Accelerated RPG Campaigns

I am the Dungeon Master for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and I recently had a great insight. Let me share.

Like many a DM (I think), I adapt published adventures for my players. This means I use the published adventure as the backbone of a story, then I add or modify material to meet the specific interests of players and given them an interesting character arc.

For example, one of the player characters in our group seemed to be leaning evil, and I knew the adventure I was using would eventually lead the party to a city that was a hive of scum and villainy. I therefore dropped hints that the character might be able to join an assassins guild there. When that prospect seemed to catch their interest, I arranged for the character to meet someone who told them how to contact the guild. Eventually, when the party reached the city, the character had to decide how much or how little to become involved with the guild.

The guild wasn’t part of the published adventure, but going to the city was. Thus while the party followed the plot-line of the adventure, the character had personalized opportunities that (I hope) made the game more interesting than just following the predetermined plot.

As I said, I believe a lot of DMs do the same. This approach provides a nice mix of plot (from the adventure) and character material (added by me personally).

So now my great insight: I could throw away huge amounts of the published adventure and still have a great game.

For example, suppose the adventure calls for the party to work their way through a 30-room enemy castle. Why not toss out 25 of those rooms (or more accurately make the rooms pretty much empty)? The only rooms I’d keep would be ones I found really cool, or else ones where I could insert character-based material. In other words, I could drop the “crawl” from “dungeon crawl” and distill the whole thing down to a few rewarding set-pieces.

In the old days, you crawled through a dungeon so the characters could accumulate experience points through the slow process of killing monsters. There’s some value in that—it takes a long time to achieve significant milestones, so the players feel great when they finally kill The Big Bad (or whatever). It also gives players time to learn how to use their current abilities to best effect, and to yearn for the cool new stuff they’ll get when they reach their next experience level.

But my group only meets once a month or so. Grinding through a generic battle means that no one advances their story, even if the battle is a memorable challenge. So new plan: follow the adventure’s plot, but cut it down ruthlessly to its bare essentials so that the added character material takes on a much larger percentage of the action.

Also accelerate character advancement—discard keeping track of experience points at all, and allow players to go up a level every four or five sessions. If that’s too fast, use incremental advances: let players take partial advances now and then, e.g. increasing their hit points or taking one of the new abilities they’d get at the next level. Incremental advances are a great trick I learned from 13th Age.

In this way, the campaign will make faster progress through the published adventure and through D&D levels, finally reaching the adventure’s conclusion in a reasonable time. This avoids one of the major problems of D&D campaigns: petering out before you get to a satisfying end, because the DM gets busy, or a player has to quit, or whatever.

In other words, I plan to speed things up by dropping 90% of the published material. This should let us actually reach the end of a well-rounded story, while still not feeling too rushed. I recommend the same to all DMs reading this.

Christmas Role-Playing

A week ago I tweeted the following:

Now I can explain.

I am Games Master for two role-playing groups, and with one, we’ve developed a tradition of having a special Christmas adventure every year. These are conducted in the spirit of an imaginary story, the way that DC Comics used to do: not really in the serious continuity of the ongoing role-playing campaign. Basically, these adventures are extravagant spoofs, often ending in wild chase scenes or over-the-top fights.

So this year’s adventure: “Die Hard” meets “A Christmas Carol” meets “Legend” meets “Land of the Giants“. Seriously.

The setting is the present day in a world much like ours, but with magic and magical creatures of all kinds lurking in the shadows. The player characters are all teenage mages recently graduated from a high school that is more like Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters than Hogwarts. They are currently connected with a slightly shady “talent broker” who hires “special” people for “special” jobs.

The broker was approached by an anonymous client and asked to arrange a classic Charles Dickens scenario to convert a Scrooge-like billionaire into a nice guy. They wanted the same sequence of events as “A Christmas Carol”: Marley, then the Spirit of Christmas Past, then Christmas Present, then Christmas Yet-to-Come. Such powerful spirits do exist in this world…and a powerful mage could use rituals and bargains to induce the spirits to visit a given target. The spirits themselves have plenty enough mind-altering power to reprogram an ordinary human into someone who loves Christmas.

So the job was not impossible. But when the broker investigated the situation, he found a lot of warning flags. For example, the Scrooge-like billionaire lived in a penthouse atop Nakatomi Plaza, and the whole building was enveloped in sophisticated magic shields. It’s not unheard of in this world for a billionaire to have some protection against magic, but these shields went way beyond normal. They also had embedded triggers and characteristics so complicated it would take ages to figure out what they actually did.

The talent broker decided the job was too hinky to undertake, so he turned it down. He expected the second best broker in the city would be contacted next, so he sent a message to Broker #2, warning not to take the job. Broker #1 expected #2 would take the job anyway, so #1 started making plans to deal with what might happen if things went pear-shaped. This included having the player characters on hand on Christmas Eve, just in case.

Just past midnight, everyone in the world forgot that there had ever been previous Christmases. They thought this year’s Christmas was the first ever. Yes, it looked like the Spirit of Christmas Past had somehow disappeared from the world.

So our heroes were rushed to Nakatomi Plaza to see what was up and what they could do to set things right. They stopped at the edge of the magic barrier surrounding the building, and just as they got there, all Christmas decorations in the city disappeared. Oh no! The Spirit of Christmas Present was gone too!

Before sending the heroes any farther, the talent broker gave them magical items that he promised would make them really really hard to detect by normal security systems and magic ones. He didn’t say how they actually worked, because a moment later, our heroes were shrunk to the size of ants. (In all my years of role-playing, I’ve never shrunk an entire group of players, and it’s high time I did. And if you’re going to do a remake of “Die Hard”, isn’t it more fun when the good guys are less than an inch tall?) Anyway, the broker gave them flying ants to ride, and away they all went to save Christmas.

I won’t go into many more details, but they had to deal with a host of obstacles, some of which were easy to circumvent at ant size, and some of which were tough. (The billionaire had two cats. Uh-oh.)

When the heroes finally got to the top of the tower, the place had been transformed by an abundance of Christmas energies spilling off the captured spirits. One room was full of toys…and yes, of course, since our heroes were mages, they could change the toy helicopters so the toys really flew and shot missiles. During the adventure, our miniature heroes almost got eaten by four calling birds, three French hens, and two turtledoves, and almost got stepped on by twelve lords a-leaping…but eventually the heroes found the spirits being held prisoner in Christmas stockings, chained up by Marley’s chains. A battle ensued with the heroes driving around in toys, facing off against villainous elves riding reindeer…

Anyway, we laughed continuously for a couple of hours, and much delirious action took place. (Not even gonna mention what the toy Batmobile did to the cats.) But yippie-ki-yay to all.

(Note to GMs: I strongly recommend the occasional holiday free-for-all…if not at Christmas, then Halloween or some other favorite event. Throw away the dice completely; if a stunt makes things more fun, it automatically succeeds, and if it’s a downer, it fails. Don’t forget that Chase scenes are always a great way to end.)

[Marley’s ghost and Scrooge illustration by John Leech, from Wikimedia Commons]

Blog? What Blog?

Oh yeah, this blog.

So for the past month or two, I’ve been writing gaming fiction and even some gaming crunch for The Onyx Path. I don’t know how much more I can say at the moment, but it’s kept me busy…mostly because it’s a new experience for me, so I’ve put in quite a bit of time on the work to make sure it’s good.

I get the impression that people who’ve been doing this for a while can produce material a lot faster than me; a number of them work on several projects a month. I’m not at that level of productivity yet, but I hope they’ll keep hiring me—it’s a good group of people to work with, and feedback comes more quickly than with fiction writing.

Still, I am writing fiction, every morning for several hours. I’ve also been doing some editing, and I’ll be leading workshops at When Words Collide in Calgary, Aug 9-11, and VCON in Vancouver, Oct. 11-13.

In the meantime, I intend to start posting regularly again. And as a start, let me announce that I’ll be at Ad Astra in Toronto, but only on the Saturday, July 13. Hope to see lots of people there!

Idle Thoughts on Role-Playing

I’m embarking on a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a number of people who go to the same Kung Fu school as I do. I’m the Dungeon Master, which means I’m the one who sets the stage for the players and who referees the game if necessary. Since four of the five players are beginners, I’ll also be helping them understand the rules, and orienting them a bit in terms of their odds of succeeding or failing.

(Spoiler alert: even though it’s called Dungeons & Dragons, beginning level characters should not try to slay a dragon. They will fail. However, I have a policy with brand new players: I promise that their characters won’t die in the first three sessions. If they really do try to slay a dragon, the dragon may just beat them up, take all their stuff, and leave them naked outside the nearest town. Or more likely, the dragon will singe them a bit, then say, “Okay, if you don’t want to die, you have to agree to run an errand for me…”)

As I said last week, I love planning campaigns. I love dreaming up new worlds full of wild and wonderful things. Also, since this campaign will only be the six of us sitting around a kitchen table, I love stealing stuff from my favorite books, comics, movies, TV, etc.

In my real writing, I can’t steal egregiously…but at the kitchen table, I can. So in the past, I’ve stolen from Doctor Who, Michael Moorcock, Star Trek, H.P. Lovecraft, and many many many more sources. For me, creating a campaign is a form of fanfic: as over-the-top as I can make it.

But one of the best things about role-playing is that the game isn’t just what I steal and what I invent on my own. It’s a joint creation of everyone at the table, all of them smart and devious. Players always invent their own goals and backstories—stuff that goes beyond what I could dream up on my own. We work together, developing the story from all that material. This means that a role-playing campaign emerges unpredictably from interactions between everyone present. Like good improv theatre, nobody knows what’s going to happen until it happens.

Role-playing is also an excuse to get together with friends. Perhaps that’s the most important feature. Of course, we could just get together and talk…but we probably wouldn’t, and certainly not week after week. Playing the game is fun, but it’s also a pretext to socialize and surprise ourselves in the process.

The next session for this group is Friday night. I may or may not report what happens; I’ll have to talk to the others about it. But if you’ve ever thought you might be interested in role-playing, I strongly encourage it. And perhaps I’ll talk more about role-playing games in the near future.

[Disclaimer: For a lot of you reading this, role-playing games are probably old hat…but given that some readers haven’t played RPGs before, I’ll write these posts assuming no prior knowledge.]

[Dragon picture by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: February 18, 2019

A rundown of what I’ve been up to recently.

What I’m Reading: The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. They’re fun middle-grade books about the demigod children of deities in the Greek pantheon. Percy Jackson is sometimes painfully slow on the uptake—I’m on Book 3 (The Titan’s Curse) and he still hasn’t got it through his head that EVERYTHING HE ENCOUNTERS IS SUPERNATURAL…but because these are middle-grade books, I’ll cut him some slack.

What I’m Listening To: Audio versions of the Goddess Wars books by Kendare Blake. You might consider these a dark YA counterpart to Percy Jackson. These books too feature characters from Greek mythology, including gods and heroes, but in a much grittier context. Gods are slowly dying in horrific ways, and those who still survive are at war each other. Interesting but nasty.

What I’m Playing on the Tabletop: One reason I’m reading the above books is because I’m running a campaign of Scion (Second Edition) from Onyx Path. Players portray the half-human/half-divine children of gods; our group includes children of Thor, Loki, Kali, Lugh, Winonah, and Cheeby-aub-oozoo. This is part of a continuing campaign that’s been going for more than ten years, having spun through multiple game systems including D&D, Ashen Stars, Mage: The Awakening, and more.

I’m also part of a group play-testing a tabletop RPG that I can’t talk about. Maybe eventually…

What I’m Playing on the Computer: Sunless Skies, a game where you fly a Victorian locomotive through otherworldly landscapes. I’ve reached the point where I don’t die too often, and therefore can follow the story-threads of my crew. It’s an odd but compelling little game. I got it on Steam.

What I’m Writing: The novel I’m calling PROJECT TECH-BRO, and a short story for an anthology that will be published in 2020. I will definitely say more about these in the fullness of time…but not yet.

Self & Character Sheets

I said I was going to write about meditation, but some tweets I saw on Twitter have aimed me in a different direction: the concept of no-self. Since this is a tricky thing to get your head around, let me come at it from an angle I understand better than Buddhist philosophy: role-playing games.

In Dungeons & Dragons, you portray a character who’s represented by a list of numbers and descriptors. One of the numbers represents how strong your character is; another how healthy or wounded you are; and so on. You also have a list of skills you’re good at, a list of what you’re carrying, perhaps a list of spells you know, etc. All this information can be written down on a few pages which are jointly called your character sheets.

Other role-playing systems also use character sheets. Different games have different information on their sheets, depending on what’s important in the game—a game about superheroes needs different information than, say, a game where you play a pirate or a spy—but all RPGs distill a character down to a page or two of attributes.

Games have to work this way because games need rules, and the number of rules needs to be small enough that people can actually remember them. Inevitably, then, games simplify life, and character sheets are severe simplifications: you can’t really sum up a complete person in a few pages.

More generally, every representation of a person is a simplification. For example, a 400-page novel is just a long character sheet. With subtext, a novel can suggests depths that aren’t explicitly on the page, but it’s still small in comparison to actual life.

Even a very long novel is short compared to a lifetime. I just took a look at audiobooks of War and Peace, and they run between 60 and 70 hours. That’s a lot of reading, but it’s still less than three days. A good novel makes you feel as if you know the characters exceedingly well, but you don’t actually “live” with them very long at all.

Now back to “no-self”. My personal take on this is that your idea of who you really are is just a character sheet. It’s a simplification that misses so much, it blinds you to reality. It’s always off-base. The truth is that we’re constantly changing; right now we may be angry but thirty seconds later, we’re wondering what we’ll have for supper, and then if there’s anything funny on Twitter, and so on.

This isn’t just a symptom of modern distractibility—the Buddha talked about it 2500 years ago. The human condition is that we change from second to second. Even scientifically valid personality profiles like the Big Five are only another type of character sheet. They may be useful in some contexts (just as character sheets are useful when you’re playing a game), but they aren’t the unchanging truth of who we are.

So what is the truth? How do we get at it? The answer isn’t finding the “right” character sheet that will encapsulate our “self” correctly. The answer (according to the Buddha) is to give up trying to find an encapsulated self at all. Just pay attention to your body and mind in this moment…and in the next moment…and in the next. Avoid trying to make a character sheet of who you “really” are overall. Just know what’s happening in the moment.

And that takes us back to meditation…which I really will try to talk about next time.

{Image of Stormbringer character sheet in German from Ingo Willms, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D from Wikimedia Commons}

Sharing: July 8, 2018

More links to stuff I like:

Comics: Marvel Unlimited
For $69 (U.S.) a year, Marvel Unlimited gives you all-you-can-read access to thousands of Marvel comics including much of their back list: all the way back to Fantastic Four #1 and even some earlier comics (from before they called themselves Marvel). When I first subscribed in 2013, I went back ten years and started reading everything Marvel had published beginning in 2003. I’m now on October 2014.

I should note that Marvel Unlimited doesn’t include comics from the most recent six months, so if you want the newest comics, you’ll have to buy those on your own. Or else, just wait six months and they’ll show up for free. (Well, for $69 a year, but that’s almost free, right?)

Role-Playing Game: Geist, the Sin-Eaters (Second Edition)
This is another Onyx Path game, set in the world of the Chronicles of Darkness. In this one, you play someone who dies but comes back to life by making a deal with a powerful archetypal ghost. This may sound grim, but the game actually evokes an atmosphere like Mardi-Gras or the Mexican Day of the Dead: hey, since you’ve already died, nothing worse can happen. So why not live life like a party? On the other hand, you gain fabulous supernatural powers based on the kind of things ghosts do in ghost stories.

Right now the game’s second edition is going through a Kickstarter, so it’s a good time to sign up and get goodies relatively cheap.

Podcast: Revolutions
This is another history podcast, dedicated to revolutions (duh). It’s now in its eight season, where it’s dealing with the revolution that killed the Second French Empire in 1870. Previous seasons have dealt with the English revolution (Oliver Cromwell et al), the American revolution, the French revolution (i.e. the biggie), the Haitian slave revolt, and more. The host, Mike Duncan, does a great job of making history accessible, even when the action gets messy (and of course, during revolutions, things can get very messy indeed).