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Conquest and Conclusions for 2013

     With 2013 finally wrapped up I cannot help but take the typical measures and review the conclusions that coincided with the end of the calendar year. I am, by my nature, a person prone to flights of nostalgia, and so I never need my arm twisted to write a retrospective. I had a very solid year as far as my life at the tabletop went, and wanted to discuss some of the milestone moments (both in general and personally). It’s an editorial, which I prefer to keep to a minimum on this blog – so I won’t shed a tear if you’re happier navigating right past this.

 Most obvious is the termination of the public arm of the D&D Next Playtest. Much of my trepidation about the state of the game was alleviated in this latest iteration. I think Wizards is hitting all the marks, and I’ve been evangelizing for this edition much more doggedly than even I had anticipated. And I’ve been earning converts in the process. I’m looking forward to the final release, but am happy to have, until then, a more than workable game in my hot little hands to continue enjoying in the meantime.

     The year also saw the start, conclusion, and delivery on a lot of titanically important gaming Kickstarters. Dwarven Forge rolled out their new line of much more affordable game tiles, Reaper Miniatures fired off a second wave of their (again, very affordable) Bones line, and countless other contenders  dove into the crowd-funding arena in an attempt to support your game (by first earning your support). There’s a lot more in terms of exciting projects popping up this year, so you’ll have no end of reasons to fling money at your computer screen.

     I finally took the time to start investing in a little fancy scenery as well. Being a lover of miniatures, I always want to enhance the table experience in 3D, and getting into the hobby of terrain crafting was a nice jumping off point. It granted me the confidence to try my hand at painting minis as well, and that has been a rewarding, (and time consuming) addition to my retinue of gaming interests.

       

     Most importantly, 2013 marked the end of the longest running D&D campaign I have ever participated in. It spanned eight years (on and off) and three separate editions of the game before it finally reached a climax just a few days before the termination of this past December. The game in question was the (admittedly) blandly named: “Orc Campaign” – a story in which each of the players portrayed a ranking warlord in a bloodthirsty raiding party sent by the Bleeding Blade orc clan.

     The impetus for this game began way back during the early days of our time with 3rd Edition (back before it was 3.Anything) in which I was asked one evening to run an impromptu one-shot. To break up the regularity of the game, the players wanted to try something different – monstrous PCs. Seeing as how we were all avid fans of Warcraft III (this was prior to there being any World of Warcraft!) we settled on orcs. They played their ruthless savages to the gory hilt, even developing a codified trophy system by which to measure who earned the most esteem in battle (based on how many spikes, horns, and skulls adorned your armor. Totally Metal. Totally Brutal). I capped that session off by pulling out character sheets from their regular game, and facing them off against the clerics and paladins they had played but a week prior (a nice switcheroo that I’ve made mention of on this blog before).

     That session was firmly in mind a few years later when The Orc Campaign began. The game was oriented toward realm and squad management; with each player having a handful of orc lackeys who were acquiring EXP and leveling up right along with him (albeit from a lower starting level). I drew up a map of the proposed kingdom for invasion, replete with locations that sounded interesting but were entirely undefined at the time.

     Despite the premise (Orcs, at war! How could this be anything but attack rolls!), the campaign was characterized by a great deal of roleplaying, secret keeping, wheeling and dealing. What I assumed would become a sort of strategy/invasion simulation quickly became “The Sopranos” + A Holy War + Dragons. The principle  thesis of the campaign was thus: How does a leader help a society predicated on “Might Makes Right” as the most important rule of law to flourish? 

       

      The players all had ambitions as to what orc society as a whole, and the horde under their command should be, but had to temper their progressive and often counter-culture agenda against the single-mindedness and violence of their subjects. Underlings challenged their leadership, and players challenged each other (ultimate decision making was kept in the hands of the “Warchief” who held his title through dueling). The worship of the orc God Gruumsh, was opposed by the deep roots of shamanistic tradition among their society, which clashed with the absolute control of the warrior caste. Then add to that one upstart player whose Warlock character had plans to use magical boons from bound demons to polymorph, and thereby “Orcify” the “lesser” races. Conflict abounded within and without. 

     So after years of twists, turns, tense standoffs, secret betrayals, desperate foes, tactics, cruelty, and triumph, we finally laid the game to rest. In the end, prophecy and mutual respect (or ambivalence) led each of the players to cast away their rivalries. They took up swords against their supreme leader; the High Warchief of the clan, and slew him. It was their wish to rebuild orcish society not as a dictatorship, but under the iron fist of a ruling council, where each faction had a check/balance over the other.

        

     Maybe that’s what happens when a bunch of American Humans play a horde of orcs? Or maybe there’s something inherently functional about democratic ideas? Especially when you can enforce that democracy at the tip of a sword (and do away with the whole “civil representation in government” business).

     I’ve kicked around the idea of scribing an “Orc Campaign Setting Guide” for use with D&D Next – most likely as serial supplements posted here at Save Vs. Weekend. I’m not sure if there would be much interest in that or not (since it would be less flexible than the usual material I’m interested in) so let me know what you think.

     Though I’m much busier these days than I was when this blog started 2 years ago (really?!?!) I still intend to keep up with it when time and content permit – especially with the next edition looming over the horizon. You can expect to see more encounters in the coming year, though more than likely they will arrive once, or at best twice a month. I like to be accessible, but thorough in my encounters, and that means taking a little more time on the writing end to save you time on the DMing end.

      Ideas? Comments? Gripes? Please, feel free to share them. As a narcissist I love talking about things I have written and am always happy to hear from you. Another year begins! Gird those loins. Gird them well….

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Posted by on January 20, 2014 in Editorial

 

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Theater Ninjas presents “GameNight”

       

     I’m frequently making references to Theater Ninjas, the Cleveland-based theatre company I’m a member of. The brief snatches about my theatre life are usually in context of how I’m dividing myself between many time consuming passions and putting poor Save Vs. Weekend on the back-burner. But in this case, Ninja action applies directly to the gaming world!

      The Ninjas actually use games an awful lot in our rehearsal process; both for scripted and self-written original pieces. This year we decided to expand upon the group’s interest in games, and invite the audience in to join us.

     Enter our new, free, monthly get-together: GameNight. The focus of GameNight is to introduce fans, collaborators, supporters, new comers, gamers, the curious, their friends, and anyone else to try out some games that focus on story and player creativity. In almost all cases that means some kind of role-playing game. My interest in table-top role-playing grew out of my love of improv and began with traditional titles like my beloved D&D. But recently (and in part because of GameNight) I’ve also branched out into some newer, extremely innovative titles that focus more closely on character and open-ended story-telling. More often than not our selections are (gasp!) totally GMless!

     I wanted to share a bit about the games we’ve been playing, and how GameNight can be relevant to D&D players of any edition. There are a lot of facets to what makes a good D&D campaign, and that ultimately comes down to which interests all the players at the table overlap on. But no matter what, story and character are going to play a role: and the more care you put into these elements the more your game will benefit. “Care” in this case does not mean hours of writing or railroading the PCs. It means establishing some simple links between and objectives for characters to inspire players to build the plot and dramatic action themselves. GameNight’s offerings are great at that, and I think each of these indie games has a place in supplementing the regular play (or campaign world prep) of a D&D game.

     We started GameNight off with Jason Morningstar’s FIASCO, a game where players create everyday people with burning ambitions and faltering impulse control. FIASCO’s rules build relationships between player characters into the action, – and even folks new to the RPG world take to it easily. A single game of FIASCO can be a good building block for exploring your D&D campaign’s characters, or even figuring out how the party got together before the classic “you are sitting in a  tavern when” moment (A suggestion Jason even mentions in the rules for FIASCO). In particular, Wizards of the Coast vet Logan Bonner has written a fantastic FIASCO playset that pairs well with experienced D&D players.

     Most recently GameNight took a crack at Ben Robbins’ Microscope. In this game, the players work together to write the epic history of a world by taking turns to create sweeping periods of history, crucial events, and the moment-by-moment role-played scenes that changed the fate of the world. Using Microscope as prep for your D&D game is a good way to bring the players into the world building stage. It can also be a means to sidestep forcing your players to write a 5-page essay explaining their character background (protip: maybe ONE of your players will EVER do this). You can build 1,000 year spans time, or focus in on a few pivotal minutes. Being non-linear, you can hop back and forth down the timeline, zooming in as you wish. Each player has complete, neigh unquestionable authority on their turn, but builds on the ideas of everyone else at the table. It’s your chance to invest the players (and their characters) in the world and its backstory, making them more likely to closely follow the plot and react strongly to the villains, allies, and institutions they run into along the way.

     Opening a D&D campaign with one of these (or any of the countless other) “story-games” can reap major rewards in player investment and attention, and does a lot of the dirty work for you. Best of all, it’s actually a lot of fun, and can help burn off any fatigue incurred from playing the same game for a long stretch of time by allowing you to try something new, while still contributing to the host campaign.

     I personally advocate for FIASCO and Microscope. Each of the Theater Ninjas’ GameNight events has been a major success. I love to hear the players chatting about that month’s game, the stories they built together, and how they might do things next time as they pack up at the end of a session.

     If you’re a gamer in Cleveland Ohio, I highly encourage you to check out the next GameNight event (details at the Theater Ninjas website). I think it’s a foray into a different way to play the kind of games we already love, and gives you ammo and ideas for your own home campaigns. You’ll find some pleasant surprises. But then again, I am a little biased.

      

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2013 in Announcements, Story Challenge

 

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Incidents – Dwarven S&R

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A friend of mine and I were discussing his campaign when he noted a lack of “things” for his players to do around town or while traveling on the road. Now sure, there are no dearth of random encounter tables of all shapes and sorts and sizes…but what kind of gamer would I be if I didn’t eschew all those years of painstaking writing and playtesting to jot out my own ideas? Unsolicited I started weaving together a list of “incidents” for his players to run into while en route to bigger and better things.

Don’t get me wrong, I like 4th Edition D&D a great deal. But I sometimes feel that the organized and structured streamlined sexiness of the system leaves out a lot of the excitement of not knowing that is part of why tabletop games are so great. Random tables don’t exist so DMs have an excuse to throw unreasonable challenges at their players – they exist to add a little mystery and suspense to the game. And after all, D&D is in part about exploration, which is all about mystery and suspense. Combat encounters and Skill Challenges are great ways to keep scenes moving smoothly and resolving them in a satisfying way – but sometimes their rigid structure doesn’t account for all the possibilities, or doesn’t encourage the players to really stretch their problem solving muscles. This is primarily where I wanted the “Incidents” to head. Somewhere between a full on encounter and a simple plot hook was where they would dwell.

Well I’ve been sitting on a few pages of them and I got antsy. Not to mention the fact that I feel a tad guilty leaving you all hanging for so long while I penned a fairly rudimentary (if complete!) adventure last month – So I decided to start posting these Incidents halfway through the week as a regular segment, to tide you over till the usual full encounter.

They are a little sparse, and will rarely have much in the way of game stats (making them useful for other editions and other games) but will hopefully give you some inspiration to get your characters involved in the game world beyond “I hit the monster with a sword, then History the crap out of this talking statue.”

Dwarven S&R

Circumstances
The PCs are traveling overland, and near a river.

Event
The players hear loud shouts from upstream. The noise is coming from two dwarf scouts, calling out desperately to their friend. The trio was panning for gold when their partner fell from an escarpment and banged his head, leaving the dwarf unconscious as he is washed down river. The dwarves are shedding burdens and hustling after their companion, but time is short, and the PCs are much closer to the wounded gold hunter.

Possible Resolutions
Though the emphasis should be on problem solving and how to safely remove an injured person from a raging river with the tools available, this situation could also call for a short skill challenge. Given the dire circumstances, you may elect to allow only one failure, or raise all DCs to hard. Regardless, a challenge of Complexity 1 or 2 would be all you need. Suggested skills are:

  • Athletics
  • Acrobatics
  • Endurance
  • Heal
  • Nature

Leader classes should also be allowed to use their minor action heal power or other “healing” keyword capabilities to contribute somehow.

Possible Rewards and Experience
The dwarves are grateful for anyone who could save their friend, though a failed attempt, no matter how valiant, might be met with their distraught admonishment.

Grateful dwarves would solemnly part with some of the gold they found, or perhaps even some gems that came up while searching for minerals. Since they have been camping in the area for a while, they likely know rumors about the region. If your campaign has any major organizations who might employ dwarven scouts, this rescue could be used to curry favor with the group.

This Incident should be worth EXP equivalent to a single monster of the player’s level.

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