Thursday, May 18, 2017

Learning to crawl

I've always loved GMing.  When I was a kid in high school, I was enamored with the prospect of inventing my own imaginative and immersive worlds, and using them to fill my players with wonder.  These days, the emphasis has moved away from the idea of showing off my creativity, and towards a fascination with engaging my players.


There's a certain egotism to the practice of GMing

That isn't to say that I've entirely given up trying to come up with cool stuff. For instance, that DCC adventure I've been working on.  Well, one thing led to another, and the idea has snowballed into something a bit larger.  That doesn't sound good, does it?  An excess of ambition can kill a hobbyist project faster than anything.

It started as a heist adventure.  The premise is simple: a rich guy has a collection of magic swords.  That should be enough for a lot of murderhobos. Then I invented some details for the town around it, because in a heist, the preparation and complications can be as interesting as the actual robbery.  And those depend a lot on the environment.  So: rumor tables, notable NPCs, setting dressing, etc.

You see where this is going?  Anyway, I created a bunch of notes, tied it up with some twine, and threw it at Bryce Lynch of tenfootpole.  As I've mentioned before in this space, he's got a side business as a freeland adventure editor.  The price was right, and he had a lot of good notes, and that gave me something to think about.

Among other things, one issue he brought to my attention was the fact that I had a lot of interesting features that had little or nothing to do with the adventure proper.  This made me realize that I had to face a difficult decision for each of these extraneous elements: cut it, or incorporate it more fully into the story?


Dude, I know EXACTLY how Solmon felt

Of course, I've mostly gone with the latter.  Or that's not so much it as the fact as even a few additional elements drastically expands the scope.  Where I once had a single adventure location - a mansion - I now have about five that require mapping.  We're not talking about megadungeons, but still.  What's wrong with me?

Anyway, I've been chipping away at that.  My plan is to write it through once as well as I can, and then wade through it with a chainsaw.  It will be painful but necessary - I do tend to go on.  Besides, I like the idea of making something that's pared down to the bone, an efficient adventure-delivering machine in the same way that a pistol delivers small bits of metal.


A bit on the nose

So what do I have in mind for this now?  I now have several factions and notable NPCs, and key locations in the setting, a town (now) called Hoblington.  I put a lot of thought into figuring out how to tie all these things loosely together.  Here's a bulletted list:

  • The guy who has the mansion with the vault of magic swords is named Fitzcarl Vinyaki.  He's a member of the court for the town - a friend of the mayor.  His estate is not heavily guarded, because he relies on a couple of magical defenses.  Fitzcarl is important because of his juicy magic sword collection.  Keep in mind that one of his swords has the power to slay any demon in one hit, no save.
  • The Vampire Lords are members of an aristocracy of a nearby territory, the Duchy of Laikos.  Guess what they are?  Their actual rule is not especially evil, but they are intent on taking over Hoblington.  Their plan involves...

Vampire Lords

  • The Church of Joyous Death.  These cultists aspire to be converted to Vampire Lords, and indeed a few important citizens have been converted.  These vampires aren't very traditional.  Most don't have special weaknesses or powers, other than immortality.  They are nearly impossible to kill, but the need blood to heal.
  • The Church is also using something called the Befouled Chalice to make a weaker version of the magic blood they use to create new vampires.  The cult feeds this to the poor of the city in soup kitchens.  If any of these folk die with the soup in their bodies, they rise as near-mindless vampire slaves...zombies, essentially.  The Church is gathering them to use as fodder in their eventual coup.
  • Near the town are ancient mines, originally dug by human slaves of giant overlords in ancient times.  The giants were seeking a great power that their shamans told them awaited below.  They found it.  The settlement of the giants was destroyed, and they barely managed to contain the Unliving Gods.  Their old temple, the site of the containment, was recently unearthed by miners.

What lies beneath

  • The miners god scared, so the Mayor sent an expedition led by a dwarven rune priest.  The expedition got past many traps and the malevolent spirits of the priests of the dead giants, at some cost to their numbers.  In the end, they faced the Seal Demon - a powerful demon summoned to keep the Unliving Gods contained.  As long as it lives, the Unliving Gods are imprisoned.
  • The Seal Demon was too much for the expedition, and most were quickly slain.  They were able to wound it, and in the process, one of the Unliving Gods possessed the rune priest.  The dwarf fled the battle, and now seeks a way to slay the Seal Demon and free its "people."  It becomes trapped in a trap in the temple.
  • Fitzcarl's youngest son, Ged, lives on the family estate and is secretly a practicing necromancer.  He seeks to raise his dead mentor and lover.  Her soul is kept imprisoned by the ghost priests of the giants, while the Vampire Lords have contrived to obtain her body in a magical stasis.  Thus, Ged serves two masters, a situation he grows very weary of.  So he has a plan.
  • Ged's plan is to turn the ghost priests and the vampires against each other, enabling him to get what he needs from them in their weakened states.  He has learned of the Befouled Chalice, and realizes that the ghost priests would want such a thing; they seek to restore their race.  So he has informed them of its existence, and now they have charged him with its theft.

Ged might be in over his head

These are the main plot elements.  There is also a side conflict between some telepathic aliens and a powerful wizard, and just for fun, there are pro-wrestling monks to keep things interesting.

Something for the players to aspire to

For that last one, I am basically codifying the "wrassler" mini-adventure that occurred in my weekly campaign.  I have also designed a wrassler class for DCC, and a simplified NPC version (because NPCs don't have a PC class, duh). My idea is that this adventure works good as a "Welcome to Hoblington" sort of thing, and possibly a funnel.  After all, one possible outcome of this adventure is that PCs receive an invitation to train as wrasslers.

The mini-adventure is also a possible introduction to the underworld of Hoblington, embodied mostly by a gang called the Black Buzzards.  They don't start out with any special agenda; they are mostly just there.  I have confidence that a GM can find all sorts of ways to involve organized crime in whatever nonsense their PCs perpetrate.

As you can see, it's ambitious.  My goal is to describe these factions in just enough detail to give them some flavor, and allow the GM to figure out interesting things to do with them.  As you can see from my bullets, there's plenty of room for adventures.  There are several factions that might want to steal Fitzcarl's swords, several reasons a party could find itself entering the Church of the Joyous Dead, and all kinds of circumstances that could lead to an expedition to the Temple of the Giants.  Ged could be an instigator of several of these adventures, as could the Court, or simple greed and curiosity.  The possessed rune priest might trick the party into stealing the demon-slaying sword from the Vinyaki mansion.  Etc.

"Temple of the Ghost Giants" has a nice ring

So I have my work cut out for me.  I have a whole bunch of locations to define, and all sorts of things to stat out and detail.  But most importantly, I have to figure out how to organize all this material in a way that's useful.  Format is everything, here, and it ends up having a big effect on the content.  I keep rethinking this one and coming at it a different way.

My latest idea is to have the following sections:
  1. Introduction: Setting the scene, some light flavor for the town, background, etc.
  2. Factions: List of factions and notable NPCs.  Less than a page for each.
  3. Adventures: This section breaks down into describing different adventures to be had.  Many will refer to the same locations, giving different reasons and circumstances for visiting them.  Some of these adventures could be run as one-offs, and we might provide pre-generated characters in this section (alternatively in an appendix).
  4. Locations: This describes the major adventuring locations, plus a number of other locations that are going to be of interest.  Since most of these occur in a town, consideration will be given for how locations can change according to circumstance.
  5. Resources: This section includes useful stuff for adventuring in Hoblington, like encounter tables, rumor tables, tables for setting dressing, etc.  I'm thinking of describing some mechanics for fleeing from town during a hue and cry, and that would go here.
  6. Appendices: This will go into more detail about mechanics and setting elements, like the wrassler class, sword descriptions, stats for different creatures (like the vampires and the aliens), etc.
The idea is to make it gameable and flavorful.  This will come from keeping the word count down, and working to maximize the impact of each description.  This is, of course, very much in keeping with my GM philosophy on narrating details: focus on a single unique detail and otherwise go light.  So let's see if I can put that principle to work in adventure-setting design.

So that's what's new on the adventure-setting design front.  In other news, I've been gearing up for Gen Con by running Bride of The Black Manse for different parties.  It has been super-educational as a GM.  Bride is a great exercise in sharpening your GMing skills, because it's made to be run in a four-hour slot i.e. a convention one-off.  How convenient!

Love the new cover

So this has me thinking of all the ways I could keep the players moving.  I dropped in on the DCC G+ forum, and talked with some of the folks there who agreed that it's hard for most groups to explore much in time.  We talked about a few possible remedies, and I think there were some good ideas there.

Specifically, it was determined that the first fight can take a while - easily over an hour.  That's a problem in a four-hour game with new conditions taking effect every hour.  Suggestions included generally weakening the guards of The Lover in this first encounter.  I feel that this should be counterbalanced by making The Lover more dangerous - perhaps his Stamina damage is more lasting than described.

Second, I think it's a good idea to have the bells chiming more than once an hour.  Half- or quarter-hour reminders could be a good idea to keep your party moving.  Julian Bernick suggested dropping the hard link between real-time and game-time, saying he ran Bride by announcing the chimes at times that had more dramatic value.  There's something to say for this, although it still requires a crisp tempo if the party is going to see more than a tiny corner of it.

There was also some good advice about how to handle the concept of "mastering" the soul stone (something mentioned but never described) and what happens when a PC who is not Ilse's reincarnation offers himself for Mammon's betrothed.  

One thing I discovered by running Bride is that there are some significant gaps in its explanations.  I'm as much a fan as anyone for the OSR notion of providing on-the-spot rulings and going by the seat of my pants.  But the text refers to certain concepts, like mastery of the soul stone, in such a way that leads you to think they might somewhere, if ever so briefly, discuss what that means.  I read the text back to front a couple of times looking for some hint, and I found nothing.

So fine, I can make up my own ruling, but it's a good idea to have something in mind ahead of time.  I mean, how do you even communicate to players that this is something they need to do, if indeed the PC needs to take an active role in the attempt.  Does it just happen when you pick it up?  How does the PC know if it was successful, or what it even is?

Bah.  Anyway, now that I've identified those gaps, I've come up with my own explanations, and all is good.

At some future date, I'll have to describe how those sessions went.  As usual with DCC, there was some fun player-inflicted madness as they came up with off-the-wall solutions to problems.  One group introduced a spacetime paradox that required some quick improvisation on my part - I don't fault Goodman Games for not anticipating this particular situation.  Anyway, another time for that.

Finally, one last note: I picked up a product from DriveThruRPG called Wonder & Wickedness, a clever bit of work by B. Strejcek of Lost Pages.  They have a nice and super-simple implementation of something I've proposed elsewhere: levelless spells.  The W&W rendering of this concept is very nice and balanced - in fact, its sorcerers seem to progress at a scale similar to fighters!

If there's a drawback, it's that: the upper end of magic that can be performed by PCs is a bit more modest than usual.  Well, that's kind of unavoidable for a true levelless system.  Myself, I envision something where spells are rated in terms of their power, which is proportional to the cost to cast it.  That way, some spells are truly more powerful, but since their cost is in keeping with that, there doesn't need to be any limitation about who can learn it.

Perhaps I will write a more in-depth review.  This blog is certainly due with for a review or two.

That's enough for now.  After all, I've run out of ideas for images to post.  Maybe I'll come back later and do something about that.  In which case, you won't read these last few sentences.


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