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.

Groundwork – The Phoenix Covenant

For those who are interested, I’ve finished the preliminary wiki for The Phoenix Covenant on Obsidian Portal.

Now, I’m in an interesting position, game-prep-wise. I’ve got the world pretty much designed, but the design is not current with the game – it is 500 years out of date. This was deliberate: with the village of Covenant being sealed off from the outside world, all they have is information on what the world was like when they closed the Phoenix Gate. Nothing on how it has changed.

Of course, that means that I don’t know how it’s changed, yet, either.

That’s okay, though; I don’t need details on all the changes just yet. I don’t have to worry too much about whether the Imperial City still exists, or if there’s a smoking crater where it once was. It’s going to take some time before my two intrepid explorers make it that far south. What I need to know right now is what changes have occurred around Covenant and Stayyin Keep. In short, I need the first adventure.

Way back a long time ago, Ray Winninger wrote some brilliant articles on building a D&D campaign. They were published in Dragon Magazine as the Dungeoncraft column*. A couple of pieces of advice from those columns – things he referred to as the Rules of Dungeoncraft – have stuck with me over the years, and I’m going to try adhering to them as much as I can.

The first one is the advice to not create more than you need to. Stay focused on the things that the characters are going to interact with at this point in their adventuring careers. So, for starting out, give them simple things: a home base, some wilderness to explore, and one or two adventure sites.

Now, the fact that I have created the wiki detailing the entire Empire may seem to violate that rule. I felt I needed the high-level coverage, given the campaign premise. If you look through the wiki articles, you’ll see that most things get only a few sentences. The details are saved for the history of the Empire (i.e. “Why are we locked underground?”) and the village of Covenant (i.e. “So, what’s it like where we grew up?”). The rest is pretty sparse.

The other piece of advice I’m trying to stick to from Ray’s column is the suggestion that, whenever I create something important about the campaign – a place, an NPC, an organization, a religion – I create at least one secret about it. You write these down on index cards. When you build an adventure, pick a card from the stack, and drop a little clue to that secret into the adventure. I did this in the Broken Chains campaign to great success, even seeding some of the clues into the campaign newspaper for the characters to follow up on. It creates a great way for the players to pick and choose which things they care about, and provides direction for the game.

Which brings me to where I’m at right now.

To get the game ready to play, I need to flesh out the area around Covenant and Stayyin Keep, both detailing the region and creating the secrets deck. In doing this, there are certain design goals I need to keep in mind:

  • I’m planning on opening up the game to more people, playing successive groups leaving Covenant to help restore civilization to the world. The initial area has to be able to support multiple groups doing different things.
  • I want more of a sandbox feel to the game than in previous campaigns I’ve run, with the players free to explore where they want and set their own priorities and agendas.
  • I want different types of encounters in the game – some combat, some skill challenge, some roleplaying, some combinations.
  • I want things to be dynamic, with changes based on the characters’ actions.
  • I want meaningful choices for the players, so that their decisions determine the encounters and situations they come across, rather than just which order they fight the monsters in.
  • I want to maintain the mix of post-apocalyptic feel with the general D&D fantasy milieu.

So, given those goals, I have some basic idea about what the area is going to contain:

  • Lots of choices, with different areas and things to find.
  • Ruins, some inhabited, some not. Also, other signs of an epic magical war leaving scars on the world.
  • Different groups in the area with different agendas that the characters can interact with in different ways.
  • Some nasty-bad mutant monsters*.

And this brings me to my next steps in getting the game ready:

  1. Create a player map of the area circa IY 897. This is what the players will have to guide their initial explorations.
  2. Create a GM map of the same area showing what’s changed in 500 years, and marking out all the various sites and encounter areas.
  3. Deciding what the current situation at Stayyin Keep is.
  4. Deciding how much of a dungeon crawl I want the initial departure from Covenant to be*.
  5. Mapping out the dungeon crawl (probably in flow-chart form rather than a traditional map) and setting the encounters in it.
  6. Doing up the monster stats and treasure package distribution.

Now, steps 1 and 2 are probably going to take the longest. Really, I need to make sure that I have step 1 done, then work on steps 2 and 3 while concentrating on steps 4, 5, and 6, which are going to see the most immediate play.

And that’s what I’m working on for the game right now.



*The articles are available here. I hasten to add that I have no idea about the copyright status of the articles, or the legality of them appearing on this site. I have my own copies. Back

*Okay, so this one isn’t a product of my explicitly stated design goals. But this is a D&D game, where there should be nasty-bad monsters, and it is a post-apocalyptic game, where there should be mutants. So… Back

*I know I want it to be a bit of a dungeon crawl, for a few reasons. First, it hearkens back to the first Fallout game, where you have to make your way through a cave full of rats when you first leave the vault. Second, it gives me a chance to start showing some of the changes in the world brought on by the war. And third, it allows me to stick in another jumping-off point for other exploration of deeper caverns and maybe even the Underdark. Back

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

D&D 4th Edition Demos

Check out this link.

So, yeah, I’m going to be doing D&D 4E demos at Imagine Games and Hobbies over the next three Saturdays. For the first two, I’m going to be running excerpts from Keep on the Shadowfell, the first 4th Edition adventure, which goes on sale Tuesday, May 20. The adventure comes with a quick-start rulebook and pregenerated characters, which is what I’m going to be using. Two demos a day, as long as I get players; first one starts at 1:00 pm, second one starts around 5:00 pm. On Worldwide D&D Day, Saturday, June 7, I’ll be at the store all day, running demos out of whatever launch package they send Pedro. If you’re in Winnipeg, and you’re interested in giving the game a try, come on down and play with me.

Okay, the plug’s done. Now I want to talk about what I know about 4E, and what I think about it.

First off, I want to stress that all the information I have is coming from that immense mixed blessing, The Internet. When I was down at Imagine today, I got to look at the sealed Keep on the Shadowfell, but that’s it. It’s not on sale until Tuesday, and I have no special access.

But there’s been a lot of stuff written about the new game coming, and I’ve been doing my level best to read it all. Sites that have been really valuable for insight:

  • Wizards of the Coast has been posting regular updates and teasers and art previews for some time now.
  • ENWorld, which was born in the rumblings before 3E, has once again become the place to check for news on the newest edition of D&D.
  • The Chatty DM, who stops by this site every now and then, has posted an extensive review of Keep on the Shadowfell.
  • Some months back, Ain’t It Cool News posted a three-part review from one of the playtesters, but I can’t seem to find it now.


The point I’m making is that I really don’t know any more than anyone else about the game, and less than many. So why am I talking about it?

Because my hopes are high. And they’re high for specific reasons.

Unfortunately, I also have some serious reservations. And again, they’re very specific.

Let’s talk about why I’m pumped, first, then we’ll talk about why I’m worried.

The changes I’ve been reading about in the stuff that’s been posted online has shown me that the new game seems to be hewing close to one of my personal design goals when I build games – just enough complexity to make the game fun, and no more. For every new system I add to a game, for every time I come up with an idea that means a die roll, I try to ask myself, “Does this add to the fun?” If the answer is no or, worse still, that it detracts from the fun, I toss the system and start again.

It took me a long time to learn that lesson, and now that I have, I cling to it with both hands and all of my heart. Make sure that every time a player picks up a die, it’s adding to the fun. Make sure that players are excited to roll a die, not just going through the motions.

You can’t always achieve that, of course. The world’s not perfect. You need some complexity to make the game able to simulate what you want it simulating. But the complexity should serve the game, not the simulation.

And this seems to be the view taken by the designers and developers of 4E. In a lot of the interviews, they talk about how the game moves faster, especially in combat, while the characters all have interesting choices to make every turn. Some of the pregenerated characters and monsters have been posted on the Wizards site, and it looks like they’ve been paring away excessive complexity to focus on the fun stuff. That’s my kind of design.

They also talk a lot about how much easier it is for DMs to design and run adventures. Now, I generally spend about 30 minutes prep time for every hour of play in campaigns I run. One of the designers talked in an interview about how he never spends more than 30-40 minutes putting together a full evening of gaming. They say it’s much easier to build encounters, to adjust monster stats, to set up skill challenges, to create treasure, all the mechanical stuff. That leaves more time to building story, description, NPC quirks, building props and hand-outs, and all the other fun stuff.

The designers also say that it’s far easier to run the game. Looking at the monster stat blocks that have hit the Web, I’m starting to believe it. The one that really swayed me was the Pit Fiend stat block they posted. Instead of a laundry-list of special abilities, most of which never get used in combat, there are a set of powers that look like they work well together and a set of tactics to show you how to use them.

I just finished running a high-level D&D 3.5 campaign. This is so much nicer than the high-level threats I had to keep track of there, without losing flavour.

I mentioned skill challenges a couple paragraphs back. The new game integrates a system for handling non-combat challenges that rely on the characters’ skills, but don’t come down to single die rolls or rely on only one skill. They talk about it here, and it sounds pretty good to me.

They’ve also done a lot to try and address that age-old bane of verisimilitude, the 20-minute adventuring day. You know: the party gets up, heads out, gets into two fights, and has to rest for another eight hours to heal and regain spells. Well, they’re doing a number of things to deal with that, and I hope it solves the problem.

So, that’s what’s got me hoping.

Now, here’s what’s got me scared.

First, Wizards has obviously taken a long, hard look at the MMORPG phenomenon, and wants to grab a chunk of that market to play 4E. They’re emphasizing party roles, handing out more video-game-style powers, reworking some sacred cows like random hit points, and so on.

There’s a reason I don’t play MMORPGs. Actually, there are several, but stay with me.

I like the way D&D has traditionally done some things, and I don’t like the way a lot of MMORPGs seem to do things. I don’t want to play a table-top version of World of Warcraft.

Let’s talk roles, first of all. D&D has always been a class-based system, so roles have been an intrinsic part of it since the beginning. What I’m worried about now is the emphasis on the roles, and whether that leaves room for a graceful, elegant fighter or a wizard who likes to mix it up with a sword. I want it to, but I’m not sure it does.

As for the powers, a lot of it is going to depend on the jazz that goes with it. We’ve seen powers where a Paladin hits a foe and heals an enemy – how is that explained? What’s the logic behind it? Can you justify it in the game world without resorting to MMORPG terms? I hope so.

Y’know, really what it comes down to is that I really want to like this game, but there have been some big promises made and I don’t know if it will live up to them. I like the things they say they’re changing, but will I like the way they change them? When Mongoose released the new RuneQuest, I was so pumped. I figured that if they could deliver on even half the things they were promising, they’d be golden.

I don’t even want to get into how disappointed I was with the game once we playtested it.

I just really don’t want that to happen again. I’m leery of getting my hopes up to high.

But I can’t help it. I’m just really looking forward to the release, to trying it out, and to playing it regularly. After all, I was a real nay-sayer when they announced 3E, but it won me over big-time. They did it once; I’m sure they can do it again.


Anyway, to get back to the point, demos at Imagine for the next three Saturdays. Come down and try the game out with me. It’ll be fun.

In the meantime, I’ve got this idea for a 4E campaign – The Phoenix Covenant. Maybe I’ll talk a little about it next time.