Thursday, May 27, 2010

How (Not) To Run A Campaign

As I mentioned last week, I've been wanting to talk about my gaming for some time. As an experienced GM, I reckon people may be able to learn a lot by hearing about how I run things. Mostly, how not to do it. So, here's the guide to running a D&D 4th ed game, just how I did it.

  1. Think of simple concept for your game. Then complicate it.
    For example, my initial idea was "Let's do an Order of the Stick style game, where the characters know and make in-character references to the rules," which I complicated with, "and let's make it a homage to the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon!" Seizing on the trope of "gamers pulled into their fantasy world" as a way to justify this lame excuse for a comedy game, I failed to explain the idea sufficiently to my players, who nontheless agreed to go along with it. Mostly because they wanted to try out 4th ed.
  2. Start immediately, with maybe a page or two of notes to guide you.
    Preperation is for wimps and people who want a consistent story arc. I scribbled down some ideas for stuff they could do, statted up one NPC and grabbed the Kobold Hall mini-adventure from the back of the DMG to throw them into. I've pretty much been making it up as I go since then.
  3. Abandon all your cool ideas if they require too much planning. Also if you keep forgetting about them.
    I was going to run it as a series of "episodes" with them levelling up after each one, but realised that a) they'd be levelling up far too fast and b) there was no way in hell the players were going to be railroaded into doing what I had planned for them anyway. My pet NPC ("Dungeonmaster") also keeps failing to turn up to pester them because I keep bloody forgetting about him, and can never think of enough clever things for him to say anyway.
  4. Steal pre-made dungeons, adventures and encounters from books or the internet and drop them in where they make sense, regardless of how much you have to tweak them to make them level appropriate.
    The reality of your made-up world is more important than game balance, and you can do just as good job as the professionals anyway.
  5. Change the metaphysics/background/plot/whatever as you go to fit in player choices and changes of character.
    Just say yes to everything and make it work later. Player fun is more important than the reality of your made-up world.
  6. Tailor the magic items to particular characters in the party by predicting what they would like, find useful, or enjoy.
    You'll get it wrong, but no matter how easy you make access to magic items in the game world, they'll never bother buying anything better, so you've got to try.
  7. Pick monsters and plan encounters to suit the strengths of just one character; put these all on a map so they know exactly where to go; make it a major theme, plan the next few levels around it and give them an artifact to motivate them to pursue this line of the story.
    Of course, if, say, the cleric's player has to drop out of the game for personal reasons, then they might not be so good against undead, and you'll have to scrap all your plans and make up a side-quest to get them out of the area for the foreseeable future.
  8. Do about half an hour's game prep sometime before each session.
    Who has time for more? The players will probably do something you didn't plan for anyway. And don't bother learning monster abilities before a fight. You'll pick it up as you go and never miss anything important that could change a whole combat.
  9. If they roll a really good skill check, let them trick the dragon out of its treasure. Just make sure that the next dragon they come across attacks them before they get to open their mouths.
  10. Let the PCs acquire assets (such as ships) all over the place. Give them command over a small army. Encourage them to start their own religion.
    After all, what could possibly go wrong?

NB. I'm not saying I regret all of these. It's mostly been fun, and hopefully is still being fun for the players. I just keep having to change my plans and ambitions for the game as we go. And I still suck at combats, which makes them drag a bit. Maybe the next time I start a campaign, I'll be better prepared and get it right.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Primal Adventures

I've been meaning to do a weekly report (actual play, reflections, thoughts etc) on my gaming for some time, and might as well get round to starting it. Currently I'm in two D&D 4e games which run on alternate Wednesdays at our house. Yesterday was the one run by my better half, in which I actually get to play.

We're a group of Longtooth Shifter (werewolf-lite) Primal characters (which means we get our powers from Primal spirits: think animal spirits, elementals etc), who are the scouts for our tribe and, having just moved in to a new area, are checking the surroundings for threats and mostly responding by killing every living thing we find. Now there are four of us, we have all four roles covered. I play the Druid, the Controller, whose main tactic is to Wild Shape into Beast form and charge into battle: doing some damage and herding the enemies together so I can shift back into human form and blast them with an area of effect power like Tundra Wind. It's not a wildly effective tactic as I'm quite squishy and sometimes have difficulty extracting myself from fights to heal up - as far as I recall I'm so far the only member of the party to have lost consciousness in any of our encounters. C plays the smashy-hitty Barbarian (Striker) who charges around killing everything in sight and gaining temporary hit points left, right and centre, while being mostly unhitable thanks to his ludicrous AC. GM is being slightly frustrated in attempts to threaten him much, but did manage to bloody him towards end of epic fight of epicness (see below). T's character is the Shaman - the Leader and the healing machine, giving us free healing or temporary hit points all over the shop if we stay close to his spirit companion. Combined with the Racial power of Longtooth Shifting which gives us regeneration when bloodied, we're a pretty hardy bunch and while fights tend to be long we can take on harder stuff because we don't go down so easily. The newbie, D, joined late and plays a Warden - the Defender/tank who has some smack-down powers and a very nice daily that ties in thematically with my cold based powers too (we're a nomadic tribe of wolf-like people, I keep imagining we're used to Northern forests and cold winters, despite lack of background from GM).

In our effort to seek out and destroy all life in the vicinity, we have so far found and dispatched kobolds, goblins, rats, ankheggs and swamp horses crocodiles. While killing the kobolds we encountered some weird, floaty, tentacled things and interrupted some sort of ritual and were stunned (and somewhat scared) to have a run-in with a dragon who told us "this will be reported" before leaving. We mostly tried to forget about this, but after bumping into some black dragons in the swamp who gave us a plot dump ("The Far Realms are touching our world and stuff is trying to come through. This is bad. We're trying to stop it. Please don't interfere or we'll eat you.") we went back and found yet more weird, floaty, tentacled things and some very icky once-were-kobolds conducting more rituals, but of chanty evilness this time. They seemed to be corrupted by....something, and helping....something, "come through" to this world.

Thus began the Epic Fight of Epicness. This single encounter lastest about three sessions with one fight per session: after finishing off the kobolds and assorted monsters in the first area we realised chanting was still going on deeper in the building and rushed off to investigate. Here, as well as more floating tentacles and another chanty kobold we found three glowing rocks that helpfully "revitalised" us (let us gain the use of an encounter power back). Although due to their positioning and a lack of mobility we didn't use them as effectively as we might have, it did mean we had enough healing to keep us going. Also, near the beginning of the first fight the Barbarian and Shaman both used daily powers which gave us a huge edge - the Barbarian was gaining temporary hit points every time he hit something and we all had damage reduction which made us a lot tougher than the GM was perhaps expecting. Still, the second fight dragged on for quite some time, and we'd finished off everything before realising there was still chanting going on....The final room had four chanters, a horde of more monsters protecting them and a ball of smoky swirly something in which a shadow was growing larger. Unfortunately for me, this is where the dice starting hating me, and as well as failing to stop the shadow turning into a ....thing (a Beholder (almost certainly), although my character is just going to think of it as a weird, floaty, tentacled thing with eyes), I mostly flailed and killed a few minions, maybe hit a non-minion once and ended up on exactly zero hitpoints at one point. The Barbarian was actually starting to hurt as everything ganged up on him (his fault for going to attack the beholder once it came through) and with the Shaman rushing off to the previous room to recharge healing, we ended up spread out and struggling. In the end, the beholder escaped, to be hunted down another day.

It was a pretty fantastic battle overall - the having to work to recharge encounter powers made things a lot harder and we were a lot more reliant on our at-wills. The damage reduction and Longtooth Shifting lasting throughout it all was a plus, and despite it seeming a bit of a slog at times, there was just enough variation between monsters and set-up in each room to keep the fights interesting and different. Plot-wise, it seems to be going interesting places too. The idea is that as a nomadic, rural tribe that worships Primal spirits, we know little to nothing about things like Abberrant monsters, the Far Realms or anything related to Arcana. This all being strange, disturbing and utterly alien is perfect flavour wise and something I'm loving roleplaying. My druid, being an inquisitive little so and so, is trying to figure out everything she can by examining the ritual circles, listening to the chanting that was going on, and dissecting the remains of any monsters that don't just evaporate. Being an alchemist, she's also harvesting them for parts. Some day, I may work out what to do with them...

So that's the story to date, and I'll try to keep you abreast of what goes on. Next week, it's my game, and I might finally start my series of posts entitled "How Not To Run A Campaign".

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

ConDem Nation? Why it might not be all bad

I've been avoiding blogging about the election for some time now, mostly because I kept changing my bloody mind about who to vote for, why, and what the outcome meant. Also, this will probably be rambling and without much of a coherent point, but then so are most of my posts so nothing new there.

I have spent far too much of the last few days watching the news and reading various opinions and have slowly come to a position of "we'll see".

When this election campaign kicked off, I gloomily predicted a slim Tory majority. Then the first televised debate happened, the polls saw the Liberal Democrats' popularity soar and I found myself getting swept away with Cleggmania. For once it looked like the LibDems might not be viewed as "a wasted vote" and the electorate was waking up to the idea that it had other options than choosing between the big two. But I still had my reservations. See, I'm a cynic at heart, and got stung once before when I fell for a young, good looking and charismatic politician talking about change. At the time I was too young to vote, but it didn't take long New Labour to lose my faith so much so that I've only ever voted for them once, in local elections, and then only because there were two seats and only one Green candidate. Possibly Clegg will turn out to be a little more honest and principled than Blair, but as they're both leaders who're more right-wing than the majority of their parties' supporters and who've led their party into government against expectation, I don't think the comparison is entirely ungrounded. My fundamental distrust of politicians led me to decide to vote based on policies and tried not to be swayed by personality. Despite being a borderline commie at heart, and nearly falling head over heels in love with the Green Party's manifesto equality policies, I ended up voting for the LibDems, mostly on the basis of their science policy. I may have laughably naive ideas about how to run an economy, but I feel much more confident in stating that rational, evidence based policy is essential. Ultimately, I live in a safe Labour seat, so I knew my vote would make no difference, and sure enough, it didn't.

Having thrown my lot in with Clegg's cohort, I did feel somewhat deflated on hearing the exit poll and indeed the final results the next day. The bitter disappointment that, on the day, the country that seemed to be favouring "another way" appeared to have bottled it, soon gave way to the fear that we'd have another election within a year which would lead to a more decisive Conservative victory. But the coalition talks started and like many other LibDem supporters, I was hoping Clegg would hold out for proportional representation while still being sure we wouldn't get it. The prospect of a Lab/Lib/others government, while tantalizing at first, was obviously unstable and worryingly unlikely to be popular with the general public. And while my initial reaction to the idea of them getting into bed with the Tories was "well, I'm never voting for Lib Dem again", it did begin to look like the only viable option. Bluntly put, if Clegg had been seen to block the formation of a stable government it would have killed any chance of getting electoral reform in the near future. In order for arguments for PR to have any weight, you have to show that hung parliaments are not a huge problem. And while the Tories' sop of a referendum on AV (which they will campaign against, and probably win) is far short of any real change in the voting system, it is, frankly, better than nothing and at least a step in the right direction.

Still, I felt a bit maudlin last night when Brown resigned and Cameron headed to Buckingham Palace to become PM. But the confirmation that it was to be a "full coalition" tempered that slightly and even gave hope that some good Lib Dem policies might actually have a chance, while stopping some of the worst Tory ones. Sadly, reading the details of the deal it's all too easy to feel betrayed on a few key points: Trident, immigration and the married couple tax allowance spring to mind. But there's the good too, in particular the willingness to at least look at reforming the House of Lords. And overall, the move to fixed-term parliaments and Cameron actually sounding like he means it (but yeah, politician) when he talks of taking Britain "in a historic new direction" gives me some hope that there is sincerity on both sides to make this coalition work. And that's what we need if we are to convince people that PR is a viable alternative to our current system. So as unpalatable as a Conservative government may be, and as dirty as some may feel for working alongside them, I still hold out some hope that, if nothing else, it's better than if only the Tories were running the show.

I can understand and sympathise with activists, voters and members abandoning the party in disgust. I dare say this will lose them a lot of votes and I'm a bit worried that it may spell doom for the Lib Dems and they'll go back to being an also ran, or possibly just fall apart completely from internal disagreement. I'm not sure how worried I should be about this, as I've already admitted they're probably too centrist for me and I'm unlikely to have anything other than a Labour MP for the foreseeable future. There's a distinct possibility I'll go back to being disillusioned and apathetic about politics, but for now I'm willing to admit that "it could be worse" and at least we've seen the back of bloody ID cards. I can't imagine ever welcoming a Tory government, but I'm happy to wait for them to actually screw up before jumping down their throats.