Tuesday 27 September 2011

Swords of the Storm God

"Wux tepoha thric tiichi"

John speaks Draconic. He looks at me with a completely straight face, and then hits me with a string of gruff, dragonborn gibberish. The best bit is, he doesn't translate. There's always a pause, and I'll have to say "uh... meaning?", and he'll mutter something like "I will smite you down and display your ruin for all to see what the treachery of blood costs" - and I swear he looks a little disappointed that nobody got it first time.

John gets his translations through the draconic translator. If he's tapping away on his phone between turns, he's usually cooking up another dose of draconic. His character once had a long conversation in draconic with an ancient storm dragon. Beforehand he'd shown me a list of questions, I'd prepared a bunch of answers, and he'd written some lines he could drop in if things went badly. All the way through, we were passing these notes to each other, explaining what we were saying. It was crazy.

Anyway, John plays "Sephirius", a dragonborn paladin of Kord. Way back when we were playing H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth, Seph got a hold of the Orb of Light, an undead-slaying artefact that embedded itself into the blade of his sword. I had this idea for bringing a lich into the game, and the Orb seemed the perfect way to lead them to it. But as the final confrontation loomed, I had a dilemma: how could I maximise Seph's chances of dealing the final blow (which I knew John would love), and - with the quest coming to an end - present an epic "consolation prize" for when the Orb moved on to a new wielder?

The circle is complete. Now crack open the crits.

John's big on Kord. When the going gets tough, he's even been known to assemble the "Circle of Kord": a dice-rolling pen designed to channel the power of the storm god. Seph himself is the quintessential paladin: like his diety, he's quick-to-anger and at times ruthless, but always fights with honour. Seph's journey began with earning his spurs as a paladin, and I figured that it was time to up the stakes.

When the lich dropped to a quarter hit points, the powerful Orb of Light opened a portal to the Astral Sea: hurling Seph and his opponent into Kord's arena, high atop Mount Venya. Here, before his god, Seph fought the last rounds alone.

Sephirius Stormclaw in the Arena of Kord

Sephirius triumphed, and as a prize, the god of storms himself hammered out a great warblade. Seph named it "Kluurok Uuenbir": Divine Thunder.

Check it out below: it should work in any game. Oh, and many thanks to John for letting me use his artwork this week!

Sunday 18 September 2011

Thaumatic Themes: Bombardier

"Themes" are very popular at the moment. In case you've missed them, they're templates that sit above your chosen class, and grant bonus powers throughout the heroic tier. Each theme also has optional Utility powers you can swap out with those from your main class.

In many respects, they're a lot like a Paragon Path, or an Epic Destiny. Themes first surfaced in the Dark Sun Campaign Guide, and thanks to their popularity, Wizards soon released a set for general play through DDI. Most recently, the Neverwinter Campaign Guide featured a bunch of themes for the Forgotten Realms. So, it looks like they're here to stay.

Themes are great for bringing out the unique aspects of your campaign world. For example, if you're playing in Forgotten Realms, your mage could choose to be a Renegade Red Wizard. Or, your entire party could choose to be "Harpers": members of a secret society sworn to fighting evil.

For my rebooted campaign world, making some unique themes seemed a great way to flavour the party. Recently I've been working closely with my players to flesh out the themes they'd like to play, and over the next few weeks, I'll be previewing them here. Stacey's "Bombardier" is the first: a regimental soldier schooled in the use of firearms. This theme works alongside my custom rules for firearms, which I detailed in the recent Gears and Gunpowder article.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

A World of Gears and Gunpowder

I’m starting a new campaign soon.

On top of my bi-weekly game, I’ve decided to start up another campaign for Friday nights. This gives me a chance to finally convert “Tabletop” over to 4th Edition: the homebrew world I built for the last edition.

Start small, and work outwards- the guiding principle behind any new campaign

It’s a daunting undertaking, but starting a new campaign is certainly the best way to go about it. In fact, it gives me a chance to trim the world back to its barebones. With new characters (and new players!) there’s no legacy to get in the way. I can start again, and that’s liberating. I can pick the best bits, and focus on them. In Hollywood terms, it’s a reboot!

So how do you go about explaining a new campaign world to your players? Well, at work I’ve pitched a bunch of concepts to publishers, and I’ve learned that most people don’t like to read. I’ve seen the glazed look on their faces as they skim a concept doc, and fielded countless calls from bosses to “just boil this down to a one-pager”.

Not that I condemn them. In fact, they’re right - I don’t like reading either. If we sit down to play D&D, the last thing I want to do beforehand is trudge through a 100-page treatise about your world. Or a 10-page treatise, for that matter. No, if I'm to read anything at all, I want it all on a single page, damn it!

So without further ado, here’s the one-pager for my rebooted “Tabletop”, now called "The Riddle World". That’s nine points that spell out the lore of the world, all on a single side of A4.

But how does this gumpf actually affect the game? I guess, for me, back in 3rd Edition, it was heroes wielding pistols, battles atop chain-rails, and dangerous journeys into the null-magic that really defined my world. So “thaumatic power” and “fluctuating magic” were two systems I absolutely had to design before we began.

And here they are, for you. Hopefully, with a bit of imagination, you’ll find some use for them in your games!

Herein you'll find full rules for firearms, and a smattering of Steampunk items (including, to my knowledge, the first ever D&D bicycle rules!*)

Here you'll find rules for running fluctuating magic fields - which could be handy for an adventures set near a planar rift. Or maybe you could bring them into play for a magical storm, or an eclipse?

* Yes, that's right. D&D Bicycle Rules!!

Monday 5 September 2011

D&D Mass Combat Rules

“I thought this was going to be crap, but it’s actually pretty good”

Such was Stacey’s confidence in working my custom wargaming system into our group’s ongoing D&D campaign. Right now, we’re about a third of the way through “P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens”, and the town of Moonstair is under attack from Skalmad’s forces. Instead of running the encounters by the book, I thought it would be neat to play the raid as a tabletop wargame. After all, they'd built a trebuchet. They’d trained up the guards and placed burning oil on the walls. One of them had even dropped a thousand gold on a ritual to recruit reinforcements from Celduilon.

The battle for Moonstair begins

Luckily, I had some confidence in the system I’d created – as it was inspired by another. About five years ago I worked for a video games company down in Bath. Our boss was one of the designers behind the original Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (or “Warfruppa”, as it’s colloquially known around here), and one of the perks of the job was access to his magnificent gaming table. Every Tuesday night we’d stay on for a session after work, and it was here that he introduced me to the “Piquet” war gaming system.

It’s brilliant. You see, most war games have got it all wrong. You take uniform turns, one side after the other. You choose which unit to move, and when. It’s all very clinical. Real war isn't like that.

In real war, orders get delayed or misinterpreted, opportunities arise unpredictably, and reconnaissance is unreliable: what military strategists refer to as the “Fog of War”. Piquet models this really well. However – and this is really important for D&D – it does so in an exciting, “gamey” way. Instead of choosing which troop to order, you draw cards randomly from a “sequence deck”. Each card costs an action point to draw, and lets you move just a single troop type. Moving individual units costs even more points, so you need to think carefully: move your heavy infantry now, or hold out for that perfect cavalry charge? Sometimes when units get into trouble you’ll find yourself burning points just to pull the right card – wasting opportunities for other, perhaps more valuable, actions.

I've great memories of those sessions down in Bath. Gaming on a full-sized table with proper scenery and professionally painted troops is something else. In fact, it’s possibly the catalyst to my crack-like addiction for pre-painted D&D miniatures.

These are just the singles: the dupes live in boxes in the garage

For my D&D mass battle rules I mixed a bit of Piquet with a bit of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and ended up with something fairly unique. The rules here are tailored to our Moonstair fight, but you shouldn’t have any difficulty statting up your own troops. They'll also work with any edition (or system for that matter). For the Moonstair map, I grabbed the DDI map for the module, overlaid a grid in photoshop, and printed it out over two sheets of A3. We used D&D miniatures to represent each unit, and pennies for Action Points.

Overall, it played out really well. Drawing cards was fun (they cheered when the trebuchet came out!), and they split dice rolls between the group. I’ll be doing it again for sure – and I've a bunch of ideas for how to improve it. I'd like to feature multiple decks (maybe movement, tactics and combat), giving players a little more control over what's drawn. I'd also like to put in cards that create ongoing effects, or can be held back for the right moment (a bit like Tide of Iron). Whatever happens, I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!

Oh, and credit where credit’s due – be sure to check out Piquet's expanded, official rules. They’re a small company, so they could use the custom. Have a think about shelling out for the pdf – if you like wargames, you won’t be disappointed.