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.