Thursday, February 27, 2014

After the After: One Campaign Ends, Another Begins

What happens after the end of a campaign? I’m usually torn between walking away or playing out the epilogue stories. The former leaves imaginative space at the cost of closure. The latter runs the risk of drawing out the narrative or undercutting the final scenes. I’ve seen that happen both ways. My friend Dave ran a multi-year fantasy campaign that ended with one of the PCs torn out of time and witnessing the events of the future. It worked and remains among my favorite final sessions. On the other hand, I’ve played  campaigns where the GM imposed a postscript on the story which destroyed what we’d done, made players choices look foolish, or showed the PCs making character-violating decisions. Generally I’ve tried to err on the side of not saying what happens. I want the players to imagine those tales for themselves.

That’s easiest in a game without a sequel. If you run many campaigns in the same world you have to work around that. You want to build on those past events. Direct follow ups raise the question of what former PCs are doing- the “why don’t we just call Superman?” problem. It becomes a easier with some kind of gap- year or decades. The GM can move the world forward, while still keeping some connection to the previous campaign. Legacy heroes and characters can appear. Plus you have the added advantage of being able to integrate the former PCs into the timeline and history. That’s a powerful reward for many. I used to manage a lengthy timeline- annotated and updated. The players loved being immortalized there. 

Most of the time I used small, generational shifts forward. They don’t require that much rewriting, the leave room for new plots, and maintain coherence. But I’ve also used larger jumps. We’d been playing our shared fantasy world for sixteen campaigns and nearly as many years. Multiple GMs ran in the setting across three different game-world continents. Then we had a break and reorganization of players. When we came back I jumped everything forward almost three centuries. That allowed me to make some drastic changes, show the fallout of certain choices, and introduce proto-steampunk technology to the setting. I don’t think everything worked with that shift, but it did generate two long-term campaigns (one lasting three years and the other seven years).

That seven-year campaign wrapped in December. It will be at least another year before I’ll want to return to that setting. At that point I’ll have to decide how I want to shift time forward: just a few years? a generation? a century? perhaps I ought to do a campaign set in the past? We’ve talked about using Microscope to fill in that gap of time. I’m torn- on the one hand I want player participation, on the other it is a world I’ve managed for almost thirty years. The group I’m playing with knows it almost as well as I do. I’ll have to consider what I gain and what I lose from that approach.

After the campaign ended I tried something new. Usually when I return to work on the next game I have to re-read my notes. I desperately try to piece together what happened in the last sessions. I’ll usually have a decent write-up of that, but less on the broader world and problems. This time I sat down a week after the game and inventoried open plot points. Some of these arose from the climax and some simply happened and hadn’t fully resolved. I’m hoping they’ll help when I prep the next game. You can see my list below as an example. It probably won’t mean much, but you can see how I structured things and how minimal I kept my questions. I suspect other GMs do this as a regular technique, but it is the first time I'd tried this immediately after a campaign wrap. 
  1. What permanent change(s) did the Ardoran Terrat affect? How much affected the Elvish homeland and how much elsewhere?
  2. Which Elves left and which remained behind? How many and what kinds of fragmented Elvish peoples remain?
  3. What’s the status of the Ardorans? Did the Patron banish them all or were some spared? What about Morgandine and his expedition to the planes to rescue some of the Ardorans?
  4. What will be the fallout from the appearance of the World Forest? Did it remain? Did it vanish? How does that affect the climate?
  5. What’s happened to the Shaddai? Has the rulership wheel shifted? Has the Orb been lost or restored? What about the three renegade houses and the Pyramid?
  6. What happened with Atlantae and the Vampires?
  7. What about the Dwarves now that the situation seems to have shifted with the Undead?
  8. What’s the aftermath of The Chaining and the Mage Wars? How extensive was that? Were the staff of Libri Vidicos able to stop that before it got out of hand?
  9. What’s the role, power, and form of the five new Elemental Dragons?
  10. Do the cracks to the other world remain in the Dry Plains? Did something bleed or fall through from or to there?
  11. Are the barriers between the continents still in lpace?
  12. Are new powers in control in the Wild Lands? Who is in charge there?
  13. How does Caldumaran succession resolve? Are the two crowns still united?
  14. Does Aoniae return? Is there a new Aoniae?
  15. Will there be more contact with Khinsai or does it remain isolated?
  16. What are the repercussions of the events on the spirit plane within Rhaglai? What’s going on with the ancestor possessors there?
  17. Do the Nithians hidden away still have power or some form of restraint?
  18. What’s the status of Libri Vidicos now that it has been exposed?
  19. Likewise, what’s the status of Codici Malefactus?
  20. What are the roles of the ring bearers in this new era?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Kingdoms of Ars Magica

On the G+ Kingdom group, Ivan Vaghi posted about Ars Magica-like seeds for the game. I’ve written a little bit about how I would use Kingdom for Changeling the Lost or Legend of the Five Rings. Ben Robbins mentioned a couple of APs (I think) that have done something like that. He suggested that the “Winterhook's School for Wayward Wizards” in the book could be customized for it. I’ve had a chance to play Kingdom three times now and each time I’m left wanting to play more. I’ll try to write up my experiences with it in the future. You can see the video sessions for two of those- The Daily Sentinel and Battleship Orion here.

Ars Magica, IMHO, is the grand-daddy of community game. Certainly early D&D had some rules for that and establishing characters as lords as they rose in level. But Ars really created tools that others have borrowed from. It’s also a great game to look at to see how changes in editions have really shifted the tone of the game. The second edition sourcebooks remain some of my favorite fantasy books, but they look weirdly anime in places.

I suspect doing an Ars Magica/Kingdom game requires a shift of focus. In Ars Magica, despite the troupe play and Covenant structure, you can still have characters with a strong sense of individualism. You might have a reluctant PC who hopes to leave for another covenant or realm. In Kingdom, the characters have to be tied with some finality to the Kingdom and balance its survival with their own needs. You’d also want, I think, a pretty diverse cast of characters, though I imagine an all-Magus Kingdom game would be funny for their potential distance from the populace. Finally, I think you’d want a decent-size covenant to allow for plenty of power shifts and tensions.

So here’s a potential Ars Magica Kingdom Seed. It assumes knowledge of the setting- and leaves things pretty open. I think you could modify it to work with any Tribunal, tailoring it to the issues of that region. Sourcebooks for Covenants like Mistridge or Covenants might also be useful references. I’m also putting up a version of this as a Google doc in case anyone wants to play with it or save a copy for themselves.

Our covenant is [In the first blush of Spring/ Well-seasoned and at the apex of Summer/ Showing its age and entering the long Autumn/ In the darkness of Winter and hoping for a rebirth).

We’re located within the [Select Region] Tribunal. Note: you can see here for a full list of the Tribunals. These impact the kinds of threats and flavor of the game. Players may wish to optionally further define location, based on their experience and knowledge.
Our covenant is [Dedicated and focused in our service to House (choose a house)/ Mixed but loosely under the auspices and authority of House (choose a house)/ Independent and without primary allegiance to any House. ]

Our covenant is [modestly sized and tightly packed/ of goodly size with some room to expand/ large and sweeping]. It is located in [a faraway area in the middle of (a forest; a faerie forest; a valley; a desert; on an island; a lake or river; a swamp; on a mountain)/ closer to civilization and with an interesting feature (pick from previous list; in the dominion of farmers; underground; well hidden)/ in a city]. We [rely on concealment to keep us safe/ have some magical established protections/ have modest physical barriers to secure us/ live in a fortification or fortress].

The surrounding community [is unaware of our presence/ has heard rumors of our existence/ knows and fears us/ works with us quietly/ remains hostile/ has a ruler who has struck bargains with us].

In some ways this will depend on the Tribunal and Location. But I think some general threats can be come up with a developed- perhaps also a list of one or two tied to particular areas.
  • Flamen agitation for power or control.
  • A plague sweeping through the region.
  • Angered faeries seeking revenge.
  • Depletion of the locale vis resources.
  • Famine gripping the countryside.
  • Impending foreign invasion.
  • Rival Covenant or House seeking control.
  • Breakdown of the facilities.
  • Discord among the Turb.
  • Church Inquisition and Influence.
  • Local Banditry.
  • Apprentices practicing restricted arts.
  • Twilight-struck senior mages.
  • Refugee mages from a fallen Covenant.
  • Diabolists practicing in the area.
  • Depletion of Covenant Resources.
  • Increasing demands from the Tribunal.
  • Liege lord asks for more gifts or wealth.
  • Merchant contacts threatened.
  • Haunted or Cursed Sections.

  • The central well or fountain
  • The high tower of the Senior Magi
  • The hall of the concillium
  • Nearby haunted ruins
  • A sacred glade
  • The kitchens
  • The Grog’s quarters
  • The apprentice’s chambers
  • The certamen field
  • The stable.
  • The entry hall
  • The dungeons
  • The rampart.
  • The dining hall
  • The library
  • The storehouse

Magi are an obvious choice, shaped by their House and training. But there’s some real pleasure to play out the other competing interests of the Covenant.
  • Popular Apprentice who Leads Others
  • Captain of the Guard
  • Experienced and Lame Bard who Makes This His Home
  • Foreign Scholar
  • Steward of the Household
  • Custos to a Senior Magi close to Twilight
  • Excitable Flamen Who Demands Action
  • Grizzled Veteran Sergeant
  • Persecuted Physker
  • Ambitious Craftsman
  • Worldly Mage Diplomat
  • Keeper of the Artifacts
  • Gifted Huntsman

  • Sell artifacts and relics to pay for food.
  • Reduce/increase the number of grogs.
  • Intervene in local civil war.
  • Fight back against faerie incursions.
  • Exploit the resources of a nearby sacred site.
  • Give in to the demands of the Tribunal.
  • Take in refugees from another Covenant.
  • Hand over Custos who committed a serious crime against locals.
  • Shelter a falsely accused witch.
  • Accede to the liege lord’s demands.
  • Spend resources to reinforce the walls.
  • Seek out new trade contacts.
  • Offer food to famine-struck communities.
  • Utilize the haunted/cursed section/resources of the Covenant.
  • Actively hunt for diabolists.
  • Remove a crazed senior magus 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

February Break

Just a brief update- I'll be taking the next few weeks off from blogging, except for PLOT posts. I have a few series I want to get ahead of before spinning them out, my birthday month, and three campaigns I want to get ship-shape and running smoothly. As a side note, I've been trying to more accurately track my gaming this year. You can see what I've been able to play via this geeklist. I've found that a useful tool- it has given me better perspective on how much play time I've actually getting, what I have in the queue, and how I ought to schedule my time. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Unlicensed "Licensed" RPGs: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 25

About a brief holiday break we return for “Year Two” of the Play on Target podcast. This week we look at games which really aren’t a particular licensed property (we swear, I mean it just looks like that and you shouldn’t sue us…). We find a surprising number of games offering popular settings with the serial numbers filed off. We also have several points where we get particularly stupid and those listening at home may find yourselves shouting out answers we’re unable to come up with during the recording. I’m sure we forgot a number of these pseudo-simulation games; feel free to mention them in the comments.

The delay for ‘season two’ came from technical shifts and problems. Last year Skype opted to remove support and functionality for third-party applications (as I understand it). That meant we had to find another recording set up. As you’ll be able to tell from this episode, this is among the first we did using the new program (Mumble for anyone interested in the details). In the show you’ll hear we’re still getting things settled with the microphone sensitivity. That’s more than a little trial and error for us. More notably you’ll catch some overtalking and precognitive commentary towards the end of the show. We’re still playing around with multichannel editing, especially since we had to pair that with fixing some of the problems from our bad mic set-up. Bear with us, we’ll be getting that in order soon enough.

I should also mention the nice support we’ve gotten for the podcast in the first year. We had a number of great comments and suggestions. If you have ideas for future episodes you’d like to hear, please send them on. We had the great fortune of being nominated for Best RPG Podcast this year in the Golden Geeks. You can see the nomination and voting list here. Users came up with an amazing roll call of RPG Podcasts there; I’d recommend most for anyone hunting for something new. You can vote if you’re an RPGGeek, BGG, VGG supporter in good standing.

This episode links to our previous one about licensed settings. I still think the best settings are those with plenty of imaginative space. Harry Potter does that for me. I can imagine other stories and plots within that world. Perhaps a campaign covering gumshoe Aurors who have to hunt down the last remnants of Voldemort’s forces. Despite the victory, their numbers have been decimated and the pall of the recent battles still hangs over these enforcers. Paranoia, uncertainty, PTSD, mixed with hope for a better future. Or a historical game of the early days of Hogwarts. Or what an American school for magic looks like. On the other hand, Dune doesn’t appeal to me as a game (sorry Brian). I can’t really imagine playing out stories there. I’ve read the first six books and enjoyed them, but it felt static to me. The universe doesn’t seem to have real room or interesting spaces to insert a group of PCs. I know it does and I’m sure a good GM would make that come alive for me. But it doesn’t spark stories that I want to tell.

As an interesting case, there’s Dave Duncan’s King’s Blades series. I dig the setting and the ideas. The Blades themselves are swordsmen bonded to a particular person. This grants them strength and a danger sense regarding their charge. I love the concept and the magic system of balances which Duncan presents in the stories. However most of the tension and drama comes from the relation between a Blade and their Charge. Sometimes they get bonded to someone awful- and they have to obey their orders. That’s a compulsion I can’t imagine players being particularly down with- except perhaps in a one shot. You could skip that set up, but then you lose some of the essential nature of the setting. I don’t see it being particularly workable for a long-term campaign.

I love figuring out homebrews for existing concepts and settings. I done that with Watchmen, GI Joe, L5R, Changeling, and others. That’s a challenge worth doing because it forces you to drill down and figure out what actually makes a setting tick. What grabs you about it? Is about the tone? Is it about the places? Is it about the magic or some other cosmological principle? In the episode mention Adventure Time as an rpg setting I’d like to see presented. Part of that comes from wanting even more sourcebook-style materials. What would an AT style game look like? It would have to have a measure of weirdness- with flexible and odd powers available to the characters. So doing a list of feats or advantages, ala Pathfinder probably wouldn’t work. It would need to be something open like Fate’s approach. On the other hand, combat needs to be interesting, stunt-filled, but still have a measure of crunch. The characters take hits, suffer damage, get worn out, and even lose. Characters often go on dungeon-delves, hex-crawls, and extended and taxing quests. So there needs to be some detail and resource management. How do I build a game that echoes the things that I love about the world of Ood?

One question would be how much I need to rely on the mechanics to carry the tone- and how much simply comes from the players knowing the setting. When I went to run my homebrew Star Wars game, I relied heavily on the players' knowledge of the setting and the conventions. I simply elaborated on that for the backdrop. I kept the system simple. When they built characters they each chose an archetype. I had advantages, flaws, and benefits suited to those kinds of things (Gambler’s Luck, Droid, Weird Alien, Knack with Machines, Head in the Stars), but only a page's worth. The pilot got an additional set of choices, a list of possible ship upgrades. Finally for the Jedi I created a relatively light set of power rules and encouraged them to develop in different directions. I left a good deal out: weapons, lists of species, elaborate space combat rules, methods to fully balance the Jedi to the PCs. The campaign worked in great part because I emphasized and played up the genre elements. I got the mechanics out of the way.

Consider another perennial licensed product: Lord of the Rings. That’s an odd setting to work with for a number of reasons. You play LotR game to participate in and interact with Middle Earth. It doesn’t work as a version with the serial numbers filed off (see The Sword of Shannara for that). Or actually it works too well because it has so influenced D&D and most other fantasy games. So a good Middle Earth game rests on detail: history, peoples, sights, and sounds. Forget vague atmosphere, it draws on specifics. System matters a little, in that players know what characters in the setting ought to be capable of. They know about Dwarven heartiness or the legendary skills of the Rangers of the North. If you get something basic wrong (like MERP’s problematic handling of magic), it can undercut everything else. If I went to put together a Middle Earth homebrew I’d either go completely open (like hacking Fate Accelerated) or I’d go in the opposite direction and spend some months getting all of the details right. 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check out Play on Target. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Friday, February 7, 2014

Rookhaven: Hour and a Half Map

Another in an incidental series of truly terrible maps I threw together for my sessions. Note my layered insanity this time. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Fandom Stranger: What Are You a Fan For?

Assassin’s Creed betrayed my friend Kenny. When the series first came out, he loved it. He went for maximum completion, read through the lore, and picked up novels and secondary materials. He held onto the excitement of that fandom all the way up through Assassin’s Creed III. He threw that game across the room- hating the horrific changes made to core gameplay and controls. The series was dead to him. He skipped completely on IV, not wanting to waste more money.

This weekend when I asked him if he’d played Assassin’s Creed II: Liberation. That game had originally come out on the PS Vita and just been released on the bigger consoles. Kenny had- quickly buying playing through and finishing it. He enjoyed it and that was a mixed blessing. It reminded him what he liked about the series and at the same time what had been lost. It’s too bad. For a long time Kenny was the Assassin’s Creed guy in our group; like Steve’s our Star Trek & Godzilla guy; Dave’s our Fallout expert; Alan knows Lord of the Rings, and Scott’s does anime and Everquest. We some other shared fandoms—I’d consider Ward and Kenny our two Star Wars and Halo guys. I count my wife Sherri as one of the Morrowind obsessives.

In fact I can rely on every several sessions someone picking up Morrowind again and talking about what they’ve been doing…despite years since it came out. Then the table moves to several minutes discussing new quests or characters they’ve seen, glitches which caught them, or how a chunk of the world seems lifted from Glorantha. It doesn’t mean all that much to me- I didn’t care for any of the games in the series. I tried them, but didn’t enjoy them. I’m the Fandom Stranger there. On the other hand, I’m also at the margins when it comes to some other popular stuff. I like Star Trek and Star Wars, but I don’t love them. I don’t dig into them. But I admire the fascination others have for these settings- and I love the lore they bring to the table when discussing them.

So I’ve been trying to figure out what I’d actually call myself “fannish” for. My tastes have changed over the years- I've dropped some things I used to adore. For example, I once seriously followed DC Comics and knew the lore, but not so much anymore. Below is a short list of things I go fanboy for. The definition's loose. These are things I try to watch, read and/or own everything I can related to them. I’ve scoured online pages for additional info. I've hunted down secondary books and resources. I’m completionist about them and still invested. I forgive these things for their faults, make excuses when they’re weak, and stupidly feel slighted when others don’t like them.

Inspector Lewis: I love British Police procedurals, or actually any foreign police procedural. But this series hits on all the notes I enjoy- great character dynamics, good plots, the value of the hard-working copper over the inspired savant. Some of the seasons are weaker than others, but I love them and I’ve rewatched many.
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited: This is my favorite of the Bruce Timm helmed DC Animations. I love the characters, especially their take on Hawkwoman. I’ve always enjoyed superhero team books and JLU just confirms that. The tone’s great- a solid mix of serious and cartoony. The season arcs feel satisfying. You also feel the impact of the late, great Dwayne McDuffie’s work on the show. I’ve watched this series through several times. I also held on to the comic book adaptations- several of which were quite good. I will note that I didn’t buy the toys…
Adventure Time: Not having TV, I have to fall back to watching these on DVD as they come out. I’ve also bought the comic book collections, the Fiona and Cake book, the Scream Queens volume, and AT Encyclopedia. And I follow the sub-Reddit. I don’t quite know why I like it so much. Some people I respect for their opinions think it is stupid…but man it makes me happy every time I watch and rewatch it.

As I said, I used to be a bigger fan. I like a lot of Grant Morrison and bought many of his oddball series (like The Invisibles, Doom Patrol, Seven Soldiers, and Seaguy). But I never felt like I needed to buy everything he wrote. The same with Alan Moore- though when he was on Swamp Thing I religiously hunted down every issue. I went through phases with The Defenders, The Question, and a few others, but nothing that stuck.

Gotham Central: This is the exception. I bought the floppy back issues, the collected editions, and then the reprinted collected complete editions on nicer paper. I love the stories and the way they consider humanity in a world of super-beings. If I ever run a police game, it will be like this.

I have some authors I follow pretty heavily- PD James, Steven Brust, Tanith Lee, and Dave Duncan. I like reading their stuff and when I want to buy a new book, I turn to them first. But then I have a set of authors I try to have everything by. Three of them have passed, so it isn’t as hard: Jo Clayton, Philip K. Dick, and Clark Ashton Smith. I’ve read biographies, done research, and bought special eidtions where I find them.

For living authors, I only have two. Howard Waldrop’s alt-history and spec-fic remains awesome. I love it even when it goes off in places outside my wheelhouse. Lindsey Davis’ mysteries and stories set in Ancient Rome engage me- and they’ve gotten better over time.

I love many games, but like so many gamers only a fraction of what I buy actually gets played. And that’s before the relentless steamroller of the Bundle of Holding. I have two lines I own everything for but have never even done up characters: Castle Falkenstein and Mage: The Sorcerers’ Crusade. I might be able to get the first one to the table, but the second seems doubtful. I have three game lines that I’ve tried to buy everything for and have actually played: Mutants & Masterminds 2e; Legend of the Five Rings (across all editions); and Changeling the Lost. The latter two I’ve never done with the actual system- only with homebrews.

There used to be others- Rolemaster, Champions, and GURPS, but each fell out of favor with me over time and I stopped collecting. Many I didn’t replace when I lost copies
I don’t think I have any series I’m absolutely consistent with following. I have some I’ve bought or watch a bunch from, but few I can claim any fan-expertise for. Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki would be the closest. I’ve read some books about their work and have bought special editions of their films. The next closest might be Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I’m still not sure what I think of his work, but I feel compelled to watch everything by time.

On my wife’s list for would Elder Scrolls (mentioned above); Harvest Moon; the Atelier/Mana Khemia series, and Animal Crossing. Those we have to buy when they come out. 

I have three series of games I buy religiously so long as they’re not RTS, Shooter, or App-based. Even then, I’ll take a long hard look at them. I’ve read the background on these series and followed the fiction. Final Fantasy’s an obvious choice- though I came to it by way of Final Fantasy Tactics. I’ve played all the later games and enjoyed them…making me something of an apologist for many of them. I have fun playing even when I know they’re junk. I also buy anything for Shin Megami Tensei, sometimes when I know I won’t be any good at it. For example, I knew Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army would require twitch reflexes, but I still picked it up. I bought a PSP just to play some of the SMT games. Last but not least is the SSX snow-boarding and racing series. I’ve bought all of them, even the crappy Wii one with the worst controls ever. I played the new one and had some fun out of it. Yet even as I ran down the slope I knew it would bomb and we’d probably never see another game for this franchise again. The suffering of the fanboy...perhaps an online petition?

So what’s your fandom? What are you obsessional about? What are you obsessional about that others in your group aren't?