Friday, April 12, 2019

Problems I am Having Trying to End My Campaign

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

It is very difficult to end a series of books or movies in a completely satisfactory way. Often people love a series up until the end. Take GoT both the series and the novels have more and more critics as time goes on and I feel with the upcoming ending, people will be complaining no matter how it turns out. I now have sympathy for these writers because I am having similar issues, and getting a satisfactory ending is proving to be quite difficult. I am currently in the process of ending my yearlong campaign that I have been running for my school’s tabletop club, for which I am the moderator. I would love to say that it is going well, but I believe that some of the wheels are beginning to come off, and I am running into some problems. I am hoping my issues can help guide you in the future to having a more successful ending.

Problem #1 – I told them it was ending.

Less notice is better

                This was a big issue. I told them about a month ago that the game would be ending in about 3 months, and the game has not been the same since. I thought preparing them ahead of time was a good thing. I was wrong. Almost from the moment I mentioned it the tone of the game changed, it seemed like people were more willing to do foolish things pervaded the group. I believe this is because at this point, who cares? These characters are not going to be around soon enough, so the care they put into them is starting to fade. Character in-fighting has become a central issue, and longstanding grudges between characters is starting to bloom into outright violence. People messaging me saying, “Would you mind if I kill such-n-such’s character?” I believe this is coming due to the fact that if they do it, there will not be long term fallout.
                At times I sense a certain amount of apathy at the table too, like none of what they do now really matters. I have been playing for about 30 years, and I have been hardcore DMing for that past 8 or so, and I think I can read a table vibe. The level of excitement seems to be down, and I was even tempted to just call it a day on the campaign all together. As mentioned earlier, all of this started when I mentioned the game was ending soon enough. The simplest solution to this problem is, delay telling the players the campaign is ending until it is absolutely necessary. I could have continue to ramp up the action and continue to develop the plot in bigger ways, without giving away the goose.
                People might ask, “Well, why end it then?” I really do not have a choice. Since this is a game through a school club, the year is ending, and most of the group is either graduating, or leaving the school at the end of the term. I would rather try and have an ending, even a less than satisfactory ending, then plunging ahead and letting the group slowly disintegrate over the following months. Thus, my decision to end the game. This leads right into my second problem….

Problem #2 – I do not want the game to end.

But it must end

                I really enjoy the game, and really enjoy the campaign, but it is unsustainable. One thing I loved about it was that it was reminiscent of the games of my youth. My salad days, if you will. I played a ton of RPGs from the ages of 10-25. My friends and I had several multi-year campaigns and adventures with real depth, the meaty stuff that a lot of us enjoy in RPGs. As I got older campaigns, especially those of any real length, were an impossibility. Between work, home life, wife, kids, and everything else adults have to deal with, getting together to run an epic campaign was an impossibility. Since this is run through the school, it is literally part of my job to do this campaign and encourage students to get involved with the school itself. It really is a dream situation.
I think I know what I fear, looking back over the years after all the failed campaigns that started and sputtered out quickly. I know that what I have here is rare, and does not come about every day. This campaign is special to me, and for many of my students this is the first D&D experience they have ever had, so I am assuming they will remember it, hopefully fondly. It is a tad selfish, but I want the experience to go on, and I do not want to give up something that has brought me personally, a lot of happiness. It brings up the question of, will this be possible in the future? Will I get a chance to have this kind of an experience again?
All of this psychology goes through my mind, but the simple truth is that it is possible to have another great game in the future. I just need to realize that what happened here was special, but not unique. This can be recreated and I can get another great group of players, and I can run an equally great campaign going forward. Another fact is that I have 101 ideas for future games that I want to try, and now I get to explore those ideas too. These are the things I keep needing to remind myself of as time goes on and how to focus on the future.

Problem #3 – I am afraid the ending is crap.

Does this only happen to me?

                In general, I do not doubt my DMing skills. I spent years playing indie/story games having to improvise on the spot as both player and DM. I have good skills in creating broad plots, and letting the players do as they wish, improvising the gaps. This has made for a great campaign that went places that I never would have thought, because the players did something surprising and I went with it. Whole huge chunks of this campaign were created due to a few players looking at a map and saying, “I wonder what is in that small section of woods there, maybe there is a druid.” They wanted a druid, I gave them a druid, and that character became pivotal to everything to this day.
                The issue is that this does not work as well with endings. Endings, in my opinion, cannot be as free form, because I cannot open new plot threads, because they cannot be answered with the time I have left. The limit on time, creates an artificial restriction on play. I have never in all the time we’ve played, said “Here is a list of things that need to be resolved, go out and fix them.” I put out threads, if they followed one over another, that thread became the new focus. With this ending, I wanted to make very clear what was happening, who was doing it, and the stakes for non-action. To me, it feels a bit more railroadish, than I’d like, but maybe that is just the nature of the situation they face.
                The solution to this problem is purely having confidence in myself. According to my players, they love the game and spend their free time talking about the game with each other and planning. I have done, by their accounts, a good job up and through now, why would that change in the end. Will my plan go exactly as I see it in my head? No. Will I be able to scrap together something that is very reasonable? Yes. I am sure that most of my players are going to enjoy the ending, I just need to have a bit more confidence in my skills.
                Overall, starting and ending games are the most strenuous times I feel for a DM. In the beginning you are trying to get the players into the world, meshing with each other, and setting an overall tone for the game. In the end, you are trying to tie up all the loose ends you left along the way, and give each player a moment to shine where the spotlight is on their story. By definition, we as DM will have to do former, far more than the latter, because many campaigns end abruptly without resolution. With each campaign that you actually finish though, you will find a little bit more skill in wrapping up the world, before starting over.

It is over, but it leads to other great things.

PS For the record, I do really love the current group that I am running for, as they are a great set of people. I was honored to be their DM for this past year, and I wish nothing but success to them in their future lives, and future RPGs.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Review of T1 - Hidden Hand of the Horla

Hidden Hand of the Horla by R.J. Thompson

A 1st - 3rd level adventure for use with Gateway To Adventure and other Original Edition Fantasy Role Playing Games.

Legends tell of the Hand Mage's Tower that once stood at the edge of the realm. Within the Hand Mage experimented and hoarded his magical treasures. The tower stood for many years until one day it mysteriously vanished. Rumors spread that the mage had offended the gods and had been eradicated from existence, or else had made a pact with a demon prince and was now paying his due. Whatever the case, the tales became legend and all but the oldest elves were unsure if the tower had ever existed at all. Now the tower has reappeared where it once stood. Will you dare to enter the ancient tower in search of riches and magical secrets?

This is my first review of a product and I thought I would go with something I purchased not that long ago. This is a review of the physical product, and I am unsure if there are any changes to the PDF at the time of this article. Hidden Hand of the Horla is roughly 10 pages of dungeons (not including the outer cover map), with several appendix pages covering monsters, spells, and inspirational media to go along with the adventure. Overall, the product physically is well put together, for the cost, and I have no complaints.
As for the adventure itself, the concept is a little cliché. You are exploring an old wizard’s tower that has suddenly reappeared, but it is still executed in a quality way, with a surprise here and there. The encounters are straight forward, with Goatmen that have arrived before the party, interspersed with a few other standard encounters for the genre. One of the features that I do like is that the module lends to replay. The module provides some options as to how long the Goatmen have been in the tower, and it then changes some of the environments and what the Goatmen have with them when encountered.  

Baa Ram Yue 
(Art from outside source, not Module)

The main focus of the adventure ends up being the Horla. We are getting into spoilers at this point, so if you don’t want to know, skip to my final paragraph. The Horla is a demon/alien with a malevolent trickster vibe. I have played D&D for three decades and not run into a Horla, I am unsure if they are an author creation, something from myth, or something I missed from over the years. This totally invisible monster gave me a vibe of the Devas from Bird Box. They talk and try and tempt/trick adventurers. Barring that, they can possess a victim and force them towards compulsive and destructive ends. I love these types of villains, because the party cannot simply hack their way through it. The Horla also provides an opportunity to be a spy for his race, with more coming. Some possibly much more powerful than the 2 hit die variety in this adventure.
Rewards at the end include solving the mystery of why the tower disappeared and collecting the items from the previous master of the tower. These items include a book of spells that contain new spells included in this adventure. Overall, there is a good mix of risk and reward in the module. The rewards will not blow your dwarf’s kilt off, but the danger is not as extreme either. There are other various treasures throughout the tower, but you are in a race with the Goatmen to procure them.

The Tower

                Would I recommend this product? It depends on what you are getting the product for at this point. Do you own an entire catalog of older (A)D&D modules? Do you own all of Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules? If so, this might not be adding much to the table. For someone just getting into OSR and does not have a good introductory adventure, this is great. It reminds me of a Tower of the Stargazer, but much more survivable, and therefore, good for new players. Are you looking for a really good adventure to run in a 4 hour con slot? Then this can work perfectly. I run a local game club at the college where I work, and this is perfect for our weekly get together. My players loved it, and they are usually 5e all the way, but I am slowly showing them that there is more than one way to play D&D. You should get a copy. The PDF is only $5, which is cheaper than my morning breakfast. 

Want to purchase the book? Link provided here.

For more information about Horla, see the author's website here.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

My 3 Reasons You Should Give Your Players Wishes

       Recently in my long running campaign I had my players dealing with an Efreeti who was trying to get a magical McGuffin necklace. He was going to trade the necklace for a captured NPC, but the players ended up trying to double cross the genie, and he had to go with the carrot, and not the stick. The Efreeti was an enforcer for the Sultan of the Fire Court, and it was the Sultan that needed the necklace, if the Efreeti did not retrieve the item, it could mean his own life is taken. Being a highly intelligent creature, he decided to offer to return their compatriot, and give them 3 Wishes (as a group) in return for the powerful relic. I think many DMs shy away from giving out Wishes, because of the power they can convey, but I have a few reasons below that you might want to consider.

Efreeti, always running off with NPCs.

1 -   Wishes are powerful, but not more powerful than the DM.

Yes, a Wish can give out some hefty mojo to the players, but as a DM you can overcome any Wish because you control the fabric of the universe. If you are a little nervous, put some limiters on the Wish. When the Efreeti was making his deal he specified that the deal was off if the players tried to put one over on him in anyway, in the end, they ended up with the NPC and 3 Wishes, he ended up with the necklace in a fully functioning manner. Oftentimes the limitations will come naturally if you grant the group Wishes, not a single player. Many players wanted to Wish for some form of personal gain, but there were not enough Wishes to go around for all eight of my players. The Wishes ended up being used to help the party out, and not helping a single person. So make sure to structure the nature of the situation in which the Wishes are handed out to place some artificial limits on the Wish.

Wishes compare not with your power!

2 -  Wishes let you open up on your players for a bit.

As the DM, I knew ahead of time that the Efreeti was going to try this tactic, so I made getting to the Efreeti a real challenge. Heading into his Alhambra in the Plane of Fire, attempting a straight rescue was the group’s goal. I hit them with things a bit higher than their weight class. This cause a little bit of player injury, losses, and even death. My players had a real visceral reaction, and the situation was very tense. They ended up having to use tactics they rarely consider and flee, or cover a friend’s escape. When it came time to make a Wish, restoring the party to its state before the encounters was the first on the list. They loved this session, by their own account, one of their favorite in the past year. They did not feel like this was “just another encounter” that they’ll most likely survive, and gain a little loot and XP. This was a race to save a friend, against overwhelming odds, and they felt heroic. So if you want to have a Balor chase your party for a bit, and give them a good scare, add a Wish as the solution to the problem. They cannot beat the creature head on, but they can Wish it back to its domain. Players still feel like they faced a large demon, but they did not have to come to blows with it.

In a world of Wishes and Resurrection, death is not as scary.

3-    Wishes are fun.

Granting player Wishes, and cool magical artifacts are why players want to play the game. There at times can be an attitude of “they haven’t earned that yet,” or “they will get that later in the campaign.” Oftentimes “later” never comes, unfortunately. Most people I talk to start lots of campaigns, but finish very few. Most campaigns I know, start characters at a lower level, and people never see that higher level. That means there are whole swaths of items, monsters, and spells that rarely see the light of day, including Wish. My best advice of this piece, PUT THEM IN. Let the lower level Paladin have his Holy Avenger, let the Wizard find a Staff of Power, let them face an endgame monster (with a little help). Players will not remember the 100th goblin fight they do in one campaign, but they will remember the time they got an amazing talking artifact that gave them unusual powers. The good thing about D&D is, for the most part, there are any level restrictions on items and scrolls, unlike many video games. Nothing is more frustrating than playing a game, finding an amazing thing, then realizing you have to earn ten more levels to use the gear. So do not let your game get hamstrung on your party’s level and allowing them to do awesome things. Give out some items, and grant a few Wishes.

Go ahead, give out the fun stuff.

PS Let it be known I play a little fast and loose with Wishes with my players to make them a bit grander.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Does edition in D&D dictate tone?

I am not the first, or best to comment on this subject, but these are some of my ideas on the topic. I have been thinking about this a lot lately and wanted to write a little bit about it. I currently run a 2e weekly game, with my students at a local community college, and I am a player in a semimonthly 5e game with friends I have known for 30+ years. There seems to be a trend online, or at least on the pages I visit, that any system of D&D can run games in any manner that is chosen. I believe that this is correct, but I also think that the tone is easier to set with certain rulesets.

When I was getting ready to start my campaign last August, my group at school was 5e players, who I had run several games for in the past. I mostly ran 5e for them, but on occasion, I would bust out a B/X clone and run them through a quick one-shot for that week. The dichotomy of the two systems was very stark, and easily noticeable. The level of “heroics” was different in both games, 5e characters were much more capable, and even able to venture off on their own with less risk. The lines between character classes was blurred, because often a “fighter” character would have some abilities from another class, and vice versa. This created a tone that lead to some very interesting, but often silly results. It was very harder to get a serious tone in a game where their lives generally are not at risk, without total overkill.

In 5e you can create a Batman like character, that can do it all.

I wanted to get a different reaction, and I did by having a campaign that is set in an OSR ruleset. The group quickly learned a few lessons while dungeon delving, doing “silly” actions like trying to ride the giant worm ends badly, splitting the party is bad, protect the magic users, etc. A group of goblins or kobolds were dangerous opponents, not fodder. Players generally “stayed in their lane” as far as the classes went, and were forced to work as a team. Fighters do not have magic, thieves must try and counter traps, and clerics need to rescue people. Everyone had a specific role in the machine, and the machine broke down if they all did not play their parts. This lead to some other interesting changes that I noticed with the players, they took the game more seriously overall, because they knew death could happen, and they felt attachment to the characters, because they had earned things. Each XP was hard fought, and when a character earned a level, it had a bit of weight.

This lone dude is in trouble, never go alone in OSR.

There is one of my players that floats between my game, and the 5e game that is concurrently running in my club. It is funny to watch the change in her style between the two games. Overall, she plays bombastic characters, but she has to give some pause when playing the older style, because leaping before looking can cause major issues for the party as a whole. This is a change that I like, because in general I do not like the frivolity of decisions that 5e can sometimes generate, in my experience.
In talking out the other side of my mouth, something I like about 5e is that it is harder for one goofball to spoil the bunch. I had issues with a rogue player in my games. (Rogue as in, didn’t work with the party, not a thief. He was actually a wizard) He would cast spells, just to cast them, not caring if they hurt the party or other players. This really hamstrung the group, I think a 5e game could handle one misfit player better than an OSR type game, where everyone needs to be on the same page.

No Edition War

This is not meant to start an editions wars type conversation, and say one edition is better than the others. This is just to say that one edition might be better at evoking a certain style/tone then the other. The newest edition is great for heroic fantasy, where people dive into danger without a second thought. OSR games can add a certain gravity to the games, where you must plan your actions and use teamwork to overcome an obstacle. I enjoy both for different reasons, and I play both with different goals. I am glad we have so many options these days.