Friday, September 10, 2010

The Road to Athas: A New GM's Journey

I have long been a fan of the Dark Sun campaign setting. From the first mention of it in Dragon Magazine way back in 1991 I was hooked. The desolate landscape, the harsh environments, the brutal combats, the rampant psionics, and the way all the races and creatures were twisted appealed to me. It was a new fantasy world, but not a typical one. Though I collected and read nearly everything released for it over the next five years or so, I got precious little time to play it. Then for various reasons I was away from the hobby for a long period of time, returning as a player about a year before 4E came out. Being a player is fun, but I'd like to GM as well. I tried a short stint as a GM for a 3.X game (and a Star Wars Saga Edition game), but realized that I couldn't sustain it while still in school on top of work and family.

Dark Sun Logo
Well, school's almost done, and Wizards of the Coast recently released Dark Sun as a full 4E campaign setting. I'm currently playing in a great Forgotten Realms 4E game, but sooner or later it'll end or we'll take a break from it. We're at 15th level and our GM plans to bring us all the way to 30th; we'll either take a break at 20, or play straight through depending on the GM's decision. It is at that time I'll step up and start my first real campaign, set on the harsh desert world of Athas.

I blogged about this once before, back in February, when I thought that my first full-blown campaign would be Star Wars Saga Edition. However, players in my current group were resistant to the idea, preferring to stay with 4E even though the SWSE rules are very similar. With Dark Sun 4E out, it didn't take much talk to convince me to go that route first. I've still got all the books, and I'm sure that someday down the road I'll run that as well.

Though it may be months away, I've already started preparing. Unlike last winter, when I thought I had found a balance that allowed me to start prepping for a SWSE game, I now actually do have a few minutes here and there to read and jot down thoughts.

No, I'm not going to meticulously plan out every single encounter from 1st to 30th level in high detail, that way only leads to madness when the party decides to run in a completely different direction after the first encounter. No, instead I'm starting with re-reading all the original source material (oh, and the GM's Handbooks 1 & 2, haven't read those yet) to get myself re-immersed in the setting, while thinking about how to bring that feel to the new 4E version of the setting. I'll be mining them for encounter and story ideas, NPC's and plot devices, as well as descriptions and themes.

Between now and whenever I start the campaign, I'll try to run some 1-offs and other short adventures to start building up my skills. I'll also try my hand at converting old encounters/adventures from 2E to 4E, and building my own. And I plan to chronicle my thoughts and insights right here, as part of my reviving of the Dragon's Musing. With school out of the way soon I'll have more time to focus on my hobbies and passions, which will include writing software to aid me in my GMing (more on that can be found at the Dragon's Cocoa blog).

Practically all of the ideas I had last winter I still have now, plus a whole lot more. I'll still need to balance with my programming, as I'm hoping that will bring in some (much needed) income, but the programs I'll be writing will need to be tested, and what better way to do initial testing then to use them myself?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Review: The Order 66 Podcast

d20 Radio LogoThis is the first, and as far as I know currently the only, podcast for the Wizards of the Coast Star Wars Saga Edition Roleplaying Game. (There was a short lived official podcast, but that is the only other one I am aware of). I have been listening this show since episode one, and it has earned its place as one of my must listen podcasts.

Nearly every week, GM Dave and GM Chris, along with many other guests and occasional co-hosts, bring us the latest in Star Wars Saga Edition gaming news. They’ve provided reviews of the various rulebooks as they’ve come out over the last couple years, though the line is coming to an end, so that part of the show is not likely to continue.

The real value of this podcast, however, is all the advise and rules discussions the hosts have in nearly every episode. The meat of each show is usually built around advice on a particular topic, and is often applicable to other game systems. In addition to rules discussions, character builds, and story building, they have also discussed topics such as player relations around the table.

The show also features many ‘bits,’ such as the popular “Postcards From Commander Cody,” which add both humor to the show, and an additional source of ideas for your game.

One item of particular note is that the game designers themselves have guested on many episodes. These shows with Rodney Thompson, Gary Sarli, and others are amongst my favorites, with rules clarifications and behind-the-scenes looks at the design process.

Though this may be the only podcast for Star Wars Saga Edition fans, we are lucky it is a very good one. The beginning episodes were, quite honestly, not that great, but the hosts have grown a lot in experience and now produce a great podcast for gamers. It is also the flagship podcast of the wonderful d20 Radio network.

  • Podcast Website: d20 Radio

  • Find This Review At: iTunes Music Store

  • Disclaimer: I have received no special considerations for this review.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Review: The Tome Show Podcast

Old Tome Show LogokJeff Greiner’s The Tome Show podcast has been a staple on my iPod since I discovered it in early 2007. Since its inception the show has focused on the Dungeons & Dragons product line from Wizards of the Coast; starting with 3rd edition and shifting over to 4th edition along with the products.

What started out as a largely one-man ‘news and reviews,’ amateur sounding show has grown a lot over the years. The show now has a bi-monthly format, with one show being a ‘review’ show, and the other being an ‘advice’ show, which I enjoy a lot. The reviews shows usually highlight one of Wizards major releases of the past month. They tend to be in-depth and fair, with numerous insight into how one can use the featured product in their game. Advice shows often tackle interesting topics, also in-depth, usually working on situations the hosts have encountered, or building things the hosts plan to use in their own games.

Though the show has no permanent co-host, there is a rotating cast of guest-hosts pulled from the ranks of fellow RPG podcasters, bloggers, and other community members. This is a marked improvement over earlier shows, as it gives the show a variety of viewpoints, and ideas bounce around a lot more freely. It’s also nice to put voices to people I may know only through Twitter, their blogs, or other sources.

When people ask me what D&D podcast to listen to, this is usually the first one I mention. It’s got good production values, and great, useful content. The Tome Show is a member of the Vorpal Network.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vivaki of Shoubor

This weekend I start playing 4E D&D game with a new group of players, run by the host of The Tome Show, Jeff Greiner. In preparation I have created my character, an 11th-level Goliath Great Weapon Fighter named Vivaki. This is his background:

The Goliath tribe of the Shoubor led a secluded existence in the southern Sunrise Mountains for many generations. The Shoubor kept to themselves, hunting and gathering for all their needs, with little need to contact the outside world.

This all changed when, during his 14th cycle, Vivaki, eldest son of the tribal chief, returned to his settlement after undertaking his first solo hunt to find it in ruins and his people gone without a trace. With no clue as to what happened to his people, Vivaki ventured out into the world in hopes of finding answers.

It wasn't long before he was captured by slavers and sold to a wealthy merchant as a body-guard. Seeing he had a natural affinity for the glaive, he was trained to use the weapon by the best trainers money could buy. His will broken for the time being, he made a fine body-guard for his master, and was little trouble.

Many years passed, and Vivaki grew strong in both weapon prowess and will. He never forgot his tribe, quietly vowing to himself that he would one day discover their fate. He also grew increasingly reluctant to follow the orders of his master. He learned more and more about his master's criminal that he found personally detestable.

One night while camped in the forest, his master's small party was ambushed by a group of adventurers. They demanded his master submit to justice. At this time Vivaki was head of the guard, and easily the best fighter of the party. He figured he could win the battle, but knew his master was guilty of the crimes he was accused of.

He decided this was his chance. Rather then defend his master, Vivaki turned his glaive on his master and added his voice to that of the adventurer's. The other guards would not lift a finger against Vivaki, knowing he could best them all at once. Having no other choice, his now former master surrendered.

Vivaki then spent a few years wandering with this new group, until he grew tired of their seemingly single-minded obsession with wealth. Parting ways with them amicably, he set out to find a new group, one that could possibly help him find the fate of his people.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Once & Future GM: Star Wars Saga Edition

Recently I've found a new group to game with, one which is playing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition -- a game I am excited to start as a player. So far I've only played in two short-lived D & D 4th Edition games. (One of them only lasted two sessions, if I recall correctly, and I only made it to one.) I really enjoyed the game mechanics much more so then the 3/3.5E game we had been playing the previous year or so.

However, I still plan to run my own campaign at some point once I'm done with school. I've long since decided that my first full-fledged campaign as a Game Master would be Star Wars Saga Edition, by Wizards of the Coast. There are other games I'm thinking about running as well, for example I do have ideas I'd like to run both in Dark Sun and a generic fantasy world, but I'd like to give Saga Edition a solid run first.

I actually did start running the SWSE Dawn of Defiance campaign about a year and a half ago, but between full-time work, full-time school, and full-time family, I just couldn't put together enough time to do a good prep job even with only one game a month; thus I abruptly stopped it after four or five sessions. The player's said they enjoyed it, but with each session I enjoyed it less and less due to my overburdened schedule, but I vowed to return behind the screen.

To that end I'm already starting to prep, though it'll be many months -- maybe even a year -- before the game starts. I'll be playing around with possible story arcs, flexible encounter ideas, and NPC's. I don't want to get too detailed, but I do want a library of material to draw from when it comes time to run. I think I should be able to come up with a set of encounters that are flexible enough to drop into any game session, and adjustable to a range of levels. Basically the Star Wars equivalent of a Dungeon Delve.

Additionally, I'll be reading, and reviewing, all 14 of the books Wizards of the Coast has produced for the game. Those reviews will at the very least show up here, and I may look for other outlets for them if they come out any good. I'll also queue up some of the novels and comics, and hopefully finally sit down with the kids and watch the entire series. We may even get a hold of the new Clone Wars series.

Star Wars Saga Edition was developed by Wizards of the Coast in-between D & D 3E and 4E. As such, there are many elements of both in the game. One can pick out many bits that are clearly either refinements of 3E mechanics, or prototypes of 4E mechanics. Star Wars is also a familiar universe to a lot of people I'm likely to game with, and has a lot of potential.

I have several other projects in mind, in the areas of programming and media, which I also consider to be, in part, preparation. Lately I've been learning how to squeeze in personal project time here and there, whenever possible. I've also carefully tried to align projects which may result in possible income sometime in the future with projects that are completely for fun. This makes it a little easier to justify resource usage for projects on my list.

I put this out here in the public for a few reasons. One is I'm trying to improve my communications skills. Another is I'm looking for feedback and ideas, whether it is about my writing, my game ideas, my programs, or anything else. This is also me trying to give back to the larger RPG blogger/podcaster community, from which I have learned so much.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

When RPGs Meet SMGs, Part Two

I've been thinking a bit about The Core Mechanic's ruminations on the topic of how, and what, Role-Playing Games can borrow from Social Media Games to endear themselves to future generations. The more I think about it, the more I think that, while there may be some base concepts which are adaptable, there simply isn't enough compatibility for one to pull from the other without becoming something else entirely. (This is not a bad thing, but I'm going to take the viewpoint that what we're looking for is still an RPG).

In my view, RPGs require an imaginative flexibility which simply can not be adequately modeled with current technology. Even if, as Mad Brew Labs proposes, we throw in mini-games between session's, without a human's intervention (or at least close observation), they become the same old monotonous tasks that litter games such as Farmville. At best, such a game would allow a game master to set up parameters and goals, allow the characters to run through it once using the rules of the system they are playing, and report the results back to the game master. Other then being possibly more aesthetically pleasing, this option does not offer anything that can't be done better with something like e-mail or Google Wave.

However, I found Malcolm Sheppard's Mob United article on Next Gen RPG's to be almost exactly what I have been thinking about for a while now. Instead of forcing the traditional table-top paradigm of books, dice, and loose papers into digital analogs of the same (creating near abominations like DDI), perhaps we should build new RPG systems from the ground up with current technology in mind. Build the game not as a set of books, but as a set of integrated digital tools which serve to speed the more crunchy parts of the game so gamers can focus on the story at hand. This is an area I'd very much like to be working in, especially with the potential of products like the iPad.

Which leads me to my last point in today's article. Oddyssey of the blog How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days or Less gives us an informative article from the perspective of the "whippersnapper" we're trying to capture with all of this discussion. This article provides an insight into what the young gamers of today are looking for in the table-top games of tomorrow. Turns out they pretty much want the same thing we did when we first started: a solid set of rules that allow us to sit around with a bunch of friends, roll some dice, and tell some stories. It is the creative, as well as the hands-on aspect, which seems to be far more interesting then mini-games filling in for a skill challenge. I think if we're going to digitize the delivery mechanism for the RPGs of tomorrow, then we have to do so in a way that enables rather then distracts. It's been said that great software makes the gadget disappear, and that is the goal I have for developing software in this space. I want a player using one of my programs to be no more distracted by it then the pen and paper character sheet they use now.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

When RPGs Meet SMGs, Part One

The other day I got into a Twitter discussion with the cool Jonathan Jacobs of The Core Mechanic (a discussion which includes the also cool MadBrew of Mad Brew Labs). He invited me to take a look at a few articles he'd written regarding the future of RPG's, Social Media, and how the new Apple iPad may fit in. I decided 140 characters was not enough to comment on this, so here we are. I'm still digesting all the articles, comments, and further articles they link to, so this will probably be the first in a series of responses. Here are links to some of the articles in question:

In the first article, Jonathan (if I may be so bold as to use a first name), reflects on what exactly is the future of the role-playing game. There's a feeling that the traditional RPG market is shrinking, while a new class of Social Media Games (or SMG's, think Farmville and Mofia Wars) is exploding. He ponders if, and what, RPG's can learn from SMG's.

When using the term "Role-Playing Game" to define a type/style of game, I prefer to keep the definition focused. A RPG should involve humans taking on imaginary roles and interacting with humans (who are also taking on imaginary roles), following a set of rules which allow the humans to create a story dynamically. The group could have a leader (i.e., Game Master), or not. It could be face-to-face, or not. It could be real-time, or not. I feel if one eliminates one these basics, then one is talking about a different type of game. I'm not saying that is a bad thing, I'm just saying it is no longer what I would call an RPG.

Social Media Games, at least the few that I am familiar with, are quite different. They are really more of a single person completing simple puzzles or repetitive tasks on their own. The "social" aspect comes into play primarily through comparing results, or 'helping' someone else. When I watch people play Farmville, I really get the sense it is a solo activity. Sure, they'll water someone else's farm, but that other person will likely never notice. They send 'gifts' at random, and receives them, but this is really to gain some in-game advantage. The most social aspect seems to be the competition with other players. The definition of these types of games seems to be a solo gamer, a simple set of tasks, an ability to compare/share/help others, and a repetitive (or even non-existent) story. SMGs to me are a completely different type of game then RPGs, and not very compatible.

This is not to say that RPGs cannot learn from SMGs, but I do think if one brings too much SMG into the RPG, it becomes a new class of game. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Looking over the ideas The Core Mechanic and Mad Brew Labs present on the intersection of the two, I see possibilities. Traditional table-top role-playing games seem to be still struggling to find ways to officially adopt technology as a part of the game. SMGs may provide some clues, in addition to showing ways to grow the user base. However, I'm going to need to ponder this some more, so please do check back in a few days or so and see what I've come up with.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Violent 'Mech on 'Mech Action...

Last weekend I got together with the old gaming group for a game of BattleTech. This was, I believe, the third time I've done that recently, though the group has had many other sessions. Before that I hadn't touched BattleTech since the first edition FASA days, but have always retained an interest in the game. I remember fondly the days of sitting in lakes to cool off while I unload all my weapons, and tearing limbs off of other 'Mechs to use as clubs.

The game ran fairly long — six players doing ten rounds of combat in around six hours. We played using some popular modified tournament rules, along with some house rules the group felt made the game better. If I recall correctly, all but one of us ran with custom built 'Mechs (built in part using the excellent, multi-platform SolarisSkunkWerks), though I cannot remember what model the standard 'Mech on the board was.

I built a quad 'Mech (for some unknown reason constantly referred to in the rules as "Four-Legged" instead of "Quad"), a first for our group. It was a 45 ton 'Mech, with a pair of small pulse lasers, a pair of medium pulse lasers, and a pair of MRM-10 missiles; as well as an impressive amount of armor. All this in a 'Mech costing less then 5,000,000 Cr. The group as a whole was evenly split between nimble light 'Mechs and lumbering medium 'Mechs. The battlefield was huge, it had to be over 25 by 40 hexes easily.

For the first 8 rounds there were two battles going on, the lights in one and the mediums in another (though the quickest light took a pot shot at a medium before diving into the all-light fray). Two of the lights tore each other up, while the quickest one managed to weave in and out, dishing out damage while avoiding getting hit much. Ultimately the two slower ones were taken out, giving the quick one assisted and one unassisted kill, after which he ran over to join the mediums. Both decided to come back on the board, though I don't recall them having too great an affect on the outcome.

Of the mediums, one took five turns running just to get into the battle, while the other medium and I traded volleys. Though I only won initiative once, I managed to luck out in that most of the time I went after my two main adversaries, thus having the upper hand on them. They were tough, at one point teaming up on me to deliver nearly 60 points of damage in one round. But I gave as good as I got. The last couple rounds were the most interesting. I had removed the rear armor on one of the other mediums, which gave the quick light a chance to run up behind it and deliver a killing blow, scoring yet another kill. The other medium managed to exit the board before the last round (though not before losing a limb or two), leaving me and the quick light as the only two 'Mechs to stay on the board the entire game.

I really enjoyed the game this time. Though I disagreed with some of the 'house-rules,' I was happy to see my creation hold its own on the battlefield. The previous session I played was actually not much fun for me, as I was seriously outclassed by pilots and 'Mechs that benefited from experience gained over several sessions (the custom 'Mechs were over twice the value of my standard, while the pilots had all kinds of skill advantages). I don't actually remember the first session I played in, 'twas many months ago.

Unfortunately, this was probably the last BattleTech game I'll play for a while. I've found a new group which is playing Dungeons & Dragons 4E, which is what I've been wanting to play for some time now, and that will take my allotted two games per month. However, once Catalyst Game Labs is able to release a new box set (25th Anniversary Edition, I hear), I will likely try to get my hands on one. Once I get time to start painting minis, I'll probably try to get some good BattleTech ones as well. I foresee a time when I'll be able to do more then two games a month, and filling those other slots with miniature games like BattleTech sounds like a great idea.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Young Adventurer's Guild

I have a large number of Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures sitting around, mostly unused since I haven't been playing nor running a D&D type game for awhile (our group is currently focused on Shadowrun and BattleTech). I also have two young kids who are very interested in what Daddy does when he goes to his friends house to play. A few weeks ago, a great RPG blogger going by the moniker NewbieDM published an article which showed how to bring these two together. I initially filed it in the back of my mind as an interesting way to introduce the kids to structured roleplaying in general, and D&D specifically. Then I saw a blog post by Paul Haynes on how he took those rules, made some changes, and ran with his son. Both gentlemen's kids are around 4, which is slightly younger then my two kids, who are 5 and 6 (Boy and Girl respectively).

Pre-Game SnackThis, along with some chatter on Twitter, convinced me to give it a try. When I told the kids we were going to learn how to play an adventure game, they were a little excited. I quickly realized it may have been easier to try to teach each of them separately, but once  I started teaching both at the same time, I stayed the course. After a quick snack of Triscuits with cheese (which Boy did not eat, as usual), we cleared the table and brought out the character sheets and Dungeon Tiles. This also brought the avalanche of questions, mostly from Girl (while Boy started to create his own game).

Girl's character sheetI started by trying to explain the rules. For our first game, I dispensed with the bonuses and penalties, changed movement to 5 squares, only the Magic person can give medicine, and decided monsters only need to be hit once to be knocked out. The kids, however, were impatient to get started, so I moved us along to choosing minis. I let each of them choose two characters. Girl selected a Magic Girl and a Bow & Arrow Guy, which she named "Annie" and "Rocky." Boy selected a Sword Guy and a Bow & Arrow Girl, which he named "The Boy" and "The Girl" (we're going to need to work on imagination there). Daddy got six minions due to their weakness.

Round 1We each rolled a D6 for initiative. I got a 6, Boy got a 2, and Girl got a 1. Order of play being quickly set, we got started. The game only lasted three rounds. Boy rolled well, hitting nearly every time, while Girl only hit about a third of the time. The monster's got a few hits in, but none of the players were knocked out. Girl had to be reminded a couple of times that she and her brother were on the same team, and that she can only roll the dice once, even if it's a one. Boy had to be reminded that he has to wait for his turn to move his pieces. All the while I ensured that both the kids stuck to the rules. Both kids had no problems with the numbers involved. As to the reading, Girl had no problem (she's reading at a level a couple years ahead of her age), but Boy needed help (as I expected).

The Hero's winOverall, it was a fun game session. I didn't last long, maybe about half an hour, with a lot of time spent helping them keep focused. The kids were excited to play again, but unfortunately, this was a finals weekend for me in school, so we didn't have time for that. It was challenging keeping them both on task. I think next weekend we'll play around with NewbieDM's rules a bit more, I may even try Mr. Haynes variation with them. I'm also going to spend a bit more time on story elements. This time around, I nearly completely eschewed story in favor of teaching them the basics of structured play. If I come up with any significant changes to their rules, I'll be sure to share it here.

If you are interested, the complete photo gallery for this session can be found on my Flickr account over here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A bit of an introduction...

Once upon a time, I tried to do this blogging thing. It started out well, but eventually Real Life called, and I was pulled in too many directions to keep it up. But the desire to use a blog as a creative outlet has persisted, and I think it is time to try it again. At this time, I'm not promising any kind of a regular posting schedule, but I will attempt to do something at least once a week. I can also be found on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and Tumblr (among other places).

So I'm going to blog, but what am I going to blog about? Well, drawing inspiration from a variety of people I follow, respect, and admire, this blog is going to be focused primarily on roleplaying games (RPG's). Ever since I was in elementary school, I've been interested in fantasy and science fiction. I was a very avid paperback reader, and at some point I discovered Dungeons & Dragons (the old Red Box set). Unlike others, I don't have an awesome "somebody introduced me and we played and played" story. In fact, if I recall correctly, I found my first box set on the shelf of a toy store.

Throughout the rest of school and into my early 20's, I acquired quite a bit of RPG books, not just the various incarnations of D&D, but a lot of other games as well - I've still got many old FASA games like Star Trek and Dr. Who. I had a couple friends with whom we'd occasionally try to play, but only rarely did things last more then a couple of sessions. Mostly I bought the books, read them, and put them on the shelf. Before I finished high school, I also did a lot of planning and world creation, though much of that material has been lost over the years.

Life happened, I got married, got busy with other interests. I'd still pick up the occasional RPG book, though more often then not I wouldn't have the time to read it. I moved from Minnesota to North Carolina, started a new job, and made some friends who were all interested in putting together a group. Thus in the past few years I've finally been able to participate in ongoing games. So far, we've played D&D 3.5, D&D 4, Star Wars Saga Edition (which I GM'd), Shadowrun 4, and the most recent iteration of Battletech (the war game, not the RPG). This group, which started out as nine people, has kind of fractured. Those that are left have been playing Shadowrun and Battletech lately, while I'm really interested in playing D&D 4 right now. Since we have no one to run it (I don't have the time), I started looking for a new group.

In the future, I intend to write about my experiences, what I've learned, provide advice, and perhaps even fiction pieces inspired by my gaming. Over time I really hope my writing improves, and hopefully pick up some regular readers. I'm always open to constructive criticism to help me improve. But that's all for now. If all goes according to plan, there'll be a new article up within a weeks time...