Taking 5e to the Con circuit

Just back from a weekends gaming at the Seven Hills Convention in Sheffield. A top Con in its second year now, that attracts the old guard of UK Con-goers (with a smattering of new blood too) who are all about the games with a side order of shopping thrown in.
My choice this year was to offer up a trilogy of 5e sessions, with recurring characters pitched at levels 3, 7 and 11, in a setting based on this years Con theme; Steel.
I’d prepped the games a good couple of months ago, yet still felt a bit underprepared on the way up. I know my way round 5e pretty well, but still felt the need to haul up the PHB and the MM just in case. The DMG didn’t make the cut, needed to watch the sheer weight of what I’d have to carry round all weekend.

Over the three sessions, with 16 different characters, and 11 different players I really learned a great deal about the game, and more importantly, how to best present it at a Con. The players were uniformly excellent, and up for the game. They did have a few minor struggles along the way, but I think I now know how to avoid those speed bumps in the future.
Lesson One: Better Character Sheets
The default WotC sheet is ok, and I’d grappled a lot of the rules onto the PDFs to hopefully make things easier for fresh players to grok. But they’re still very black and white with no real effort to teach the game from them. They’re fine for weekly play, but not for a demo. And even for players with some knowledge, it’s is a demo at a con because they didn’t hand rear that character up from level one. Back in the 4e days there were some beautiful one shot sheets released (I remember some amazing Dark Sun ones) and I wish I’d done something similar. Especially for the fighter manoeuvres, the rogues sneak attack rules, and everything to do with spell casting.
Lesson Two: More Effective Characters
I’d generated 18 characters based off little more than my own preferences and an eye on ease of use. I still put too much on there. The characters had more special abilities than were ever going to see table time in a three to four hour slot. Some of this is purely down to 5e; it’s still not that basic a game. I don’t really want to go right back to OSR rules sets, as I too often experience players looking lost as there are few solid options presented on the sheets. Yet, too many, or too fiddly, and they don’t see play either. Cantrips saw most use, and none of the magic items really got any spotlight.
Lesson Three: Polish the Scenario
I used the 4e adventure Reavers of Harkenwold as the spine of my adventure, heavily re skinned. I was pleased with how it went overall, but I wish I’d put more decision points in for the party, and more local connections so that the players had a chance to riff on there Bonds, Ideals, Flaws and Traits. I should have made more obvious connections to those in my setting.
Lesson Four: Detail the Encounters
I went for Theatre of the Mind, with the occasional sketch map for combats. Big mistake. I lost count of how often I was asked about ranges, and positions. The spells required a bit more focus on the map than my sketches allowed for too. I did need to travel light but I really wish I had dropped my tokens and dry wipes into the bag. 
Also, the encounter building guidelines in the DMG are ok, but no more than that, and the stat blocks in the MM are ok, but no more than that. I really should have planned out a few more encounters in more detail than I did. I got by with the MM on my lap, but prep would have been better.

Lesson Five: Manage the Spells Better
I knew it would happen, but wrangling the spells in 5e is hard work for me and the newbie players. You really need a PHB open, and referring to books in Con play is quite wasteful. If you’re a Divine caster, your options are so broad at higher levels that you wouldn’t know where to start. And the arcane classes are not much better off with their little sub systems and rider effects. My job as DM is no easier with monster abilities often keying off those spells too. So I need a cheat sheet, and frankly, a tactical list to be remotely effective. All this would come in time and practice, but that’s not for Cons.
Now don’t get me wrong, it was overall a really great experience, and I’m reliably informed the players dug it too. I just found it a bit more challenging than I would have liked, so am trying to get down a few ideas while they’re fresh.
So for next time, I think I won’t generate so many different characters. I’d rather recycle the first batch, or maybe allow for the players to level them up themselves. I’m also going to make for a broader fantasy experience with more time devoted to exploration and interaction, and characters who can enjoy those activities. I’m also going with better local maps, and with prepped up monster challenges.
Which makes my choice of rules really difficult and interesting! The OSR is too basic for my preferences I’m afraid (because I don’t think I’d get enough players sign up either; 5e was a draw based on its novelty as much as anything). 4e is too labour intensive with the physical demands of the sheer kit I’d have to carry. So, my current thinking is to use 13th Age as a nice blend of narrative and crunch. I’d still want to draw on all the lessons outlined above, but it might be the ‘just right’ Con Fantasy game for my needs.

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Firing up my recommendation engine

This podcast has more interesting facts per square inch than its possible to count. And it’s funny too. It’s called No Such Thing As A Fish.


It’s brought to us by the once behind the scenes guys at QI. You get all the cool interesting stuff sans Fry, the scoring, the props, Davies, and the sat down stand ups. Which leaves nothing but pure cool.

It’s like Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, but possibly even more applicable to gaming (in a round about kind of way, honestly). In fact, I’d love to hear Messrs Laws and Hite opinions on it. Either it’s all bunkum, or it’s sixteen new scenario ideas in 30 minutes.

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Fate Accelerated Edition Reviewed

I really enjoyed FAE. I look at it as being one of very few successful attempts at making a modern introductory role playing game. Best of all, it isn’t written in a way that’s shackled to the past or even to the long held assumptions of what an RPG is. As an entry product it’s got a load of very obvious draws. First, it’s small, running at under 50 pages. Second the price reflects that, with a Pay What You Want on pdf, or £3.99 for a hard copy (with a really luxuriant feel to it. Seriously, it feels like suede or something). Third, its actually written to the young adult audience, without being patronising, nor so childish as to put off the older reader. When you look around at other books in the wider hobby, all of those things in one package are remarkably rare.

My trouble is, I can’t pretend I’m a beginner anymore. Nor can I unread the reams of Fate material I’ve purchased in the past (in a few cases I really wish I could). That makes it difficult to be objective. No matter though, because the really clever thing about FAE is that it stands up as a game for veterans, both of Fate and the hobby in general.

But back to the novice gamer. I love that the influences and touchpoints are bang up to date. It mentions teenage wizards in it’s opening line. And animation. And the Hobbit, crucially, as a film. That’s the sort of thinking that pervades the whole book. It’s like they got a flip chart out and actually thought about this stuff, rather than the standard boilerplate that most games staple into their rules. I also love the concision. The incredibly effective layout helps, with each section completley filling it’s page count, with no wasted words. To the vet gamer, it might comes across as terse, or missing parts, but actually, I think what it’s doing is trusting the (nascent) gamer to fill in the blanks, either with their imagaination, or by talking it out at the table. I approve. Mightily.

This is unapologeticaly a game for telling stories with. It says so. In 42 more pages it confidently delivers on that promise. Yes, it starts with character generation, wrapped up in four pages, including the ‘aspects’ thing that has generated so many tortured words since I first saw them in Spirit of the Century. The innovation (to Fate at least) is Approaches which make my jaded old heart soar with delight. Where other games use abilities to measure what you do (trad) or why you do it (Indie), FAE decides that it’s how you do things that really matters. This gaming tech cannot help but add description to a players statements, which when layered with aspects (phrases of cool) and stunts (more words, written to be said out loud) make the FAE play experience completely about the colour, the plot and the story. It’s clever, and focussed as heck.

The rest of the engine is wonderfully explained I think. Like any book, it would help to have a vet on hand to show you how it all fits together, rather than the book telling you, but it’s a very strong effort. I haven’t had the benefit yet of seeing a complete novice pick this up and have a go on their own, but I can’t imagine them struggling too much. Certainly they would be better off than with most beginner offerings. Bear in mind, the system is very very forgiving. There really is no wrong answer in the rules (what can irk me as a dyed in the wool gamist is that there are very few defined right answers either!) and the sense is that the table should just move along with the story and not fret about it.

By page 35 the GM gets a go. Four pages, which cover a lot of ground, from mechanical encounter weighting to world building advice, with (yes) examples. It’s a masterpiece of concision. Speaking of examples, you then get four characters all done out with a cool picture (ah, the art, yeah it’s all by one artist, and it’s a perfectly pitched modern cartoon style. Again, I’d bet good money this was debated and project managed by a really strong team). The examples being a black male teen fantasy monk, a female swashbuckling ships captain, an Asian female high school wizard, and a female pulp gadgeteer. Diverse, cool, and a better introduction to four campaigns that many books manage in 300 pages.

The book ends with a reference sheet, an index and a character sheet that just works.

Now, it might well be that my prior Fate knowledge has helped my understanding, but I don’t think so. If anything, this book has cleared up a lot of the messy thinking that I inherited from the occasionally clumsy explanations in it’s predecessors. When I get stuck with Fate, I get the answer from FAE. Yes, Core is there, muddying the waters, and there’s a lot to love about that, but as with the old Basic/Advanced set up of AD&D, perhaps the years have shown me that simple doesn’t have to mean simplistic.

The only things about the this I think could have been done better? I’d love to see it in a box, with dice, character sheets, tokens, and some scenario sheets. And lose the Accelerated tag. Just call it Fate.

And that’s it. It’s easily the most concise and elegant complete game I’ve seen in decades. If I really had to grab a single book to take to my desert island, this might well be it. It’s quite quite brilliant.

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Station Eleven book review

I sometimes pick up books pretty much on a whim. I like the cover, or the heft, or the genre, or I’m just in a particular frame of mind that somehow the book syncs with. Which is how I ended up taking a chance on Station Eleven. And I’m so glad I did.

It’s about a world where an apocalyptic flu strain hits, wiping out 99% of the population in a matter of days. At least, that’s the big event that the story hinges around. It’s actually a story that has a lot of layers to it, seeded with a cast of characters all of which have interlocking stories of their own. It’s not particularly a post apocalyptic book, not in the by now traditional sense. It’s set just as much in the pre apocalyptic world with events from one side mirroring events in the other. The narrative flick flacks across the days and decades, from character to character, but it never becomes confusing or opaque. The author has such control, and a lightness of touch, that reading this book has been effortless. 
The central conceit at first appears to be a travelling caravan of actors and musicians in the new world that are trying to bring Shakespeare to the scattered settlements of the North American continent. Borders no longer exist. This caravan is called The Symphony and it moves the people and the plot through the novel. But, as much as the book isn’t about the apocalypse, it’s not really about the Bard either. It’s about a great many things and I can’t really decide which is most prominent. It could be nostalgia, or regret, or family, or art, or technology. It’s probably all of them.
What really caught my attention was the efficiency of the writing. Nothing in the narrative is wasted. Every little conversation, relationship, or item is linked back to another point in the story, usually from a completely different angle. The titular Staton Eleven is a location in a comic book within the world, but it’s creator and the physical journey of the comic book both run through the entire book like veins of precious metal through rock.
I also enjoyed the spaces left by the author. When the detail zooms in, it really immerses the reader. But equally there are areas of the world and its cast of characters where you’re left with questions, and that’s fine, because your imagination then helps power the rest of the reading experience.
Lastly, the structure of the story was a surprise and not at all unpleasant. Chapters are distinctly non uniform in length or format. Some are records of interviews, some are no more than a paragraph. Some are more like a discreet short story of a whole lifetime. In lesser hands this could have come over as authorial self indulgence. It never does that. It just keeps you alert, and always turning the next page.
I wasn’t expecting anything when I picked this up, and it absolutely delighted me. When I read it again, and I will, I have no doubt that delight will continue. I think there are still lots of connections for me to unlock, and it’s a world I want to spend more time in. I loved this book, and recommend it without hesitation.

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Idly leafing through the Monster Manual and I find myself looking at the entry for Hobgoblins. I wouldn’t normally bother after five editions of largely the same old lore, but I’ve been looking for something a bit martial for my baddies in an upcoming con game. I’m only going to nick the stat blocks, but I did like the illustration, and the succinct text got me wondering.

I think I could write a scenario like this: you play a squad of Hobgoblins. You’re part of a Horde that is laying siege to somewhere (probably a city full of goodies, you know, adventurers and the like). You’re the crew of a siege tower. The adventure is event based, and it’s all about the build up to the final assault on the city walls.

The key here is not to get into the battle as such, it’s more about the life of the soldier in the trenches, in the hours before he inevitably gets cleaved like the low level humanoid he is.

I’d play up the military stuff, with a nod to Blackadder Goes Forth. Not so much the humour, but let’s face it, goblins are likely to be present and they’re always a catalyst to cheap laughs. More the pointless bureaucracy, and the futile orders. Events off the top of my head include:

Rivalry with the ballista crew
Inspection from the top Warlord
Ration hunting run
Prisoner of War guard duty
Supervising goblin sappers digging latrines
Sabotage, in either direction
Paladins sally forth
Secure that Bugbear!
Organised chanting
The priesthood show up
Shove the siege tower forward
Stabbed in the back (field promotion)
Reclaim that fallen body (and its loot)
Raise the banners
Over the top

Now, flesh out half a dozen PCs, a similar number of NPCs, scribble out a battle line, and note down a few rules, and you’ve got yourself an adventure. Hmmm.


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Going Mad for a Spell

In the ever growing lists of things that can go and do one, I add spells for pre gen characters in D&D. I’ve spent blooming hours putting 15 characters onto form fillable pdfs for an upcoming con, and I left the pigging druid til last. Why? Because they get to prepare from the whole list of available spells. Which means I have the following options as a friendly DM for the empty handed but eager player:

Hand them the Players Handbook. Good luck with that, the spells are all arranged alphabetically.

Give them a cheat sheet, that I’ll have to type by hand.

Scan all the relevant bits out of the PHB and construct a mini spellbook.

Stump up for the card deck on sale from Gale Force 9

Scrap the druid, and write it up as a nature cleric instead, meaning I can copy/paste from the Basic pdf.

Any way I look at it, it’s work. My fault for doing Druids at levels 3, 7 and 11. I have Sorcerers and Rangers too, but heir lists are much more manageable..

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RPG Book Club

I’ve started an RPG Book Club over at UK Roleplayers. It’s like regular book clubs in that each month we pick a book that we all commit to reading, hopefully playing, and then we come back to discuss it on the forum.

See here http://www.ukroleplayers.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=18672

There’s a few takers already, which is heartening. Feel free to join in. The first pick is Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE for short) which is readily available at Pay What You Want.

We start the chat first week of April. After that, who knows? Could be Phoenix Command, could be Lasers & Feelings, could be Dragon Warriors. It’s up to Club membership which is a browser click to join. See you there.

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