Old World, New Players

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  I’ve been running D&D in the same game world since 1980.  I’m proud of my maps (Thank you, John Hesselberg and Thom Thetford).  I’m proud of the history that has gone into making Rillmorn what it is today, both the stuff my Players did in-game and what I did in building background.  I am proud of it all, even the parts where it didn’t work or where I acted poorly, but that is a whole lot of stuff and me Players can get overwhelmed with it.  It becomes even harder when you have established players alongside newbies.  How does one do it?  How does a Game Master share the depth and grandeur of his or her world and not scare new Players away?

Are my new Players already gamers or are they true Babes in the Gaming Woods?  If they are already gamers and they have played my favorite game system before, then I start small.  (This is based on the idea of starting a new campaign, not bringing new Players into an existing and ongoing game.)  I don’t drop them into Spellguard with all of its complex politics and vast number of detailed NPCs.  I start them off in a small town on the edge of “The Action.”  I give them the very basics about Rilmorn and go from there.  In my most recent campaign Duvamil (it is based around the riverside town of Duvamil), I started my PCs into a few decades old village founded by gnomish refugees from Terah, another world.  They have seen the big map of the area and have been told that Rillmorn has 2 suns, 3 moons, 9 day weeks, 26 hour days, and 38 day months.  They know Bazarene the Moving City (effectively an aircraft carrier on a hovercraft) and the Walking Wood (a nomadic tree city of forest giants) cross paths in Duvamil.  That’s it.  Everything else, they are leaning as we play.

Christina, my wife, knows a bit more about the area, since her dragonborn ranger Surana was with E3 when they explored the Tower of Spells.  What she knows will be used more as legends than anything else, since the previous campaign’s actions should have little to no effect on the current game.  Nicki, my daughter, has played a bit in Rillmorn, but not enough to have deep knowledge of the world.  Finally, JR, Nicki’s friend, has never played in one of my games before, but has played a little bit of D&D 3.5.  So, everything I drop into this game can be brand new information to the Players, as well as, the PCs.

If I had true newbies, I’d have to decide if I was going to hand them the Player’s Handbook or the Player’s D&D Basic Rules that I downloaded off the web.  I’d most likely go with the web download.  It has 4 basic options and 4 basic classes, the essence, if you will, of D&D. However, his review says 5E is really a good fit for new players.  Also, if I had true newbies, I would put them in a more traditional D&D setting…maybe something like the Keep on the Borderlands.

My true problem is that I have so much that I want to reveal to my Players:  the secrets and history of the Tower of Spells, the various hidden cities and enclaves about Duvamil, and all of the stuff that I swiped from Monte Cook and other 3E sources and seeded around this area of Rilmorn.  Alas, I can’t; not yet.  Some of this may be revealed in game play, but I don’t know yet if it will.  I have to focus my creative energies on building solid plots and interesting NPCs that advance the stories for these PCs.  What has gone before is the bedrock on which I can build, but unless the Players and PCs dig, I may be the only one to ever know it and that is okay.  Maybe it will come up in a later campaign.

TL:DR New Players in an Old World?  Start small and keep your focus and maybe there will be time enough later for all the big stuff.

Game On!

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Gnomes: The Other Dwarves (or Gregory May Need to Let Go of Old Biases)

Long time Players in my games can tell you, “There are no gnomes on Rilmorn.”  That changes tonight.  Christina, my wife, long bothered by my anti-gnome stance, has convinced me to let her and Nicki, our daughter, play a gnome bard and a gnome druid, respectively.  With their eminent appearance in a Rilmorin campaign, it is time for me to delve into the anti-gnome history of my games.

In the 1500s A.D. the alchemist Paracelsus wrote about Gnomi.  He equated them with the Pygmæi of Greek legend and classified them as earth elementals.  I would not hear about them until 1976 A.D.  In 1976, Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet (illistrator) was published.  It spawned gnotebooks and other such fripperies and they annoyed me.  I was a pretentious junior high school student, who had a rod stuck up my spine.  The inundation of gnome-related items irritated me and by the time I found D&D, gnomes were persona non-grata.

1E gnomes were uninspiring; they didn’t even appear in the size comparison illustration on page 18 of the Player’s Handbook.  They were poor cousins of the dwarves and the writers of 1E knew it.  They decided to give them an upgrade…Tinker Gnomes!  (Loyal Readers may recall how I feel about that – 4th paragraph.)  They were a joke race, even more of a joke than gully dwarves.  This trend was only acerbated by the treatment given to Tinker Gnomes in Spelljammer.  I really loathed gnomes, by this point.

I will only say Gnomes in Warcraft added to my annoyance.

When I ran my doomed Namori Campaign set on the Word of Terah, I allowed a gnome NPC in there.  He was in Quasqueton and my Players thought he was a weird dwarf or a dwarf/halfling mix.

Dungeons and Dragons 3E did little to change my perception of gnomes.  Their change of making gnomes bards, instead of illusionists left me…meh, but I did enjoy Chris Perkins’ joke in the Shackled City Adventure Path about how the illusionist gnomes of Jzadirune caught a magical disease called the Vanishing.  Ebberon’s gnomes seemed okay, but by this point I did not care.

4E gave gnomes a dark backstory and initially pulled them from the ranks of Player Characters.  Yet, when Wizards of the Coast were promoting 4E with some cool animated shorts, the gnome was a joke again.

I never got to run my players through the D&D Next adventure Reclaiming Blingdenstone, but it was set on my game world of Terah and was all about the Deep Gnomes.  It would have been interesting to see how my players would have reacted to gnomes there.

5E seems to have settled for a fairly straight read on the race of gnomes.  Christina and Nicki are not Players who tend to go for slapstick or comic relief characters, so I expect them to play their characters as realistically as possible.  It may give me a new perspective on gnomes and change my feelings about them.

The background I’m working on for these gnomes is the idea that they are a mixed colony of rock gnomes, forest gnomes and deep gnomes from Terah.  They have fled the destruction of their homelands and crossed dimensions to start a new life on Rilmorn.  They live in Featherstone – a tiny, hidden, mining village nestled between the Zagreb River and the once ore-heavy Laudervai Hills near the Village of Duvamil.  Christina has suggested that the focus of the campaign could be on the flutes given to each PC by Christina’s PC’s late grandmother.  I think I can make this work.  This is looking good.

The Games Librarian has a post in response to this post of mine.  Go Enjoy It.  I did. (2014.09.10)

Game On!

The Shadowfell Road

What became the Shadowfell Road campaign or the Tasque Elzeny campaign started as the Scions of Ravenloft campaign.  I had planned it as a story arc campaign with the PCs as residents of the Village of Barovia.  The PCs are all descendants of the heroes that slew Strahd von Zarovich and claimed his castle as their home base.  I used the original 1E modules Castle Ravenloft and Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill and the 3E book Expedition to Castle Ravenloft as the basis for my setting.  I blended the maps and placed the Village of Barovia on the northwest corner of Moytonia.  I lifted places and names from Domains of Dread and A guide to Transylvania to create my own little fantasy version of Eastern Europe.  The PCs were going to explore the world and ultimately learn why their ancestors (grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original heroes) fled their ancestral home.

The PCs saved the River Witch from a pack of wolves.  They cleansed her house of the ghost of her apprentice.  They retrieved an item lost in ruins of Clearmoon Tower and had a run in with a wolfwere that would plague the Party for several levels.  They explored a crypt that lead to the Necroverse.  They saved Baba Zelena (grandmother of one of the PCs ).  All was going well, but the Players grew restless and decided they wanted to be Sanderzani.

The background for Elzeny (my wife’s PC) included the fact that she had been a member of a Sanderzani Tasque (a traveling family group), but she left the Tasque when it came through Barovia, because her destiny lay there.  Well, Christina and my other players became more interested in the idea of being Sanderzani and hitting the road, than the Ravenloft story arc. So, they designed a varda (the Sanderzani version of a Gypsy Vardo) and headed to the next nearest village.

I created the gypsy-styled Sanderzani back in college under 1E rules.  Other than a few reoccurring NPCs, not much came of the Sanderzani until 3E.  I ran a Sanderzani campaign in the late 2000s and had to expound upon the nature of the Rilmorn Gypsies.  I had players that wanted to play different races and since I had just completed an elf-only campaign, I really didn’t want to limit the Players’ choices again.  Thus the Sanderzani became the People of the True Name.

To be a Sanderzan, one had to be “Born to Tasque.”  One had to have three adults within the Tasque willing to share his or her True Name with the Seeker.  Any adult of any race could become a Sanderzan, if they could find three people willing to perform the Ritual of the True Name (an idea I took from Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed) with him or her.  This worked great until 4E.

For 4E, we used the online Character Builder to level and advance the PCs.  The Character Builder doesn’t have the Sanderzani and their soul kin rituals.  The Builder, however, did have the Vistani and the Vistani Heritage feats.  Those feats were tied to blood, not to naming rituals.  So, I had to make a decision about what to do.  I decided that there was a Sanderzani Tasque called Tasque Vistani.  Unlike other Tasqes, Tasque Vistani was a Tasque of Blood, not a Tasque of Word.  Thus the Vistani entered into the mythology and history of Rilmorn.

About the time Tasque Elzeny (each Tasque is named for its first captain) hit the road, I got a copy of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting.  In the back of the book is a section on a road that weaves through the Shadowfell and connects Thay to Evernight (the shadow reflection of Neverwinter) and many places in-between.  I decided to use the Shadowfell Road and link The House on Gryphon Hill to my version of Evernight/Neverwinter.  I got the idea that if Tasque Elzeny could gain the deed to a place and had a member of the Tasque living there, then that place would become a stop on the Shadowfell Road.  Tasque Elzeny could expand the Shadowfell Road as they explored the world.

Since that day, Tasque Elzeny has spent their time extending and defending the Shadowfell Road.  The Players could not care less about Castle Ravenloft.  I find plot hooks at a drop of a hat, now.  They’ve crossed dwarf lords in Dwarmarrik.  They’ve fought vampires in the Garden of Graves.  They’ve parleyed with efreeti in the City of Brass.  They have befriended a lich and created an intelligent zombie to act as guardian of a mausoleum.  They have crafted a dream drug and sell it through their connections to E3 Trading.  It is no longer a true Ravenloft style campaign, but it is a lot of fun.

Game On!

Mea Culpa (or What do I Want in my Game)

On 4 April 2014, I post an entry about why I felt Dice Fudging was bad. It started a heated and acrimonious debate. I feel bad that my post was the sulfur and bat guano that started this fireball. Since that blog post went up the following things have happened:

All of this has led me to reexamine my game and how I run it. I asked myself several questions. Have I ever fudged dice? YES. Did fudging dice ever improve a particular encounter? YES. Did fudging Dice ever worsen an encounter? YES. Was there ever a time that I wished I had fudged dice? YES   Did my players ever know that I fudged dice? PROBABLY. Did my Players ever suspect that I fudged dive? YES. Did that knowledge or suspicion have an effect on my game? YES. Was the effect positive or negative? NEGATIVE.

I lost the trust of my players. They couldn’t never be certain that a lucky series of rolls was just a lucky series of rolls and not a grudge attack? Did Hil get randomly shot at by the drow sniper or was I still mad at him, because he got a wild hair and murdered an NPC on which I had worked too hard. Did the ettin really miss hitting James or did I fudge on his behalf because he is my best friend? Did I randomly roll on the 1E DMG magic items tables and get a +5 Holy Avenger for Christina or did I give it to her because she is my wife? They may have believed that it actually happened the way I said it rolled, but there was always a shadow of doubt.

I am not perfect. I try very hard to be completely fair to my Players, but life gets in the way. Some days, I get mad at a Player. Some days, I feel bad about hurting a particular Player. Some days, I want the background on which I worked so hard to shine. Not always; not even most of the time; but SOMETIMES, I fall down. My Players are smart, educated, empathetic people and they SUSPECT that I fall. Do your Players SUSPECT you of fudging your die rolls? If they do, you may not have their trust in the game. They play your game because they have fun, but they may not believe that you are fair.

Having admitted that I fudge dice and not always for the right reason, I now ask myself, “Gregory, why did you roll the die in the first place? What was the purpose of that die roll that I now want to fudge?”

I am not a slave to my dice nor to the Rules As Written (RAW). I discarded the rolling for Wandering Monsters back in First Edition (1E) AD&D, just as I discarded weapon speed and the one minute combat round. I choose when or if to roll a die to get a randomly determined result. I choose what table to roll against. I choose what monsters the PCs encounter.

What if, when I roll the die, it comes up an undesirable result? Why roll the die, if I am not going to use the result? Am I trying to give the illusion of fairness? Am I trying to shift the blame of my choices to Random Chance? Am I just trying to give my Players the facade of free will; pretending that I am not railroading them along the path of my desire to fulfill the Story Arc that have, so cleverly, devised? The answer to the question of why I rolled the die is this: I rolled the die to place a random element into the game, so that my Players and I could react to the result and create the next element in our shared Story.

I was trying to expound upon 3 reasons why I felt that fudging dice led to a less awesome game. If fudging dice improves the awesome in your game, then fudge. Do whatever makes your game better. I will.

Game On!

The Last Hurrah

E3 is officially retired.

The threat posed by the Giants in the Earth is abated.  Feldspar divides his time between wandering the multiverse, seeking more Trees of Power to link to the Quan, and his Primal Forest home.  Surana has completed the restoration of Castle Timeless and defeated Linden; she now rules as the Chronarch of the Castle.  Belvar has transformed the Black Manor in Quan from a staging area for monsters seeking the destruction of all hominid species to an interdimensional trade moot.   Ghul has returned to the Nine Hells to continue his rise to power in the Infernal Hierarchy.  Aktara,once the Far Realm Breach was closed, found that her patron, Ulban, had stripped her of her Star Pact  powers.  Undaunted, Aktara retires to Arkosia to allow the ancient dragon soul within her to manifest.

The End.

These are the final fates of the Members of E3, but it was not the end of the Giants in the Earth campaign.

The last game began with a bang.  We started the game in the middle of a fight.  I told the players to drop half their hit points, half of their healing surges, and half of their encounter powers.  My brother-in-law and nephew could not make it, but Hil and my daughter Nicki could; so Blackwood (my nephew’s PC) accepted help from the Book of Vile Darkness and he and Vondal were sucked up a vortex that spit out Ghul (Hil’s PC) and Aktara (Nicki’s PC).  They defeat the yochlol and headed on toward the first of “giants” Titan.

It was nice to have Ghul and Aktara back in the party, since they filled out the roster of the original members of E3.  The party made it through three difficult fights and one not as difficult skill challenge and won the day.  We epilogued the big threads still unresolved (Belvar was freed of the Verdis implant and not consumed by his ring Al-Bari.  Surana defeated Linden and merged the Centre of Time and Castle Timeless.  Feldspar traveled to Divlos and Thegnland and connected the trees of the Land beyond the Wind and Azenwrath to the Quan.  E3 Trading Company continued to turn a profit and Spellguard grew into a prosperous city-state.) and ended the campaign.  It was a fun night.

Christina and I got to talking about the campaign and we believe that the campaign may have begun in March or at the latest April of 2009.  It started as a game for Surana, Beryl (my daughter Lisa’s PC), and Aktara in the city of Refuge.  They played three or four sessions before the others arrived.  Lisa dropped out of the game before the rest of the crew that would become infamous as the E3 Trading Company appeared on the scene.  So, I ran this campaign for five years.  It was Christina’s first full campaign.  She had never played a character from newbie adventurer to legendary hero.  Ending the game carried a special weight for her.  I have found a similar weight in my soul.

I write out secrets on index cards for things in my world.  I got this idea from Ray Winnigar’s “Dungeoncraft” articles.  Everything that I create gets a secret that the PCs may or may not find out.  Each time the party finds out a secret, I give them the index card.  After the game, we compared their stack against all undiscovered secrets from previous campaigns, the Tasque Elzeny campaign, and the ones they never learned in this campaign.  Their stack was bigger.  They encountered and learned more about Rilmorin than I have left to reveal at this time.  Wow.

I’ve got more ideas and campaign plans, but building a new campaign seems more daunting in some undefinable way, than it did before and I do not know why.  This is not my first rodeo.  I ran the “War of the Dragons;” I set up and set down the final battles with the Overlord and Babylon.  “Berbalang, Tabok, and the Fairies” ran for a number of years and ended epicly (with two epilogue sessions).  My four 3E campaigns rose and fell in a grand fashion and after each of those I was not heavy in my soul.  What was different about this campaign?

I don’t know what makes this campaign’s end different.  What I do know is that the repercussions from this campaign will echo through many of my games to come.  Castle Timeless, the Quan, and Spellguard are going to be sites to which PCs will adventure.  Aktara will show up as the “Only Tiefling in Arkosia.”  Surana is the Chronarch, she will play the role of Nimsûl and guide PCs to Castle Timeless.  Ghul is a Prince of Hell (or a lich or a Spellscarred Savant) and will surely reappear as gadfly or villain.  Belvar and Feldspar are both dragons and I love throwing in dragons.  The Giants in the Earth will provide hooks and stories for years to come.

Maybe the heaviness at this particular ending comes from what is going on outside game.  One friend is moving away, but will be back for his wedding.  One friend is looking to buy a house with his S.O.  One friend is dealing with a a great and profound grief.  My daughter will be a mother in five months.  Also, this is my last 4E game; from this point forward all games are going to be DnD Next playtest rules.  Are extra-game events making this ending more profound?

I hate leaving this post on a hanging note, but I don’t have any answers.  If any of you out there do, please offer me some ideas.  Until next time, GAME ON!

Two Score Years Ago…

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson brought forth a new way to play make-believe.  It was called Dungeons and Dragons!

Jon Peterson says that the best guess for the release of Dungeon and Dragons is late January and the last Sunday in January 2014 is the day we can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of D&D.  So, I did.  I celebrated the same way I do approximately every 2 weeks; I invited family and friends into my home to play D&D.  My Saturday group (Tasque Elzeny) consists of Christina (my wife), Spencer (my brother-in-law) and Clint (Spencer’s eldest child).  We are playing DnD Next.  My Sunday group (E3 Trading Company) holds my wife, Christina, and friends: James, Hil, and Matt; we are near the end of my Big 4E campaign: Giants in the Earth!  And now, I present to you my view of D&D:

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Tasque Elzeny

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E3 Trading Company

Yes, I still use my 1st Edition DM Screens.

I encountered out a few other people’s experiences with D&D.  Feel free to check out what Monte Cook, Mary Hamilton, Kobold Press, and RPG Geek have to say on the subject.  Like many people on the net, I, too, have gained great friendships through D&D.  I got to introduce friends to D&D.  My first days in D&D were, of course, among friends.  Without friends and players, I could not run a game, but that is not the best thing I get out of D&D.

I get to create.  I get to build.  I get to be every non PC in the multiverse.  I get to share in an interactive story crafted between my players and me.  I get to mess with maps.  I get to drop challenges into my games and watch amazing people completely bypass them by thinking of things of which I never conceived.  I get to play with languages.  I get to have fun.

Thank you, each and everyone on my players, past, present, and future.

Cross posting this on my Live Journal.