Hidden Things

A while back, I promised my friends Penny and Clint that I would run a small game for just the two of them, something that we could pick up and play when other folks aren’t available. At the time, it was going to be The Phoenix Covenant, and I did a fair bit of work getting the campaign ready. Then I started burning out on D&D, and didn’t want to keep pushing on that particular campaign. So, I sent out a set of options for discussion, and we settled on playing Mage: The Awakening, influenced in part at least by the success of the first Hunter game I ran a couple of weeks ago.

This is the initial pitch for the Mage game, pulled from the list of pitches I sent:

Mage: The Awakening – The past is reluctant to give up it’s hidden secrets, even to one with the power of a wizard. But you search for traces of the occult history of the world, hidden in archaelogical digs, museum artifacts, urban legends, and strange pocket worlds and times. You will find not just the truth, but the TRUTH.

After some discussion, we decided to set the game in the early 20th century, during the height of archaeological exploration and at the beginning of the decline of secret societies like the Golden Dawn. The ideas I have in mind are a mix of Henry Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Warren Ellis‘s magnificent Planetary comic series. Basically, I want a mix of pulp and noir: the cinematic action, globe-trotting adventure, weird science and magic of pulp blended with the moral relativism, conspiracy, and paranoia of noir. After doing a little bit of research on the era, I picked 1910 as a starting year because of some things that I don’t want to talk about just yet – I know that at least one of the players reads this blog.

So, with those decisions made, I got to work on a wiki for the game. Since I discovered Obsidian Portal, this has become one of my must-do items when I’m building a campaign that’s going to follow an extended story arc, as opposed to episodic campaigns like the Hunter game.

My first idea for the game was just to use the published material for Boston that’s appeared in the Mage books, just back-dating it as necessary. I don’t feel the need to be absolutely accurate and faithful to reality in building a historical campaign: to me, evocation of the feel of the period is more important than strict historical veracity. That said, I try to at least pay lip-service to the truth, so certain elements were going to have to change. Just not all that many.

But this weekend, I read through Boston Unveiled, as opposed to just skimming it as I had done previously. The chapter on the history of the area convinced me that using the by-the-book political situation they posit in 1910 would be far more interesting to me than the one that currently holds sway in modern times. I started rewriting the Boston entry on the wiki, and changing the other entries for the major cabals and events. I’m still not quite done, but I think it’s going to be fun.

One of the things that I’ve realized is that I have to be careful with this campaign framework. It has real potential to devolve into a series of MacGuffin hunts, and that can get old. In order to try and avoid that, I’ve given the framework an overarching theme – the idea that the Bonehunters want to restore Atlantis and take the fight to the Exarchs in the Supernal Realm. This means that they’re going to be facing the Seers of the Throne, who make great Nazi-esque villains in a Mage game. It also means that some adventures and subplots are going to revolve around dealing with threats from the Seers and other opposition; not everything adventure is going to be about rushing off to the ruins of Crete to try and find the Minotaur Device at the heart of the Astral Labyrinth.

And, as I always try to do in small games, a fair bit of the agenda is going to be set by the players and the characters. I’m going to be throwing out a number of plot hooks and loose threads, and seeing what interests them, what they decide to pursue and what they decide to ignore. That will shape the flow of the game, as well.

As I work on the background, my players are reading up on the game and generating some ideas for their characters. I don’t want to get too locked into things until I know at least what their concepts are, but we’re getting very close to being able to start the game. Perhaps even before Christmas.

Oh. The name of the campaign is Scio Occultus Res, which is Latin for To Know Hidden Things.

Busy Weekend

I spent this weekend working on preparing for various games that are going to be starting soon.

Hunter: The Vigil

First, I’ve almost finsihed knocking the Hunter: The Vigil campaign into shape. I’ve made more work for myself with this than I was intending; see, I did a co-operative world-building thing with the players, and we wound up with something a little farther off the core rules than I had expected. Far enough that I’ve had to create a free-form special powers system to support what I want to do. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it means that I have to do some extra work with each individual player to set up mechanics for their special abilities.

This is  a little harder and more time-consuming than I had expected. A large part of that comes from the fact that I’m not as familiar with the New World of Darkness system as I am with the old one, and I’m having to do some more reading to make sure I’m not creating more problems for myself than I’m solving. Another part of the delay is the fact that building the powers is enough work that I’ve been putting it off.

But I’m in the home stretch, now, almost done with the power, and with the initial adventure fleshed out. We’re starting the game in a version of Magical Winnipeg that we developed for the Dresden Files RPG Bleeding Alpha Playtest. As we created it for the Dresdenverse, it doesn’t have the dark, horrific aspect that Hunter does, so I’m tweaking things a little. Still, the setting is more in keeping with the power level and the desire for playing supernatural (or at least unusual) characters that the players indicated.

One of the things we did during character creation for this game is to have a sort of collectively-narrated shared prelude for the characters, bringing the group together for the first time. This weekend, I finally got that typed up and distributed. Here’s how the party met:

As Below, So Above

In the spring of 2009, a number of disappearing students at the University of Manitoba attracted the attention of several people who had interests in investigating supernatural occurrences. Izzy, lecturing on civil engineering at the University, knew two of the missing students, and Nicholas knew another – she was the lead singer in his band, Divine Comdey. Liv was the one who tied it together, tracking the information on her site, and that attracted the notice of Vivianne and Ellis.

They began investigating independently, with Vivianne infiltrating the University occult crowd. She found most of them to be posers, but discovered that one of the missing students was a member. She delivered that information to Liv, who had come to town to investigate things in person.

Liv tracked down Izzy and convinced her to give her access to the University computer systems. She found unusual plans for expansion and completion of the tunnels under the University, plans that didn’t make a lot of sense.

Meanwhile, Ellis was on the trail of some stolen rare earths, substances used in many geomantic rituals, from one of the science labs at the University. His investigations lead him to the dorm room of one of the missing students, where he meets Nicholas, who has come to see where they lead singer has disappeared to.

After they established that they are after the same things, they searched the room and find most of her belongings are gone, but discovered her phone in the pocket of a pair of jeans. They decided to take it to Liv, being familiar with her website and tech expertise.

The various investigators got together and compare their findings. Izzy’s interpretation of the building plans allowed Ellis to identify the shape of a sigil linked to earth magic, similar to the patterns used by Neolithic societies in their underground constructions. They were able to tie together information from the occult poseurs with the symbol, the missing rare earths, and their knowledge of the supernatural, determining that someone was planning to sacrifice “builders of stone and delvers of earth” – the engineering students – to power a geomantic rite that would shatter the floodway and flood downtown Winnipeg.

Arming themselves, they proceeded into the steam tunnels, looking for the centre of the ritual – an underground maintenance room beneath the administration building. Earth spirits, roused by the beginnings of the ritual, obscured the area with drifting dust and shifting shadows, distorting the distance and size of the area to make traversing the tunnels difficult. Members of the cult attacked the hunters physically, and the heroes were forced to fight their way into the ritual space.

One of the students had already been sacrificed, and Nicholas’s friend was next on the list when they burst in. In the ensuing battle, the villain managed to sacrifice the singer, and Nicholas killed him for it. They freed the other two sacrifices and fled the tunnels as the backlash from the interrupted ritual called in a deluge of river water to wash the place clean.

So, things are finally moving forward on that front. The first game will happen soon.

The Phoenix Covenant

Finished the map of the area around Stayyin Keep and Covenant, where the game is going to begin. You can see it on Obsidian Portal here. I’m not great with maps, and this one has a number of flaws that jump out at me as I look more closely at it, but all-in-all I’m satisfied with it. It’s got 13 locations marked on it for the party to explore, and about the same number of places that are only marked on my GM version that they may or may not find out during play. The entries of the marked locations are already up on the wiki.

Have I mentioned how much I love Obsidian Portal? I love them lots.

And that was my weekend.

The Phoenix Covenant – Starting a New Campaign

So, this past weekend, my friends Penny and Clint asked if I would be interested in running a small game, just for the two of them.

In the past, I’d run a fairly long-lived Eberron game for them, but it got lost in the shuffle of some non-game things intruding on my life*. By the time my schedule had cleared sufficiently to go back to the game, we’d all lost the thread of what was going on, so we let it die. Well, in the midst of the discussions this weekend, I told them how I had envisioned the final few adventures (we were about six or eight sessions from wrapping it up), so we got a little closure on it.

So. A new game. I asked them what they wanted to play, and they really didn’t know. Penny suggested something post-apocalyptic*, and Clint suggested one of the campaign frameworks I had proposed for the Hunter: The Vigil game that is slowly moving towards start-up. I sent them an e-mail when I had had some more time to think about things, outlining the things I’d be prepared to run. These included a new 4E Eberron game, a modern fantasy game using pretty much any set of rules I had, other World of Darkness games, Star Wars, and even Star Trek*.

The other thing I suggested was something that I’d been working on for some months – strangely enough, it was a post-apocalyptic 4E campaign, based on things like the Fallout video games and the Earthdawn setting. I called The Phoenix Covenant, and here’s the opening pitch:

The Empire of Nerath faces destruction.

King Elidyr takes up arms against the Ruler of Ruin and his seemingly endless horde of rabid gnolls, calling on the old covenants with the other free folk of the world to aid in their defense.

Ancient magics are unearthed and new ones created – magics that can rend stone and split the skies to unleash fury and death.

Bargains are struck with powers from the Astral Sea and the Elemental Chaos, with the rulers of the Feywild and the dark mistress of the Shadowfell.

Some fear it will not be enough. And some don’t think that the Ruler of Ruin will stop with Nerath.

And some fear that the powers arrayed on both sides may sunder the world forever.

The wise folk of the world gather together on the eve of destruction, and create the Phoenix Covenant.

That the Light shall not be forever extinguished.

And here’s the Phoenix Covenant Declaration:

Whereas the free nations of the world, and the allies thereof, whom shall be called the Light, face the armies of the Ruler of Ruin, and

Whereas the armies of the Ruler of Ruin leave naught but devastation in their wake, and seek neither to claim land nor to build upon it, and

Whereas the advance of the armies of the Ruler of Ruin show fair to overwhelm the defenses of the Light, and

Whereas in the loss of the Light, many wonders of civilization, culture, and learning would fade and pass from the world, and

Whereas such a loss is deemed unacceptable by the wise of the Light:

Therefore let there be founded now the Phoenix Covenant, which members have affixed their names hereto, with the following goals:

First, to survive the coming war.

Second, to preserve from destruction those matters of value which form the core of the societies of the Light.

Third, to hold in trust for the survivors of the coming war the wherewithal to return to the heights of modern civilization.

Fourth, to provide such resources to the survivors at the conclusion of the war, in order to assist them in regaining what they have lost.

Fifth, to nurture and train such heroic members of our band as may be necessary to defend and effect our goals.

Unto these ends, we shall take a collection of wise and skilled folk, representative of all races and crafts, apart from the nations of the world into a secret place, called Covenant, where they shall be hidden safe from discovery by the most powerful magics available to us. Covenant shall be provisioned and provided with all necessary substances to allow the inhabitants thereof to survive in perpetuity without need of congress with the outer world, such arrangements created through our enchantments. All contact with Covenant, save only through the Phoenix Gate, shall be proscribed and prevented, whether from the material world or any of the adjacent planes. The remnants of our society shall open the Phoenix Gate after the scourge of the Ruler of Ruin has abated, and it is time for our society to fulfill its purpose. Should no member of our outer society survive, then the Phoenix Gate shall open after a period of five hundred years, and the heroes of Covenant will be sent forth to explore and reclaim the land.

May the gods favour our undertaking, and grant us the faith and fortitude to see it done.

Done on the 8th day of Full Spring, in the 14th Year of the Reign of Elidyr, feared to be the last Emperor.

And here’s the final sting to get the campaign rolling:

No one ever came to let you out.

So, you prepared, honing yourselves into the heroes that the world would need, learning what you could from the Masters of Covenant. You learned to fight, to lead, to work magic and deception. You learned the words of the gods and the whispers of hidden powers. You pored over maps of the Empire of Nerath, though you knew you would find everything changed.

You made ready.

Now, the day is almost upon you. In two weeks, the Phoenix Gate will open, and the heroes of Covenant will return to the world.

All you must do is prove that you are worthy to be among them.

Well, they picked this idea for the game. Part of the allure is that it is heavily influenced by the stuff we’re all playing as a video game right now. Another big part is that I already had a bunch of background, including a map*, written and ready to go.

There were a few concerns, though. First off, I had planned this for a big campaign ramp-up in the fall, inviting all my gamer friends to play, but spiltting the respondents into two groups if more than six wanted in. But that’s easily fixed; I can still do that in the fall – the story will just change slightly so that a smaller advance group went out a couple of weeks before. Everyone who wants to will still get to play the game.

Second was a bigger problem. Running 4E with two players is going to be a tough balancing act. I’m still somewhat concerned about being able to properly set the encounter strength, and the small number of players means that I’ll be running smaller numbers of monsters. Most worrisome, though, is how things will work without all the roles covered*.

I’m addressing this concern in a couple of different ways. First, I’m starting the characters at 3rd level. That gives me some breathing room on the experience point budgets for creating encounters. Second, I’m giving them some really nice things with the Bribe(TM). This time around, I’m asking for four things (one of which is mandatory), and giving them the pick from a list of four choices (each choice only once). What can they pick up with the Bribe(TM)?

  • +2 to any one attribute.
  • One extra 1st-level At-Will Attack power.
  • One extra feat for which they qualify.
  • One extra trained skill from their class skill list.

Looking at the list, I think it’s almost a recipe for munchkinism. However, given the nature of these two players, and the fact that there are only two characters in the game, I’m willing to risk it. Besides, I can always up the challenge of the encounters if it looks like the characters are just walking through them.

Anyway, we’re going to wait until after July 21 to create characters – that’s when Divine Power hits the shelves, and I want them to have the options in the book, because at least one of them is talking about multi-classing into cleric for some extra healing.

I’ve put up my background notes and the map on Obsidian Portal if you’d care to take a look. You’ll notice that a number of the names (Nerath, Arkhosia, Bael Turath, Cendriane, etc.) are lifted right from the 4E books. I thought that the folks at WotC did such a good job building a loose backstory for the world that I decided to use it in my game with only minor changes.

First game will be either early August or late August. Mid-August, I’m going to GenCon.


*Work got very busy, I ran out of time to prep. Back

*All three of us have been playing a lot of Fallout 3. Back

*What can I say? The recent movie got me so excited about the universe again, that I started to think about running a game in it. Back

*Done in Campaign Cartographer 3, using their Mercator style, from the 2008 annual. I was very pleased with how it turned out. Back

*From initial discusions, it looks like they’re leaning towards playing a sorcerer and a ranger. My players just looooooove the strikers! Back

Obsidian Portal Update

Two posts in one day! The eschaton has been imanentized!

I wanted to post a quick follow-up to the previous post about Obsidian Portal. No sooner had I posted my little paean to the wonders of their service than I got comments from two of the fine folks involved in the site. You can read them here.

The point of this post is to clarify a couple of things: first, that they jumped all over my little comment that my map wasn’t showing up properly. My comment about depth of support stands – they just haven’t had the time to build up a solid self-serve library on their site. However, that should not be interpreted as a criticism to the quality of their support. These two people read my little blog post, went and checked out my campaign, and got back to me immediately.

That just rocks.

As it turns out, the issue with the map was an issue with the computer I was viewing it on. I’ve tried it on two other computers, and it works great on them. Problem is all mine.

Second, once the map was working, I discovered a very cool feature. You can set markers on your map, and link them in to your wiki. I realize that this may not be groundbreaking, but it is an extremely nice feature, especially considering how the version of the map I have is not all that clear.

So, in closing, I repeat my whole-hearted endorsement of Obsidian Portal. Great features and friendly folks. What more can one ask for?

Obsidian Portal and Wiki World Development

Everyone probably already knows about Obsidian Portal, right? I mean, I found out about it from reading Penny Arcade, and they have several orders of magnitude more readers than I do. So, I’m pretty sure I’m a little late to this particular barbecue, but I want to talk about it anyway, because I think it rocks.

For those who don’t know, Obsidian Portal is a combination wiki, blog, and social networking thing, designed specifically to manage RPG campaigns. You register, log in, create a campaign site, invite players, build a wiki for your world, and post to an adventure log to track events in the campaign. It’s dead easy to use, and the basic level is free. You get a fair bit at the basic level, too: the ability to create two campaigns, upload a map, and all the wiki, blog, and networking you can squeeze in. The premium membership costs $40 for a year, and gives you unlimited campaigns, 10 maps, more levels of map zoom*, and the ability to limit who can see your campaign.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I’m moving away from the Scales of War adventure path that’s being published in Dungeon magazine***, and taking the characters into adventures of my own devising. So I decided I would develop the new campaign using Obsidian Portal to see how I liked it and if I wanted to use it for other campaigns, as well.

Now, Scales of War is based in the Elsir Vale, the setting for the 3.5 mega adventure Red Hand of Doom, and takes place roughly a decade later. This means I have a fair bit of background material from both the original module and the adventure path to plug into the wiki****.

And I have discovered that I absolutely love the way wikis work for world design.

This is the first time I’ve ever used a wiki, and I had no idea what to expect. I watched the tutorial video that is linked from Obsidian Portal’s main page, learned about forward linking, and thought, “Huh. That looks pretty simple.” And I was right.

Not only is it simple, it really helps guide the creative process. I can see at a glance what bits I need to fill in on any given wiki page. I can look at the list of pages and identify gaps that I want to fill, and opportunities to expand the information. I can watch the campaign world take shape in a non-linear but still usefully structured way. There is even a special GM Only pane of each wiki page where I can put in my secrets and notes, and not have to worry about the players seeing them.

So, I’ve invited the players to the campaign to register for Obsidian Portal and sign up for my campaign. I’ve only got two of them to do it, so far, but the rest will come along eventually. I’ve also told them that they’re free to add stuff not only to the adventure log, but also to the wiki itself*****.

Anyway, that’s it for now. If you’re interested in a peek at the campaign, you can see it here. I hasten to point out that it’s still in early days of development in the wiki. But let me know what you think, anyway.

Just be gentle. It’s my first wiki.



*This is important: the map I uploaded shows up as a single pixel at highest zoom. I can view the original image by clicking on a link, but I was hoping for the zoom to work better. I probably did something wrong**.

**Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything in the help or forums that specifically addressed this issue. One of the hazards of a new service – not enough time for real depth of support to develop.

***As a complete aside, I was really impressed by the latest adventure in Dungeon. It’s called Depths of Madness, and focuses on a number of interesting and well-developed skill challenges, rather than just a lot of dungeon crawling and fights. Don’t get me wrong – there’s still a lot of fights and some dungeon crawling, but I think this is a big step in the right direction.

****Technically, this is a violation of copyright. Well, not just technically, I guess. I’m hoping that WotC won’t care enough about my little indiscretion. If they do, I’ll have to figure something else out.

*****Though I’m not sure if this will actually work.