Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Actions and reactions

My favorite thing about playing tabletop RPGs over video games is the amount of freedom available. When one plays a video game, the only options are those that the programmers built into the system. Because a tabletop RPG is run by a Game Master rather than a program, it can adapt to new, unexpected situations.

My Planescape game is going well, having finished my third session and our first big adventure traveling through the Dwarven Mountains. I didn't expect it to take so long, as BF's character Dim was really trying to get past the mountains to the town on the other side, but one thing led to another. First he wanted to help a citizen in Dwarferton whose lackluster inn was about to go out of business. As he coaxed a local acolyte into joining the inn as a cook (with 10% of the proceeds going to the acolyte's church) and hired bards to concoct catchy tunes, Dim ran into a situation with the inn-owner's ooze mephit, an awful little fellow named Agronal. Agronal stank, his touch stained clothes permanently, he was a complete sycophant, his body began to melt or drip whenever possible, and he had garbage and stray coins stuck to his mucus wings. He begged Dim for a "loan", and I expected BF to brush away such a gross little creature. Instead BF took an interest, discovering that Agronal wanted the money so that he could pay a wizard to transform him into anything else.

Which led us on a quest to find a charitable magic user and give Agronal a form he deserved. They battled demonic creatures, rescued a missing apprentice, braved bureaucracy, and won the favor of the High Priest for the god of exploration, all culminating in BF rolling on a chart (with generous bonuses) to see Agronal transform into... a red dragon!

I didn't plan for any of this, but it went great. BF was thrilled and now he wants to focus on learning to ride a dragon. It'll cause a splash wherever he journeys in the Outlands, I'm sure.

On the one hand, I'm somewhat worried, because I think I might have bumped his power level beyond what I had anticipated. I mean, a red dragon! Even a small one that doesn't fully understand its own capabilities really shakes up where I had thought this game would go. On the other hand, maybe this is a good thing. It allows me to really ham up the adventures from here on out (because really, subtlety and quiet contemplation go out the window once your player becomes a dragon rider.)

So, I'll just have to roll with the punches, so to speak. He's excited to have an awesome mount and to have really turned the life around of a poor NPC, and I'm excited to get to try running more non-traditional adventures. It's funny how games can really run off in unanticipated directions.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Making failure interesting

I've just started a Planescape game for my BF. I tried to run him a Planescape game once before, a two years back, but he didn't really take to it, finding the sheer amount of weird too overwhelming. We've got a new system in tow now, and with a new Player's Guide for that system, it seems to have suddenly clicked in his mind as Fun rather than Bewildering.

Lucky me. :) I love Planescape and have wanted to run a game set there for ages. It's the kind of setting where anything can happen, where I can introduce just about any villain or location or adventure that I can think of. To make things easier on the both of us, I've limited our adventure space to the Outlands, a large area including a city of paladins, the realm of the Celtic gods, and walking towers, but still an enclosed area for us to explore first.

In any case, I'm actually feeling wildly optimistic about this game. BF is really into it (he has a wavering attention span, so this is important) and it's an easy setting to use to help me improve an area of GM-weakness I've got because it encourages roleplaying and bizarre happenings.

I understand the whole "yes and/but" philosophy of GMing and try hard to stick to it; easier done, as I've only got to watch after one player's random schemes and plans. Letting BF try to interact with the game world (even in ways I hadn't considered or I initially wrote off) keeps him invested in what's going on, challenges me as a DM to think about what happens next, and keeps the game moving forward. He doesn't get to automatically succeed on everything he does, but his attempts have an effect on the game world, even if just in small ways. If he wants to convince the Red Knights that they should swear loyalty to him, then he can; now the Knights are divided because some didn't want to follow him, and he has a group preaching against him/harrying him/joining with his antagonist, but he also gets some Red Knights to help him protect his home kingdom.

Lately I've been focused on trying to make failures as dynamic and interesting. When I first started gaming my GMs ruled failures to be as flat and miserable as possible; if you try to sneak up behind a guard and jump him but the roll is low, then you stab yourself in the foot accidentally; if you try to sweet talk the princess but fail the diplomacy roll then you suddenly forget words and start drooling. It was sometimes amusing, but mostly it served to discourage the players from trying anything. Plus, it established the idea that we were incredibly incompetent, because why else would seasoned veterans spend so much time dropping their weapons on their feet? Overall this method of "no, and you're also a loser" actually worked against what these GMs claimed they wanted in their games, disrupting the atmosphere and keeping us from getting involved in the story.

So I've been trying to make something happen after a failure just as it would a success--and I had my first real "light bulb" moment last session. BF had just entered a new city and decided to make a haggle roll to find a good inn for the night, but he rolled very low. I had expected to just make up a nice inn for him but suddenly that didn't seem to match what the dice had in mind, so I declared that BF's character wandered the trade district for an hour, unable to get directions as he made various cultural missteps in his dealings with the natives, until finally stumbling upon the last inn that would take him, the Bed and Food. The insides were sparse and dusty, with one painting of a wilted flower for decoration, and the food was dry and bland. The innkeeper was a very eager but obviously overwhelmed dwarf. Rather than just end there, with him feeling bad about rolling low, I decided to have the innkeeper talk with BF's character. The innkeeper explained that he had been an accountant but took over the family business when his father fell ill, and didn't understand why his straightforward attempts weren't attracting customers. After some back and forth BF brainstormed some ways the innkeeper could improve his business--and then the dwarf offered BF free food and board for the rest of his stay in the city, so long as he helped him redecorate and find a new cook. BF was super jazzed at the end of the session, and I was pleased that I had managed to generate a mini-quest out of his botched roll.

Fingers crossed for next session. I'm going to use the Bed and Food inn to help introduce some characters (like a money-grubbing ooze mephit) and help wrap up the issue of the trade caravans being attacked.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Still chipping away

BF and I ended up completely changing tracks, and are gearing up to run each other Eberron games. It's been slow going, as our ever-fluctuating work schedules mean we don't currently share off-days. When playing a solo game like this, it's very important that both people bring a lot of energy to the table: as a player there aren't other people around to help your PC or joke around with you so you are responsible for bringing your own entertainment, as a DM you need to be prepared to turn a throw-away NPC or description into something substantive on a moment's notice. It's very rewarding when it works out but obviously requires both people to really be in it, which can be difficult when one person has just come home from work and is expected to play despite being plain tired.

That said, I've managed to run the first session of my game already, and I'm eager to get another session in this week. My game is based off of Paizo's Kingmaker, though I really just pulled the exploration and kingdom building rules out and ran off with them. My game is set in the Eldeen Reaches, a vast forested country that broke away from its parent nation during the Last War. BF is playing a world-weary veteran of the Last War, coming to a newly formed settlement in the Reaches with the hope of settling down for a quiet life and building something he can be proud of. Of course, things can never be as simple as that... ;)

The first session was mostly meet-and-greet for the handful of NPCs he'll spend a lot of time interacting with, which I'll save for a different post. This next session finishes up the "prologue" as he deals with the violent Ashbound Druids, a sect that opposes civilization as a perversion of nature. I feel a bit guilty giving him an enemy that really can't be reasoned with (not my normal M.O. at all) but on the plus side, I get to run combat! I've got my outline prepped, and now I'm just working on filling the hexmap with interesting NPCs/locations/events.

BF is planning a noir/intrigue Dragonmark campaign. I'm slowly thinking up my PC, the artificer Ophelia d'Cannith, using her resources and skill at creating useful gadgets to help her solve mysteries and fight crime. She's like Batman, if Batman were a plucky 19-year-old girl. To give BF a good understanding of my character (differing expectations and assumptions have been a big problem in the past) I've been writing little snippets of story to help explain who Ophelia is, where she comes from, how she interacts with the world around her, and what her goals are. It's a bit more illuminating for BF than if I just handed him a bullet-point list, and it helps me get into my character's head-space better.

All in all, things are not perfect (are they ever?) but I'm still quite optimistic. We progress, bit by bit.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


I'm disappointed that my game didn't really work out. I'd like to say it was through no fault of my own (real life, job stuff started coming up, changing both my and BF's schedules around), but I certainly feel like I should have found the time and energy to continue. On the plus side, we've thrown around the idea of co-GMing a campaign for each other, and agreed the Nentir Vale game would be a great setting for that. When we're ready to run a game from scratch again, we want to start a campaign based on the premise that the Star Spawn invasion fractured reality into alternate shards, thus allowing for two separate PCs in the same area, doing and facing slightly different things. I'm pretty excited about our brainstorming on the topic.

The key phrase is, of course, "when we're ready." Things have settled down somewhat, but we still certainly don't have huge amounts of free time between our jobs, having time to just relax, and spending time with friends and family. However, we still love running each other games and don't want to give up on that. So we're converting some pre-made Pathfinder adventures into Fantasy Craft (because, of course, we can't ever make things simple and straightforward.) BF is doing Council of Thieves, an adventure path about revolutionaries taking down a corrupt, devil-worshipping system in a decaying city. It sounds kind of bad-ass. I'm hoping it's bad-ass. Meanwhile, I'm in the planning phase for running The Conquest of Bloodsworn Vale, a module about having 60 days to boot some baddies out of an area so it can be reopened as a trade route, with ever escalating issues cropping up.

Wish us luck!

Thursday, June 3, 2010


I've had some free time the past few weeks, so when I'm not working on game or reading, I've been playing video games. Borderlands and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura are two fairly different RPGs (though they both eschew the more traditional Tolkien-inspired approach) that serve as a framework for entertaining an audience of one. I can't rely on table talk to keep my boyfriend amused during our lunchtime game, since it's just him, so I've got to make the world deeper and give him more things to do. So, Borderlands and Arcanum have made me think a lot about quests and sidequests, quest structures, and their effects on the narrative.

Quests should move the story forward in some way, or get the PC in connection with other useful NPCs, or should illuminate some part of the world. Poorly done quests are those that come off as boring or meaningless. The best quests, in my opinion, are those that manage one or more of the above design tenets and gives the player choices in how to finish the quest.

Most of the side quests I've created for my opening session involve getting my boyfriend's PC, a knight recently ordered to aid the dwarven city of Hammerfast, to meet the locals and start making useful connections, in addition to establishing that the city is currently very tense and divided. However, the big quest I want to end the session on is fairly open-ended, so much so that I'm a little worried if it'll work out as I planned. It involves the guard capturing a member of a nearby Orcus cult, found skulking in the Lore Ward; the PC is brought in to help interrogate the prisoner, who reveals that he is merely a scout, and that other cultists are set to infiltrate the city within the week and destroy it. The prisoner is loathe to explain exactly how the plan will go down, but sneeringly responds that Hammerfast houses the key to its destruction in its very walls. I'll end session after that, allowing my boyfriend some time to figure out how he wants to handle this threat.

There should be about a week until next session, giving BF plenty of time to come up with a plan of attack. I'm worried he might get stumped, though, or develop analysis paralysis in the face of such an open-ended quest. I'm happy to answer questions for him regarding what dangers are situated in town (that the townspeople know of, at least), and give him a few suggestions as to what he can do (put the town on high alert vs only allow a select few to know what's going on, etc), but he might not find this as fun as I would.

Oh well. It's an experiment. If he doesn't like it, I'll avoid making quests too open, or create quests with two to three clear options.

Introductory Post!

Hey! Welcome to my D&D blog.

I am: a lady, a very self-conscious person, a bibliophile, a long-time video game lover, very picky, not a hipster.

And I am about to run my boyfriend a lunchtime 4e D&D campaign set in the Points of Light.

I'm pretty nervous about running this campaign. I've never run a game lasting longer than two sessions, due to my own anxiety or real-life issues impeding free time. This game is also a continuation of a dinnertime campaign my boyfriend ran me about a year ago, so while I already have several really cool NPCs and antagonists set for use, I have a lot to live up to as well.

So I created this blog to help my organize my thoughts on how best to run game (and also so that when I comment on other people's posts they can see that I'm an RPG lover as well, not an anonymous troll.)

Just to be clear about what I'm working with:
The game is set in the Nentir Vale (as mentioned in the 4e Dungeon Master's Guide), and deals with an incursion of starspawn that have all but destroyed Fallcrest. The starspawn are fought by an order of Sehanine known as the Crescent Knights, the last real force in the Vale after 10 long years. In addition to They have a few knights in each of the other towns in the Vale, who work alongside the local government to raise defenses and watch over the survivors of Fallcrest. The story opens in the dwarven city of Hammerfast which Sir Alek Wyvernjack, the last knight inducted into the order, has been assigned to guard.