Archive for May, 2015

Module Playlist as Campaign

May 7, 2015

I talked yesterday about the inputs the DM and players add to the game experience when running a module. I’m writing an adventure now, as we’re playing it, and my players’ antics are going to affect the module. I also come up with weird ideas and make connections I didn’t see before during gameplay. It’s a richer adventure than it would be if I were writing it alone. Is this what it feels like to be part of a writers’ salon? I should find a forum for gaming authors.

This process is exciting because once the module is printed and sent out, other people are going to experience it differently, but they aren’t going to have much impact on how other groups experience it.

That got me thinking about collaborative video games. People playing on a small server are like players in a single gaming group. Individuals might filter out into other groups part-time, some come and go, and others are reliable anchors. But in, for example, a Minecraft server, there is little going on in one server that affects other servers. There is some spread of culture throughout the community, but I believe most of the impact comes from mods. Some mods are minor, but others affect gameplay so much they become the identity of the server.

If you start a new campaign with a module, how much will that module’s themes, events, NPCs, loot, etc. impact the rest of the campaign? Are there really great “module playlists” that result in latter modules being experienced in a very different way than expected?

What if you could get the module author to run the adventure for you?

May 5, 2015

I always felt that book readings by the author are totally not worth it. I’ll read a book with margin notes, but what can the author add by reading his own words? What about watching a movie sitting next to the director? I’m probably wrong and missing out on some serene joy.

It feels like games are different, possibly because they’re so interactive. I could see how it could be fun to play a multiplayer game against or cooperating with the people who made it.

And it feels like D&D is absolutely the opposite. Maybe because I’m looking at things from inside the creative process, and I’m just not experienced in those other media and can’t see it.

But if I write an adventure and run it for my gaming group, and we have a great time, a huge part of that is found nowhere in the written text of the adventure. Let’s say there are some broad categories:

1: Things happen that are directly from the module, and go about how the author expected.
2: Things happen from the module but are dramatically different because of the players and the DM running it. Common in mysteries, most noticeably because the players solve it quickly or miss/ignore clues and get stuck.
3: Things are interjected by the DM that weren’t in the module. Running gags, favorite NPCs, the holy relic is now of the PC Cleric’s god instead of the setting-specific one in the module.
4: Things are interjected by the players. A player may become interested in starting a counterfeiting or cattle business, or build a home in town.
5: Random events mean every playthrough is different. Random table results, encounter outcomes, whether secrets are discovered.

Part of why tabletop gaming is so entertaining is its malleability and the ease of development. That’s why it’s really for the best that outcomes 2-5 are super common. The module author’s task is to write a framework for the adventure, giving enough structure so the DM isn’t constantly scrambling to create things during play, and giving enough interesting things that players can interact with to generate plenty of 2-5. D&D is a jam session.

I love this adventure I’m running. I’m writing it up in a way that’s most useful to me at the table, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t will hopefully make it useful for someone else. We’re essentially playtesting and enriching it as we go.

But what do people want from a module?

Do you want something that’s very complete with strongly interconnected ideas? For example, changing the dwarf temple from the deity I wrote it for wouldn’t work well because there’s history, motivation, treasure, puzzles, and loot all affected by that specific deity’s tenets.

Or do you want a very loose framework, a bland dish to which you will apply your favorite sauces?

Because the latter can be generated readily by computers, I think there’s more human-added value to the former. And maybe people enjoy a module with a strong, consistent identity followed by a few palette-cleansing randos and something written by the “home DM”. I’m certainly not making any judgments! I read a B/X game that was generally just random dungeons and it sounded like it was a lot of fun.

I am inside this. I have pierced my heart and what flows will stain my page, to be sent to the printers. I deeply feel that for me to create something worthwhile I have to create what I want – not what some audience wants. Hopefully there is an audience for whatever I make. I have to make it, regardless. And I think what I’m making is going to be the former of the two extreme types I suggested above.

Multiple Paths and Encounter Balance

May 4, 2015

I’m working on a sandbox adventure: lots of things in it, ways to deal with those things, and paths to travel between them. You could spend a lot of time ignoring the main dungeon or you could go straight to it.

How do you make the game interesting for players whether they encounter the Troll Bridge at level 1 or level 5? Another way someone might phrase that is, how do you balance the encounter and the loot? Here’s my take on this.

1: Not everything will be a combat encounter. If the creature is too tough or weak compared to the PCs it may turn into a chase or parley instead.

2a: If there is a fight: If the PCs are underleveled for the encounter, they will have a hard time with it. It might feel like a boss fight. They may turn away from the area, considering it too difficult right now, or may press ahead and use consumable, nonrenewable resources to overcome the encounter. When they eventually deal with it, they’ll get good XP and loot, perhaps beyond their normal expectations, and that will help boost them up to the level they should be in that area.

2b: If the PCs are overleveled for the fight, they’ll blow through the monsters quickly, get bad XP and loot which won’t change their power level much, and move on through to a higher-level area.

What if the higher level party doesn’t experience the area the same way because it’s too easy? But what if the underleveled party experiences a high level area as more harrowing and exciting than it would be at-level? I think the potential for the latter is worth the risk of the former.

Multiple paths.

Let’s say there’s a main dungeon, and to reach it you can go through a big nasty front door leading to Level 3, or go through an unguarded air vent to Level 1, or a very deadly pit leading all the way down to Level 6. Novice PCs will want to head in through the air vent because Level 3 is too tough for them. But once they’re higher level, even if they haven’t cleared out levels 1 and 2, they might just take the shortcut at the front door to save time and wandering monster rolls.

Now let’s say instead of just a different entrance, you have a pre-dungeon that leads into Level 3 and another that leads into Level 6. The PCs may not realize they lead to the main dungeon yet. When you enter the first pre-dungeon you find Level 1 difficulty, ramping up to Level 3 difficulty by the time you reach the main dungeon and pop into it at Level 3. Seamless! Same with the other pre-dungeon, where you enter at Level 2 difficulty and it ramps up to Level 6 difficulty just before it spills into the main dungeon. A faster increase, and more dangerous because player won’t as easily spot the higher level stuff in the pre-dungeon.

I love this method, and have used it in two adventures now.

In one, I had four 3-level pre-dungeons with a portal in the bottom of each, leading to the main dungeon, which started at difficulty Level 4 and didn’t have any direct connection to the surface. The idea was you could go through any of the four and get to the bottom, and then if you wanted to explore the other three, you could go in from the exterior top entrance as usual, or head across the portal room and enter another dungeon’s Level 3 portal room to get to the hardest part of it immediately. Each pre-dungeon was ruled by a high-level villain, and to protect himself from other villains each would fortify his portal room, making the fight very entertaining for the PCs. The players in my game explored two of the pre-dungeons but never took advantage of the portals to skip the upper levels of the second one, and never set foot into pre-dungeons 3 and 4. They just decided eventually to follow the clues back to the overworld where they gathered things they needed to banish and/or control the boss and reached the end of the adventure.

It worked well, but a party at level 7 or 8 entering a new dungeon and working their way down would have been tedious. Much quicker than a Level 3 party doing it, but it still takes time.

My second adventure using this method is the one I’m working on now. In it, there is a super dangerous and obvious entrance, a secret side entrance that’s actually pretty dangerous too, a pair of side entrances leading to a lower level that nobody will likely find except from the inside (meaning you probably have to reach the level and leave by the side exit to find the entrance), and – this is the important part – two pre-dungeon paths that don’t seem connected to the main dungeon.

I decided it might be cool to have the local awful human racist bandit/adventurer band discover the other pre-dungeon that the PCs don’t find, and explore it at roughly the same rate the players explore theirs. This gives me a reason to have these antagonists present themselves in the main dungeon rather than just being a camp in the woods and an entry on the random wilderness encounter lists.

Will the PCs fight them, considering them claimjumpers and unwilling to share loot that might be found in the dungeon? Will the PCs (some non-human in this case) overcome their revusion at the bandits’ attitudes and work together? Will they partition the dungeon somehow and try to avoid each other? And regardless of their political decision, what happens when they encounter each other in the dark, desperate corridors when one party of another may be injured or loaded with loot?

But you all may have an opinion on whether this is just annoying. Does it feel like having the NPCs explore the dungeon too is just taking away adventure opportunities from the players? Nobody wants to feel like someone else is eating his sandwich. But maybe this is a good spur to get them excited to get into the dungeon?

What do you think?

You don’t have time to build up to something great

May 1, 2015

Let’s get down to our roots.

“You’ve got your equipment, worked out your marching order. Your party traveled through the swamps following the ancient crumbling road. You’ve made your way to the ruined moathouse. Its open gates yawn open before you, great planks shattered by some forgotten siege, now covered in moss.”

The next thing that happens needs to be the best thing you can think of. Don’t hold that idea back for use later in the dungeon, or in some other campaign. Trust me, you’ll have other ideas. Maybe better ones. What you can not afford is to have a mostly empty ground floor with some bandits who don’t know about the snake living in the corner.

Let’s say you game every Saturday for a few hours, every single week of the year. You could play through the old school modules in a couple years. Mix in the One Page Dungeon contest winners and you’ve got at least another couple years. By then you probably have a bunch of adventure ideas of your own, maybe a big campaign idea. Assuming no gaps in gaming, and that you’re one of those lifelong gamers, and you don’t play other games, I could hand you enough free resources to run games for a decade. The stuff I write, I’ll probably never get a chance to use all of it. Not to say it’s all good, but I sure like it.

This embarrassment of riches demands discretion. You have only so much life to live, only so many rolls of that d20, so every lame battle with some kobolds in a field means one less fight with a fire-eating Kool-Aid Man who took over a dual-phase wizard’s mansion.

Next game session, use up the best idea you have right away. I think you’ll find it refreshing.