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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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“The House of Knowledge” and the Blog Hussy

My Neverwinter campaign, (which had taken many a blow due to busy schedules) is finally starting to pick up some steam again! The players are finally on track to where they can make their own decisions about what to do in The City, and will soon be seeking out their first site-based adventure. That means I have a whole dungeon to plan! That’s a lot of planning and work and thought!

Naturally, that’s going to put me off from making regular posts for a bit. I know, that comes hot on the heels of some other obligations that have thrown the schedule asunder. To make up for all that, I’ll be writing up my iteration of Neverwinter’s ruined temple of Oghma “The House of Knowledge” as a full adventure. I figure several encounters worth of material will more than make up for the time I’ve snatched.

It’s worth noting that I’m approaching this one largely from a more “old school” perspective, inspired by all the D&D 5th/Next playtesting I’ve been doing lately. Smaller, more frequent combats, more problem solving elements, smaller rooms, etc. I think it will be an interesting experiment.

On other fronts – I have been blog-cheating on you! It’s true! The theatre company I am with has recently begun more regular posts on our Tumblr page. I take occasional writings duties on the blog over there. If you are more a fan of my writing than of D&D (madness!) or if you have some interest in the inner workings of a theatre company, that might be of interest to you.

Until next time!

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2012 in Announcements

 

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Commedia of Death

This adventure is intended for five players of 3rd level

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DM cat dares you to eat the magic cheese…

This week’s encounter is modified from one I ran way back in the day – during my first ongoing 4th edition game. That said, I’ve made some significant tweaks to keep it up to speed with the shape of the game today.

The inspiration for this encounter was twofold. Primarily, I wanted to get some use out of a set of the Paizo “Game Mastery” map packs I had picked up that featured an amphitheater. Though I’m a big fan of the Game Mastery line, their Map Packs line sets are very hit-or-miss and sadly “Ruins” is a big miss. The artwork isn’t up to their usual par, and the editing makes it very unclear as to where the delineated squares are in relation to the structures depicted (is that a window? Is it in my square? Does it give me cover? Is this rough terrain? What is going on with this map!) That said, the amphitheater tiles were precise enough, and I had already bought the tiles so – may as well make some use out of them.

My other inspiration was to use the theater location to depict a theatrically related combat encounter. You may recall that my background is in theatre, and that included more that a few theatre history courses. So I hit on the idea of linking the stock characters in Commedia Dell’arte to some of the various monster roles. What you get is a skirmish that’s a bit off the wall, out of the ordinary, and very memorable (And I’m not just blowing smoke! My players have brought this one up several times!)

As a quick note, the Commedia archetypes are sometimes referred to as “masks” (since most of the characters are represented by a mask – the traits of which are universal and recognizable across different theatre troupes.

Encounter Background
Adjust the encounter’s background to fit your setting. For convenience I’ll relay the backstory assumed for the original campaign setting:

Nearly 100 years ago this amphitheater, now in ruins, was a popular destination for talented performers. All were welcome, and often the elite both locally and abroad would sit beside peasants to see all manner of theatrical spectacles. Its reputation eventually drew the attention of a famous female bard named Achio and her on-again-off-again adventuring companion/rival/lover Tolivar, a talented illusionist.

The two of them sought to put on a performance the likes of which had never been seen – from now until the end of time. Seeking obscure knowledge and through much experimentation, they sought to create spectral constructs that could retain an actors performance and repeat their part over and over. With the bards lore and creativity and the wizard’s raw intelligence, they seemed to have succeeded – enchanting several actor’s masks with the ersatz personas.

They dubbed these concoctions of illusion and elemental magic “Figments.” Appearing as ghostly apparitions when they manifested despite being quite physical, the creatures they concocted were more akin to golems more than anything; though their only material substance was the mask which acted as the magic’s focal point. They were capable of discorporating, leaving only the mask behind until showtime, when the shimmering actor would reform in an instant. The creatures seemed to serve their purpose, reciting lines and following prescribed stage blocking; though Tolivar noted with some trepidation that they occasionally displayed a measure of independence – a quality most crafters of constructs would consider a critical error.

The night of their first performance was a hit, up until Act 4. All at once, something in the creatures snapped, and they began to attack the audience. Not wanting to waste all their hard work (and hard spent coin) Achio and Tolivar evacuated and rescued the patrons of the theatre, but chose not to destroy their magical actors. Neither ever succeeded in finding a way to capture or correct the deranged Figments.

To this day the illusive monsters lie dormant, the enchanted masks laying haphazardly on the stones of the abandoned theatre – few brave enough to chance getting near. Local legend says that if a living being takes a seat in the theatre, the creatures manifest and begin the play they set out to perform so many years ago.

None who have stayed until Act 4 ever live to tell about it.

Setup
Ideally, the PCs will walk into the amphitheater. The Figment’s masks are laying haphazardly on the stage section, and an Easy Arcana check would reveal that they are enchanted. When the PCs get within 20 squares of the masks, they corporate, and begin going through the play they were programmed to perform. A Hard Insight check reveals that something is “off” about the spectral actors – they break character staring threateningly into the audience, or silently mouth threats to PCs.

If the PCs make a threatening move, the Figments attack. Otherwise, they break their cover at the beginning of Act 4 and leap into the audience, taking a surprise round to attack any PC who fails a Moderate Insight check.

The content of the play the Figments are performing is at your discretion. It should, however be meaningful. Bits of historical information, cryptic foreshadowing or paralleling of events occurring in the campaign world or hints of future adventure are all marvelous bits of information that can give the scene even more weight.

Tactics
The principal Figments begin this encounter on stage, with the chorus possibly surrounding the top level behind the theatre’s seating or below or to the side of the stage.

Il Capitano seeks to engage the PC’s strongest melee combatant, fleeing to attack any ranged attackers once he is bloodied. The lovers will pick whatever target is most convenient for the both of them to attack in unison. Arlecchino dances throughout the battle striking targets of opportunity, ideally seeking a position with which to gain combat advantage, or else striking and then dancing away using his “Acrobatic” trait. The chorus will simply mob the PCs, doing their best to clog up the battlefield while making room for their own allies to zip in and out of advantageous positions.

Being illusionary creatures, they have no real sense of self preservation, and will fight on until destroyed.

Map
It’s a vexing proposition! I want to encourage you to support Paizo’s GameMastery line as it is typically great – but the “Ruins” Map Pack is absolute crap! My recommendation is to use their sample of the actual tile as a guideline for your own battlemat, and instead invest in one of their awesome Flip-mats

Features of the Area
Marble Wall: The wall behind the stage is blocking terrain
Marble Pillars: Both pillars are blocking terrain
Stairs: These worn, crumbling steps are rough terrain
Seating: Squares that contain rounded benches are easy enough to move through with care, however they slope and dip in places. PCs may not shift into these squares, but can otherwise move normally. Adept at navigating the amphitheater, the Figments have no such troubles.

Monsters
To represent the monsters as “Figments” you’ll need to make some alterations – though this will mostly be a matter of “re-skinning” the creatures. To make each one fit the characteristics of its associated mask a few power swap-outs are detailed in each monster’s entry.

•Each monster becomes a Medium Humanoid Construct (Keyword •Illusion) and gains Resist 5 Fire and Cold damage, Vulnerability 5 Force damage
•Each is capable of discorporeating when there is no audience present. When doing so, the Figment can neither effect nor be effected by the world. They can corporeate or discorporeate At-Will.
•Destroying a Figment’s mask (1HP 12 All Defenses) destroys the Figment itself. This can only be accomplished if the Figment is discorporeated. If a figment drops to 0 HP while corporeated, its mask shatters automatically.

x1 Arlecchino – Gremlin Deceiver (Monster Manual 3 pg. 106) – Arlecchino, or harlequin, is a trickster and acrobat, wearing a dark mask and a colorful patchwork costume
Replace “Sabotaging Presence” with the following traits:

Acrobat: Arlecchino may shift up to three squares before and/or after making a basic attack. Describe this as a series of cartwheels, tumbles, and tricks.
Lazzi of Flashing Blades: As a standard action, Arlecchino grants all non-minion Figments a single standard action that they use immediately. This is an encounter power.

x1 Il Capitano – Elf Noble Guard (Monster Vault pg. 113) – Il Captiano is a boisterous and rude braggart and foreigner. His mask is flesh toned with a big nose and bristly mustache.
Replace “Elven Accuracy” and “Wild Step” with the following:

Bravado: When not bloodied, Il Capitano deals an additional 1d10 damage with melee attacks
Better Part of Valor: When Il Capitano takes damage, as an Immediate Reaction he knocks the attacking creature prone and Capitano is pushed 2 squares.

x2 The Lovers – Dread Marauder (Monster Manual 3 pg. 75) – Always unmasked, the innamorati are the young lovers who play the principal roles in many Commedia plays. They wish to fall in love and be married; a goal that is opposed by master characters like Il Capitano and facilitated (and/or complicated) by comedic servants, Zanni like Arlecchino. They are young, beautiful, and prone to extremes of emotion.
Replace “Eyes of Undeath” and “In the Master’s Defense” with the following:

True Love: A lover gains combat advantage against enemy adjacent to the other lover.
Miserable Without You: When not within 4 squares of the other lover, they are considered Weakened.

x8 Chorus – Human Goon (Monster Vault pg. 170) – Though not a part of Commedia, the tradition of the chorus is both long and varied in theatre, having its roots in greek drama. Fantasy settings tend to have anachronistic elements, so the presence of a chorus in this Commedia play isn’t completely off base. The chorus all wear uniform masks, but each with a different color. Otherwise each wears a bland costume so as not to upstage the actors.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Combat Encounter, Playtested

 

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Under Scrutiny

“Yes, I’m aware the dragon was THERE but it was ME and my arcane might they were running from!”

My background is in theatre. I was a theatre kid as far back as middle school – and where I went to school, that meant you were probably also a gamer. It’s a trend that I don’t think is overwhelmingly common but it follows logically. Roleplaying games, at their core, hinge on the notion of portraying a character – their attitudes, gestures, voice, objectives, etc – just like in theatre. Specifically, the freeform nature of the tabletop RPG makes it much akin to improvised theatre; which was, coincidentally, my theatrical High School/College sweetheart (and if you were wondering, we’re still together). There’s such a strong link between the two that the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide even explains the most fundamental rules of improvised theatre as a guide post for how to run your characters well at the table (‘Yes, and…’ Always ‘yes and…’!).

So…what does this have to do with a story encounter, exactly? While working on a really marvelous show during my college days, we implemented an acting exercise that really hit the mark and helped the whole cast hone their characters. That exercise stuck with me as one of my favorites, and recently it dawned on me just how well it could be translated to the tabletop – not just as an exercise to play eith before the dice get rolling, but as a dramatic scene within the actual gameplay.

The point of the exercise is not dissimilar to those “100 Questions About Your Character” questionnaires that you see floating around. your character is more than just a paragraph of biographical narrative or history text-book backstory page. A lot of tiny details can really flesh your character out, inspire illustrative quirks, or add layers of complication in his or her relationships. A question as simple as “what do you have in your pockets” can force you to ask big questions about who your character is…the ones you never really thought about answering until now. That’s the crux of this exercise – to get at the details of your character and ultimately to brighten the broad strokes with the short ones.

This exercise/encounter also plays a bit with meta-game and in-character knowledge. In general I think meta-game knowledge is an unfortunate evil, but in this circumstance I feel it can do us some good in helping the PLAYERS to be active participants in crafting an engaging story, without violating the conceits of the world too much. That sounds vague right now, but it will become apparent as you read through the steps of the encounter.

But anyway, on to the action! (I’m certainly not done talking about the value that theatre has to the tabletop gaming world. And incidentally, video games are also benefiting from the influence of stagecraft).

Setup
For the best execution, this encounter involves some particular circumstances. The PCs have been taken in for questioning by a legitimate authority; an organization. This group shouldn’t be an enemy, at least not in any direct way – a suspicious militia, proactive counter-espionage agents, cautious courtiers interviewing those who wish an audience with the duke, stern-faced elven march wardens who are wary of those crossing their borders – any of these agencies would be perfect for this encounter. Do your best to emphasize that lying to these individuals is neither necessary or a good idea. It’s a cheap but effective tactic to explain that the PCs are in the presence of a zone of truth or similar spell, but sometimes preserving the spirit of the exercise is worth the strong-arming.

Whoever the group is, they separate the adventuring party, questioning them in isolation and one at a time.This is not a brutal interrogation, and the investigating group is only trying to determine what side, if any, the PCs are on, so do your best to prevent things from getting ugly. The interrogators are cool and calm, even toward belligerent PCs.

The Interrogation
At this point, have all but one of the players leave the room. Tell the player that when you re-enter the room, you will be portraying the interrogator, and this next scene is entirely in character (as best as can be done). That player should take a moment to think about their character – their attitudes, the circumstances, their past, and respond accordingly. You will then leave the room, and join the rest of the party to explain to them the terms of this exercise.

The remaining players will join you in portraying the NPC interrogators – questioning this busy-body adventurer and finding out if he or she means harm for the citizens they are protecting. But they have a meta-game goal as well: to find out things they did not know about the waiting PC. It’s reasonable that characters might keep certain secrets from their close companions that they might not mind giving to a disposable stranger. Or perhaps the group dynamic prevents a lot of questioning and prying into one another backstories in a logical way. By giving the players a third-party persona, they can ask hard hitting questions, or ask about details their own characters might be unwilling to inquire after.

Regardless, they must do their best to stay in character the entire time as well (an easier goal, as the interrogators are likely to be stoney and aloof).

Once the players (and now fellow interrogators) are prepared, go into the room and begin the questioning. As DM, you are playing the leader of this group, and you will decide when the “interview” is over. Have a few good, hard-hitting questions of your own ready to steer things in the right direction if this prompt doesn’t give your players any immediate inspiration.

Once you are done pick a new player to sit, and repeat the process.

By the end of the exercise, you will have accomplished a handful of goals:

  1. The players understand their characters better, and have developed their personalities further
  2. You have dredged up some good personal plot hooks
  3. Meta details will help steer the group towards interesting conflicts without requiring further meta-gaming. For example: let’s say in our exercise; we learned that one of your players has had trouble in the past with agents of the Raven Queen. Later in the game, the players have a chance to pick between a series of side quests to go on – and one involves exploring a haunted shrine dedicated to the Raven Queen – The players are more likely to pick that quest as it pertains to one of their backstories and will be grounded in personal motivation. It’s a way that a little meta can go a long way in making the game better without getting intrusive

Too Much Meta, and a +17 to Bluff
That all said, it’s not a fool-proof plan. If you think your players will need the extra nudge, remind them that the knowledge they gleaned by playing the interrogators is available to them as players but not at all available to their characters. It’s better this way, as it adds an element of paranoia to the whole situation (did somebody snitch…is there anything they could even snitch about?) Encourage them to have some care when using meta knowledge to steer the game in a direction inspired by this encounter – this information is meant to inform otherwise arbitrary choices, not to allow the players to harass one another about their backstories.

The other potential problem is a likely one – characters not wanting to give up their secrets or much information at all to the interrogators. This makes sense; PCs tend to have shady pasts, criminal backgrounds, or monetarily motivated intentions, and nobody wants to share that information. However this exercise is about sharing information and thinking about characters, and that requires a little honesty.

Split the difference – tell the player that if they feel like their character would be lying to the interrogators, to go ahead and lie, but indicate to the DM and the other players somehow (a raised hand, a wink, etc.) Sometimes the lie itself, or more importantly which answers are answered honestly and which aren’t, can be just as telling about a character.

Similarly, you don’t want to sabotage any secrets you and the player have worked out ahead of time – especially if you are banking on a dramatic reveal later! Use your authority as the lead investigator to belay any questions that or too pressing, or even to broach the secret carefully, setting up a little foreshadowing to its eventual revelation.

Example Questions
Many of your questions will be tailored to the specifics of your characters, but below are a smattering of possible inquires to get your mind going:

  • Were you born in the country you were raised in? As a wanderer, do you consider yourself a citizen of…anywhere?
  • Do you have children? Might you have children you are unaware of? Any heirs?
  • If I told you one of your companions was a criminal, wanted for high crimes, would you testify against them?
  • Do you suspect any of your companions of turning traitor? Which one is most likely to betray you?
  • You’re an adventurer, you raid tombs and ancient places I suppose. Are there any kinds of artifacts you would not remove from a tomb or ruin?
  • Do you find slavery acceptable under any circumstance?
  • If you were to pass a traveler in your journeys, who was beating and admonishing his own child severely, what, if anything, would you do?
  • Is it proper for a captain of a vessel to go down with his ship?
  • If in your delvings you came across an undeciphered text of no magical value, what would you do with it?
  • What of the three is worth more to you: gold, knowledge, or a favor repaid?

 

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2012 in Story Challenge

 

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