Friday, April 25, 2014

GAGP's Solution: The Episodic Sandbox Part 3

Continued from Part 2

The Episodic Sandbox Campaign (which I may refer to as TESC for my personal campaign when I run it) relies on the shorter independent adventures for ease of drop-in-drop-out of players and on the evolving sandbox to retain player agency and a feeling of a living changing world.  The last important piece of the puzzle is allowing for player flexibility.

Going back to player attendance, there is always the chance that the only guy playing a Cleric can't make it.  Who wants to go dungeon delving without turning or healing right?  To deal with this, I will allow players to have more than one character.  I'm not quite sure what the limit might be, but there would be a restriction that a player can only take ONE of their characters on an adventure at a time, except in maybe dire circumstances.  There are pros and cons here.  If Phil plays 4 different characters and changes them up, he will take longer to have a higher level character than someone who focuses on a singular character.  The option does allow for players to try out different classes, so they don't get bored of always being the Fighter, for instance.  This also allows for newer players to fit into a group.  If Kim joins the group and starts with a level 1 magic-user (and needs time to get used to that class's capabilities and how to play in general), the other players can use their lower level characters and go on less dangerous adventures.  This means the group can bounce between high-level giant lair jaunts, and the more classic, low-level goblin slaying as needed.  This may also create interesting scenarios.  A particular dungeon may call for a magic-user to open a door.  The party that day didn't  have it's magic-user.  The party could go back and get him/her.  That magic-user may be much lower level, and now the adventure takes on a more "protect the VIP and get them to the important location safely" shade, than just dungeon clearing.

The goal here is flexibility.  I want the players to make decisions about their party composition.  This may not always need to be an important decision, but it could be interesting to have the players need to make the decision on whether or not to bring a Cleric to hunt the vampire, as the Cleric is a neophyte and may not last long.  The opposite coin being the stronger characters must contend with the vampire without divine assistance.

In addition to some extra house-ruling (like adding the cleaving mechanic from ACKS to Fighter abilities and ACKS's mortal wounds and tampering with mortality charts) one idea I am also toying with is restricting starting classes to Fighter, Thief, Cleric, and Magic-User.  More of the advanced classes like assassin, demi-human races, etc. can be "unlocked" by completing certain adventures that are presented.  This gives a feeling of progression for the overall gaming group.  In one adventure, the party may end up with a choice of supporting the Assassin's Guild and gaining an uncertain ally, instead of some other action of consequence.  After this adventure, the group has the option of creating assassin characters for the party.  They will start at level 1, so advancing these characters means taking time off their original character.  I may or may not be clear about which adventures might unlock more races/classes in the adventure hook descriptions, but if for instance Dave really wanted to be a ranger, I may specifically create and advertise that particular adventure to the group so they know it's there to tackle.

This means the longer the campaign goes, the more it grows, and the more options that players have.  If eventually they wish to create stongholds or keep new bases, I can support that as well.  Some high level characters may retire and become NPCs with occasional player control, while allowing them to continue playing their lower level characters.  If the sweet spot of DnD is level 3-7 or similar, there will always be an option to play in that sweet spot, while retaining the familiarity of the setting sandbox they have been developing with me.  In the mood for low-level, spring the trap and you're dead? Play your new level 1 assassin, ranger, bard, and druid.  Want to deal with expanding your strongholds?  Play your level 12 fighter, cleric, thief, and magic-user.  Or anything in between.

I think that does it for describing the solution to GAGP, or my planned implementation of it.  I may make additional posts if there are other things I feel I can expand upon.

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

GAGP's Solution: The Episodic Sandbox Part 2

Continued from Part 1

So the idea of an episodic sandbox is predicated on episodic adventures that can stand alone and be enjoyed by players in attendance, and those that can't make it that week won't feel like they are missing a big part of the story.  The setting and sandbox the players interact in SHOULD be familiar though.  When you are adventuring, certain elements should be familiar.  The town the players live in is the one that is attacked.  The same lonely mountain that the player's delved into for treasure may have a hidden bandit fortress somewhere on the other side.

Though the adventures are episodic, I want player agency to remain important like any other sandbox campaign.  If the players are unable to finally hunt down and kill that manticore, they may find a few friendly NPCs have gone missing at the start of the following game session.  If the bandit leader escapes death and flees his fortress, he may come after the players with assassins to get revenge.  Choices during the episodic adventures still matter.  The consequences of the player's actions will spawn new adventures down the road.  If the players discover and take over control of a borderlands fort, their adventures may include defending the supply lines to the fort, defend it from attackers, etc.  If the player's start acting more evil, they may have to contend not only with other villainous creatures, but also the forces of "good".

The next question is, how do player's get hooked into these adventures?  When we accept this type of campaign, we must give up notions of some save-the-world story.  Things are more local, gritty, and since we'll be playing swords & wizardry, deadly.  The player's will operate out of some sort of base.  To start, this will probably be the cliche'd tavern in town.  We can accept cliches because it facilitates the campaign style needed.  In typical fashion, the players will begin their adventures here but also end them.  At the end of each episodic session, they will return to the tavern to rest up, count treasure, etc.  When the characters in drinking ale, they will become privy to adventure hooks.  There may be a bulletin board with rumors, ads for 'heroes needed', etc.  May also include the occasional bursting in of a troubled NPC with an immediate problem.  This will be summarized to players by me describing what's new or current on the bulletin board, what they have heard around town, etc.  Either at the end of the session or via email between sessions, the players will vote on which lead interests them most.  This will allow me to make sure I have time to properly prepare.  The player's can then prioritize what they want to do.  Dave really wants to hunt down that hydra but can't make it next week.  The others decide to leave that trail alone for now and instead look to take down the slavers' operations down the river.  That hydra can wait for Dave, though it may ravage a few farms in the mean time.

I will be looking to craft a sandbox out of the steps shown in the ACKS rulebook, but I will allow for "Schrodinger's Dungeon".  That is, a particular adventure site may or may not exist until I need it.  Sure the player's have been to hex 1016 before, but the wizard's tower wasn't really "there" until I had an adventure set there.  Perhaps it was illusion'd.  No, the player's did not notice the cave in hex 2034 until they had the treasure map leading to it.  The large amount of square mileage available to me means the players will never truly explore every nook and cranny.  I can fill the sandbox as much as I want.  Goblin hordes move in from the north and set up new villages, earthquakes unveil new cave structures, etc.

So far I have explained facilitating adventures and making the sandboxes feel alive.  In the next post, I'll discuss how player flexibility will keep things interesting and allow for progression of the campaign over time.

GAGP's Solution: The Episodic Sandbox Part 1

In today's previous post I talked about the Great Adult Gaming Problem.  It is not a new problem by any means, but I think I have a solution that will work for my future campaigns and maybe it can help yours too.

First and foremost, I must give credit to Beyond the Black Gate, as most of the underlying concepts are taken from the blog author's series on episodic play.  You can read them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

The essential bits to be taken from that post series, is that episodic play relies on bite-sized adventures that can be done in 3-4 hours and are relatively compartmentalized from each other.  Al, the author of Beyond the Black Gate, gives a short list of adventure types: Relics & Ruins, Tiny Dungeons, Monster Hunting, Megadungeons, and Random Generator Travel.  For my purposes, I ideally want to narrow this down to basically three types of adventures: Small dungeon delving, monster set pieces, and multi-terrain objective.

Small dungeon delving is essentially Al's Relics & Ruins and Tiny Dungeons categories combined.  These would be micro-dungeons with 5-10 rooms, able to be explored within a session.  They would probably include typical dungeon denizens inside, typical treasure, but the reason for being there is clear.  There is an artifact to be found, a bounty to be collected, a hostage to retrieve.  These areas need not be underground, but it is the idea of a multi-roomed structure to explore, possibly clear, with a goal in mind.

Monster Set Pieces are much like Al's monster hunting.  I don't like to use the word hunt because the situation could be that the players are reacting to monster attacks, not specifically hunting them.  The monsters serve as set pieces, wherever they are encountered.  An entire adventure is dedicated to a specific monster.  This monster is probably much stronger than the players, and thus each encounter will be dramatic.  For example, the town and country-side is being ravaged  by a roaming manticore.  The player's must find a way to eliminate the threat.  This will include tracking the creature, fending off the creature when it attacks the town, and possibly going after it's lair to neutralize it.  I've been looking at numerous monster books, thinking about which ones make great singular monsters for these types of adventures.  They should be monstrous, iconic, and be something that requires proper preparation by the PCs.  I fortunately have many monster books to use and select unique monsters from, especially ones the players have never encountered before (standard trolls are too easy!).  For old school rules (including Swords and Wizardry and OSRIC/1E) see: Monstrosities, Tome of Horrors Complete, Tome of Horrors 4, the Teratic Tome, and Monsters of Myth(free!).  Since OSRIC is so close to Swords & wizardry Complete, I will be able to use any of those monsters pretty easily in my S&W games.

Multi-terrain Objective adventures are the catch-all for anything else I can think of.  Perhaps it's an urban investigation, diplomatic role-playing story, hexcrawl of discovery, etc.  The idea here is that the player's should have a clear goal to accomplish, but it is neither a dungeon crawl or pure monster slaying.  Perhaps the characters must race to find the location of a lost city or temple.  This in turn might lead to further adventure possibilities.

Al does some great write-ups about these general ideas, so again I recommend reading his posts as well to get a deeper understanding of how to prepare these adventure types.  Supplements like the Tome of Adventure Design and the D30 Sandbox Companion provide tables and ideas for creating the episodic adventures.

Now, so far this has all been based Al's work, but here our my personal plans.  These individual episodic adventures are more like episodes of the X-Files rather than Game of Thrones.  There will be the one-offs, but also some possibilities of several of these episodic adventures be connected.  Like the X-Files' overall plot about government conspiracies, certain things will be recurring elements because they are parts of the sandbox world that exists around the characters.  More on this in the next blog post.

The Great Adult Gaming Problem

Look another blog post!  Unfortunately I don't have the Part 2 of the Slumbering Tsar Saga conversion done yet.  I have made some progress on it though.  Today I wanted to talk briefly about something many gamers are familiar with, what I call the Great Adult Gaming Problem (GAGP).  I think most gamers have encountered this in one form or the other, I'm just giving it a name so I can talk about it more easily.  This problem, and how I am going to try to tackle it, will be covered in the next few blog posts.  I will break them up so they are easier to consume.

The root of the problem is one that I'm sure the founders of the hobby encountered many times.  As opposed to when you are a teenager or kid, when you are an adult you don't have the luxury of summer breaks, free weekends, etc.  Work, spouses, errands, and all those other things we adults worry about keep us from having a consistent schedule for gaming.  I may have weekends off and can make time, but maybe some of my players have to work weekends.  That sort of thing.  You can't guarantee everyone is going to be at every session.  You sometimes see players bring friends for a one-off occasion, which may not mesh with what is going on in the campaign.

In addition, longer adventures (including modules, megadungeons, and many story arcs) can't be completed in a single session.  It seems these days, 8 hour long marathon sessions just aren't possible.  I'm typically able to have 3-4 hour sessions or the sometimes 5-6 hour session.  If a dungeon, module, or what-have-you takes longer than a single session, people begin to forget what is happening when we get back to playing.  My last SWN game ended this way.  We are in the middle of a dungeon area.  If we sat down to play again we'd spend half the session trying to figure out why they were there, what had they done so far, and what room they were currently in.  Even with my notes.  If schedules get out of whack, it could be weeks or months until the game could be picked up again.  Long stories with numerous variables is too much paperwork to keep if attendance is so variable.  Dave can't make it to the session, guess his assassin is in drone-auto-pilot through the rest of the dungeon.

Relying on adventure path modules won't work, they are too "on-rails" to maintain unless you have a super consistent group

So how do you insulate your campaign from these problems?  How do you make every session enjoyable, no matter what the attendance is, or how often you meet?  How do you continue to make the players have agency and let the world feel alive?  I believe the key is in a particular form of sandbox gameplay.

I've spent sometime reading other blogs and pondering solutions to the problem.  I think I may have some solutions.  They aren't novel ones, I must admit I will be using the ideas of others.  I'll post links to those sources as I explain it.  I hope that the solution I use, plus some liberal house-ruling, will allow for an interesting campaign that will be hard to derail.

Links to Solution Series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

For readers, how do you address GAGP in your groups?  Leave your comments below.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Back? Maybe.

Hello readers.  If there are any of you out there.  I know my last blog post got some traffic due to my Slumbering Tsar conversion project.  And YES, it's been a year since I last posted.  I hate being one of those folks that writes plenty for a month or two and then dies off, but alas I am/was.

So what have I been up to?  Well I found a wonderful lady to be my girlfriend, moved to a new place, dealt with some career stuff (good stuff), and tried to keep a regular RPG group going (to little success).

The Slumbering Tsar project ground to a halt.  However I've been noticing some interest on the Google+ communities and the FGG forums for the conversion.  I may try to give it another go, complete what I started.  I had a hard drive corruption awhile back and lost a lot of my notes and work from before.  I still fortunately had part 1 saved to google docs.  We will see what happens in the coming weeks.

Gaming wise, I ran a group for awhile.  We did Swords & Wizardry for bit, ran +Matt Finch's Grimmsgate for a bit, but due to player attendance problems things sort of fell apart.  I was able to run a great session of White Plume Mountain and I have to say I really enjoyed it.  May need to make separate post about that day.

And even more recently I had revived my group to play +Kevin Crawford's awesome Stars Without Number game using his Hydra Sector as the setting.  We played two sessions, and my move caused the gaming to halt and now I'm in a gridlock.  I am pretty burned out on DMing.  Even though I haven't actually done much of it over the past year, I miss being a player.  I've been the DM for so long I have forgotten what it is like to play.  Whenever I really want to play RPGs, it's always up to me to get the group together.  I have discussed with a consistent player of mine the possibility of him DMing a game, and I offered to trade off DM duties from week to week.  He is still thinking about it.  Lately I've been very interested in playing or running Adventurer Conqueror King and I have the books for it.  I imagine my friend would run Swords & Wizardry though, unless convinced otherwise.  In order to prepare for those games I may be spending some time creating a new sandbox compatible with ACKS's systems.  Would need to balance that against the Slumbering Tsar conversion.

Anyway, thanks for reading.  Here's to hoping I get off my ass and starting working on stuff again.  Would be good to see the Frog God Games folks at PaizoCon and let them know I got a reason for more people to buy Slumbering Tsar.