Tales from the Sunken City

I have been running a Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG campaign online via Google+ Hangouts and Roll20. The game has been going since the first of August and we typically play for 2 to 2.5 hours on Tuesday nights. We have had a couple of canceled sessions due to crazy lives, but have had a pretty stable campaign overall.

I started the campaign with The Perils of the Sunken City from Purple Sorcerer Games, a 3rd party publisher for the DCC RPG system. Several of my players were familiar with the Goodman Games modules already out which was a factor in choosing to start with the Purple Sorcerer Games products.

I liked the initial setting because it included a decent sized, but financially poor city and a large area of swamps to the South of the city. The swamps were vast portions of the city reclaimed over the centuries as the city was forcefully migrated northward by nature. The setting also includes a “sending stone” which acts like a randomly teleporting stone. Prospective adventurers place their hands on the stone and they are transported to some location. I thought this would allow me to use a myriad of modules that might not otherwise link together well.

Essentially, the modules offered a starting point with enough detail to hit the ground running, but enough white space for me to shape it into anything the players or I wanted.

The first module went quite well with some overland exploration in the swamp followed by a rather lethal dungeon for the ending of the adventure. The Perils of the Sunken City served quite well for a 0-level funnel and really helped shaped the character development of those that survived.

With the group surviving their first foray into the Sunken City they returned as heroes to the little settlement just outside the city walls proper. The group took about three months of in-game time to determine their path forward (i.e. class) and spend their hard fought gold. Two of the players also selected their patron from an entity featured at the end of the module. I ended up doing a complete patron write-up for that patron which both players have been using.

From here I wanted to run The Ooze Pits of Jonas Gralk for the group. It made use of the same sending stone for a start and further reinforced my base of the Great City and the Sunken City in the swamps to the south. I blended the storylines a bit and offered a possible option for controlling the sending stones instead of submitting to its randomness via an item that would be found at the end of The Ooze Pits of Jonas Gralk.

It took us six session (2 hours each) to play through The Ooze Pits of Jonas Gralk. I am sure other groups have played through this faster. I tend not to steer players too much, so I let their investigations go and handle things on they fly when they take actions outside what might be outlined in a module. If they want to chat with someone they encounter, I am always happy to carry on that conversation instead of brushing it aside. I think that is a good thing as long as it helps get them information they desire. But it does add time to play through the module. In fact, though we are pretty much done with the module as written, they have a few things they still want to wrap up.

Choosing to start with the Purple Sorcerer Games Sunken City line has proven to be a good start for us. I feel like we have a solid set of characters now, some backgrounds and themes starting to show through and the start of a campaign world to play in. With the use of sending stones it will also be relatively easy to work in other adventures from other publishers as well. There is a whole area of exploration behind how the sending stones came to be and are they really limited to just taking you to portions of the swamp?

For those interested I do keep an Adventure Log at the Obsidian Portal site I use for this campaign. While I don’t post detailed session reports here, I do try to keep the adventure log updated. Feel free to check it out. I caution you that you will run into spoilers for The Perils of the Sunken City and The Ooze Pits of Jonas Gralk over there as you read about our group’s adventures.

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House Rules

Early last week I posted a poll here at The Iron Tavern about reader’s usage of house rules. There were four options in the poll:

  • No house rules at all, rules are rules
  • Minimal house rules, more like table clarifications
  • Some house rules, change things that need changing
  • Lots of house rules, my house rule doc is more than 2 pages

Based on this poll, everyone house rules at least a little. No one chose the no house rules option. 31% chose the minimal house rules or the more like table clarifications. Table clarifications could be tweaks to starting gold, hit points gained during leveling and items like that. 54% went with some house rules stating that if something needs changing, then they would change it to work for their game. And the final 15% confessed to house rules breaking into multiple pages.

The poll question was sparked by my reading of the Castles and Crusades Castle Keepers Guide the weekend before. Right up front there is section that plainly states that if the rules are impeding your fun, amend it or change it, but do not let it impede your fun. This got me thinking about the amount of house rules I use and whether I bend to the rules or if I bend them to my game.

I have frequently run Pathfinder games in the recent years. Some of the games I have run are for my local group where I have lots of flexibility and other times I run Pathfinder Society games under the organized play umbrella. There really isn’t room for house rules under organized play, as one needs to provide the same experience from one GM to another. But my home game has no such restriction.

Even for my home game I fall into the minimal house rules category. The things I rule on are much more like table clarifications. Things like rolling hit points being if you don’t break half on the die roll, take half. Or possibly just a clarification of a frequently debated rule with how we interpret it for my campaigns. I really don’t dig inand house rule things very much. I could fit it on a half a page I bet.

I was the same way with D&D 3.x as well. I did not make a lot of changes to the rules. I pretty much played by the rules as written save for the minor table modifications.

After reading the Castles and Crusades rules I am feeling more of an urge to tinker, to really play with the rules and mold them for my group. That isn’t a slight towards the game, it is more like a feeling of liberation, like I’ve been given the blessing of modifying the rules.

Why is it I feel more able to modify with Castles and Crusades versus something like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder?  Even the Pathfinder Core rulebook mentions some flexibility with the rules, though more in the vein of making quick rulings when the interpretation of the rule is unclear. Castles and Crusades comes straight out and says change the rule if you don’t like it.

I think it is more than that as to why I feel more willing to modify or house rule something like Castles and Crusades. I think systems with more rules, while trying to help the GM judge decisions actually end up restricting the player’s freedoms. Everything they want to do is regulated by a feat, skill or some other mechanic instead of common sense. In the end while it can make things more black and white, I think it can be restricting.

With a more rules-light system there is a lot more room to tinker while still staying within the system. This tinkering can include adding in some house rules to keep things consistent between game sessions.

I think as I spend more time with Castles and Crusades and other rules light systems I will move from the ‘table clarifications’ response to my poll to the ‘change things that need changing’ portion of the poll.

So what do you think? Does the system you play have an affect on how much you house rule?

House Rules Poll

I started reading some of the Castle Keepers Guide for Castles and Crusades this weekend. Right up front there is a one page section on not being bound by the rules. If the rules are impeding your fun, amend it, change it, but do not let a rule get in the way of your fun.

This got me thinking a bit and is the reason behind today’s poll. How many folks out there house rule their game? A little? A lot? Absolutely not? Does the type of system have an influence on whether you house rule your game or not?

Feel free to use the comment section to clarify your use of house rules. I am sure the poll won’t completely capture people’s use of house rules.

Here is the poll:

We’ll let the poll sit out there for a few days and then I will comment on the poll results and my thoughts on house rules.

Campaign Settings: Published vs. Homebrew

Any GM getting set to start a campaign must make a choice up front whether to run a published campaign setting or a homebrew. This choice helps set the stage for the whole game.

Several factors can influence which option a GM or a group chooses. Sometimes the GM makes the choice for the group, considering time, familiarity with a published setting and interest in a published setting. Other times the group will come to a consensus, though I find this more the case of how interested the GM is in running a published campaign world and having players have some input on which one.

My Past Choices

Since I came back from my sabbatical from gaming many years ago, I have been running my games in published campaign settings. I originally came back with Forgotten Realms, dipping my toe in little used areas, like The Vast (yeah, go check your campaign maps, it really is a region). Then I moved on to regions like the Silver Marches for the region to start my games.

I had a brief stint of seriously considering converting my games to the world of Erde from Troll Lord Games. I never did end up running a game in that world, but I think the fact it was lesser used and more of an unknown to many people is what tempted me to try that campaign setting out.

After many years of Forgotten Realms games Golarion caught my eye from Paizo and I started to run games in Golarion. A large portion of that was due to adventure paths being set in the campaign world, so it was only natural not to re-write all of those bits.

Why did I choose published campaign settings when I picked up gaming again? I thought it would save me time. I wanted to run adventures, not design whole entire campaign settings. That was my prime motivating factor in choosing to run published settings.

Now I do like the settings I have chosen in the past. I am a Forgotten Realms fan and Golarion has proven equally fun to read and run as well. But essentially, I chose these settings because I thought it would save me time by laying the framework of the world as my canvas.

Reconsidering

Recently I have found myself reconsidering running games in a published setting. I am starting to question whether it actually saves me time or not. The biggest hassle of running campaigns in published settings for me is the constant nagging that a decision I make on the fly ends up contradicting something within the campaign setting. Getting a distance wrong, judging the next door kingdom’s attitude towards the one the characters are currently in, the name of a prominent Inn in a major city, and more. Frankly, it starts to feel like homework learning a new campaign setting well enough to run without constant contradictions. The prep just to learn the published setting starts to take away from the time I can prep for an actual adventure itself.

My New Choice

For my most recent campaign under the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG system, I chose to “homebrew” my campaign world. Rather than starting with a completely mapped out and detailed world, I took a module and used it to start my world. From there we will be growing out as needed, the lands become more known and the story growing from there.

If I need an organization as a plot hook, I make one up instead of researching it. I can often make one up with some rough notes faster than I can research published materials to find just the right one. If I need a Kingdom next door that is threatening to stop transportation of raw materials, I can again jot down a few notes and the Kingdom springs into existence.

Or maybe I do see a city map and description I like in a published setting’s guide. I am free to yank that for my own use and drop it into my world. I can use the building names alone, borrow NPCs, or if I need, ignore power structures that don’t blend with my world and remove them.

So far it has been a great decision. It feels much more liberating. Things I make up on the fly are jotted down in notes and the world grows outward from there. No worries of contradicting something or needing to reference a campaign guide.

For times I do need something more involved, I can borrow something from a published setting and drop it down into my world with much less concern of invalidating something that is canon in the campaign world.

Conclusion

For years I thought I was saving myself time by choosing a published campaign setting. Given what I have learned over the past couple of months I am not so sure anymore. I think the work to make things fit well into a published setting wasn’t really saving me as much time as I thought.

With that said, I still plan on reading various campaign settings and collecting the ones that interest me. There are a lot of good ideas out there and I would be foolish to ignore new settings all together.

What about you? Do you find published campaign settings a timesaver?

High Level Characters, Low Level Adventure

My local group recently finished up Council of Thieves. I did not run the campaign, the other GM in my group has been running it. This past week we started in on Serpent’s Skull. That sounds typical of a lot of Pathfinder groups I am sure. Finish one Adventure Path and then move to the next. The difference in this case is that our GM let us bring our characters from Council of Thieves to the Serpent’s Skull campaign. 10th level characters tackling a 1st level adventure.

My local GM has a habit of trying unusual things with his games. Our first game with him many years ago had the 1st level PCs finding a 150,000gp treasure hoard. Back in the 3.5 days he used to give us a feat every level. This time it is letting us carry over high level characters to a lower level adventure.

He has been planning this transition for several months, he mentioned it even towards the beginning of Council of Thieves. As the previous Adventure Path wrapped up he mentioned again that he was going to give us the option of carrying our characters over. Of the four of us, three chose to continue with their character. The three that chose to continue with their characters include a bard, rogue and inquisitor. The fourth had an urban ranger and did not feel he would fit in, so re-rolled an oracle. The fourth is entering the campaign at 1st level.

I have a lot of faith in our GM to pull things off like this. We have a good group, we trust each other and so far our GM’s experiments have typically been successful. The other advantage he had going for him was the premise of the initial module of the AP involving a PC losing nearly all of their gear. He had a built-in way to separate us from all of our magical gear. Prior to the session he advised all of us to redo our character sheets without any of our gear except for one item of our choosing.

The GM had a hook to blend the APs together by taking an object we found amidst the Council of Thieves and needing to take it to the Mwangi Expanse to destroy it.

With the adventure underway the group found ourselves on an island minus a lot of our gear. Immediately we faced our first combat encounter with some crab-like scorpion things. The creatures obviously had their hit points boosted as it was taking several hits to kill them. They were still easy to hit, so the AC was the same. They were able to cause poison damage and that DC was left alone, though a combination of poor rolls still left 10th level characters feeling the effects of the poison.

Afterwards the GM confirmed with me my suspicions. All he had done to the creatures to ratchet them up a little was increase their hit points. The lack of gear really reduced the power of the characters and a few bad rolls still made the creatures somewhat of a threat.

Survival on this island is another component of the initial Serpent’s Skull adventure. Even this has its moments of challenge. The survival rolls are pretty easy, but there are only two characters, one of which is an NPC, that have decent ranks in survival. There are still several logistics of survival on the island to figure out that require us to think as players regardless of level. So even with high level characters this element of the AP still retains its fun. Granted our party’s make-up has some influence on this as we lack a wizard or cleric.

We are only one session in, but so far the experiment seems a success. By stripping us of our gear and boosting the hit points of the creatures we face, the element of fun is still there. It has been an interesting blend of Adventure Paths and I look forward to seeing how the rest of it plays out.

15 Minute Work Day

A frequent complaint one hears about D&D (and Pathfinder to a degree) is the 15 minute work day. The 15 minute work day is the potential for a party to want to rest after they use all of their big resources. This is often at the behest of the Wizard or Cleric of the party after they have used their more powerful spells.

This problem generally lines people up on two sides, both of which can be rather vocal about the issue. One side says this is a problem in nearly every D&D game they have played in and the other says they have never seen it in their games. These arguments usually fall between “it is a systemic problem it isn’t our fault” to “you are playing the game wrong, there is not a problem with the system”. This debate has been going on for a long time, occasionally resurfacing on various forums or twitter feeds.

Why bring it up today at The Iron Tavern? Conan. Conan and The People of the Black Circle actually.

Let me back up just a step though before I get into Conan and the 15 minute work day. I obviously have an opinion on the 15 minute work day, I think everyone does. I fall into the group of people that really has not seen the issue that often.

As a player our groups nearly always push onwards and our wizards tend to be conservative with their spells and manage their resources. That does not mean we adventure on until our resources are completely depleted, but we typically carry on for a good number of encounters before seeking out a place of rest. This has been the case for my local group, for the many organized play games I have participated in, a multitude of play-by-posts, and games I have played online in. Do the casters sometimes announce that they are running low on prepared spells? Yes. But the group as a whole typically pushed onwards.

From the GM perspective I have similar experiences. Players I GM for also tend to push onwards in adventures I run. Sometimes to the point where I actually think it might be best for them to rest up a bit before continuing. This experience is from many varied mediums as my play experience has been.

Given the number of different groups and situations I have a really hard time thinking this is a systemic problem as many like to state. To me a systemic problem would be widespread enough that I would have run into the problem in my playing of the game. I can see room for abuse by a 15 minute work day, but I don’t see it as being a systemic problem in the rules.

There has been one campaign where I found myself facing 15 minute work day scenarios. Kingmaker. The way the exploration portion of Kingmaker works the group will very often find themselves facing every fight at full resources. Now this is an example a systemic problem. As the Kingmaker Adventure Path is written, the PCs are only ever going to face one, two, maybe three encounters in a day during the exploration phases of the campaign.

Back to Conan. I recently started reading People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard. As I read that book a distinct thought tumbling around in the back of my mind was if GMs ran their games like that story, the 15 minute work day would never be an issue. The heroes (and even the enemy for that matter) have several moments during the story where they have no choice but to continue on regardless of the status of their resources or how depleted their forces were.

Conan and his companions cannot stop to wait or rest, even as they watch a good number of their forces perish. The girl must be rescued! To wait and recoup health, forces, or arrows is sure to meet with the untimely death or worse for the girl.

The defenders are heavy users of sorcery and at one point in the book are shown using various spells to defend themselves. As the battle unfolds Conan even remarks that they must have lost their capacity for magic as they further retreat. But those sorcerers cannot simply stop and rest! They have a fierce barbarian and his dwindling horde knocking at their doorstep!

Pacing as shown by example in People of the Black Circle is what GMs should strive to obtain. This puts the PCs in an exciting adventure with stakes that mean something to the characters. It paints that sense of urgency that will keep things moving forward and not a series of fight, sleep, fight, sleep and so on. The type of magic system simply will not matter, because it is irrelevant. The PCs must go on to be the heroes, to do otherwise simply ends in devastating failure.

Review: Never Unprepared – The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep

Author:  Phil Vecchione
Publisher:  Engine Publishing
Price: Print+PDF Bundle $19.95 / PDF $9.95
Pages:   132 (digest)
Tankard Rating:  5/5

The Book

Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep is the third book out from Engine Publishing. The book is written by Phil Vecchione, a gamer with 30 years of experience and illustrated by Matt Morrow and Christopher Reach.

Never Unprepared is a guide to session prep of any type of system you like to play, whether that be a fantasy genre, sci-fi, modern, or any other genre. The process it works the reader through is applicable to your RPG system of choice. The book has three major sections as the author walks the reader through the process of session preparation.

What is Inside?

The first major section is about understanding prep. This area delves into the five phases of preparation – brainstorming, selection, conceptualizing, documentation, and review. Each of these sections cover the individual process and defines it, covers what happens if you spend too little time on that area, what happens if you spend too much time on that area and how to improve and strengthen this area of your prep. Each section closes with a short question and answer section to help give the reader a feel for their skill level for these areas.

The next major section covers the prep toolbox. This section talks about tools for prep. It does not try to steer you towards good old fashioned paper and pencil or to more modern electronic tools, but talks about pros and cons and knowing your own abilities. It also talks about what makes a good tool for each of the building blocks of prepping a session. This helps the reader make a good choice for themselves regardless of whether they prefer electronic or paper and pencil tools.

Another interesting portion of this section is mapping out your creative cycle. The author is a working professional with a family at home and knows what it is like to carve out prep time. He walks you through a technique to map out just how much free time you have and then figure out when you are most creative. Using this information you can more easily map out when you should be scheduling your prep time, yet still balance with work and your family life.

The final major section of the book covers evolving your style. This talks about various concepts to make your prep a little easier. It covers building templates for you to use to help guide your prep. These templates can vary based on when you consider your strengths as a GM and what you consider weaknesses. When prepping areas that hit your strengths you can get by with fewer details. When prepping areas that you feel weak in, including a little more detail can be good.

Using a prep-lite approach in for session preparation is also covered. This includes more tips for getting the amount of preparation you need as a GM just right, while using each of the five steps detailed earlier in the book.

The final portion of this section talks about what to do when the real world intervenes. We have all been there where something comes up that cuts even more into what little time we have to prep. Several scenarios are covered in this section and how various obstacles can affect your prep and how to adjust.

The PDF version of this book is wonderfully bookmarked and has an extensive index. It is good to see that Engine Publishing understands the value of a well bookmarked PDF and the value of a good index. These things do matter to RPG consumers.

But Is It Any Good?

This book was very good. This book should be standard issue to any new GM or any GM that says they simply don’t have time to run a game anymore as real life responsibilities increase. The author has been there like all of us, from the time where we could spend all afternoon evening prepping for games, reading about gaming and doing research for the game. Now, with careers and families there just isn’t the time to prep like we used to. This book shows you how to make the most of your time and get the prep done you need to run a quality game.

Session preparation is often looked at as a very large task. Never Unprepared breaks it down into reasonable chunks of preparation. Some of these chunks can be done in the shower, while you wait in line and other places with minutes of downtime. Other portions of prep do take more contiguous amounts of time, but the book helps you determine where you can find these chunks of time and how to reduce the stress sometimes associated with taking time out of your day to work on gaming prep.

I appreciated the fact that the tools section did not push you into one particular tool or style. The author spent the time to tell you what was required of the tool, leaving it to the reader to pick his or her preferred tool based on requirements, not on someone pushing you in one direction. Understanding what a tool needs to accomplish goes further to helping the reader choose the right tool than anything else.

I also found the mapping of your creative time in contrast with your free time very valuable. I have never sat down to map out my free time, much less apply a creative time peak map over that. These tips can go far to help reduce any tension you might have within your family for taking time to prep games. The methods outlined in this book do not require you to abandon your work of family responsibilities.

This book will help you better prep for your games and work this prep into your busy schedule. The techniques outlined in the book are very solid building blocks to making sure the time you spend prepping for your game is well spent.

The next time I hear someone say they do not have time to run a game I will immediately point them to Never Unprepared as a place to start. This is a high quality offering from Engine Publishing with invaluable advice to anyone trying to figure out how to more effectively prep for their game.

Tankard Rating
5 tankards out of 5 tankards

Note: The Iron Tavern was provided a review copy of this book.