Investigating new dark avenues

I’ve set out upon a new mission, to better myself as a gamer. I’m trying to learn a different way to play and run games. Investigative horror (IH). Course, it’s not completely new to me! Cthulhu has been a constant presence in the hobby ever since I began in the Thatcher era. And there’s been large elements of both the I and the H in most gaming in the intervening years. For example, pretty much every Warhammer Fantasy session ever.

Yet in recent years I’ve happily wrapped myself up in the cosy blanket of D&D, which I loved every minute of. Some of that was a reaction to the dark and edgy years in the hobby, but mostly it was because it was enormous fun and I had a group that responded to its tropes very well indeed. Now, as my standard group evolves, and I’m (dare I say it) more mature in my gaming outlook, I’d like to see what I’m missing out on. And I must be! It seems that pretty much everyone I know is into supernatural/conspiracy/investigation/gritty/thriller/horror/dystopia/post apocalypse stuff. You can’t move for it across all media.

So I’ve decided to dip a toe back in the (stagnant, amoebic) water. Here’s my plan. I’m rereading a bunch of Gumshoe stuff. Specifically Nights Black Agents (the espionage stuff keeps my cinematic head in the game) and for Trail, I’ve got Eternal Lies to see how adventures might be constructed. I’ve got Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff on heavy rotation on the iPod (and let’s face it, IH is really almost all they talk about). I’ve even signed up for a Delta Green game kicking off this weekend! And I’ve been soliciting advice from pals on the fora.

Point of all this? Well, I might try to get a game going. Which one I don’t know, and with whom I don’t know. I will cross that moonlit bridge with flickering flashlight in trembling hand later.

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Nature as Inspiration

Gaming has taught me a lot. Or, it’s at least pointed me to things that have taught me a lot! Medieval law, town planning, martial arts, ciphers and codes, warfare and conspiracies are just the most obvious of the subjects I now know far too much about. One of the things I like to do is pick up inspiration from less obvious places, like nature documentaries.

What I like about three is that nature tends to extend in time both ways. It’s likely to be similar in the past, even he distant past, and if we’re lucky it might even be recognisable in the future. Which makes it a fantastic backdrop for gaming settings, and one at usually gets short shrift in comparison to wandering monsters and other genre intrusions.

As I type BBC2 is showing a programme about the Monsoon. In the first ten minutes there’s been a couple of excellent pieces. The first, a swarm of 80 000 green budgerigars filling the air and swooping down to drink. In amongst them, some birds of prey picking up their lunch from the stragglers. It was a beautiful sight and would grace any gaming scene.

Second, a wild pig on a beach hunting for food. It comes across a hermit crab, sucks it up its snout, and then spits it out as it can’t get through the shell. Take that scene and scale it up to a massive beast and a lone paladin in plate armour. No initiative rolls or hit points needed, just a colourful little scene that brings some of the setting vividly to life.

Turns out that Earth is the best of all possible sourcebooks. So keep a notebook handy next time you have the tv on in the background.

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How my dungeon lost its zip

I’m running a few good people through a pretty standard published dungeon in my weekly online game. It’s a fantastic game! The guys are brilliant players, and for two hours per week we laugh, we cry, we taste defeat and glory together. There’s nothing wrong with the setting, the system or the people. It’s ace.

And then I listened to received wisdom, gave my npc their own agenda, and played it out.

Previously, the party had been semi stealthy, as parties are, and had managed to kill the evil wizards familiar pretty much by reflex. They didn’t know it was the wizard’s familiar, still don’t in fact, and closed the door and moved off in another direction. A couple of rests later and they decide to track back to the wizard’s part of the dungeon. I decided that the wizard would now know the party were abroad, that they were well armed, albeit clumsy. He knows his guards must have been defeated. He has a potion of invisibility. So I had him make his escape while they were resting.

Which meant that for this week the party spent the entire session exploring hastily vacated chambers with no foes, and little loot. There were occasional clues left behind, but no danger. There was little left to interact with and because of that the session felt much flatter than usual, anti climactic even. I caved in the end and left a dog in a locked cupboard. That gave them something to interact with and have to make decisions about (note: goblins will get disposed of without a second thought. A big shaggy tame dog? Another story)

Now, clearly this won’t be the last they see of the wizard. I’ll continue with his agenda and we should get into a nice revenge scene, possibly with hostages, quite soon. In fact, I can see a much better story unfolding as a result of this in the future. Nevertheless, for today, the dungeon was dull, and that ain’t good. If I’d left everything in place with the bad guys patiently waiting in their numbered chambers, then yes, it would have been unrealistic, but it would have gotten the pulse moving!

Thoughts?

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D&D is dead

I’m writing up an adventure for December’s Dragonmeet, and I’m taking the opportunity to try something a bit out of the norm. I’m running D&D, clearly, but not as I usually would. For starters, I’m likely to use the Fate Accelerated rules for it. Just because, I want to attract a different set of expectations from the player pool, and Fate promotes a more narrative experience.

The big change is in the situation. I’m starting with all the characters being recently deceased. They’ll all be coming to grips with the fact that their previous lives of killing things and taking their stuff is over. To be replaced with… What exactly?

At this point I’m sticking to the notion of the Astral Sea and the Divine Dominions as set out in various pieces of the D&D canon, but with various twists. I’ve got a few ideas for conflicts already, like Devil Soul Reapers, Astral Tourists, and Ghost Hunters. I won’t spoil any more at this point. Suffice to say, I’m looking for the big climax to be a decision on whether or not to return to the material world, via spell or something else, or to go on to the final reward, whatever that may be.

I’m also nicking the idea of death marks from Wraith. You can see the way you met your end physically manifested in your appearance. If you drowned, you’re constantly wet and dripping. If you were beheaded, then yes, you carry your head under your arm. I’ve had a top time dreaming up 101 ways to meet your end in D&D. It’s looking like a fantastic random table too.

As for characters, I’m doing them as 5e characters first, running them up a few levels and then killing them off. Then I’m transferring them across to Fate, in feel at least, leaving a couple of gaps for the players to fill in during play. Great fun.

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13th Age adventure on paper

Did some printing work on my 13th Age adventure environment today. Just to see how it looked in hard copy. Pleased with how it came out, and it’s been very instructive from a format and layout point of view. I need to work on those! Still, it looks pretty cool as a chap-book. Pics below!

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Murder in Baldurs Gate: the adventure review

Once inside all the packaging, you’ve two ways to go: the campaign/city guide, or the adventure. I went straight for the adventure.

Here’s the scoop, it’s a gem. It’s not perfect, and won’t suit every group, but it’s really quite special indeed.

You get a lot of adventure for your money. This is 32pp in a two column magazine type format, but with very little art, no stats and no maps. That puts a lot of word count in the book, and it’s well written stuff too. No stats?! Don’t worry. This adventure has been written as edition neutral, and the foes are statted out in full online for free, where you get the choice of 3.5, 4 or 5th edition. No maps? Well, not at a tactical level anyway. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Hold on.

Here’s how the thing is structured. Spoilers a go go. The city is home to the last two inheritors of the divinity of the god of murder, Bhaal. In a highlander type move, there can be only one. And then he gets knacked by our heroes, the party. Hurrah! The city is saved, but not for long. That spark of murder is now on the loose and is looking for a chosen one. Bhaal gets busy manipulating and influencing, driving the city to destruction. Unless the party intervenes.

The plot is based around three main NPCs and their agendas. Each faction approaches the party, asking for their help and allegiance. It’s a free choice, and the party could go with two, but will almost certainly not be able to pick all three. As the plot goes on, they could do what they like about this set up. They could stay loyal, they could set them against each other, forge alliances afresh, whatever.

Then the adventure lays out 10 stages to the unfolding plot. These are events, written from multiple angles, mirroring the factions. They are presented as if the party don’t disrupt things, though of course they will. They’re not set in stone at all. They can flex in timing, location and in content to react to the parties influence. Each stage results in a behind the scenes winner, and the scores get totalled up by the DM so that the Finale showcases the ‘winning’ faction, which by that stage could include the party itself.

The stages escalate. They start off with fairly run of the mill little errands and missions, though none of them dull. None of the factions are ‘good guys’ though, and before long the stages turn darker and more morally complex. The catalyst for this turn in the events is the influence of Bhaal as he sets everyone to increasingly murderous intent. Now, given the predilection of adventurers to using fatal violence as the default solution to their issues, it might not be obvious at which point they’ve crossed the line to being baddies, but it will happen. That time will come, and every group will deal with it differently. Personally, I can’t wait to see the discussion at my table. This is not just kick in the door and grab the loot. This is sophisticated gaming.

In fact, there’s startlingly little direct combat here, and no catacombs to explore or items to lift. There’s stealth, guile, intimidation, politicking, negotiation, diplomacy, bribery, robbery and everything else you can imagine. The city is the only location (more on that when I’ve read that book) and the whole thing is wide open for exploration, and crucially, change.

The finale is one that isn’t inevitable, but highly probable, and it’s one that will leave an indelible stamp on the city, and the characters too. It’s a great ending, and it think it will prove enormously satisfying to conclude for the players and the DM who will have negotiated this very memorable mini campaign.

It’s a difficult adventure though. The DM has to be very agile, and able to build encounters from slim materials with probably little notice. The players will have to be clever, work well as a team, and plan their approaches carefully. They’ll also have to pick up on subtlety. There’s loads to do, and it can go wrong quite easily. City adventures are notoriously hard to run, and this one’s no different. The biggest potential pitfall is letting the NPCs drive all the agendas leaving the party mere observers. There are some scenes where that’s more likely than not, so care will need to be taken. Proactive parties will flourish.

The tone is striking too. It’s very low on fantasy. There’s not a spell named in the whole thing, and it seems very human and real, almost medieval despite the fantasy naming. It’s set for levels 1-3, but that’s by the by. I think this feels more like levels 5-8, just because of the stakes, not the monster roster. As I read through it, and knowing very little about Baldurs Gate as a setting, it reminded me of Middenheim from Warhammer. I also thought it could be transplanted into modern day or a sci fi setting very easily indeed. It feels very HBO.

I really like this adventure. Yes, it will take work to build into something but the potential is there for a spectacular experience. Usually I get grumpy if a paid for product doesn’t do enough heavy lifting, but in this case, you’re buying a huge amount of sheer plot. As a work of imagination it’s big, big enough to make you want to schedule your first session so you can start seeing your players faces as the story unfolds.

Highly recommended.

Next: the city guide. Icing on the cake? Or cheap padding?

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Murder in Baldurs Gate: reviewed

I’m going to take you back. Back to the interregnum. The time last year when 4e was being wound down, and the playtest for 5e was underway. It was a big transition for D&D, one that continues today. It was also a time when the D&D fan didn’t really know what to look for on the shelves. WotC experimented a bit, and this is one of those offerings.

It’s an adventure, for levels 1-3, and it’s set in Baldurs Gate in the Forgotten Realms. Now, I’m a real novice when it comes to all things Realmsian, but I’m led to believe that Baldurs Gate has a lot of traction in the wider hobby, what with those new fangled computer game things. This adventure is subtitled as being part of an ‘event’ called The Sundering. Not sure what that is, but like comics, it’s safe to assume there’s always some meta plot going on in the background, probably to allow for crossovers, into novels etc. so that’s fine. The intro says it’s set in the years following 1479, when the gods designate mortals to be their Chosen with a capital C.

It’s written by Ed Greenwood (Realms creator), Steve Winter (TSR alumni) and Matt Sernett (who I last saw writing for 4e) so there’s a spread of talent right there. Steve Winter ended up at Kobold Press who delivered the less than stellar Hoard of the Dragon Queen for 5e. Hmmm.

A word on format. The adventure itself is a 32pp magazine style offering. It’s accompanied by a 64pp city/campaign guide, and the whole shebang comes wrapped in a custom 4 panel, landscape, DMs screen, plus paper sleeve. I love that. It reminds me of the old school 1e adventures that came with the card covers that doubled as screens. Photos of all this below.

Plot wise, this is a murder story, and not a dungeon or hex crawl. It’s designed to be one where the DM is forced to improv along the way, and pursue factional agendas which the characters interact with throughout. It’s flagged up as experiential rather than a straight down the line mission. I’m down with all that, because it’s laid out early so there’s no surprises. Even the stats will need a DMs intervention, because this one is written with no edition in mind. The stats for 3.5, 4 and Next are available online to be plugged in. Even the number of foes is malleable. I’m not convinced that 4e especially will be well served by this approach, but we will see.

Ok, I’m excited by this set up, and the materials are enticing. I’ll set to spoilers next time out and let’s see if it lives up to its initial billing. Here are those shots.

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