Monday, April 07, 2014

Maelstrom Report - 2014


Maelstrom 2014 took place at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Morristown New Jersey this weekend (April 4-6). It was an experimental format. Here's what the organizers originally stated:

"In collaboration with Steve Segedy of Games on Demand, Double Exposure advances the concept of unstructured gaming, as we run an entire convention without a fixed schedule! Role Playing, Story Games, LARPs, Board & Card Games, Wargames - everything we'd normally run at DREAMATION and DEXCON - will be played when the Gamemasters and the players are ready - and without time limits. New Gamemasters will have an opportunity to be mentored by those who have more experience, and players can be exposed to new game systems at any time they choose. Groups of players can form at any time to play a game or learn a game."

To read more: http://www.dexposure.com/ms2014.html

This was a very interesting experiment on a much looser organization for gaming than in the usual Double Exposure conventions. The attendance on the other hand was low because the idea was hatched without much fanfare or lead time, however, despite that, it was a lot of fun and the people seemed to very much like the new format. I ran a demonstration table for my game system (Elthos), which was a great experience for me, and gave me very useful feedback. I had, overall, a great time and learned a lot from the experience.

The setup is designed to allow flexibility in the organization of play groups.  For me, well, I was busy manning my demo table, and so didn't have much chance to browse around and really experience the thing, so my account is based on what I gleaned during conversations with gamers that I met during the Convention.   So you can take my viewpoint with the appropriate grain of salt., but that's the report as I heard it.  But from what I gather, the positive side of the idea is that people can spontaneously join what they like as they browse around and hear pitches for games.  This can help new comers to pitch their games without running into the problem that most people may have already per-selected other games prior to the convention based on their already settled preferences.   In other words, as far as I can tell, it's a cool way to give new games a foot in the door.  On the down side, for some, I heard feedback suggesting that it was a bit confusing and some people wound up wandering around not quite sure what to do.  There are some kinks that the organizers are working out. 

To get a feel for how the thing looks I took some pictures during my brief jaunts away from my table.


My booth was set up with a computer monitor to show what the Web Application does (World Weaving Studio and Gamesmaster's Toolbox). It looked like this:


My friend Charles Hoge leapt into action as soon as we found out I had a table, which came as a complete and unexpected surprise-gift to us. He's a really talented Marketing Guru and put together the posters, and business cards, and Elthos Gamesmaster's Mini GM-Shield Post Cards with the General Resolution Matrix on one side.  Charles, by the way, has been one of my Play Testers since 2011, and played the Infamous Ischandar Character, as well as Bantum the Gentle Giant, and Praymar, the Insidious-Something-We're-Not-Quite-Sure.  He came by to help out with the table and chat people up as well, which was fantastic.  He's a great guy, a super friend, and all around awesome gamer.  Special Shout-Out and Thanks, Charles!


A little later on, Steve Vitka, a brilliant guy with world-conquering engineering plans, came by and we tried out his newly minted game as of one week prior, which he spontaneously named "Dice Clash!" so I could call it something. It's a fast paced rigorous and viciously fun game.  Steve also happens to be an awesome witty guy and a lot of fun to talk to.   Catch him sometime if you can. 

I also had the chance to run some demo games, which was a lot of fun and very instructive!   Here's the game board I concocted for the event.  It is a terrain map with pieces on the board.  On the right is the General Resolution Matrix.   The green blobbies on the board are Hedges which afford safety, but slow movement and severely hampered attacks.  The brown blobbies are Rocky Knolls on which combatants can climb for 3 movement points (pieces have 6 movement), and get a +2 Attack Level and Armor Class.  The objective is to get to the far side of the board and capture the other team's flag.   Combat will ensue.





Another cool thing about the Convention is that they have a Board Game Library that's open for borrowing.  It's got what looks like hundreds of awesome games, so if you want to try a game, without necessarily plunking down the cashola for it up front, you might be able to find it in the Library and give it a whirl.   Charles and I also me Kevin Grieves who's a long time associate with the event.  Great guy, very helpful and engaging.  Thanks for the tips, Kevin!

Here's a few shots of people and things along the way...





As you can tell, this was an extravaganza of amazing games, and tons of people having a great time playing them. Overall, I give Maelstrom a thumbs up.  While it has a few organizational kinks to iron out, it's still a great concept and I hope they continue it.

And a final shout out to Vincent Salzillo who organized the event: Thanks! That was great!

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Yellow Clay Interum

About three years has passed  more or less uneventfully since the AAA Group's Great Adventure. With the 5th Animal dead, and presumably gone straight to hell along with the villainous members of his gang, and the Brigands disbanded while their leader Black Patch sits it out in a lonely prison cell somewhere beneath Hobbington, things have quieted down, and trade between Yellow Clay and the other villages has resumed. Things are going well in the village overall, and no one has starved for the past two years. That's good for Yellow Clay. There are monthly celebrations on the festival days, and almost everyone can bring some small gift for the Elkron. People are mostly hard working and content with life these days. The winters have not been too harsh, and the summers not too hot, or dry. The crops are harvested in due season and the livestock fare well.

Hermel has become, begrudgingly, a bit of a local celebrity of sorts, though he spends most of his time, as much as possible, on his farm tending his modest herd of goats, and tilling the earth for meager profit. His pretty wife is well known around the town as a socialite and has brought to the village a grace and charm which it hitherto had lacked.  Everyone is enamored by her gentle laughter and enchanting smile.  There are a few rumors floating around that she only shows herself at the evening galas and no one really has seen her during the daytime, but most decent folk pay no mind to that kind of talk. If they really thought about it they would also realize that even then, she's only seen when the moon is out, but no one seems to have gone so far as to notice this, and so it has remained unremarked upon. This is, of course, because in the daytime she ensconces herself in her bird cage and sings canary songs to the clouds. At any rate, Hermel is reasonably content with his lot, eking out a meager living on his farm, which is all he expected or really wanted to do. His lovely wife has born him a beautiful daughter on whom he dotes to excess, just as he dotes on his darling wife. Their daughter is charming, beautiful and growing up fast. In fact, about twice as fast as other children. After three years she is more like a six year old girl. His wife, whenever Hermel ventures to mentions this, just smiles and asserts that he shouldn't mind too much that his daughter will grow up to be an exceptional person. "It's her destiny," she says quietly.

Once a year the eight members of the Town Council try to cajole Hermel into taking a seat among them as a Councilor, as he was recommended for the position by Constable Barnstormer of Hobbington when he came to Yellow Clay with the adventurer's the conclusion of matters at HarrowsGate Village.  The councilmen perceive him to be a reliable, stalwart and decisive warrior who could lend a hand with the defense of the village, and provide sound advice in times of need.  The pay is not great, the honor is mediocre, there's a good deal of fuss, bother, and social wrangling that comes with the job, and it is rare that people express much gratitude for the effort. On the other hand, the town has its problems with which Hermel might lend a hand, especially lately as there are what you might call growing pains due to the increasing prosperity of Yellow Clay Village. This is principally due to the activities of a certain Hobbit of Hobbington. At any rate, the council did heed his one recommendation which was to rebuild and strengthen the town wall, and this was done with all due dispatch in accordance with a tome on Wall Building for Military Defense of Villages, written by a mysterious traveler named Iblis some years prior.

Ischandar Rokkerfellah visits the town frequently, and engages in the Social events that have begun to blossom there, under the joyful encouragement of Hermel's lovely wife and equally lovely sister, Alize. It turns out that Mr. Rokkafellah, Sr. has invested in a fairly profitable mining operation, as Ischandar discovered that the yellow in Yellow Clay is in fact the fiery element Sulfer.  And so a mine was delved into the base of a hill not far off from the village.  Arik, naturally, offered his help in that, as he is well disposed for that kind of work.  As the mine employes many laborers, most of the people in town have improved their lot in life, despite the rough work and dangers inherent in the mining operation.  Lido spends a good deal of time in Ishcandar's company, trying to keep him out of trouble, and enjoying the good life.  And so Ishcandar, Lido and Arik spend their time going to and fro between Hobbington and Yellow Clay, often stopping off for drinks and make greetings to their friends in Lilac Village.   It is notable that the road to Yellow Clay is largely cleared of dangers these past few years, except for wolves, which are ever a threat.   No sign of devils, or three toed monsters have been seen, and this is something of a relief to the villages beneath Hobbington.

Star of Justice has ventured on to Star Cliff to complete his Quest. He insisted on going alone as the Quest was given to him alone, and the location of Star Temple is a secret which Star felt should be kept intact until such a time as his master should advise him otherwise. And so he set off with the Golden Swallow for the old temple and neither of them have been heard of since then.  It has been almost three years since he waved goodbye with a forlorn and somewhat troubled look in his eyes.

Praymar decided to head home to Grizzley Falls where he reunited with his step-parents and took up his old residence in the back of the barn, hoping to run into that tricky little friend of his Maya. As they have the same oddly dark sense of humor, he was hoping to strike up a something of a friendship with her. Perhaps they could share a mug of warm gut-blood, he supposed. Sadly, she was nowhere to be found, and the town was something of a ramshackle mess when he arrived. From what he could find out, it seems that the bears round about that area had gone a bit crazy, and had been harassing the local villagers, even to the point of breaking into the town itself and crashing their way into houses and killing folks. While it never quite ended, and the bears are still a menace, things quieted down after a year or so, and since then life has been fairly uneventful for him, except for the occasional dream wherein he finds himself searching for his father, whom he feels certain is not even remotely human for some reason. The dreams all end with him almost discovering him, but then waking up just before he does.  How annoying he finds it, only he can say.

Meanwhile, Bantum went back to Lilac Village and has been living there with his dear wife, Sally-Jane, making babies and selling umbrellas to anyone who will buy them. He's a big man. Most people buy one from him. Even if they don't exactly need one. Fortunately for the town, they're inexpensive, and they are after all, quite well crafted by Sally-Jane, and come in pretty colors.  Bantum spends his time playing with his children, though some people have noticed that they are growing up very slowly, and after three years, seem as though they are still only just over a year old.   But quite large.   Quite large indeed.  Neither Sally-Jane, nor Bantum have noticed this at all.  Any rate, there's been no bad news out of Lilac Village for some time, and the town is prospering with the revived trade between the villages.  For some reason, as yet unknown, no one eats chicken in Lilac Village any more.  It seems everyone developed a preference for goat. 

It wasn't long before Hermel's father-in-law, Joseph, had taken up residence on a hill outside of town.  He spends his time trading for peculiar bits of odds and ends with strangers from round abouts, building incomprehensible contraptions that make very unusual noises and sometimes expode in showers of sparks. Fortunately, he also built himself what he calls "The Stone Room".  It's underground, and quite invincible. The only person he lets in down there is Hermel.  "Well, if I'm going to die in a reverse polarity vortex explosion, Hermel," he'd say, "I guess I don't mind if we go to meet the Elkron together.  And that's cause I like ya, son." Hermel would usually respond with a shrug and say, "Just be careful."  And so there's a marvel of odd equipment in there, and Joe's devices can do an assortment of fancy tricks, including allowing him to speak through a little brass mesh to someone all the way in Hobbington. He also can use a crystal to illuminate the Stone Room with a soft green light that prevents anyone from the outside bothering him, no matter how hard they may try.   Creating these, among other oddities of this sort, are his passion.  And so he spends his time tinkering away on his projects, and has come to enjoy a solitary yet productive life.  Occasionally Hermel would drag him up stairs for a bit of fresh air.   He'll sit on the stoop smoking his pipe chatting amiably about vacuum tubes, particle physics, inter-dimensional thought lasers, and the like.  Sometimes he'll start fiddling with the odd arrays of metal wires rigged up on his roof like a spider web of copper and silver.   His daughter will often and bring him home cooked meals and the cheersome company of his granddaughter, whom he dotes on almost as much as Hermel does.

The old Sifu has returned from Bear Claw Village with a small following of Kung Fu students from that distant town.  Moose has been promoted to Monk and lives on the far south end of Yellow Clay in a hut he built himself.   The Sifu is resolved to never leave Yellow Clay in the lurch again, and has devoted himself completely to the betterment of his home village. He's taken a seat on the Council and is the principal member of that august body. It is said he is goes on frequent midnight patrols with his best students in order to keep an eye on things round about.

Rumor has it that Garrison has made a life for himself in Hobbington, serving the interests of Senior Borge, who picked him up as a "good and cunning" servitor.   Garrison gets sent frequently on special missions, and acts generally as a liaison between The Court and the Mayor's Office. As it happens, Mayor Mutmaw and Senior Borge have had a rather severe falling out, and the township's political leaders have been set a at each others throats since then.  Fortunately, this has given a reprieve to the townsfolk who have not been quite so oppressed by the burden of undue and heavy taxation as they were previously.  In any case, Garrison has accrued a certain amount of political influence, and he's been spending his time collecting and saving up favors from various high officials in the town.

It is rumored that Doctor Lobe relinquished his title on Dunn's Bridge and has removed himself to some other deeper chambers down in the tunnels beneath Hobbington Township. The Bridge was thoroughly investigated, and absolutely nothing of interest was found there once the Doctor had vacated the premises.  He has not been seen since.

Constable Barnstormer was promoted to Chief Constable by the Mayor. Five Crows Tavern still remains closed and shuttered. Rat-Sticks are still a popular snack in that part of town.  

The Adventure's Guild continues exploration and reporting on the area, and has received a small number of exceptional students in recent years, chief among them being the Hagglesmiths.  Guild Master Rothmon has made a series of well received reports to the Glendale Chapter Hall.   The Abbot in the Monastery quietly bides his time, and keeps a careful watch on everything from the 7th story of the 12 Harmonies Pagoda.   A prayerful chant is always heard from therein.   The children of Saint Elaine's orphanage are faring reasonably well, lately, and everyone has a shirt and pants and shoes, and no one starved to death in the last eight months.   So that is well.

None have seen nor heard of Korfu since his unexpected disappearance during the Battle with the Time Beast.  Iblis also vanished completely and has not been seen since.   Neither has anyone has seen the Yellow Robed Wutong at all.   However, some say that they can here his odd chattering laughter in the wind during stormy nights, though most folks agree that's just a silly rumor and the old monkey-man has left the region for parts unknown and long since. 


Please note, if you feel your Characters would have done something different, or would prefer them to, please leave your Character's choices in the comments below.  Or if I have left anyone of interest out, or you are are curious about something I didn't mention, please let me know and I will happily amend this post. Thanks.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March RPG Carnival - VTT Gaming

Thanks to Douglas Hampton Cole over at Gaming Ballistic Blog for hosting this month's RPG Carnival. Doug asks some conversation starter questions about Virtual Table Tops, and I thought I'd take a stab at giving my thoughts on it.  Unfortunately, I have a deficit of experience and yet, oddly, an overabundance of opinion on the topic. So, foolishly or not, here I go...

Do you have personal experiences with VTTs and gaming online?

I do have some personal experience with VTTs, but in fact, with most of them, it's quite limited. In the case of Map Tools I tried it a few times. Fantasy Grounds I also tried a few times, but never so far as to actually run a game with either. I have, however, used Roll20 a few times, and have poked and prodded it more extensively than any other so far. I also took a gander at TableTop Forge before it got subsumed by Roll20, but again, limited usage. Sorry. I'm kinda busy with my own project, and also haven't really had the express need for a VTT so far as my players are local and we don't have too much trouble staying on our every-other-Friday schedule. I also very recently took a look at Tavern-Keeper and Infirno, but have not had time to properly evaluate them. Both look potentially great, but my experience with both left me feeling that they are not quite ready for prime time. I'll wait on those and see how they develop. I also took a look at PCGen a while back. Nicely done as far as getting off in the right direction is concerned, but the interface was kind of klunky and I found myself mumbling about something or other after a while.  Not sure what.  Anyway, it looks promising.  I think all of these tools probably have their place and serve specific needs of the community.   Which is best?  For me, so far, Roll20 is at the top of the stack, and I do intend to use it more.

What do you like?

I like the concept. The advantage, in today's busy post-high school world, I think the idea of being able to run games online with people you link to via Social Media sites has pretty great potential. A lot of times GMs and Players in the local arena have trouble scheduling games at convenient times, and so VTTs can pick up on that.

I also like that I can post a map (thinking of Roll20 at this point) and pop tokens on it and move them around on the screen. Roll20 also provides, as anyone who has used it knows, a neat way to add stats to the tokens which you can update as you play.

Here's how we used Roll20 in our game, by the way. We get together around my table and look at the Roll20 screen together. We move the tokens around by asking each player where they go when it's there turn, and generally I move the tokens myself. Yes, I know this is totally not how they intend us to use Roll20, and we're missing out on all of the cool chat features and so on. We also neglected to update the stats of the Player Characters, although I did update the Hits of the NPCs as we went. Mostly because my Players keep track of their stats themselves as we play, and we didn't want or need to spend time updating them in the Roll20 interface. Had we been playing this remotely together then stats updating would probably have been important to us. Anyway, as far as I was concerned the way we used it worked pretty nicely for the most part. Except for a glitch which in fact altered my story line, which I'll explain in a second. Overall, I think it's really very promising and I can see a future for VTTs as the technology improves.

When it comes to Roll20, what I like is the fact that we can size the maps reasonably easily (two or three tries and I can fit a hex map into their grid system - which isn't too bad). I like the fact you can resize the tokens, and can get tokens to use from their system. I like, although didn't use very much, the ability to add stats to the tokens. As I never got further with it, nor did I try the Premium features, I can't say much more about it, other than, Yup - not bad!

What do you NOT like?

Glitches. All of them technical. When we tried to play Roll20 via Hangouts the Hangout Screen took up a large amount of screen space, and one of my players has a low screen resolution during our test (yes we tested it remotely a few times) and wasn't too happy with that. His fault for not having a better monitor, I suppose. Another glitch was the mic of one of my other players was old, I guess, and started making horrible reverb noises to the point where I could no longer understand wth he was saying. He had to unplug his mic and re-seat it every fifteen minutes or so. His fault for having an old mic, I suppose. Also the first time I tried to synch a hex map to the Roll20 grid it took forever. I had a hard time figuring out how to do it. But once I got it, now it only takes 3 or for tries and it's reasonably good (ie - accurately linked to the underlying grid). All this said, I have not used Roll20 since October 2013, so a lot could have been updated since then.

Another thing that I kind of didn't care for with some of VTTs was the complexity of dealing with so many rules systems and the learning curve involved with adapting to the tool. Granted, I don't know most of the other systems, but still, the impression I got from applications like PCGen was somewhat daunting. Simplicity is a virtue. Of course, I'm probably just as guilty as the next guy at producing overly-complicated software... but at least I understand it. :p

Ah - I almost forgot the glitch that changed my story line.  Yup.  So there they were trying to escape the burning barn and the chicken and turkey (Dr. Chickenhiemer and his General of the Chicken Army, called affectionately "The Turkenator"), were hunting and pecking around looking for an escape route in the storeroom.  I clicked on Turkenator's token and it stretched.  Then I tried to unstretch it and it vanished.  Completely.  I could not find it again.  I closed Roll20 and came back in.  Still couldn't find it.  Time was a-wasting.  So ... "Turkenator suddenly becomes a flat plane, then a line, then a point, and vanishes!"... there was a certain amount of humorous consternation among my players.  We lived.  It was funny.  But I would not want that to happen a second time.  :p 

What features are the bare bones inclusion of what you feel are a minimum feature set for a VTT?

1. Connectivity to Players online with Voice.
2. Ability to post your own maps and move pieces/tokens on it.

What is a nice-to-have that content creators fuss over but really, in the end, doesn't help boost the experience?

To be honest, I'm not sure. I don't know what they fuss over.  However, in my case, since I have my own homebrew system which I've used since 1978, I didn't need them to fuss over adding support for all the different RPGs on the market.  I kind of feel for the programmers as well - that must have been something of a bear to implement, given the nature of a lot of those systems.  And once you start down that road, well there ain't no turning back, I suspect.  They've opened Pandora's Box, and I guess they'll have to live by that.  Best wishes.  It's very cool.  But I can't imagine how difficult it has been to put together.

What do I think the future of VTT looks like? *

I think there is plenty of room for VTT improvement, and I'm pretty sure we'll see some great things spawning out of the VTT market over the next few years.  I should add that it's my view that RPGs in various forms (everything from pure Table Top, to LARP, to VTT, and to Future VR-RPGs) are the new art form of the 21st Century.  The multiplicity of skills that are brought to bare by GMs and Players is, from an old world gaming perspective (ie - Chess, Monopoly, Poker) is nothing less than full-bore astonishing.  I'm often amazed and delighted by what I see GMs, Players and Game Designers doing these days.  It's incredible!

One thing I'd like to see is better World - Campaign Building integration. I'm working on something that I think will help with that, which of course, is my Elthos Project. It does not at this point have Mapping Features migrated in from the Elthos Prime program, but I may go that way with it down the line, unless other people come up with better mapping solutions than I have in the meantime.  Seems like they're heading in the right direction, anyway.

The Elthos Web Application also does not happen to host other systems, or intend to. It is a stand alone RPG mini-system designed for retro-style light-weight RP Gaming, aligned towards Table Top games, and with some possibilities for usefulness to VTT users.

I think that applications such as Roll20, and Elthos, are going to lead the way toward a fascinating future.  One that incorporates live Gamesmastering with thousands of players in Virtual 3D-Worlds.  No, we're not quite close to that yet.   But it's coming.  And the tools we are creating today are leading the way there.

Ok well that's my experience with it, and my thoughts on VTTs, for what their worth.

* - Note:  I added that question myself . ;)

Friday, March 14, 2014

On Beginnings, Middles and Ends for RPG Campaigns

In response to a recent thread here... Google+ Post on  Reading the Shadowrun 5th Edition GM Advice Chapter ... I came to describe my own method for creating RPG stories with a beginning, middle and end.  I thought I would share it on my blog as well.

I like to have a traditional story arc for my games, with a beginning, middle and end.  However, how I handle that is quite different than conceiving of the ending in advance.  What I do is lay out the general back story, and main NPC characters, their motives, and resources.  I roll them up even.  And play them like a chess game in the background, regardless of what the Player Characters are doing.  Even if the PCs don't interact with them, they still are executing their own plans and doing things.   So, from the point of departure the back story is already in motion.

At that point I create a Beginning.  This entails Role Playing with the Players their ordinary lives for a session.  It could be "life in the village of Hamfest" and it describes the nature of the environment, sets up the histories of the PCs, and gives some clues and information regarding the bigger picture of the Back Story.  So that's the beginning.

The adventure begins and this goes on for some time and is The Middle.  During this phase I take note of the plot threads and keep a list of the important NPCs and/or clues they encounter.   These each form plot threads.  In any given Campaign I find Players will follow some plot threads and ignore or abandon others as they go.   That's fine.  It's free-form play, do what you think is best.  Meanwhile in the background, or foreground as the case may be based on the Players choices, the Back Story marches on.  Indications of this are peppered throughout the game.  This forms the Middle phase.

Now for the End Game.   At some point after a few months of play, if the Players haven't done so already, I begin to Wind Up the Plot Threads.   I take note of the one or two that the Players feel is the most important.   Note - they may have totally missed the crucial plot thread.  That's ok.  They'll find out in the end what it was (for example The King of Brawn invaded the Western Lands and destroyed the Barbarian Queen's capital city, and laid waste to the Jewel of the West).   The PCs either are involved with that, or they selected other threads to follow.   Whatever threads they touched, I begin tying up the loose ends of three or four of the more important ones (usually there are a half dozen or more loose ends by the End Of The Middle - it's ok to leave some mysteries for later Campaigns, or just let them float away).

To tie up loose ends I simply re-introduce NPCs or Plot Points that they encountered in the past but have forgotten about, or lost track of.   I push at this point for Plot Resolutions.   Did they find the girl who had the Rosery Beads that the old monk mentioned?   Well, now they do - and she saw the Army of Brawn heading West.   Did they investigate the tunnel beneath Oakenwold?   Well, someone from there encounters them in a bar and explains that his own group investigated it, and found the Sword of the Western Sun there, and returned it to the Queen of the Western Lands.   Etc.   If a Campaign is 20 sessions of The Middle, I may have 4 sessions of The Beginning of the End.

Finally, there is a climactic End of the End where the main plot line gets tied up.   They intercept King Brawn as he enters The Eagle Pass, and with a skillful bout of diplomacy, logic, and heartfelt pleading on behalf of the innocent Queen, cause him to change his mind.   Or what have you.   The Player Characters decide by their actions what the ending is.   Could be good, could be horrible.  But what makes it work is that The End has Come.

And then we go on to the next Campaign, usually, yes, after a break where I re-organize and plan for a new Campaign.

So, in no way do I determine in advance what the Ending will be.   I let the play-flow determine that.   My example shows a tie up where the Main Plot was resolved by the PCs in the end - but it could have just as easily been the case that the Players had no interest at all in the Queen of the West, and the End Game involved their tying up all the loose ends related to The Witches of Dunswick on the other side of the Kingdom.   But the method stays the same.   If that were the case, then at the very end I would mention, "And news comes to you as you're celebrating your victory over the Witches of Dunswick in the Green Owl Tavern, that the King of Brawn has returned from the West with his Army, having concluded a successful and glorious Campaign against the Rebel Queen of the Western Lands.  * ahem * ... All hail the King!"

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Elthos RPG Play Test - Western Knights - Game 1


Charles, has inaugurated the Western Knights Campaign.  It's a doozie of a world, and I have to say I really enjoyed our first game a lot.  I was, despite the fact that I have some insider information as to the nature of the world, caught at least a few times by surprise.

The basic premise is "Cowboys and Knights in the Wild West".  Except we're not playing in the West-West.  Our characters actually started, to our surprise, on our way to West Albion, which is where the United States is, in an alternate universe.   When we arrived at Fort Kennsington (where New York would be) in the year 1859, we found a mid-sized township that had two wooden fortresses.  One to the North and one to the South.  No wall.  On the edge of what we supposed is a vast and seething wilderness, but we're not sure.

The reason we're not sure is because we're not members of the High Aristocracy of His Most Royal and Supreme Majesty, the King of Britain, who rules the entire world, including all of Europe, now named East Albion, all the way to the ends of Russia, and most of what once was called China.  There are few pockets of the world that are not under the Iron Grip of The Empire.   And Iron Grip it is.  Even for us, actual citizens of the Capital.  But that's because we're not members of the Aristocratic class, and thus... we're nothing.  We were literally Shanghaied from our farms and pressed into service aboard one of His Majesty's Sailing Ships (a 3 gun merchant frigate under a certain Captain Carlyle).  Our jobs?  Chad, the brother of my Character Flint, was pressed to clean the hold - including piling up the dead bodies during the voyage, of which there were many.  By the time we reached port of 150 men, there were only 76 left alive, having mostly died of diseases, poor conditions, or starvation along the way.  Flint's job was to ensure the cannon balls were suitably stacked and cleaned.   And our third PC was a Galley Cook.  The Captain, his 1st Mate, and the Guards on board were not very nice at all.  Nope.  Not one bit.  And if anyone even mentioned the Captain, even in praise, they were put in the stockade.  My character knows that from personal experience.  No mentioning of the Captain.  At all.  How about an example of our Captain's disciplinary protocol?

"You're all about to come into Port Kennsington," quoth he, with nar'y a glance at any of us. "And some of you are to return to The Capital with the ship.   I want to know, which of you volunteer for that?"

At that, several servile miscreants eagerly raised their hands to show off their devotion to the Wonderful Captain.  He had them all shot.   Boom.  Dead.  Why?  Because The Empire TELLS YOU what your going to do - and they don't brook any independent thinking.   So if you demonstrate that you have a thought of your own, you'd better look out.  They don't care for  that one bit.  And that, basically, describes the ruthless nature of the Aristocracy of Pendragon.   Yes, very annoying, harsh, and dangerous.  WE got the point right away, that these guys are not messing around, and we'd better be careful or we'd likely end up deader than a doornail right quick.

Well, by the time we got to Port Kennsington, we'd pretty much decided that His Most Royal and Supreme Salshazar could just go and stick it where the sun don't shine.  We were looking for a way out.  Any way out.  So we whispered plans to each other as we walked on our assigned task to go to the Kensington Market and pick up supplies for the return trip. Flint tried engaging a local nobody to ask what's around the town outside there in the wilderness, but the poor blighted man panicked immediately and practically began crying because Flint asked him a question about what's outside the town.  We left him.  He later showed up again, still freaked out, and so we falsely accused him of picking our pockets to the town guards in order to keep him out of our hair going forward.  He was disposed of, we assume, because we're under the aegis of Captain Carlyle, who is a relatively well known Big Wig.  We even got half off on our purchases because of it.

We began plotting our means of escape.  Better to be free men in the wilderness than return to The Capital as less-than-slaves.  All of our plans however, we realized, spelled out one definite result:  D.E.A.T.H.  We had been contemplating setting the ship on fire and escaping in the confusion, but figured we'd be hunted down by The Magnificent Eleven, the Kings Personal Knights who happen to be in Kennsington to keep law and order in the town, and battle the savages beyond.  The Magnificent Eleven have, by the way, chest mounted cannons on their armor.  Yup.  They're really that magnificent.  At this point we were whispering down in the hold contemplating blowing up the kegs of gun powder and escaping in that confusion, but Flint didn't have the heart to kill the other crew members, and we nixed that plan.

So all bets were off on the escape when suddenly the town was catapulted into war.   Savages from the north were attacking in force.  Chaos!   We were ordered to the front to act as cannon fodder for the Kings Troops, and that didn't sound like the way any of us really wanted to die.  Chad charged bravely to the right and fired his gun telling everyone to follow him into battle.  Some men followed after him, but Flint was not one of them.  He ran the other way, and hid in a doorway.

Oddly, at one point in that skirmish Chad came face to face with The Enemy.  The savage was large, muscular, bare chested with a huge long Mohawk, large nasty fangs, and brandishing a long serrated dagger of some kind.  The fellow had lizard-like attributes.  And yet, when he sprang out in front of Chad and had the opportunity to gut him from neck to pelvis, he paused.  Chad, sensing that the savage was really not very intent on out and out murder, threw his gun on the ground in a show of deference to the husky lizard's apparent wishes.   The savage barreled past him on his way toward the fortress where the Magnificent Eleven were hold up.  There were lots of cannons and gun shots being fired and explosions everywhere.  And the war cries that the savages made were positively inhuman.  After that Chad made his way over to the doorway where where Flint was holed with a couple of others. 

So we dodged into a building along the way, and got into a serous brawl with a local Militia Leader by the name of Mr. Kennsington (yes, THOSE Kennsingtons).  Fortunately, Albedo Rey, the Cook, happened to be a Ranger, and had Night Vision as one of his few powers.  He politely blew out the candle, and all hell broke lose in the barracks as the Platemaled and broad sword brandishing Mr. Kennsington and his right hand man tried their best to find us in the dark.  He even broke Albedo Rey's guitar, which really is just a bit too much to bear.   In any event our heroes did manage to escape, but as the planning wasn't really so good in the heat of the chaos, Chad went one way, while Flint and Albedo went the other way, through the window, and down the street.   Chad ran out the front door while Kennsington and his man tried to pursue us.  And thus we found ourselves separated.

And that's where the adventure left off for the evening.

Wow!  That was fun!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Feb RPG Carnival - The Icy Embrace of Winter

This month's RPG Blog Carnival is kindly being hosted by Enderra Blog and covers the topic of The Icy Embrace of Winter.

Winter has several meanings and implications for my game.  I will cover them from the overt to the more subtle, breezing over each lightly for the sake of (relative) brevity. 

I like to GM my Campaigns according to the current season with the specific idea that the Players will have a better feel for what the World is like at that time for their Characters.   So in the Spring, Campaigns start during the Elthos Spring, and I do that for whatever season happens to be current when we start a new Campaign.  Of course Campaigns can last longer than seasons, so I either hustle things up to the current season, or if the Adventure warrants a delving into detail, a Winter in Elthos can last a year or more of game time.  Such as what occurred in my last big Campaign (Hobbington), which began in October of 2011 and ended in 2013.  I went with a Winter touch throughout. 

First off, Winter is harsh in Hobbington and the surrounding province because it is tucked away in the mountains to begin with.  The Township of Hobbington itself is situated on a crag more than halfway up Mount Zatok, making it cold generally, and a particularly bitter, ice-shrouded city in the winter.  The denizens there, a rough bunch of thieves, cutthroats and politicians, manage to hang on through each winter, with food supplies scarce, and
firewood even scarcer (they are high up on a mountain, and both food and firewood come from far below) somehow, but not easily.  Fortunately, the city is also heated in places by a few hot springs. And as those few who have dared to venture below into the sewer systems have discovered, the deeper and more ancient tunnels (the current occupants discovered the long unused city and colonized it under duress not long before the time of play), were quite a bit warmer than expected. No one has gone particularly far down in the tunnels (and returned to tell the tale) thus far, by the way.

So winter in Hobbington is a trial by ice for most of the people who live there.   In particular, the many sallow-faced orphans who beg in the streets, their tatters held tight around them, following after the few "Rat Stick" vendors, hoping for a hand out or a fallen piece of hot greasy meat.  Snow can come up to the waist in some places.   The wind is often bitterly freezing, and hungry, snacking on  fingers and toes with its frostbite-teeth whenever the opportunity arises (yes, the elements are often treated as something like anthropomorphic beings in Elthos).  And so, you would find that life in Hobbington in the winter is quite harsh, indeed, and winter storms and ice blasts there frequent and dire.

On the other hand, for some in Hobbington, although the winter is harsh, it is not without it's joys.  There are the winter festivals which center on Holy Days and Shrines to the Saints, and some people who have the wherewithal (the rich, as one might guess) do manage to have a bit of fun skating on the frozen canals that line the township, play winter games, and hold various intellectual contests and events that are best held indoors.  Winter, by those in the know, is considered "High Political Season" in Hobbington, as audiences tend to be captive.  The Player Characters, of course, deal with all of this by bundling up as best as possible, and hustling and bustling from place to place, like everyone else, in order to dodge back inside to cozier climes, such as the hearth of a local pub, tea shop, temple, or home.


In the latest adventure, as a matter of fact, the Party left Hobbington to go down the Long Stair to the Provinces.  Winter is harsh there, too, they soon found out.  Snow drifts can be chest height, and a lack of paved roads make the going painfully slow.  Frostbite is a perpetual possibility. There are few places to spend a warm night, and so camping equipment such as warm tents are essential.   Twice the Party got engulfed in snow storms during their travels and nearly got lost in the white haze.  Fortunately, they wisely prepared themselves with the appropriate winter gear.   At the worst they traversed an area of hills south of Hobbington which has huge ruts and deep ravines, covered by snow, with fathomless pits leading down into the dark icy depths.  Crossing one of those ravines was almost the end of several of the Characters as they in inadvertently (and quite unwisely, I thought) chose to tether themselves with ropes to the largest party member (huge), who also happened to be the clumsy oaf of the group, Bantum.  Had it not been for their good luck, they'd have been plunged down the ravine with him.  Fortunately, although he slipped, he did not go over the edge into the dark icy abyss below, nor bring them all careening downward with him.

Furthermore, Elthos is populated with various breeds of monsters that could be described as Wintery.  There are Frost Giants, of course.  And their diminutive, albeit hardly less deadly cousins, the Frost Ogres, who are hunters and pray on the unwary winter travelers like wolves.   But perhaps the most persistently dangerous enemies in the forests around Hobbington are none other than the Wolves themselves.  They are cunning hunters, cruel, and as deadly foes as you'd care to meet.  And in winter with the snow slowing everyone's movement to a crawl, attack levels thwarted by frozen limbs, and numbed fingers... well, you can imagine.  It can be quite harrowing.

And so Winter is treated in my world as a form of deadly terrain, personified, with monsters.  A hostile one, generally, for Adventurers.  Hint-to-the-wise: it might be better to start a Campaign in the Spring time after all.  ;)

At deeper level, another Winter has crept into my world in the idea of the Winter King.   In ancient Celtic Lore, as I understand it from reading lots of books by Caitlin and John Matthews there was a long standing myth of the
Winter King who in some sense, it is thought, represents the Old Order of things, a King past his prime, one who is soon to be inevitably replaced by the next generation - that of the new and rising Sun King, or the Prince of Spring.   The myth, of course, is tied to the changing of the seasons and the renewal of life after the bleak months of winter.  As such, the myth of the Winter King is infused with the Mysteries of Transformation and Magic, and speaks to the ancient belief of the cyclical nature of Life and Death, and Life and Death, and Life and Death...  Taking this idea I have woven something along these lines into the deeper layers of the Elthos back story.   Elthos, as some of my readers may know, is as much a fairytale World as it is anything else.   And so the conflict between the Winter King and the Prince of Spring who struggle for the hand of Sovereignty, (aka Flower Maiden), is complex and rich with diverse and ancient themes.   These themes show up occasionally in Elthos Campaigns as Player Characters sometimes (rarely, I admit) come in contact with the Mythological Beings that permeate the world.  Those encounters, if all goes well, may reveal something of the mythological underpinnings of the Elthos World, and what the true nature of the Elthos story really is.  Rare, but it has been known to happen.  Of course I've already given a bit more away than I intended.  I'll stop there, if you don't mind.  I wouldn't want to spoil anything for my players, you know.

So in conclusion, on the overt side, Winter is a dire opponent of Adventurers, a bane of travel, and can just as easily bring death and ruin as any giant or invading army.  On the other hand, Winter in Elthos is also a Mythic Being of great importance, a sustainer of the Universal Order of things, often wise, often bitter, and always someone, or something, to pay one's utmost respect to.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

On RPG Systems, Rules and Homebrews

When I got started with D&D in 1978 we had three little booklets to work off of. 'Men & Magic', 'Monsters & Treasure', and 'Wilderness Adventures'. I still have my copy of those rules. I find in the introduction paragraph our great sage and leader, Gary Gygax included the following note.

"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors."

In that spirit many of us pioneering Gamesmasters in the old days, before AD&D came out, created our own worlds, and our own rules systems. In fact in my town we had a fledgling Gamesmaster's Society and the entry criteria was "Anything but Gygax". We could use the three books as a basis, but every GM was expected to come up with their own version, fixing what we all considered to be fundamental design flaws in the original system. I did likewise, and within a month or two had worked out what I felt was a coherent, and easy to manage, flexible, and elegant solution to what I thought was the most fundamental design flaw of all in original D&D. The flaw was a function, I felt, of the TSR business model. I'll get back to that in a minute.

We had another reason for wanting to create our own rules systems. Early on GMs noticed that some Players had a tendency to want to rules lawyer the games, and second guess the GMs. So when a monster was sighted, the Rules Lawyer in the group would know all the stats of the thing, and have a good technical idea of how to maximize the party's chances of beating it. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing. But we GMs didn't care for it. We felt it kind of ran against where we wanted to go with the game. Which was toward story, not towards mechanics. We wanted the Players to focus on their Characters personalities, motives, and relationships, not their stats. A lot of people later on said that D&D was not designed for story, it was designed for Gaming. Well, I somewhat beg to differ on that. It was the first attempt towards what I will refer to as Story-Gaming. Before that the closest thing we had was Chainmail, which was a medieval military war game that used miniatures, and had very specific combat rules, and was indeed Gameist in nature. But D&D was a first shot at a more Story oriented game. It definitely is Gamist in that it had rules based loosely off of Chainmail, but it's concept was to merge game and story. At least that's how we all took it in those days. As such I would say that D&D was by design intent a Story-Game based on was Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'.

To return to my earlier point, the fundamental design flaw was the TSR business model.  It ran against the grain of the Story-Game orientation of the original intent.  The business model, of course, was to sell rules books.  And to justify those sales the rules, I knew intuitively, would have to become more complex, and continuously change.  This would, of course, cause us GMs to have to alter our Worlds as the rules systems changed.  Magic?  Totally changed.  But if I had a world where famous Characters had used certain mystic powers to defeat an ancient threat, but those mystic powers were no longer in Rules Version 8.3... what would I do?  I'd freak out, that's what.  I wanted from the beginning a continuous long term campaign that wouldn't be vulnerable to the vagaries, flaws and alterations that would inevitably come down from TSR over the years.  I'm sure that other GMs who I knew felt the same way at the time.

And so what we wanted was a simple, flexible rules system that would allow us to play out RPG Stories. We didn't want it to get in the way. We didn't want it to take over and become the primary focus. In fact, to avoid that effect we not only created our own rules, but we often obscured them away from the players. For many years I hid my rules from my Players. I hid their Character's stats from them, too. Instead of giving them a number for their Character's Strength, I would simply say, "He's stronger than average", "She's wiser than the hoot owl", "He's a clumsy oaf, but has the gift of gab", and so on. Guess what? The players absolutely didn't mind. I explained that I wanted the game to focus on story, and they were cool with that.

It wasn't for many years that I finally let my Players in on the rules. I did so because my interests evolved. I wanted to work on certain aspects of the rules system to iron them out, and balance them. To do that I wanted Player feedback. I explained, "I'm going to share the rules with you guys, and I would like to get your feedback on them in relation to combat tactics and game balance." They were totally cool with that, too. And so for the remainder of my GMing time I've been ironing out, simplifying and balancing them, with my Players help. It's been great. I know use a 1d6 system with one central General Resolution Matrix. Actually, the GRM I came up with back in 1978, but the 1d6 system was something I worked out between 2006 and 2013. (Don't rush me, I'm a slow poke).

After AD&D the industry took the expected turn for the worse in terms of rules complexity and what I think could fairly be called Anti-Modularity.  Every system that came out was more complicated than the last, while purporting to fix the flaws of the previous system.  Instead of tweaking towards simplicity the designers chose to revamp towards complexity.  That's ok.  There's a lot of folks who adore one or more of those systems, and don't mind the periodic World-overhaul involved with changing the systems.  For me, though, and GMs of my ilk, it just didn't quite cut it.  I guess it's because we were there in the beginning, saw the original rules and a launching point for our own systems, and went at it with a gusto.  I've seen a myriad of wonderful variations on original D&D.   Many of them were enormously creative adaptations.  I've even co-opted a few of the ideas I found along the way.   You'll find, for example, a certain resemblance between the numerics of my magic system and that of David Kahn's Telthanar.  ;)  Overall, I'm pro-Homebrew.  While I'm not anti-other-systems, I have a definite preference for the local variety of creativity that comes with designing your own RPG rules system.

The upshot is that I'm interested in what other Homebrew style GMs have done over the past 30 years. If you've created and are running a homebrew system, drop a line. I'd love to hear about it!