Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Thunderclan and Ludum: Campaign Retrospective

My D&D campaign ended last week. After two years of play, several thrwarted rituals, at least one romance, a masquerade ball, two destroyed cities, and 4 player character deaths, we finally reached a point where we were all comfortable closing the book on these characters. It's tempting to look through and create a highlight reel in my mind of my favorite moments. (Allying with Felkrash, the Marjorie revelation, trashing Jasper Skellig's casino, the rescue of Lady Emilia, Olgo and Simsy, disaster in the Crimson Bat's lair, the trial of Lennoc, the time-warped dungeons of Fort Vaux, Salty becoming the Champion of Aquilas, Zahida tearing Dragon King Ezra's throat open from the inside, Freesia incinerating her own eyeball to prevent the apocalypse...)

But overall it's been an amazing game. I found it incredibly freeing as the game went on and I found out more and more of my ideas were enjoyable and brought out more and more creativity in the players. As time went on I became relaxed, abandoning historical accuracy, tonal consistency, and game balance in favor of a more sprawling and adventurous world. The PCs constantly surprised me and I was always surprising myself with random rolls, little emergent moments, etc. I owe a great deal of this to my discovery of the Old School Renaissance, whose brilliant, imaginative, and freeing ideas have inspired and improved my game.

But there are always lessons to be learned, so let's begin.

1. Structure is painful and not desirable.

I believe now that D&D is firmly unsuited to telling a dramatic 3 arc story complete with fully-fledged character arcs and main plots, primarily because of the fickle nature of players and secondarily because the core loop of typical D&D is not suited to one long adventure but rather a series of problems that demand creative solutions that likely produce more problems.

In a lot of ways, I was very fond of the 'central' plot of the game. At the conclusion, this central plot seems to have been largely about impossible decisions, family, love, loss, and personal transformation. These themes were not primarily decided by me, but rather arose out of me and my player's shared interests and fascinations. The central plot did end up dealing with an apocalyptic scenario that the heroes did have to deal with (or in their case, postpone and indirectly recreate), but that was more or less because I felt like I was stuck in that from the get-go.

My conclusion at the end was that I did not enjoy the world-ending terror of a traumatized queen and her cosmically doomed sons as much as I enjoyed, say, the romantic tension between one secretary and a rockstar, the tension of saving loved ones from a terrible dungeon, or the solemn task of returning a traitorous and mad centaur to be judged by his bretheren.

The stories that I enjoyed running the most were the ones that resisted structure or grand-ness. I like a scrappy story and I like a human story. No matter how much human drama was present in Queen Rosaria and the moral weight she shouldered, the scale of it was less relatable to me and less enjoyable to run. (Though it still was amazing and broke my heart)

In the future, I think shapelessness will be the way to go. No need for world-ending plots when the adventures can be driven by the player characters and the people they encounter on their journeys, and the problems they face. I would rather the characters win a Golden Mask and battle a mad cleric for the fate of a Duke's soul than have them Wrestle With Fate Itself In A Dramatic Battle For The Fate Of Mankind. In real life, there is no finality or climax, just a series of interconnected tales that cumulatively mean everything.

Another negative trait of focused structure was that this campaign often stressed me out unreasonably. I am already prone to nervous fits over the slightest thing, but I did not need nervous fits about "will we finish this adventure in time" or "what if everyone hates me because it took a long time to get to their big ending oh god" and any game structure that prevents that is better in my eyes.

2. 5e characters (even when you ignore and change several rules) develop rapidly, which can alter the game just as rapidly

Character advancement in our game was based on milestone (mistake).

Milestone leveling sounds fine if you're trying to run a game in which 'story' is first and foremost, or if you don't want to add up XP, but either way, it at least requires a clearly set upon definition of a milestone. Otherwise, all level gains feel arbitrary. At least twice, I threw levels to the players for completing tremendous tasks even though it didn't technically mark a major conflict resolution. At one point, I think the players leveled twice in a month, and then didn't level up again for several months. That's all on me, considering I was responsible for it altogether. In the future, I think I will have to either use XP or at least stick to my guns on levels.

By the end of the game, players were between levels 8 and 12. Many 5e DMs will be shocked to hear that a player joining at a time when almost all players were level 9 started at level 4. But this is part of my commitment to creating a dynamic and challenging world that feels real and threatening. In the end, level gaps were present but (in my view) not terribly significant due to the complexity and broad scope of the threats faced. 100HP is a good number, but it can't solve puzzles or negotiate with NPCs. You have a +5 million attack bonus? That's cool, but when the threats you face are so monumentally powerful, it's going to take more creativity and lateral thinking than it is going to take numbers. I believe that a 7th level player character coming up with the perfect solution to kill a CR 20+ Ancient Dragon and executing that plan perfectly is definitive proof that balance is not terribly meaningful.

However, advancement is bound to change the tone and the game and the behavior of player characters, often for the worse. The minute your PCs gain Fireball and magical armor, they start to wade into battle with confidence that they can probably win by attrition, which is ultimately negative in my opinion. The most satisfying battles are ones where the players have a brilliant plan and execute it effectively and quickly. The least satisfying battles are ones where each side expends all their resources in a head-on firefight that lasts until one side collapses.

A lone ambush the party endured at the hands of a Mind Flayer (which killed 2/3 of the party) did make them behave differently, of course, and the fear of that moment hovered over the rest of the game, but part of the players becoming superheroic means that truly terrible threats can appear meaningless. A sufficiently beefy man with a warhammer should be threatening at any level, in my opinion, and in the future I think I'll be searching for a system that allows for that.

Additionally, and this is a smaller beast, higher-leveled players can result in some social problems. One player feels unstoppable and behaves recklessly or cruelly to the discomfort of other players. It can (infrequently) result in a situation where a player behaves in an antisocial or narcissistic way due to feeling entitled to their strength. Fortunately, we never seemed to run into a situation where the majority of players felt so empowered by their 5th level spells that they stopped caring about human drama or started stabbing world leaders with 1d6 HP just because they were kind of dickheads, but power creep and poor behavior can be a problem.

3. I like old school playstyles and mindsets.

Even though I'm still rather young, my first D&D game was B/X D&D, which is now my favorite edition of the World's Most Popular RPG. Its simplicity, directness, sparse beauty, and elegance are so broadly applicable to fantasy gaming that I frequently fell back on many of those rules and rulings when running my 5e game. By the end, the players and I had torn apart and reconstructed enough of 5th edition's rules and cultural assumptions that it's difficult to say we were even playing the same game anymore. (Me least of all. Even though I used the same fundamental math for attack, damage, saving throws, DCs, and etc., I have barely looked at the books in at least a year.)

By old school I don't necessarily mean evoking the exact rules or culture surrounding B/X or OD&D from the 70s, but rather the following principles laid out by beloved game designer and critic Ben Milton, who described old school play as involving high lethality, an open world, a lack of pre-written plot, an emphasis on creative problem solving, an exploration-centered reward system, a disregard for "encounter balance", the use of randomness to generate world elements that surprise both the players and dungeon masters, and a very strong DO-IT-YOURSELF attitude.

I think that my players would agree that these things became more and more apparent in our game as we went on, and I think that I felt more and more at home when these things were at the front of my mind. These standards (and the creativity of others in the Old School scene) helped me feel more creatively liberated. And by the way the players gradually began behaving and acting, this increased their creativity, engagement, wonder, and sense of accomplishment when they achieved the impossible and meaningfully changed the world.

And to close...


1) Tone (the Deep, the World Below, and Concord most notably)
2) Horror (All I have to do is invoke the Alhoon or include a naked person covered in blood)
3) Coming up with weird magic items (I have written enough index cards with weird gonzo spells and items on them for at least two more years of play)
4) Making NPCs that players develop affection for (Marjorie, Rakim, Candaci, Set)
5) People-oriented conflicts (Especially ones wherein nobody is truly evil and the nonviolent solutions are possible)
6) Foreshadowing and reincorporation (Pretty much everything was accidentally or purposely foreshadowed, owing to my own obsession with daydreaming and irony.)
7) Consequences to player's actions (The industrialization of Orlane being the cumulative effect of Thunderclan's action, Ianus' abandonment resulting in a chaotic Hamlet, the resurgent threats of the Redhood thieves when the group failed to deal with them, the way resentment between Vander Coil and Thunderclan insistently grew, how Freesia eclipsed the Monarch, etc.)


1) Economy stuff and treasure with monetary value ("Uh, it's like a bag of gems? Probably worth about 100 gold. In fact, just put 100 gold on your character sheet, we'll just assume you trade it in when you get back to town.")
2) Shutting up and letting players figure things out by themselves ("Guys, before you talk in circles for too long: [blatant hint or answer to the pressing question]")
3) Ending sessions (I really need to start saying "till next time!" as soon as I start to burn out, but aforementioned anxiety about time pressure contributed to this...) (It has become an embarrassing joke that I can't finish a game within 4 hours)
4) Killing player characters (I blame power creep and the fact that it took a while for me to really develop a death-friendly attitude towards RPGs, mainly because I am a soft-hearted crybaby who wants everyone to get along)

I loved this game. It was brilliant, exciting, inspiring, unforgettable, and I'm so glad that the first years-long campaign I ran happened now at this point in my life, where my own demons threatened to swallow me whole (and no, I'm not talking about Orcus). Thank you to the writers of unforgettable modules and the bloggers of the Old School Renaissance for all the advice, assistance, and inspiration. Thank you to all the players, past and present, for your companionship, for gifting me wine, and for believing in this world as deeply as I did. The thunder rolls on into the distance, but the clan is forever.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Review: A Night at the Golden Duck

This weekend I ran Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess’ zine-module A Night At The Golden Duck.

We played it as a one-shot with two veteran players and one complete newbie. I had them roll up Into the Odd characters who all got firearms in their starting package and dubbed themselves ‘Gunpals’.

The premise: Your players shelter from a deadly storm in an inn built out of a tree stump. The hostess tells everyone at dinner about a great treasure (the titular duck) hidden somewhere in or around the inn.

The adventure itself is a stylish black comedy which sets the stage for a) a murder mystery b) a treasure hunt c) the strangest evening ever or d) all of the above and more. The NPCs receive the majority of the focus, and the layout of the inn is simple enough that the majority of the comedy/drama/violence is centered on the five weirdos your players meet.

The weirdness of it is a draw -- the hostess is a giant beetle, a doctor on the premises is a deeply paranoid crow, there is a tremendous royalist ape with a heavy French accent, a cursed nihilist, and a self-confessed kleptomaniac that your players will find darling or annoying… at the start, at least.

Scrap’s art is tremendous, my players were able to imagine a clear physicality for every character (Armstrong is eight feet tall, Chaffinch moves like an animated figurine, Miss Tricks scuttles on the walls) through her illustrations alone. Patrick’s writing -- purple prosey and discursive usually -- is clipped to a length more manageable than some of his other works, making for a quick and engaging read that retains a lot of depth.

The character pages are so vivid and clear that the encounter runs itself. The NPCs each have some reason to side against each other, and the players will almost certainly rub at least one of the patrons the wrong way. Everyone’s nighttime plans will eventually stumble over one another in a spectacular display of poisonings, thievery, and finger-pointing.

I love how many tiny little micro-challenges seem naturally built into the module -- Arm-Long Armstrong’s nighttime habits will give stealthy treasure-hunters a challenge, navigating the inn can be made simple through some clever tree-climbing, and the central mystery can be made a non-issue by a halfway-decent French speaker who asks Miss Tricks to repeat her story again.

It’s hilarious, off-the-wall, full of possibility, and would never play the same way twice.

As for negatives? Well, it’s a big thing in a small package, and it’s hard to incorporate every little NPC’s quirks into the game -- possibly helpful that some of them are bound to be killed through the course of the night. And I’ll echo that the execution of the map on the flip-side of the zine is unfortunate; the map is nice so you want to use it, but it’s attached to the booklet you’ll want to reference and contains the answer to the mystery on it. If you have some time to prepare then you’d photocopy it yourself and scribble the DM notes out, but I didn’t have time and I like how big the map is. Oh well.

So what happened to my group? One of the player characters managed to freak the Doctor out with a simple philosophical quandary and Miss Tricks was flustered by the group’s rudeness many times. Pierre Pierre Pierre and the PCs formed an alliance to suss out the treasure, but before long, [REDACTED] ended up killing Doctor Roaaak and throwing him from the roof into the outhouse. The PCs determined the suspect’s guilt by using the mechanics of Armstrong’s curse, and one thing led to another until one of the PCs murdered Pierre Pierre Pierre in a petty duel. They didn’t solve the mystery -- they found a randomly generated treasure in one of the rooms which allowed them to phase through walls and believed that the error in the Golden Duck story was ‘cannot door’, meaning the treasure they found. Instead the two PCs uninvolved in the duel with Pierre took the treasure and disappeared into the night.

It was a wonderful night and your players will adore it. Everything Patrick and Scrap do, with each other and independently, is novel and wonderful.

Buy it here:

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Ghosts, Part 1

A good ghost suggests something complex, unexplored, and tragic with its every action. It leads players down a quest regardless of what their plan becomes. 

Putting a ghost to rest is more than just fear (that it will kill you if you don't)... it's hope (that the ghost will find peace), sympathy (because most adventurers will naturally see themselves in the dead), and curiosity (because players know that the more information they have on the dead and their lives, the more information they have to help them survive).

Basically ghosts are dope as fuck and here are tables for making a few. Possibly I'll turn to the OSR discord for more ideas. Eventually these will join a bunch of other writings I have on ghosts for a ghastly compendium. We all have dreams.

Image result for ghost painting

Ghost Features, Patterns, and Habits:

1. It drinks from the same body of water every night.
2. It carries something visible only to itself in its scabbed and flaking hands.
3. It pulls teeth from the dead of this place.
4. It smells your palm and pushes its muzzle soft against it if you are unarmed.
5. It digs up anthills and upends birds nest in its search.
6. It lingers by the fire.
7. It never lets you escape without taking something.
8. A deranged mother visits it every night, kisses it, and returns it to its crib.
9. It strips bark from trees. It could strip skin too, and would.
10. It snaps the line to the outhouse, leaving villagers in the blizzard.
11. A body that looks exactly like it is found hanging on the outskirts of town every morning.
12. It taps its foot in the darkness.
13. Flowers grow where it goes.
14. It died in the chimney pipe, and turns all fires in the house deadly.
15. It stocks its home with brave fools -- still alive -- and never lets them go.
16. It screams never end, but you will only understand its words if you mimic its long-dead companions.
17. It falls in love and grows attached easily. It turns on you even easier.
18. It possesses the living and puts them to sleep in odd places. When their host is shaken awake, they strike.
19. It will suffer no cages.
20. It has a twin.

Ghost Forms:

1. Its skin is white like maggot’s meat.
2. Its coat is black as the sky.
3. Behind its mask scratch little claws, rats suffocating in the dark.
4. A great black bear. Blind. A hundred hunters have reported its death. It grows crueler each day.
5. It drifts under the water, looking up at passerby.
6. A ghostly man is led by some invisible thing on a leash. The man is harmless -- the collared thing is not.
7. A lantern swings from its fingers.
8. Its legs are long like yearling oaks.
9. Three of them together --  a pale elk, a hunchback, and a white wolf. They died together, somehow.
10. It has been many things in the past era. Now? A pearly white water flow that seeps through the cracks in the ground. It is much greater in volume than it lets on.
11. Only children can report its form accurately.
12. Three eggs hatched. The fourth lay dead and cold. Now it sings bright and clear near the nest.
13. The cult’s horrific ritual merged their minds together, and their dreams took on an abstract and monstrous shape.
14. The kidnapper would blend into the night in grim, black, thick attire.
15. Its headwear is reminiscent of a warrior of a previous age.
16. The sun has bleached it so intensely over millenia that it is now essentially transparent.
17. This two-headed horse, condemned and unridden, had enough hate in it to keep it alive for just a few more weeks of murder.
18. The woman fussed about the decorations so much that in death, she has become them -- shattered china flying through the air, warped and gigantic candlesticks barring the doors.
19. Thirty joints wherever there should just be one, it twists and angles itself everywhere in the house at once.
20. Two brothers and a small chest they decided was worth killing each other over.

Related image

Ghost Abilities:

1. It saps all desire to escape from its haunt. You belong with it.
2. It sees you most in darkness.
3. It obscures exits easily.
4. It is easy to hide from but impossible to outrun.
5. It steals the air from the rooms it floats within.
6. It will always break something if you drop it.
7. It can change size unpredictably.
8. No fires will burn for longer than d6 turns in its presence.
9. If it touches you, you will not sleep until it is banished.
10. It will never let you see it.
11. It can flee so quick that no bullet or blade will catch it.
12. Its bones lurch and jump around its haunting place, and shoot out at passerby.
13. Its sight alone turns you hostile and anxious.
14. Its bite causes a spreading rot that can only be healed by holy means.
15. It steals your most useful asset.
16. It can start a fire that can only be extinguished with Remove Curse.
17. It saps the ink from books within hours of the book entering its haunt.
18. It will compel you to dance with it.
19. It can drain living things of moisture.
20. It can change the nature of all elemental attacks to their opposite, and reflect them back.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Emotional Motivations vs. Action Motivations

A common theme in D&D statblocks is the inclusion of a monster/NPCs 'motivations', often laid out as whatever scheme they have going on, who they want to kill, what evil plan they want to see succeed or fail.

For the most part they use action-based language to inform the prospective GM.

HD 5. Armor as plate. Halberd 1d10. Movement standard.
Motivations: Serve the Undead Prince Orcus, open a gateway to Hell, overrun the village of Thalma.

I am curious about the possibilities and differences of an emotions-based language for motivations.

So it becomes...

HD 5. Armor as plate. Halberd 1d10. Movement standard.
Motivations: Overcompensation for insecurity, jealousy, fits of violent rage in response to his own perceived failings.

I think both of these function quite well, and tell the GM different things.

The first (action based) is simple and gritty and indicates how best to factor this monster or NPC into a larger picture, adventure, or campaign.

Meanwhile, the second (emotion based) deals with larger concepts but works on a micro level -- it helps you run the encounter with emotional knowledge and nuance, as well as informing you of the things that truly drive this character. Which gives you greater insight when running a social encounter. The possibilities increase when the text suggests that there are ways to befriend or deceive a character that aren't simply "go along with his plan to slaughter a dozen orphans".

Which do you prefer? What strengths and weaknesses do you see in either?

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Tarot Deck Interview Spread

The other week I got my first tarot deck in the mail -- the Golden Thread Tarot. It's extremely beautiful and if you're not familiar I recommend checking out the creator's website and free app here.

Sitting down with the deck for a few calm shuffles and some examination of the cards, I decided to do an interview with my new deck to see what's in store for my 'relationship' with the cards.

Tell me about yourself. What is your most important characteristic?
Queen of Pentacles. 

A nurturing and practical figure. The Queen balances work, life, and love to keep her home flourishing and secure. The Queen is compassionate, but also down to earth and a staunch realist. I believe that this means the deck is ready to help me sort out the worldly concerns of my life (financial, skills, the home), but isn't afraid to force me out of my own head and demand I stop dreaming and start doing.

What are your strengths as a deck?
Page of Pentacles

I see this as a card of developing skills, learning, beginning the journey to a greater understanding of the world, your place in it, and how you can use your skills practically. Very close to the Queen, perhaps they see me in this role, teaching me to understand my own goals and manifesting them.

What are your limits as a deck?
7 of Swords

A turning point. So this deck is a liar, or at the very least, sneaky. I feel as though this means that we're in for challenging readings, a lot of clarification that won't be found, perhaps something misleading here and there. With the cards strengths it seems to me that this deck is much more grounded than me, and with this weakness it could indicate that we may struggle to be honest with each other or understand one another. In addition, like the Queen, I believe this card indicates that the deck feels independent from me.

What are you here to teach me?
8 of Pentacles

Mastery, routine, skill. I'm so often locked in my own head and this deck is here to drag me down to earth and make me consider reality as it lays in front of me.

How can I best learn and collaborate with you?

Dramatic. But it's telling me to not be afraid of change and to accept it readily. Hard lessons are inbound and in order to strive for my goals I need to be prepared for change, transformation. Perhaps the deck (who I'm already reading as a stern figure) is telling me that the changes have come already and I need to let go of my head-in-the-clouds tendencies and face the music.

What is the potential outcome of our working relationship?
The Tower

Big changes, challenging ones, and not ones I want to hear or ones I should expect. Even if I'm prepared for the changes, the world is bigger than I am and nothing can prepare me for everything. Even the deck seems to have a sly role in this, with a bit of deceipt. But I appreciate this little bit of honesty and won't let it scare me.

So what did I get from this?

I see a figure that is, in many ways, the opposite of me. Pragmatic, down-to-earth, maybe even a bit dry. The deck told me at the start that it is compassionate, nurturing, prepared to help and build something beautiful. But then it told me in so many ways that it will not be easy and it will demand a lot of me.

I see a stern figure that isn't going to put up with my bullshit or spoon-feed me easy answers. I like that. I felt a bit of a turn in my gut with the last two cards (who wouldn't?) but I see them now as a way of telling me that if I'm going to get anything done with the deck or with my life, I need to be serious about it, and be ready for whatever comes. I respect that.