, for example, and one of the PCs is a non-canonical race.

That character is the indomitable Rumple-Wumpkin, an otterkin beastmaster. We've finally settled on what exactly constitutes an "otterkin" and what makes her a "beastmaster." Finally. So naturally, after doing so, it immediately occurred to me, "Hey, if we were playing 4e this wouldn't have been an issue." After all, otterkin are a playable race in the Scarrport: City of Secrets book, and the Beastmaster Ranger build was introduced in Martial Powers, if I'm not mistaken. (All this I've found out only through Googling around for "otterkin" and "D&D beastmaster"--I'm not normally this well-read on matters relating to Fourth Edition.)

Plus, since we're gaming online now, the miniatures issue wouldn't be a problem. Programs like MapTool make it an absolute breeze (not to mention free!) to run miniatures-centric combats on battlemats.

So why am I still running Castles & Crusades? A few reasons.

First, we've got a couple D&D newbies in the group who are juuuuuuust starting to cotton on to the C&C system. I feel it would be disingenuous to pull the rug out from under them now. Plus, before we left the Bay Area I gave the half of the group who teleconferences in my old first printing copies of the Players Handbook and Monsters and Treasure for reference, and our resident "rules guy" has started using that to his advantage.

Second, I really do like C&C, especially its cross-edition flexibility. Converting monsters from the Creature Crucible, classes from Second Edition AD&D, and NPCs from the d20 Wilderlands supplements is a snap across the board. I'd hate to be running a system that required a complete, bottom-up rebuild of all those things.

Third is most important. I'd be willing to overlook the other stuff, but I just...can't bring myself to run 4e. There are just too many assumptions built into the core system that I don't like. Making character roles explicit rather than implicit. The vague, abstract damage system. Residuum.

So that's that. No 4e for me. As if it was at all in doubt before, but I guess this golden opportunity to pick up the system and run with it, and my refusal to do so, pretty much spelled things out explicitly. I know that 4e can be tinkered with, kit-bashed, reassessed, and so forth. But so can C&C, and that's a system I'm comfortable with. If I was going to do a system switch at this point, if anything I'd go more old school, building off of a kit-bashed Labyrinth Lord/Red Box ruleset. Hmmm...

Friday, May 7, 2010

[Save vs. Sketchbook] New pieces

In furtherance of previous posts on the subject, and as part of my ongoing quest to make this blog as unfocused and scattershot as possible, I'm implementing a new feature which I'm cheekily calling Save vs. Sketchbook. This is where I post my latest fantasy-themed art pieces for your elucidation and viewing pleasure.

(Actually, it's just that my artistic output is so low at the moment that starting a separate blog would be kind of pointless. I suppose if I suddenly become some hotshot fantasy illustrator--ha!--I can always start a new blog just for the visual eye candy. Til then, though...)

I contributed three pieces to Jonathan Becker's upcoming B/X Companion project, and he's generously given me the go-ahead to post 'em here. The drawings were all for the monster section of the book. After recent posts over on B/X Blackrazor, I can see I'm in very good company as far as other illustrators are concerned, and the layout looks great too. I can't wait to see the finished product!

On to the draw-er-ings, then:

"Mummy Lord"

"Death Knight Riding Nightmare"


Monday, May 3, 2010

[Solo GPC] 501: Weddings and Warfare

Well, things are starting to accelerate now for sure. I've been looking forward to running this year because of a couple set-piece encounters; the player-driven developments of the past couple years only added to the uncertainty and intriguing possibilities. As I mentioned in my last post, part of the fun for me as a GM is not knowing how things are going to turn out in a given session. I've only become more adamant on this position as I've gotten older; thus my increased use of random tables in D&D, for instance. Pendragon tends to generate enough "random events" through its base mechanics that I don't often need to resort to random tables, but this year ended off with my first playtest of my siege rules, and they didn't fail to disappoint. So on to the action, then...

Improvising Around a Railroad

I don't think it's that hard to run a railroad-free Lebowski adventure--however, what is hard is to publish one. The problem is: a published scenario has to anticipate player actions, and the longer the scenario is, the further into the future the scenario writer has to project the game events. Unless the scenario is endlessly filled with stuff like "make up something clever to happen here depending on how the PCs dealt with things so far" then someone writing a 20-session event-driven campaign for commercial publication pretty much has to assume the GM will railroad by nudging or nullifying in oredr to spit out a continuus stream of encounters. People with published scenarios need to learn to improvise if they want to get around this.

The inimitable Zak S. has written a massive 6200-word, laryngitis-fueled treatise on the different varieties of campaigns and their relation to the concept of the dreaded "railroad." Aside from being, I think, a landmark piece of RPG blogging in general, the post was of especial interest to me in relation to my ongoing Pendragon campaign.

The quote above pretty much sums up my feelings about the GPC. As one of the largest published scenarios ever, the book pretty much by default falls into the trap described in the quote. My big "zen moment" when using the GPC for my 2006-2008 Pendragon campaign was that this is, in effect, a feature of the book rather than a bug.

Here's an example from that campaign: the PCs were enemies of the Orkney clan, and in particular nurtured a particular dislike for Gawain. This culminated in a duel between the party's best fighter and Gawain, and in the first round of combat the PC in question laid Gawain out with a critical hit that took him down to single digit hit points.

At the time I breathed a sigh of relief--what if the PC had killed one of the main NPCs of the campaign around whom so many later events would revolve? The question bothered me so much, I posted it to a Pendragon mailing list I was on at the time. Someone--it might have been Greg Stafford, but I forget exactly--pointed out that had the PC killed Gawain, it would have actually been an opportunity for a great turn of events in the campaign. Arthur, impressed with the PC's prowess, grants him Gawain's former lands and responsibilities. Now all the "fun" things that were in store for Gawain are instead in store for the PC!

What the PC does with those events, or how he avoids them entirely, then becomes a major element of the game. In other words, as the quote from Zak's post states, improvising around programmed events on both a macro and micro level is the key to successfully running any published scenario, and this goes double for any scenario of great length. To take another quote from Zak's post:

My plan would be: overdo it. Every time the PCs make a decision, find a way to make the next event reflect it, even if you don't have to. This is harder than sticking to the plan and requires quick thinking, but it's also more fun for everybody involved.

This happened quite recently in my current Pendragon campaign, when Des came up with the idea to arrange a marriage between Countess Ellen and King Nanteleod. This was a possibility I hadn't considered, but as soon as she suggested it I was prepared to run with it all the way. The long-term ramifications of allying Salisbury to a powerful kingdom that will feature significantly in future events remain to be seen. Similarly, because her backup character married King Leodegrance, her lineage of future PCs will now be related by blood to Guenevere. That's obviously going to have ramifications on the campaign for generations--and ramifications resonating off of those ramifications and so forth.

All that being said, the fact that I'm running a single-player campaign does require a bit of railroading of the sort that Zak defines as "nursing"--basically making sure that there are sufficient NPCs around to bail out/help Herringdale if he gets himself in over his head. Back in the early days, when it was just me and my buddy Alex, I had to resort to similar measures, especially when I'd run AD&D. It's just the nature of running single-player campaigns, as most RPG systems are built with the assumption of multiple redundancies via a group of PCs; there will always be someone else around to haul an injured PC out of combat or cast the right spell or whatever. Take all that away and you've got situations where the villains are obliged to merely capture the PC they've rendered unconscious rather than kill them outright, or have a friendly centaur shaman cast stone to flesh on the hapless illusionist who was petrified in the middle of nowhere by a randomly-generated cockatrice. So it goes.

Like, I think, most GMs, I'm constantly evaluating my ratio of "story events vs. player freedom." I think it would be impossible for me to run a "pure" West Marches-style sandbox campaign. I (and for the most part my players) enjoy a framework of what Zak labels as a Clockwork Simulation to riff off of.

So for the most part, I like a having a degree of story-driven events (aka Unanticipatable Events), but what I most enjoy is encouraging player freedom within the context of ongoing events. As a GM, I like to be surprised and thrown for a loop. I like proactive players. And I like having to think on my feet as I improvise around scripted events.  In other words, the railroad, if used wisely, need not be an enemy.
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