On the worktable

Lest you think that all I’ve been doing in rambling on about D&D…


April Worktable

April Worktable

From left to right, you have two corners from the Gothic Arena, the front of a Gothic Church, the main part of my Zombie Bunker, and the back of the Demon Shrine.  I should just pick one project and finish it, rather than try to do four at once.


My Campaign in 25 Words

Over at The Grand Tapestry she has this meme about being able to describe your campaign in 25 words.  For my formative fantasy campaign, I came up with the following:

An unknown frontier filled with unexplored ruins, savage tribes, blasphemous shrines, cunning traps, fabulous treasure, and a sinister world-shattering conspiracy but no heroes

except you.

That’ll go good on a flyer.

A brief glimpse into a thought process

I’ve begun to really avoid gaming forums lately, mostly because I can find myself having wasted a good hour of my life with little gained but a stomach full of “nerdrage.”  Moreover, I’ve rarely seen a place that offered a fair and balanced critique of the different editions of D&D that didn’t quickly degenerate into something less.  RPGForum?  4E is the beloved.  TheRPGsite?  4E (or FATE) is emblematic of what’s wrong in the RPG universe.  And don’t even get me started on the disputes between people over which is their favorite retro-clone.  That has all the feel of “which is better, this store brand of diet cola or that store brand of diet cola?”  It’s mostly the same syrup and carbonated water, and costs about the same.

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A great article about those rascally Editions

A while back I wrote about how I thought 4E was really a different game entirely rather than an expansion on earlier editions.  A lot of this was based on things like starting abilities and the vast number of classes and races available.  But in browsing the RPG blogosphere I came across this.

It’s a great article but I’ll give my own synopsis. Essentially the writer makes the case that the underlying motivation for characters have shifted from the classic “I’m in it to get rich and powerful by killing things and taking their stuff” (leading one commentator to remark that D&D characters appear to be sociopaths) to a model of “I’m a superhero in a fantasy realm.”  First-level PC’s can wield a variety of magical abilities and superhero-FX stunts like slamming the ground really hard to make everyone fall down.

But here’s the 4E genre disconnect.  In 4E you still need to kill things and take their stuff.  In fact, it is a critical part of the game engine.  To put it plainly: the game designers presume that it is normative that PC’s will pick up magical weapons. armor, and other paraphenalia regularly if not in every gamign session and have scaled “Encounter Levels” accordingly.  So the game isn’t really “Fantasy Superheroes” but more “Fantasy Superheroic Muggers.”  Batman defeats Captain Cold, and then straps Captain Cold’s freeze gun onto his utility belt.  It’s that conflation about avarice and heroism that sort of blurs the line.

See, which I think that the generic dungeon-crawl genre is heroic, it has that King Solomon’s Mines or perhaps more appropriately Conan feel to it.  Most D&D campaigns have the median alignment (in reality or on paper) of “Neutral Good”: vaguely altuistic self-interest.

All of this is a rambing way of me processing as I bounce around trying to figure out which edition I want to use next.  As I think about 4E encounters, I’m thinking more and more like I did when I was GMing Champions  (archvillain, principal henchmen, flunkies) and less like I normally do when I’m putting together dungeon scenarioes.  Actually, the team-on-team tactics of 4E remind a lot more of Champions than 4E.  Defender becomes “brick”, Striker becomes “blaster”, controller becomes “psionicist”, etc.

And I’m really wondering if that is what I want scratching my RPG itch, or if I’d rather go with the pulp-level exploration of earlier editions instead.

A quiet week

A little too quiet, if you ask me.  Or rather, all quiet on the hobby front.  Right now I’m working very slowly on a new 40K piece that I’m calling the “zombie bunker.”  It’s not gothic like my friend wanted, but its free and he can’t complain.

I’m also finally getting my act together about putting some real D&D stuff on paper, but in the process have short-circuited by Gothica modular dungeon set because I think the rooms are too small.  I’m thinking more about doing the whole “dungeon tiles” thing with some corners and other accessories that can be moved around to suit how I want that particular room to look.  Should have some trial pics up soon, right after I cast a bazillion gothic floor tiles.  Sigh.

Sandbox Campaigns: the third rule

I’ll freely admit I’m building these rules based more on what I’ve read on other’s people sites and my own previous experiences running failed quasi-sandboxes than actually running a right one, but one element of a sandbox is distinctly to allow the PC’s to choose the direction of the campaign, and that means doing a lot of work in advance.

In The Legacy of the Dragon (or whatever my mini-epic C&C campaign was called) I did the exact opposite.  I laid out what appears to be a sandbox environment: a major city and three “dungeons” that were three ruined castles (which I called “caers” after Forgotten Realms).   The caers were practically lined up like stops on a railway line, with the PC’s going to one, then the next, then the last after that.  I thought it would be helpful because my gaming group was relatively new, and taking away these decisions would make things easier.  Moreover the plot, my plot, would slowly grow to its climax as clues were uncovered in each dungeon.

Instead, the campaign got woefully predictable.  I realized at one point that I literally knew what I would be gaming for the next six months to a year in advance.  And the climax was impressive, but I found myself telling the story at the end like I was reading out of a book to my kids at bedtime.  The player’s weren’t engaged as participants, just viewers.  To make matters worse, the novice players just learned by “roleplaying games” meant being led around by the nose.  It would be literally a year or more of gaming to break them of that.

So, in order to do it right, you do need a few venues mapped out, but scatter them around, leave plenty of rumors, and let the players figure out where they want to go.  The means having the work front-end loaded, but then you can continue to add on new venues in advance, always keeping a few areas in play.

Sandbox Campaigns: the first two rules

After banging around a few RPG-related websites, especially Ars Ludi, I got a pretty good idea about how Sandbox campaigns are supposed to work, and how my inadvertent sandbox campaign (The Dragon’s Legacy) had some rough edges to it that ultimately didn’t shape up like I thought they would.

First, the basic concept is a safe indoors, and a scary outdoors.  Or to put it another way, the “home base” should be relatively drama/conflict/encounter free, while the outside should be chock-full of danger.  The arch-typical model is the D&D classic module The Keep on the Borderlands, where the Keep is detailed, but not really where the PC’s adventure.  In my proto-Sandbox campaign, I tried actually having stories going on in the city, stories that never really took off and really seemed to be more of a distraction.

Second, the PC’s should be the only heroes.  Nobody is going to defend Law and Goodness, kill monsters, and take their stuff except for them.  This has been always a bit of a confusing bit of narrative for campaigns set in pre-made campaign worlds with loads of uber-powerful NPC’s that were probably PC’s in the playtesting era.   Why don’t they, with their inexhaustible magical power and weaponry, deal with the problems of the world instead of Joe PC Cleric?  Or at a minimum, supply the PC’s with handy magical items or let them freely copy from their spellbooks?  I’m not making this up–all questions asked in my previous campaign which was loaded with powerful NPC’s.

Again, looking at The Keep on the Borderlands, the NPC ruler of the keep was fairly passive regarding the Caves of Chaos, really.  In fact, his only real goal was apparently to maintain the security of the keep.  He’s also aloof enough to not put with panhandling PC’s.  As I mentioned, this does appear to be the best modus operandi for a sandbox campaign.  The trouble for me, then, is how do I do my own sandbox campaign that isn’t just a retread of KotB?  How do I not just have have another walled city with a fairly vanilla NPC leader (and loads of literally faceless NPC henchmen).  If I were to have the community led by a powerful wizard or cleric, I start to run into that “Daddy Warbucks” scenario where the PC’s will figure that he or she will be good for a few civic-minded raise deads.  I can’t imagine a “safe” community being led by a thief, and an elderly halfling being in charge of town will probably smack a bit too much of Bilbo Baggins.

I’ve considered ditching “PC” classes altogether and going with something more akin to “noble” or “sage.”  He’s got money and political organization, but little in the way of practical abilities.  One wouldn’t expect a prosperous wine merchant to have lots of +1 swords lying about, but you could believe that he would hire a sizable squad of soldiers to protect his community.
For my, let’s call it “theoretical” sandbox campaign, I would choose as the inspiration for my main base my former hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota.  It’s located at the juncture of three different kinds of environments: the mountainous Black Hills (which feature both mines and seedy gambling towns like Deadwood), the prairie with its little homestead farms, and the “hell with the fire blown out” Badlands.  Local areas have names like “Buzzard’s Roost,” “Gobbler Knob,” and “Crystal Mountain” and if you wander far enough west you’ll hit the stone column featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Rapid City’s own history is of a railroad town who serviced communities like Lead and Deadwood (which used to be much larger before the mines gave out).  I don’t know what the fantasy equivalent of “train” would be, but some sort of roadside oasis of civilization seems fairly plausible.