Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Torch of Liberty Part 3

When last we saw the PCs, Anja was plummeting to her death, and the other PCs were locked up in Uncle Sam's flying capitol.

Anja didn't actually die, of course. Players don't really like when you put them in completely unavoidable death scenarios. Or so I've heard. On her way down, she was caught by Keezekhoni, who had a flying spell in her repertoire.

Keezekhoni landed the two of them safely, and revealed two things: First, the cells weren't the only antimagic location on the Flying Capitol; The entire airship had some sort of magic-suppressing field around it. Second, she had stolen the key to the cell when Leuco dropped her.

So now Anja had everything she needed to free the other PCs, but no way of getting back up to the airship, even with the aid of a powerful NPC Anglican.

She was informed that only one man in New York could get her back onto that airship: Ignatious Knievel of the Steam Demons!

Anja found Knievel at a biker bar, and tried to convince him to climb to the top of the New York World Building, and jump her onto the airship when it came by. He refused to help her unless she was able to accomplish a dare: Beating a Steam Demon champion in a contest of her choosing.

She chose a one-act play contest, and with some creatively selected craft skill points, created an impressive set with moving parts, and a script involving Count Dracula riding a motorcycle.

It was a moment that was pretty obviously crafted to facilitate a great character moment, and the player gladly took it the extra mile. I put in a token performance as her NPC rival, and she acted out her scenery-chewing performance with gusto. Everyone was entertained. It was great. I recommend setting up moments like this whenever possible. I'll probably write up a post about this kind of thing in the future.

Anja won the contest, and Knievel jumped her onto the airship, enabling a quick, easy jailbreak, and setting the players loose on the airship of the biggest, baddest boss in America.

The priority here was to escape. Preferably without any players falling to their deaths. But hey, a plot twist changed all that.

The players made their way to the room that housed the tractor beam, and after overpowering the inventor, they realized that the room from the church that they had been abducted in was still there in the big tractor beam room.

While looking through that room for healing items, they found that the unfinished crystal/bomb thing from the Statue of Liberty was still in there. Nick, the Anglican/robot guy seemed to think that it would be possible to detonate it if it could be completed. He didn't know how much damage it would do, but obviously it had potential to be a pretty good ace in the hole. Unfortunately, in addition to the missing heart, the bomb couldn't even be detonated due to the powerful antimagic field over the whole airship (I know, I know, that's not how antimagic is supposed to work).

The players figured out that the antimagic field was emanating from a nest of affected eagles at at the very top of the airship. There was a pretty good encounter with some spike pits, and some handheld steam tractor beams that were good for forcing characters into the spike pits. Nick was handily killed in the conflict, and in dying, revealed that he had an actual human heart in his chest cavity! "Is it so wrong," he asked, "for a tin man to want a heart?"

Disabling the antimagic was pretty easy. The party opted for a stealthy approach rather than fighting them, which was very effective. I admit, I made it harder on them than I should have, because this was the final proper combat of the adventure, and I sometimes respond poorly when my narrative arc gets disrupted, but hey, who wants to hear about my weaknesses?

On the way back to the big room with the crystal/bomb thing, the PCs unexpectedly ran into Millicent Braincroft; Uncle Sam's wicked psychic with the ability to near-permanently petrify people. Braincroft was intentionally weighted to be far more difficult than the PCs could handle, with teleportation abilities. The only thing the players had in their favor was that she could only petrify one character per turn.

The PCs bolted for the tractor beam room, and a few of them got petrified on the way. When they reached the room, Constantin immediately started working on getting the bomb thing finished/detonated, while the remaining non-petrified PCs barricaded the door. At the last second, when they thought they were safe, Braincroft teleported in, and petrified the last of them. Constantin barely had time to set off the bomb, but when he did, Braincroft was handily reduced to dust, which ended the petrification effect on all the PCs.

Leaving the room, the PCs found the entire eerily airship eerily deserted. I'll spare you the details of the exploration and gradual unraveling, but everything affected was dead. The guards, Leuco the Eagle Man, all the senators and representatives in the legislative branch of the capitol, all the judges in the judicial branch, all of Uncle Sam's most powerful generals, and yes, Affected Uncle Sam himself. The players wouldn't believe it at first, but I let them kill the ominous, massively powerful big bad of the entire campaign offscreen by accident.

After that was mostly wrapup, with the players receiving a few more revelations:

  • Ross Douglass, the popular mayoral candidate, was among those on the airship. He had been affected all along. Among the ashes, a painting of him was discovered. For those who haven't read The Picture of Dorian Grey, a Basil Halward painting hides a person's age and true nature by basically aging in place of the subject. In Apocalyptus terms, they also take on mutations. Basically, this means that there are affected in America who are perfectly disguised as regular folks.
  • When Millicent Braincroft died, everything she ever petrified came back to life. Considering her habit of petrifying huge monsters and threatening to unfreeze them to hold cities hostage, this is has some really negative implications.
  • Uncle Sam has no clear successor for leading the Northern Affected Army. Without him, it will likely fragment. This will probably spoil Lincoln's plan to pit the North and the South against each other.
  • With their charismatic leader gone, and no orders, the affected of the north want nothing more than to get revenge on the PCs.
Anyhow, as is probably obvious here, one of my goals for this campaign was to explore what would happen if the players inverted the usual campaign structure, and killed the biggest boss first, with nothing left but the minions. I'll post more thoughts on this later.

The Torch of Liberty Part 2

In the previous post, the PCs were seeking the source of some Affected organized crime in New York. They managed to take down a mafia-like organization, spectacularly exploding its big boss. In doing so, they discovered a secret passage down into the unknown.

The PCs followed it down, and discovered an evil Affected patriotism cult that worshiped various items of American iconography, especially Uncle Sam. They were also housing a Lovecraftian horror made from the remains of the original American Flag.

There were some good combat encounters in here. In one room, there was an eagle statue that could shoot lasers out of its eyes, and was controlled via remote. The PCs quickly got their hands on the remote, and turned the eagle against the cultists. Another encounter involved groups of intensely patriotic Affected who would follow the orders of whoever carried their flag. The PCs eventually figured out that they could steal the flags, and built a temporary army for themselves.

The best bit for me was when they came into the room with the pit. Basically, there was a huge pit cloaked in steam with three narrow stone bridges across it, with a door at the end of each bridge. On the opposite sides of the bridges were some groups of Affected.

The group on the right immediately charged all at once. As soon as eight of them were on the bridge, the bridge collapsed, and they fell into the steam below.

Romeo Scrabs, being a hotheaded daredevil, decided to back his motorcycle onto the middle bridge to see if it would support his weight, reasoning that if it started to feel unstable, he could go back at full speed. The bridge held him, and he came to rest for the round in the middle of the bridge.

The head priest on the other end of the bridge shouted for all of his followers to pile onto the bridge and collapse it, sacrificing themselves to kill Romeo. Loyally, they did so, and Romeo fell into the pit, and came face-to-face with the aforementioned Lovecraftian horror. It was a tense moment, but he got out. Later, the players crossed the room with an unlikely combination of ropes and child-tossing.

After a few less remarkable encounters, and some exploring for loot, the players finally encountered the ancient and decrepit Affected Betsy Ross, who was speaking on a telephone when they entered her cool boss chamber. They beat her without too much trouble, but she placed curses on some players, making them unable to heal, and making one of them unable to hold objects.

Here's where things started getting a bit more unconventional: After they took out Betsy Ross, the characters realized that her telephone was still off the hook. On picking up the receiver, they heard UNCLE SAM, the BBEG of the entire campaign, on the other end! The players didn't take this matter too seriously (Patches decided to just speak Chinese into the phone), and Sam announced an intention to dispatch Yankee Doodle to take out the PCs.

The PCs decided that they had better run (after doing some looting. They tried to steal a 15 foot idol of Uncle Sam before they left, which went about as well as you would guess). They got out of the underground temple without incident, but when they surfaced, they were faced with Uncle Sam's enormous flying capitol flying just over New York's highest skyscrapers. The players ran back to St. Paul's church to have their curses healed, and while they were inside, the entire room that they were inside of was abducted by the Flying Capitol by means of an experimental "Steam Tractor Beam." Along with them, a Native American priestess named Keezekhoni and a robotic warrior-priest named Sam were abducted.

The party woke up divided into two antimagic cells located somewhere in the Flying Capitol. The inventor of the experimental tractor beam casually interviewed them about their abduction experience, explaining that "the really big tractor beam" has the effect of causing unintended unconsciousness. It was a pretty good moment, because the players had no idea what was going on at the time.

I know players hate being imprisoned, but I really loved this next bit. See, at this point, Leuco the Eagle Man, one of Uncle Sam's highest ranking and most brutal generals, came onto the scene in the first cell, and demanded that the PCs tell him "WHERE'S THE HEART??"

The PCs figured out that he meant the Anglican heart which had been stolen from St. Paul's Church. Apparently, either Helltoni or Betsy Ross's people had stolen the heart for Uncle Sam's nefarious purposes, and somebody had further stolen it from Uncle Sam. The PCs had no idea what to do with this information, and Leuco was all too happy to resort to brutal means of extracting information.

Leuco took Keezekhoni out of the cell, dragged her through a nearby door, and revealed that the cell was located right next to the edge of the flying Capitol, mere feet away from a perilous drop. Leuco then dangled Keezekhoni over the side, and demanded once again to know the location of the heart. When the PCs had no ready answer, he dropped her to her apparent demise, and stormed off.

Then he went to the other cell, and repeated the process. Only this time, he grabbed one of the PCs! Of course, the players knew what was happening, and flew into a panic, but their characters had no way of knowing what had happened with the other cell.

The PC in question was Anja, a Steam Mage who thought she was a vampire for some reason. Her player was fairly new, and her character had only just been written into the campaign. Had I not discussed this scene with her secretly before the game, she would have probably gotten a terrible impression of this campaign, but since she knew what to expect, she played her role with a fantastic cockiness, telling Leuco to "go ahead and drop me, I'm immortal!" in her character's classic Eastern European accent.

So Leuco dropped her!

To be continued!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Torch of Liberty

It took about two months to get through the first adventure that I wrote for the new campaign, and in that timespan I completely forgot about this blog.

My design goal for the adventure was to start off with a lot of the same RPG cliches that I relied on in my last campaign, and then shatter them all at the end, leaving a clear message that this time, anything can happen. I'll try to summarize the important bits here.

The PCs were summoned to New York, for the funeral of a railroad tycoon, and mutual acquaintance named Glendon Aldridge. In his will, he revealed a lifelong desire to go adventuring, and offered to put his vast personal fortune into paying the PCs to travel America in his crazy experimental train (think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but a train). If the PCs accepted, they would be obligated to help any Americans they came across who were threatened by the Affected.

The PCs agreed, for the sake of the campaign actually happening. While the train was being fitted for the journey, a priest from St. Paul's Church (where the funeral took place) suggested that they do something about Affected organized crime in New York; Particularly the many menacing "Uncle Sam Wants You" posters that kept appearing.

The PCs poked around some different locations, mostly bars, and heard a lot of rumors about the Affected activity in the city. The most troubling rumor was that Yankee Doodle had come to town, and was spearheading the propaganda campaign with the posters. Additionally, there were rumors about a few of Uncle Sam's high ranking generals, including Leuco the eagle-man, and Millicent Braincroft, a psychic who could petrify monsters and hold cities for ransom by threatening to unfreeze them.

In the session where I first brought the characters together, I established that the Statue of Liberty was an enormous fighting robot that defended New York with "Purity Bombs" carried within her "Judgment Torch". For those arriving late to the game, "purity" damage is used by the game's equivalent of Clerics (called Anglicans, since this setting is mostly made to accommodate British adventures), and is harmless to Trueborn characters, damaging only the Affected, and very mutated Nukeromancers. Anyway, back in the present, the PCs found out that a single bomb for use in the Judgment Torch had to be forged from the hearts of 77 Anglicans (typically, Anglicans from all across America would donate the precious organ after their deaths). The last bomb was used to save the passengers of an incoming train that had been beset by Affected. There was a new one being constructed in St. Paul's church that was still one heart short. The final heart was being moved in from Pittsburgh, and had been stolen neatly from an armored carriage along the way.

While passing a spirited but dim political candidate named Ross Douglass on a soapbox, the PCs spotted an Affected in the crowd who was concealing his mutations under a light scarf. They followed him away from the crowd, cornered him, and interrogated him. He didn't know much. He was a low-ranking minion of an organized crime syndicate, and had never even met the local crime boss personally. The players ended up getting some good information from him: The location where he was supposed to receive his next assignment, and the code words to get the assignment.

The players sent Emilio, the bizarre horse-fish hybrid, to the location of the assignment. Sure enough, a higher-ranking gangster named Davide Demoni was there. Emilio convinced him that he was the other guy, and Demoni gave him the assignment: He had to rub out a member of the gang named Luciffi who had been leaking the gang's secrets. The party considered attacking Demoni and getting more information, but he was carrying a suitcase bomb, and they deemed it too risky.

The party went off and staked out Luciffi's house, assuming that his reputation for having a loose tongue would pay off in the form of more information. When they raided his house, however, he brandished a stick of dynamite, intending to save his reputation by exposing the PCs plot to his higher-ups. It didn't work. The PCs managed to disarm him of the dynamite.

After a lengthy interrogation, Luciffi finally revealed that the gang's main operation was located in Helltoni's Italian Restaurant. The PCs promised Luciffi protection, but revoked it violently when he tried to escape.

The PCs went to Helltoni's restaurant at night, and found their way into the secret gangster area in the basement, with a couple 0f combat encounters along the way.

The best combat here was in a sealed-off room with some card-playing gangsters. When the PCs showed up, the gangsters filled the room with poison gas, and took some pills, which created bubbles of breathable air around them. Someone tipped over the table, and Romeo Scrabs used it as a jump, awesomely running down one of the gangsters with his bike before he could take his air pill. Romeo gave the pill to Colonel Jefferson, who took it, and all the non-melee PCs clustered around Jefferson for air. The gangsters had an impressive (and kind of broken) regenerative ability which made it virtually impossible to deal with them one-on-one. Which was kind of cool in my opinion, but some of the players resented it.

The PCs then found themselves in Helltoni's chamber. Helltoni was a huge fungus-like being made out of pasta. His body had grown all over the walls and ceiling, and he revealed to the PCs that he was holding up a bunch of acid goo on the ceiling, which would fall if he was killed.

Surprisingly, the PCs tried to convince Helltoni to hire them. Even more surprisingly, their bizarre logic worked, due to some really good diplomacy rolls, and some treacherous intentions on Helltoni's part. Helltoni hired them on temporarily, demanding that they assassinate Ralph Winewater; A mayoral candidate, and rival to Ross Douglass. He also revealed a printing press in an adjacent room, along with stacks and stacks of Uncle Sam posters for the PCs to put up.

The PCs then went and tried to convince Winewater to fake his death so that they could gain Helltoni's trust, but Winewater worried that such a move would be bad for his campaign, and was somewhat disturbed by the PCs methods. The PCs decided to abandon this idea, and opted instead to fill up a cake with dynamite and explode Helltoni's chamber from outside.

This plan worked fantastically, except that they dropped the cake while climbing down a ladder, and had to replace it with a big plate of spaghetti. Helltoni was easily neutralized with some remote detonation from Patches, and the players were able to evade the tide of acid by standing on the gangsters' card table. Demoni was speaking with Helltoni at the time, and he died too.

It was revealed that behind Helltoni's usual sticking-to-the-wall place there was a staircase descending deep underground.

To be continued!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Session Zero: Character Creation

I've always wanted to do a really in-depth, bang-up character creation session to really get the players thinking about their characters right off the bat. In the past, I've had a few players whose characters never really got interesting, and in my humble, sweet opinion, you can run your character sheet through a shredder if your character isn't going to entertain anyone.

I seriously don't need boring characters taking up valuable time and plot material.

I believe that every player is capable of creating and playing entertaining characters, but some players don't know that they're supposed to, or they don't have time, or they don't know how.

So I did a character creation session.

I started out by getting all my players on the same page, and having them confer with one another and make sure they weren't all playing the same class. Obvious, I know, but I've never done it before, and I've had problems in the past.

I went over a few guidelines for character creation. I usually get a larger turnout for my game sessions than I'm comfortable with, and I don't like to send people away, which means that if there's ever any party infighting, it takes ages to resolve. I'm also trying to run a heroic campaign here, where I can write quests based on the characters wanting to help people in need without having to worry about some of the characters not liking to help people in need.

With that in mind, I passed around a brief questionnaire. I have yet to find out if the players liked it, and it didn't help me as much as I'd hoped, but I think it helped a bit.

The questionnaire asked for basic information like the character's name race and background. It also asked questions that I hoped would be more revealing. For instance: "In what way is your character different from most members of his class?"

I also wrote down a basic list of drives that might motivate a character, with everything from "Patriotism" and "Curiosity" all the way down to "Greed" and "Power."

The result was that I ended up with a whole bunch of characters united mostly by "bloodlust." It will be a while before I can be sure that this batch of characters actually came out as good people, as I intended.

Another thing that irked me was that I had absolutely no success in getting mechanics-minded players to look past the rulebook in defining their characters. For a lot of players, a question like, "What traits does your character share with most members of his race?" could be answered with, "High INT," or "Dark vision."

However! The character creation session did produce a memorable and interesting party, and while I'd love to be able to take credit for it, I think it happened despite my questionnaires and pleas for morality.

Here's the lineup:

Romeo Scrabs -- He's back! And back to level one. I really enjoy seeing characters recycled for new campaigns. I don't know why people always feel like they need to start over with a new character concept every time they start a new campaign.

Constantin -- He has a last name and some middle names too, but I don't have them here in front of me. Constantin is an Anglican Beast-Folk with a funny, lispy voice. He has sort of a history of violence, and gets a little crazy when he's around blood. Before being made into a beast-man, Constantin was a narwhal. He still retains the giant pointed tooth.

Jill Montgomery -- Jill is twelve years old, and is the daughter of one of the characters from my last campaign. She's a Dragoon/Grenadier multiclass. She's also half-Morlock, and thus has albino features. I like seeing my players play gimmicky characters like "little girl," because when they play characters so different from themselves, they almost need to get into the mindset of the character in order to do anything at all. The guy who's playing Jill has spoken and acted extremely in character at every opportunity so far. In the last campaign, he just sort of played a regular young adult guy, and he didn't get into character half as often.

Patches -- Patches is a Morlock Gunpowder Wizard. Some players like to play the same kind of character every time they play. Patches's player likes to play oddball races, and he likes to play destructive, curious characters who "always press the big red button," as he puts it. I pretty much know exactly what to expect from Patches, and if he's reined in enough that he's not a disruption, I'm sure he'll be fun.

Huang Chen -- Another Morlock Gunpowder Wizard, and an associate of Patches. Huang Chen comes from the Himalayas, where he blasts tunnels and stuff. He also serves as a mountain guide. I am excited to see two non-human characters of the same race in the same party. We'll see how things play out.

Emilio Fernandez -- Son of Alfonzo from my last campaign. Emilio was the result of a radiation-enhanced pregnancy between two Nukeromancers. He was so badly mutated in the womb that he was born a fish. Sometime between then and now, his appearance shirted to look more half-fish-half-horse. So that should give you an idea of what to expect. I think he'll be a lot like Alfonzo, but perhaps with fewer anarchist tendencies, as demanded by the campaign style.

Talon -- A Scoundrel. Scoundrels get to cherry-pick from a vast pool of abilities, and he picked one that gives him an animal companion. A wolf. I hate animal companions, but I'll go with it. Talon is a native American, and is the last of his clan. Thus far, he's shown a bit of anti-white angst in his jokes. Could get interesting.

Colonel Henry Jefferson -- In the campaign world, there's still slavery down South. Jefferson is a banana plantation owner, and a Persuasionary. His bastard son/slave Moses serves as his companion, and is usually the target of extreme insensitivity on Jefferson's part. This kind of character probably wouldn't fly with a lot of groups, or in a lot of campaigns. Especially campaigns where the characters were supposed to be heroic. Historical humor is a staple of this game, though, and part of the fun comes from characters with gratingly old-fashioned attitudes.

Perth Avani -- Perth is an art thief, and another Scoundrel. The main thing I know about her so far is that she dresses in modern clothing which would be considered immodest in the time of the campaign's setting. That's not me being snarky, it's actually in the character description.

Yes, this is a huge party, but not all of these players can make it to every session. It tends to be a bit more manageable than that.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The word "Gamer"

People, hey.

I think I hate the word "gamer." I think that it is an obnoxious word.

How did this word come to indicate people who play games that are considered nerdy?

How is it that you are a gamer exactly if you love video games and/or roleplaying games?

Why is it that if you like to play baseball or chess or something like that, that doesn't make you a gamer?

As far as I can tell, the term "gamer" gained it's common usage mostly by not having the word "play" in it. The word "play" makes things sound like they for kids. Video game and RPG players want people to take their hobbies seriously for some reason, so they'd rather people called it "gaming" than "playing a game."

I guess that it is possible that the term became popular simply by being shorter than "such-and-such game player" or whatever. I guess that might be it. I guess it's quicker to say, "let's game!" than "let's play a game!"

But it's still dumb. It makes us look like a bunch of oversensitive teenagers trying to distance ourselves from childhood, or like we're trying to build a subculture based on how we spend some of our afternoons.

While I love pen-and-paper roleplaying games, and even video games sometimes, I don't think I would ever seriously call myself a gamer. Nor would I inflict the title on someone else unless I was specifically being pejorative.

I'm not so insecure as to be uncomfortable with the fact that I spend time every week playing make-believe with friends. I do not need to make up a really dumb term for it, so I can identify myself as part of a community.

Hey guys, let's call ourselves "Bookers," because we like to read books. Let's call ourselves "Filmers," because we like to watch movies. Let's do it. Let's do it because it will not be stupid.

Let's not do stupid things.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What The Doctor has to say about extremely capable characters.

One of the most frustrating things that I've ever experienced as a Dungeon Master is the fact that player characters are always better equipped to handle difficult situations than I expect them to be.

In the past, I've thought about outright banning lockpicking in order to make the players play my game and go find the keys I've hidden, because they always pick my locks, or break down my doors, or have access to a spell that creates a tunnel in the wall, or just dig a tunnel in the wall.

One time I suspended my players fifty feet below an airship in a cage attached with chains on every corner with no equipment. One guy managed to squeeze through the bars, got on top of the cage, cut one of the chains halfway up, and slung the half that was attached to the cage over the side. One of the PCs inside the cage broke a hole in the wooden floor of the cage, pulled the chain inside, and voila! Everyone swung out on the chain, and climbed to the top of the cage. Some of the PCs weren't so good at climbing, but that was short work for another PC with a climb-enhancing spell.

I had designed it as an inescapable situation to force the PCs into their first confrontation with the campaign's main villain. When they found a way out, I did the wrong thing. I punished them and sent them back.

Wait a second! Ingenious players are what you want! I've spent tons of time moping about how my players resolve every situation with wholesale slaughter, and now when they show some creativity, I squash it! What was I thinking?

Good players will, despite your best efforts, be powerful or ingenious enough to bypass all your prepared material. And if you've ever heard someone complain that D&D 3.5 characters over level 14 are "broken" or "unplayable," chances are they've had the same problem.

Today, though, I was watching Doctor Who, and something clicked for me.

From a D&D perspective, The Doctor is an insanely overpowered character. His sonic screwdriver picks any lock from any time period, he can bluff his way through any situation, and constantly manages to find access to doomsday weapons that conveniently destroy all of his enemies in one go. If he's killed, it's no problem. It just means we get a new actor.

In an awful lot of episodes, The Doctor finds himself in a position where he needs to get into a high-security area, and speak with an important person. Often it's the leader of an entire species. The show never wastes time putting obstacles in his way. Once the Doctor decides to go somewhere, it's pretty much a guarantee that he'll be there in less than a minute.

When The Doctor encounters an evil warrior race, you don't have to wait until the end of the episode to know that they will be completely extinct in forty-five minutes.

And yet, while watching Doctor Who, I've never thought to myself, "where's the conflict? Where's the excitement if the overpowered hero always predictably wins?"

If I had The Doctor as a player, I'd probably be moaning about how he ruined all my scenarios, ban some diplomacy-enhancing feats, and give him a +5 vorpal sword and some mutants to kill to make him feel better.

But as a player, The Doctor is everything I'd ever want to be.

So I've thought it through, and I think that I've come up with a few television-inspired ways of dealing with "overpowered" PCs who foil all your plans.

1. The conflict should have higher stakes than the PC's lives. Players at these levels know they're not going to die, so don't jerk them around. Make them care about innocent NPCs, and put them in real danger. Put them in situations where you don't think the PCs can save them all, and see what they do.

2. If the PCs aren't moral enough to question weather they should kill the main boss outright (hint: they never are), find a way to add an extra ethical dimension to their actions. Maybe they can't destroy his starship without killing the crew's innocent families. Maybe the evil army is under mind-control, and will drop dead if their master is killed. Maybe the evil wizard guards his domain from an even greater evil. This probably won't make much of a difference if you don't have the right kind of players.

3. Increase the stakes. In Doctor Who, and in most TV and movies, really, most monsters can kill you in one attack. Rarely is anyone wounded. You're either alive and well, or they catch you, and you're dead. If your players are dishing out enough damage to kill anything in one hit, then maybe the monsters should be able kill the players in one hit. I'm not saying that you should kill your players. I'm saying that when the players meet a really powerful new monster, maybe their first instinct should be to run.

4. Villains are never really dead. The players want to vanquish every evil you set in front of them. You want to build interesting recurring villains. The perfect compromise is to let them kill the villains, and then bring them back anyway. Conventional wisdom says that players will be frustrated if their enemies don't stay in the ground. I say, that's ridiculous. Players want to beat their villains, but they also want good villains to fight.

If the game specifically has abilities that force enemies to stay dead, then bring in a twin, a clone, someone else to take up the mantle, a mechanical replica, the villain's brain in a jar, a parallel universe duplicate, a parallel universe, a ghost, a son or daughter, a posthumous plot, an illusion, a time travel plot that takes the players to before his defeat, a time travel plot that prevents his defeat, an unseen/unnoticed escape, an ingeniously faked death, a decoy, or any other of the many, many tropes that exist for bringing favorite villains back for another round.

5. If your problem is that players are bypassing every obstacle, then the "obstacle" thing isn't going to work anymore. Don't put obstacles in their way that are designated as "unbypassable," and justify them as "made of diamond/mithral/adamantium/lead." Let them skip straight to the boss if they like, and when they get there, make it apparent that killing the boss isn't going to solve the real problem, which they'll only be able to solve if they poke around a bit.

6. It's OK for enemies to be immune to everything, except for one oddball weakness. In most games I've played/run, knowing a creatures weakness just allows you to kill it faster, and save some spells. Bring in an alien species that's immune to ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING except for one seemingly innocent Achilles heel. Then make the players put the clues together as they run and hide from the seemingly invincible threat. Players who love combat will hate this one, but for most other players, combat is a forgone conclusion at this level anyway, so why not make it impossible without a little bit of detective work?

7. Surprise them. The boss they picked three locks to reach isn't the real boss at all. The NPC they trusted, meanwhile, has lured them right into her trap. The monster was disguised as something more harmless, or even familiar. The monster has powers that are completely uncharacteristic for its race. The boss has access to technology that he wasn't expected to. Don't use the same plot twists until they become predictable, but you should definitely give the players the impression that if they use all their powers to skip to the end, they'll find out that "the end" was just a red herring.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Planning the first adventure

The first adventure of the Land Clipper campaign is going to take place in New York City, which is a Trueborn stronghold at this point in the campaign's chronology. The city is not a steam-powered flying city, like the ones in London. Instead it is protected by a mechanical Statue of Liberty, who burns tresspasing Affected with her torch. In addition to shooting fire, the torch is equipped with "Judgment Bombs." Enormous explosives powered by the souls of dead Anglicans, which can only damage Affected.

The plot enabler, of course, is that rail tycoon Glendon Aldridge has died. The PCs are here to attend St. Paul's Church for the funeral, and more importantly, for the reading of the will.

The will leaves the PCs a substantial weekly wage, and an experimental train, which they can only have under the condition that they go adventuring in the name of upholding the American Way.

Traveling with the PCs will be a crew of less-capable NPCs who will operate the train for them. I'm going to have the players design these NPCs to draw them closer into the game world. This will presumably make it more personal if an NPC turns treacherous, or is placed in peril.

Additionally, each PC will have his own train car where he can stash his trophies, or even decorate as he likes. I'm hoping that this will give the players some interesting ways to express their characters, and will give the campaign a sense of home, even though it is a far-roaming campaign.

I don't want to give away too many spoilers here, but the PCs can't get the rewards promised them in the will until all the paperwork goes through. But they're still contractually obligated to start adventuring right away, so their first task is to investigate the "Uncle Sam Wants YOU!" posters that have been mysteriously appearing around town, along with the rumors of Affected Yankee Doodle (Uncle Sam's right-hand goon!) being in town.

The thing I am most excited about for this adventure is that I'm doing everything I can to ensure that all of the encounters have some sort of interesting twist to them.

For instance, One of the first encounters takes place inside a fairly public structure. The location is a front for an Affected gang, and about half of the patrons present are members of the gang. The other half is made up of helpless schmucks. If the Affected know that the players have caught onto them, they're going to try to kill everyone in the place who isn't a part of their gang, since a single witness could blow their cover.

In a later encounter, the players meet a group of gunfighters who want to kill them. The gunfighters fill the room up with poison gas, and take pills that create bubbles of breathable air around themselves. This means that the only way for the players to escape the gas is to stay as close to the gunfighters as possible!

And then during a boss fight, a certain tentacled boss will reveal that his tentacles are supporting a layer of a gooey acidic substance which will fall if he is killed. The PCs will need to figure out a way to beat him without getting splashed with deadly ooze!

These obstacles will all be surmountable. Fairly easily so. It's a level one adventure after all. But they should all add at least enough of an interesting twist to keep the players paying attention. I'll make sure to post about how it all goes down.

There is a lot more in store here, and I'm dying to talk about it, but I'll have to save it for later, as anything more would have to be a huge spoiler.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A few words on Apocalyptus

It may be helpful for me to define some vocabulary from Apocalyptus that I'll be using a lot. This blog assumes that you already know what's going on with D20 terms.

Affected: The villains of Apocalyptus. Horrible mutants. They are mostly human, and their abilities are usually defined by their profession or social standing. For the most part, they're dumb, and clever plans to outsmart them are usually effective. They rule the surface of London, and much of the rest of the world.

Trueborn: The heroes of Apocalyptus. They have as much radiation in them as the Affected, but for unknown reasons, it doesn't make them mutate. It just gives them cool powers.

Energy Points: Energy points represent radioactive power held by characters, which allows them to perform spells and stuff. Every player class has abilities that use energy points. Non-spellcasters use them to do extra-cool moves in combat.

Faith: Every character has a faith score. Faith grows with level, and can be attacked like HP. Characters whose faith is depleted cannot use any Trueborn powers.

PSI: PSI represents a character's innate ability to use steam-powered machines. Steam mages have it naturally. Others can get limited amounts by purchasing boilers.

Taint: Sometimes a Trueborn character will come into contact with especially evil radiation, or may even use a technique that causes him to generate especially evil radiation. This radiation is called taint, and is accumulated in a characters taint score. Every time a character's taint reaches a new multiple of ten, he gains a permanent mutation. These mutations are never beneficial.

Dragoon: A class very similar to the Fighter from Dungeons and Dragons. In addition to regular D20 feats, he gets Combat Maneauvres (intentionally misspelled in a parody of British spelling) which allow him to do cool moves by spending energy points.

Anglican: The healer class. In the Apocalyptus world, pretty much all religions have merged into Anglicanism. Depending on what religion a given Anglican follows, he may have very different powers.

Steam Mage: Steam Mages are powerful machine-users, and have the ability to generate "steam fields" around themselves, which are passive areas of effect.

Scoundrel: An extremely skill-focused class. Scoundrels are proficient in all skills, and can choose which ones they want to use as enhanced skills. Enhanced skills allow them to use skill checks to perform actions that range from unusual applications of their skills, skill-based combat abilities, and even effects similar to spells.

Nukeromancer: The most powerful caster class. Nukeromancers get incredible destructive ability at the expense of taking tons of taint points. A high-level Nukeromancer will be able to kill most anything, but will be crippled and insane due to his many mutations.

Persuasionary: Persuasionaries specialize in mind-control abilities. They are accompanied by companions, who can aid them in a lot of interesting ways.

Gunpowder Wizard: A class from my World's Fair expansion currently in very early playtesting. Gunpowder Wizards create clouds of gunpowder. Whenever they attack an enemy inside one of their gunpowder clouds, they get a huge damage bonus like a rogue's sneak attack.

Grenadier: Another World's Fair class. Grenadiers get the same moves as Dragoons, but less of them. They compensate by getting way more hit points than is reasonable.

Mad Scientist: Another World's Fair class. Mad Scientists get multiple frankenstein-style monsters to control. They have some of the best buff spells in the game, but can only use them on their own creations.

Occult Detective: Another World's Fair class. Specializes in fighting paranormal threats. This one needs a lot of work right now, as it is currently very narrow in focus.

Grafter: One of the most dangerous monsters. It is a mass of writhing bodies interested only in adding more bodies to itself.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Goals for the next campaign.

I am planning out my next Apocalyptus campaign now, with the goal of fixing some of the problems that I had last time.

The new campaign is entitled "The Land Clipper," and follows the adventures of a group of PCs who travel the American countryside in a fantastic train looking for adventure during the darkest days of the Civil War.

As with London before, the Apocalyptus version of America doesn't exactly adhere to history. The Civil War is being fought by two factions of Affected who have been turned against each other through the masterful strategy of the Trueborn president Lincoln. Deadly Affected Folk Heroes like Paul Bunyan and John Henry walk the earth, looking for adventurers to fight. The empire of California is its own nation, ruled over by Emperor Norton.

Glendon Aldridge, tycoon of Aldridge Rail has recently died. He has left a substantial wage, and a remarkable prototype for an experimental train called The Land Clipper to the PCs, on the condition that they live out his lifelong dream of traveling America looking for people to help with their skills in adventuring.

There are dual "Big Bad" villains. Affected Uncle Sam, who rules the Affected of the North, and Affected Jefferson Davis (who I might replace with someone more interesting), who rules the Affected of the south. The Affected Wright Brothers fly all over the continent causing trouble in their massive experimental flying machine. Affected Northern giants such as Paul Bunyan remain neutral, killing everything they see.

I plan to include every possible event from American history in this campaign, even if it isn't historically accurate. The Great Chicago Fire? In the campaign. Custer's last stand? Definitely. The California Gold Rush? You know it. It's a Uranium rush this time, though.

Anyway, I think that this setting will be really fun to play in, and I think that it will be really educational for me to research all the stuff I'm going to need to know for this.

I'm hoping not to get bogged down by the same problems that I had last campaign. Here are some things that I'm going to make myself do to avoid making the same mistakes.

  • Do character creation as a group to ensure that every character fills a unique role, and there are player-generated plot hooks to build off from.
  • Keep a hard-and-fast limit on the number of players per session. Probably eight. Some players are of the type that mostly sit back and watch the other players. They don't need to have characters in order to do this. Some players don't attend reliably. They don't need to play, or perhaps they can play another character's cohort when they are in attendance.
  • Appoint a well-liked fair-minded player as a permanent party leader who can curtail problem players in-game.
  • Do not allow characters to take oddball feats from splatbooks, or at least limit the practice.
  • Look over character sheets every week to make sure that I know how characters are coming along.
  • Do multi-session adventures rather than one-shot sessions every week. Even if players can't commit to coming to every session, they should be able to handle three weeks in a row now and then.
  • Use smaller numbers of stronger monsters, so that combats will go faster.
  • Designate one player as the chronicler, to help keep track of story.
  • Designate one player the damage-tracker. I'm bad at keeping track of which enemies have how much damage, and which ones are under special conditions. I don't want to bog things down further by writing it all down myself.
  • Give every planned combat encounter an interesting hook, such as an environmental hazard, a special weapon carried by one of the monsters, or a goal other than just killing everything.
  • Use my laptop less. A lot less.

The Previous Campaign, and what I learned from it

Here's what my previous campaign was like, so you'll know where I'm at.

The game was Apocalyptus. The setting was London in the late post-apocalyptic Victorian era.

The players all lived in a raised town suspended on giant stilts called New Whitechapel, which was located over London. It was one of the trashier mini-cities in London, and was mostly used for grain storage. The population was small, and the people were unsophisticated and not particularly wealthy.

The surface of London was overrun by mutants known as The Affected, who were invariably evil, malicious, and violent.

At the start of the campaign, the PCs were all working as guards to prevent the Affected climbing up into the city.

However, Colin Aldridge, the mayor of New Whitechapel, had other things in store for them. He was hoping to increase his own political power by making a name for himself, so he decided, rather unwisely, to employ the PCs in going down to the surface of the London and destroying key Affected bases. He wasn't really authorized to hire them for this, but he was hoping that their reputation for doing good would spread faster than the news that they weren't supposed to be down there.

This constitutes the first act of the campaign. At this point, it was just me playing with my siblings and a close friend or two. Important PCs from this period included:

  • Romeo Scrabs: A member of the "Steam Demons," a biker gang run by Steam Mages who liked to ride Steam Motorcycles. Romeo's original weapon was a broken bottle. He liked to drink and get tattoos. He didn't like to shave or wear shirts. His catch phrase, "WHO ARE YOU??" was often uttered when he found himself suddenly confronted by Affected. Romeo helped to solve a lot of early problems simply by doing crazy stunts on his bike. Typically because someone had dared him.
  • Jim Ross: Jim started off with the goal of starting a cult along with his mysterious friend Count Bennet Leumas. He had mind powers. He was always polite and genial, but had an amoral streak. He loved to fight Affected children, and often went into a sort of frenzy of bloodlust. Eventually, Jim got tired of the cult thing, and was content to spend his free time riding around town on one of those bicycles with the enormous front wheel.
  • Skyla Hoogaboom: A dutch girl who fought with four blades in the shape of a windmill. She was the party's tank, and could deal more damage one-on-0ne than most anybody. An early misunderstanding of a feat (epic cleave, or something like that, from some D&D supplement) had her killing most all the bad guys for a while.

The players all liked the game. Almost all of them were very new to role playing games, and were enchanted by the very concept. They invited their friends, who I welcomed with a "more the merrier" attitude. This seemed fun at first, but after a while, there were definitely far too many players. On a big day, we'd have something like sixteen player characters all on one quest. This meant that a lot of characters didn't get to do much, encounters were massive and obscenely slow, and there were almost always a couple of characters who couldn't concentrate, or who didn't really enjoy themselves, but just came for the sake of a friend. Skyla Hoogaboom and Jim Ross of the original party left the game during this period, and soon the party was unrecognizable.

Meanwhile, in game, the party had reached act two. They had established themselves as good fighters, and no longer had to worry about being disbanded if someone higher up than the mayor of New Whitechapel found out about them. They were often called to help out with tasks required by the remaining Trueborn (non-affected) population of London. This act started out with a mysterious event involving the death of Dorian Grey, and the organized sabotage of all London's trains, and culminated in the introduction of the campaign's Big Bad, a mutant called The Nutcracker, with massive jaws and an always-be-prepared combat philosophy. The Nutcracker attempted to capture the PCs and turn them into Affected in his secret catacomb base in Rome, but his untested device ended up waking the dead instead, causing the Crusaders to rise up and crusade against everything living.

Forced to retreat, The Nutcracker permanently hired an underling named Mr. Buttspittle to antagonize the PCs. Mr Buttspittle was a beetle-like creature, who commanded a lot of exotic fighting forces including mutant cowboys, mutant Africans, and mutant Chinese.

This period saw the addition of tons of new PCs. Some of the best of them being the following:

  • Alfonzo Fernandez: A Mexican Nukeromancer. Nukeromancers are basically really powerful wizards who risk being mutated if they use too many powerful spells. Alfonzo became sort of the archetypal Nukeromancer, with a great interest in cultic matters, a disregard for his own health and safety, and an anarchist outlook on life. His mind was nearly gone by the end of the campaign, and he was mutated beyond recognition.
  • Count Bennet Leumas: Bennet existed earlier in the campaign as an alternate character for the same player who played Romeo Scrabs. He decided he was more interested in Bennet at this point, and Romeo made only a few cameo appearances. Bennet was a Persuasionary, a class with mind powers, and was also a serial killer in his off-hours. He always seemed eerily cheerful, and enjoyed controlling those around them in what seemed like a mental game of cat-and-mouse where he was always the cat.
  • Sir Peter Bedford: Bedford was an Anglican (basically a Cleric), with strong ties to the church. In Apocalyptus, Anglicanism is a really inconsistent religion, where no two Anglicans can agree on anything. Bedford believed mostly in sex, and went around barely clad, attempting to woo women. He got tired of this after a while, and picked up an anarchist streak out of nowhere.
As you can see, the prominent characters in act two were a lot darker than those in act one. There were a lot of other characters at this point that just never went anywhere, mostly because they were lost in the crowd.

In act three, the numbers started dying down, and the players who stayed weren't the players who had been there before. Count Bennet and Alfonzo were the only major characters who really carried over from act two, and a few of the background characters from earlier got more of a chance to shine.

The plotline here was that The Nutcracker was forcing all the more powerful Affected in London to unite under him or die. It was looking like the Affected would be more organized than they had ever been, and would be prepared to launch an offensive that Trueborn numbers couldn't equal. New Whitechapel was overtaken while the PCs were away, and The Nutcracker turned it into a base of operations. Colin Aldridge stepped down from his position as mayor, because he didn't trust anyone, and gave the PCs their orders in a more covert manner.

Aldridge's plan was to find allies to fight on the Trueborn side of the coming conflict, so that they would not be overwhelmed by the numbers of the Affected. The PCs traveled far and wide, enlisting the aid of the Lilliputians, Dr. Moreau's beast-men, some Morlocks displaced in time by an unnamed time traveler, a legion of ghosts, the creations of Frankenstein, and some newly-minted clockwork men. Along the way, they were relentlessly pursued by Mr. Buttspittle, who they finally killed in a haunted underground chamber beneath the impact site of one of the nuclear weapons that had contributed to the world's backstory.

Act three culminated in a final conflict with The Nutcracker, who had built a sort of Big-Ben transforming robot with a weapon that could disable the antigravity devices employed by most of the Trueborn cities, causing widespread cataclysm. The players had to find Jules Verne's steam-powered elephant in order to fight it. Things looked bleak, as all the Trueborn flying cities had crashed to the ground, and the Affected seemed poised for victory. But at the darkest hour, the undead Crusaders appeared, having crossed the English Channel, and waged war against Affected and Trueborn alike. The Trueborn were mostly able to hide while the brutish Affected fought them to the death, and thus the city was saved.

Meanwhile, the PCs had a climactic battle with The Nutcracker inside a giant underground Tesla coil. There were cameo appearances here from all the retired PCs, as well as Colin Aldridge himself, who lent a hand when enemy numbers seemed overwhelming. The Nutcracker himself was kind of a pushover, having banked a little too hard on a poison gas that the PCs survived without much trouble.

Important characters in this phase included:

  • Chen Law: A Dragoon (fighter) built for devastating hand-to-hand combat. He loved killing, and loved partying. All in all, a sort of typical fighter.
  • Harry: A curious Morlock scoundrel (think rogue without the sneak attack, and with some bizarre skill-based abilities). Harry was always getting into trouble, and causing headaches for the rest of the party. He specialized in hiding.
  • Glitch: Another scoundrel, specializing in climbing. Really, a very typical rogue type of character. She loved pickpocketing and did so whenever possible.

The movement here was toward less colorful, more combat oriented characters, which was probably induced by the rising threat posed by the villains. I made the mistake of not keeping up-to-date on players' character sheets, so they constantly caught me off guard with abilities that I was not ready for them to have. This is why The Nutcracker, and most of the other bosses were such pushovers. I also had to deal with a huge unbalance in party power. Chen Law attended faithfully, and never tried branching off into an alternate character (which a lot of the others did), meaning that he collected more experience points than anyone else. He was also the only player who really went out of the way to optimize his character, while everybody else had just picked options that looked fun. This meant that in order to challenge him slightly, I had to use enemies that were a deadly threat to everyone else, and required me to level everyone up alongside him, and ban some abilities.

Afterward, I held a short epilogue session, where the characters got to tell what their characters did after the campaign was over.

  • If you've got a high turnover rate of players, don't try to base plot elements on individual PCs. This bit me a bunch of times. If my entire group turns over, it's better to end the campaign fast and start a new one than to try to tie up loose ends that the new players don't even know about.
  • Have your players create their characters as a group, and pay careful attention to party roles. At every point during my campaign, I had at least two PCs of the same class with virtually the same builds. Two melee dragoons. Two persuasionaries. Two climbing scoundrels. Two Steam Mages who didn't know what to do with their class. Two Nukeromancers, one loved by all, one ignored by all. Two Anglicans (Actually, two healers can be a good thing.)
  • Don't leave the door open to any and all new players at all times. If you always say yes, you'll get too many players, and some of them will have to leave. Murphy's law mandates that the ones who leave will be the ones you liked best.
  • If a boss is supposed to be powerful, then don't have him pull punches all the time. Use all of his abilities.
  • Always keep careful track of character sheets, or you'll get blindsided.
  • Don't try to force the players to play in a style they don't like. I tried to give my third-act players puzzles to solve, and enemies to outwit, but invariably, brute force was employed as a way around the problem.
  • On the other hand, if rushing into combat always works, don't expect your players to ever try anything else.
  • If the players have very different goals in playing the game, but they all want to keep playing, it may be necessary to appoint one of the most level-headed players as party leader, and allow him to exercise discipline on disobedient PCs. There is nothing more frustrating for a group of roleplayers and tacticians to plan for forty-five minutes, only to see a real-man fighter get bored, and run headlong into combat, ruining all their plans.

Why am I making this blog?

I guess I am making this blog because I want to organize my thoughts, and then record some adventures when I have some.

I have been a dungeon master for about two years now, and it has been mostly a good experience. I recently finished my first big campaign, and I'm going to start a new one soon. Maybe it will even be a smaller one.

I still feel a bit wet behind the ears, and probably won't have a lot of fantastic insights for you.

My current experience thus far consists almost entirely of homebrew games and settings. I've barely played regular dungeons and dragons, and I'm not sure if I've ever played any other published games. So my perspective here will be pretty different from that of a dungeon master who has played D&D his whole life, or who buys up new rulebooks whenever he can get his hands on them.

What games will I be talking about?

Apocalyptus - A homebrew D20 game with its own complete set of classes. The setting is a post-apocalyptic alternate Victorian history. Basically, a nuclear explosion from the future caused some campy things to happen, and now most of the Earth's population consists of terrifying mutants. There are a lot of crossovers with literature, and a lot of historical in-jokes, and a lot of steampunk stuff. I am playtesting this game, and am actively influencing the direction of the rules.

Casinos and Criminals - A project of my own. I wanted to play a game where players are criminals who pull dramatic cinematic heists, and I was not able to find any existing systems that fit how I wanted to do it. I'm now making my own system to do just that. Casinos and Criminals will be a very specialized system which focuses entirely on pulling heists, and isn't concerned with the PC's lives between casinos and banks. Players must plan for hours, and gather tons of information in order to pull off their jobs without a hitch. Early playtesting has been pretty positive, with the big payoff to a big plan proving extremely rewarding.

I will try to keep this blog updated with the goings-on, so that you can read about them.