Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Yellow Banner

The Yellow Banner flies above Fallcrest!
The Company of the Yellow Banner is my original 4th Edition adventuring party. We've been playing fairly regularly since 2009, and are now midway through the official HPE series of adventures. The characters are all 15th level, but we've hardly stuck to the books: I couldn't say how many sessions we've whiled away on side-quests, personal character arcs, and other random adventures. I gave up tracking XP ages ago, and now just level the party when it seems appropriate to the story.

The name stems from an early picture that Sandy drew of his character, the warlord
Brixton. He carried a magnificent yellow pennant, which in-game he proudly brandished at every opportunity. Brixton was beaten down in almost every one of those early fights, but he always gritted his teeth, spat out blood with a grin, and stood up to bring the pain to his enemies. His unstoppable resolve rallied his allies, and at the climax of "Keep on the Shadowfell" each member of the party tore a strip from the pennant and tied it around their arms as a sign of unity.

As they headed into the paragon tier I turned the Yellow Banner into an artifact for the group. I was inspired by a short campaign we'd played with another DM, who'd entrusted our characters with a dangerous supernatural artifact called the Ark. The Ark had a bank of power that could be tapped to heal allies, detect spirits, and lash out at enemies: basically padding out any of the character roles that the party was missing. It was a clever idea, and one that stuck with me for a long while. With the Yellow Banner I initially gave each player their own unique banner power, with each power tapping a shared pool of "Glory" that was built up over time through winning battles. In addition, the banner absorbed the soul energy of any companion characters who died in sight of it, allowing the PCs to call upon them for aid after their deaths. As I don't allow companions to be raised, this added a feeling of ongoing legacy to the artifact, with each dead NPC adding a unique power to its repertoire.

Unfortunately, in play all those powers became a little fiddly: we kept forgetting to add Glory, and the players rarely used their character's banner powers. The banner's main power - adding to the damage of all allies in range - remained pretty solid, but the powers themselves were either too conditional to use or too easy to forget. One of my players recently suggested that I rework the Yellow Banner into something new. I've been inspired recently by 13th Age, so I thought I'd integrate the "Escalation Die" from that system into the artifact. For those who don't know, the Escalation Die is a mechanic for speeding up combat that adds +1 to the players' attack rolls for every round that passes, up to maximum of +6. I like the rule, but I find it a little artificial, as it's a purely mechanical abstraction. I think integrating it to our artifact explains that bonus a little better. I ended up dropping the banner's old character powers, but kept its companion powers, which I reworked to improve alongside the Escalation Die.

Anyway, take a look. We'll see how it plays in our next game!  

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Mind Blast! 5E Pregen Characters

Intellect Devourers prey on the weak in "Mind Blast!"
Last month I put together a submission for the D&D Next Adventure Contest over at EN World: which ended up as "Mind Blast!", an adventure for 4th level characters. The submissions are being judged throughout March, after which they'll be available for everyone to download from the site. Once the winner is announced, I'll also share "Mind Blast!" here on the blog.

I've created some pregens for the adventure using my own character sheets. I stuck to the classics - dwarf fighter, halfling thief, elf wizard and human cleric - but backgrounds and "chunky feats" made them more unique. This aspect of 5E is a winner. Players get fewer choices - great for newcomers - but the results feel more meaningful, and enable some fantastic concepts: jester paladin, wizard thug, and so on. I also like that some of the old prestige classes (or class features) have been folded into feats that are available to all.

Anyway, here's the party (download links at the bottom of the post). There's nothing here that ties these characters explicitly to the adventure, so they should work for any campaign. And as ever, many thanks to the lovely Stacey for all the art you see here!

Raised as a priest of the Sun God, Glaive turned to the God of War after murderous raiders sacked his monastery. Now he travels the realm in search of criminals to bring to justice. 

Time has tempered the furies of Glaive’s youth, and he takes no pleasure from killing. He seems weary beyond his years, and is fond of simple pleasures: good friends, peace and cool beer.     

Ancient spirits of nature taught Meriol her craft. She carves her spells onto bark tablets, and infuses her longbow with primal power. Now she roams the wild, protecting the natural order of things.

Meriol has spent more time amongst wood elves than her high elf kin, and thus shares many wood elf traits. She is quick to anger, full of mirth, and flighty as the wind. 

For years, Ezmaria plied her trade as a wandering charlatan, selling crank cures and potions across the Realm. Glaive eventually arrested her, and offered her a choice between going to prison and working as his underworld informer. She has since formed a new persona as “Kara the Knife”; fence and smuggler – a role that’s certainly taught her how to handle herself!

Gori was exiled from the mountain holds after his love affair with the Princess Royal was exposed. He has since spent many years in the lowlands, but yearns to return some day to the mountains and elope with his beloved.

Gori is more open-hearted than most dwarves, and gets on well with humans. Like the rest of his kin, he enjoys singing and drinking.   


Saturday, 15 February 2014

D&D Next Adventure Contest

We're now halfway through the submission period for EN World's D&D Next Adventure Contest. The challenge is to write an adventure based around one of five ready-made maps, with entries judged by a panel of star judges. The winner gets a print copy of "Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle" signed by the Wizards of the Coast staff. If you haven't started writing, you now have just under two weeks to put together your own submission!

So far my adventure features a mind-flayer, some intellect devourers, and a young cook whose mind has been accidentally swapped into the body of an owlbear. "Mind Blast!" is a bit of a lighthearted adventure, and I'm having a hoot writing it (excuse the pun).

I'll have more to share when I'm done, but for now I just wanted to show off one of the pictures that Stacey has drawn for the adventure. This is poor Greta the Owlbear, and she'd very much like her body back!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

My D&D Next Character Sheet

Behold the first page of my D&D Next character sheet!

Playing D&D Next, I've struggled to find decent character sheets that reflect the latest iteration of the rules. Those that do often seem to display too little or too much information, are too cramped, or are a bit ugly (I name no names).

In the end I decided to make my own, which I'm sharing here for your use and pleasure. It may not be a perfect design, but it's done the job for us so far. I've tried to keep mechanical stuff on the front page, and roleplay stuff on the back page (plus gear). I didn't bother with item slots, as they're less hardwired into Next. All spell information has been consigned onto an optional third sheet, which is how I prefer it.

Typically, I've since stumbled across some fantastic sheets out there on the internet, making the whole exercise a little redundant. Such is life.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Cloak & Dagger

One of Tjaart's recent constructions: a Spanish falcata.
I am blessed with some truly awesome players.

A few months back, a member of our 4th Edition group left the country to pursue a new job in Singapore, so we held a long weekender in Cambridge to see him off and tie up the group's current adventure. In the run-up to the game I exchanged quite a few emails with my players, plotting various events, power choices, and so forth. One of these conversations took me quite by surprise.

When Tjaart told me he wanted to craft weapons for each of his allies, I naturally assumed he meant that his character would be doing the crafting. I soon learned otherwise! Tjaart had been teaching himself metalwork, and had crafted a set of real-life blades for the group. Best of all, each weapon was tailored to that player's character: a military-looking dagger for the warlord, a curved blade for the eladrin warlock, a hand-axe for the dwarf, and so on.

Drizzt's scimitar
Just before the adventure's final battle, an NPC appeared to present the blades to the heroes - and as each was handed across in-game, we handed them out across the table. As you can imagine, it was a pretty spectacular surprise!

Tjaart has since crafted many more blades - some of which you can see here - and has started taking commissions. If you're interested in seeing more of his work, you can reach him through his Facebook page: The Adventurer's Emporium.

In the meantime, check out the magical weapons I made to accompany each real-life gift. I gave each a utility power tied to its owner, but they should be broad enough for general use. Also, the cloaking dagger isn't completely my own invention: it's essentially an exodus knife with a few mechanical tweaks to make it less powerful.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Note: The above link should work fine for viewing onscreen, but you'll need to 
register with Scribd to actually download the file. Yes - I'm still working on alternatives! 

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

World's End

I recently wrapped up a twelve-year long D&D campaign. The finale was a marathon weekender with seven players, and thankfully, it ended very well: everyone was on top form, and it was one of those rare games where the dice just landed right.

Today I'd like to share some thoughts on bringing your own campaigns to conclusion. It's a subject that's possibly worth thinking about, especially with 5th Edition on its way and people turning to new pastures.

Too many of our campaigns end up on the scrap heap. People drift apart, systems change, and friends get tied up in work or parenthood.  This one had almost gotten the same way. We'd started way back in 2001, shortly after the release of 3rd Edition. At first it was a perfect storm of gaming: a close-knit group of friends all living and working in the same suburb of London. Then - such is life - we moved apart, and our sessions fell from once a week to once every couple of months, and then to once or twice a year.

We didn't give up easily (one friend famously flying in from India to attend a rare group session), but overall our great story had lost momentum. This summer, I realised things needed to come to an end. We gathered for one final session, and we put our campaign to bed. It felt good too. Ongoing stories are great, but sometimes what they really need is closure.

Here's what I took from the experience of planning and running this monster final session. 

1: Instill a sense of urgency. 
I'd joked I was going to run the session like a military operation: a tight schedule of encounters, no chit-chat, punishment for not looking up spells, limited toilet breaks, etc. Turning this into a running gag actually had the same effect - people were reminded we needed to keep the wheels turning. I just didn't have to actually slap anyone's wrists!

2: Prepare a written campaign summary.
We usually kick off with a quick "previously on", but this time I took it right back to the beginning. I covered the characters' rise from simple nobodies to heroes of the realm, and laid out the campaign's story as simply as I could. Such sermons are usually bad news at the start of a session, but for the finale I think it's different. It shows your players the scale of their journey, and preparing it ahead of time shines a light on all those threads you need to tie together.  

3: Clearly present the campaign's goals.
I laid them out on cards right in the middle of the table. It seems simple, but with so many moving parts I found my players referring back to them a lot ("Hmm, it's 3pm. What have we got left? Ah yes, 'Close the demon gate and save the world!'").

4: Assign character-specific quests to tie up loose ends.
Most players develop their own threads over the course of a campaign, so this is the last chance they'll get for closure. To wrap those stories up in a single session you'll need two things. Firstly, a setting or event that forces everything together (in our case, a capital city under siege from demons), and secondly, a nudge for players to go looking for them in the first place (hence quests). Quest cards also give your players an excuse to focus on these things without causing arguments ("why am I doing this now? Because it's on this little quest card the DM gave me!"). Oh, and my single best piece of advice for actually running them: just give the players what they want. After all, this their final waltz in the spotlight.

5: Block out key scenes ahead of time, and know which scenes are expendable. 
Big fight against the necromancer overlord? Vital. Awesome skyship battle on the way to his castle? Not so much. Know what you can cut, and keep an eye on the clock.

6: PCs live, NPCs die.
It may be controversial to some, but unless your players are *really* awesome they're not going to appreciate the story ending on their beloved character's death. No, they'll want to bow out on a high. Let them! Instead, create situations where beloved NPCs are in jeopardy alongside the PCs. If a character gets into danger, their ally steps in to take the heat instead. (Our final battle had literally dozens of named NPCs whirling around the battlefield. I didn't roll dice for any of them, just pulled them in and out of the narrative as seemed best).

7: Revelations, not dilemmas.
You'll want to avoid anything that creates logjams at the table. It might sound neat to create an epic final choice between factions, but not if it's going to bog the session down in hours of analysis. Really by this stage it should be clear what's going down, who's to blame, and what needs to be done about it. Instead, focus on inserting twists and revelations that provide wonder without changing the game's overall course.

8: Use cutscenes as callbacks.
As the climax of the session approached, I described a few quick "cutscenes" featuring NPCs that the players had encountered over the years. Placing these old faces in danger really showed that the whole world was at risk, and built gravitas for the final scenes.

9: Give each character their own epilogue. 
This is vital, I think. Once the final battle has been won, go around the table one-by-one and roleplay a quick scene with each player: an epilogue for their character. Jump around in time and place: a wedding, a ritual of ascendance, a ride into the sunset. Best of all, give each player a chance to end that scene on a quote. If you're lucky, those words will go down in history for your group. 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

How should we describe NPCs?

Warning: contains SPOILERS for I6: Ravenloft!

This weekend our 1E revival group completed the original Ravenloft module, banishing Count Strahd von Zarovich to oblivion and bringing the sun once more to cursed Barovia.

Ravenloft's tragic villain is one of the greatest NPCs of D&D's early history, coming with a fully fleshed-out backstory, multiple goals, and an ability to really screw with the flow of the adventure. It's a brilliant module - heck, it spawned an entire campaign setting - and Strahd himself is definitely one of the main reasons behind its success.

Flicking through the booklet afterwards, it was interesting to see how Strahd was presented alongside the other NPCs.

As with most old modules, the character descriptions are very game-focused. Strahd's backstory and goals are spread throughout the adventure: his history is explained via a player-handout near the back of the booklet, and there's a single quote at the start to give him a bit of character. For the DM's benefit, it could really use a nice character summary! 

This got me thinking about NPC summaries in my own games. EN World's Morrus has announced he's running an adventure writing competition in January, and my current idea for a submission is fairly heavy on NPC interaction. How all those characters are presented in the text is going to be pretty crucial - both in terms of word count and usability.

Is there a "magic formula" we can turn to when listing NPC traits? What's most important to you - a description of how they look? Their motivations? A flaw? The role they play in the story? A "schtick" you can act out? 

For me, I'm thinking high concept and motivation/goal are the most important NPC descriptors, even for those bit-part shopkeepers. A single-line description covering high concept and motivation is great for most NPCs. In short, it describes what their role is in the story. This said, background can also be important (i.e. how they came to be in the story), and if they're to play a long-term role, ideals and flaws seem like good descriptors too (i.e. how they'll react to changes in the story). That's probably all I'd need for 99% of my NPCs.

Describing how they look and act certainly feel distinct from these story elements: even superfluous. Most DMs probably just go with what works best for them at the time. Even so, for the most important NPCs of all, I feel a good module should offer some guidance on these areas.

In short, I think a good NPC description depends on how important the NPC is to the story, and should expand accordingly. Here's what I've come up with so far (with help from the kind posters at EN World!):

1: Simple named NPCs are described in a single sentence: 
[Name] is a [high concept] who [motivation/goal].
"Arik is a dour barkeeper who has lost the will to fight against Strahd's evil."

2: Characters with an important story role have expanded detail on their goals: 
[Name] is [high concept]. He/she has [short-term goal], in order to [long-term goal]".
"Ismark the Lesser is the determined elder son of the late Burgomaster, and the brother of Ireena Kolyana. Ismark is determined to reveal Strahd's evil to the Count's latest victims, in the hope they can save Ireena's life and avenge his father's death."

3: Characters with a dynamic role have additional background and personality traits: 
[Name] is [high concept]. He/she has [background]. He/she has [ideal] but is hampered by [flaw]. He/she is [short-term goal], in order to [long-term goal].
"Ireena Kolyana is the unwittingly reincarnated form of Tatyana, Count Strahd's ancient love. Ireena was found by her adopted father in the woods beneath Strahd's castle, lost and with no memory of her past. She loves her adopted family, but is terrified of what her past may reveal. With Strahd closing in, Ireena offers to join the adventurers, hoping they will help unravel the mysteries of her past and free her from the Count's evil."

4: The most important characters of all include details on behaviour and appearance:
[Name], [Quote]
Paragraph 1: [Name] is [high concept]. He/she has [background]. He/she has [ideal] but is hampered by [flaw]. He/she is [short-term goal], in order to [long-term goal].
Paragraph 2: [Name] has [sensory cues]. When met, he/she is [behavioural cues].

Count Strahd von Zarovich
"I am the ancient. My beginnings are lost in the darkness of the past. I am not dead. Nor am I alive. I am undead, forever."

Count Strahd von Zarovich is the scheming vampire overlord of the cursed barony of Barovia. Centuries ago, the mortal Strahd made a pact with darkness to reclaim his youth and win the heart of the beautiful Tatyana: an act that ended in tragedy. Strahd longs for power, but is cursed to endlessly replay the events that led to his immortality - falling madly in love with the reincarnated forms of his lost love Tatyana. Strahd is currently luring adventurers into his realm so he can murder them and steal their identities, extending his malign influence far beyond Barovia.

In his human form, Strahd is tall and lean, dressed in courtly black silk, with a gaunt face and eyes like two bottomless pools of darkness. In person he is darkly courteous with guests and cruelly mocking to victims, flying into a bestial rage if his evil plans are foiled.