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.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Scotch Egg Beholders

Few snacks are more quintessentially British than the Scotch Egg: a deep-fried hard-boiled egg encased in crumbed sausage meat. Few monsters are more quintessentially D&D than the Beholder: a floating, many-eyed aberration whose gaze destroys. Combine the two, and you create a singularity of hateful, sausagey deliciousness.

This ritual summons two Scotch Egg Beholders. Preparing the ritual takes roughly 30 minutes. Invocation time is between 10-20 minutes, depending on how many Beholders you can fit into your cauldron.

Ritual Components 
2 large eggs
220g/ half a pound sausage meat
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 spring onion (scallion), finely chopped
salt and pepper
dash of Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1 whole nutmeg (optional)
plain flour seasoned with salt and pepper, for dusting
24 cocktail onions
12 wooden cocktail sticks
1 egg, beaten
50g fine white breadcrumbs
vegetable or corn oil for frying
1 small slice of cheese (Cheddar, ideally). 
Preheat your furnace to 190C/374F/Gas mark 5.
1: Place the eggs in a pan of boiling water and cook for exactly eight minutes. Plunge into cold water and then carefully peel and place to one side. 
2: Place the sausage meat in a bowl with the thyme leaves, parsley and spring onion and mix well, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a generous grating of nutmeg, if desired.  
3: Tear off roughly 80g of sausage meat and place to one side (this will form the Beholder's eyestalks). Divide the remainder in two and flatten them into fleshy discs.  
4: Dredge the eggs in a small handful of seasoned flour, and then carefully wrap the sausage meat around them to form a smooth surface. Make sure you've concealed all of your Beholder's eggy innards. 
5: Take 12 of your cocktail onions and impale them on cocktail sticks. Encase each onion in a thin coating of meat, with a smaller coating wrapped around roughly 2.5cm/1 inch of the stick beneath. It's fiddly, so be patient.  
6: Dip the Beholders and their eyestalks into their embryonic birthing pool (the beaten egg), and then carefully roll them in breadcrumbs. Press gently to ensure a good stick, and ensure every inch of their foul flesh is covered. 
7: Heat 4cm/1.5 inch of oil in a deep pan, until a piece of bread sizzles and turns brown when sacrificed inside. Now carefully deep fry your Beholder's bodies using a slotted spoon for about 4 minutes apiece, turning regularly until they're nicely browned. Place on a kitchen towel to drain, and then repeat with the eyestalks.
8: Transfer all parts to the oven and bake for about 5 minutes, or until golden brown. 
9: This is the trickiest part. Carefully cut a central eyehole into each Beholder's body using a sharp knife or scalpel. You're aiming to cut through the egg white into the yolk, which will form its pupil.   
10: Cut a leering mouth just underneath, but only deep enough to separate the breadcrumb crust. Use slivers of cheese to create horrid teeth (if you find them difficult to stick, use a dab of beaten egg to fix them in place). 
11: Now carefully cut a small eyehole into each eyestalk, exposing the pickled onion deep beneath. For extra measure, squeeze a second onion into each eye socket. 
12: Impale each Beholder's body with six* of the eyestalks, laughing maniacally as you do so. Place on a dish and serve warm (or cold, both work). 
*I know Beholders have ten eyestalks, but they don't fit. If that bothers you, you'll need to use an ostrich egg or something. 

Monday 9 December 2013

Dungeon 220: King of the Wolves

Beth Trott's gruesome rendition of Isarr Kronenstrom, scourge of Icewind Dale.

November's Dungeon is a special one for me. As well as featuring my latest adventure, "King of the Wolves", it also contains my first guest editorial! It's been quite a prolific year for me in the ezines, so Wizards kindly asked me to put together some thoughts for this month's editorial. I wrote a brief piece about the creative process, focusing on where I draw inspiration for adventure ideas ("King of the Wolves", for example, is a mash-up of Rambo: First Blood and the legend of Beowulf - or more specifically, the movie 13th Warrior).

Although the adventure presented my tightest deadline to date, it ended up being the easiest to write - everything just fell into place. I'm probably getting better at writing to schedule, but in this case I think I just got carried away by the idea. It's quite a simple plot, drawing inspiration near the end from Aeryn Rudel's "Dead by Dawn", one of my favourite 4E adventures. Overcomplication is an easy trap to stumble into when writing adventures, and can be tragic when you're up against the clock. I guess I'm learning to keep it focused.

"King of the Wolves" ties into the "Legacy of the Crystal Shard" D&D Encounters series. At the moment I'm torn between running this and "Murder at Baldur's Gate" for my next home campaign: while I love the intrigue of "Murder", it sadly carries some plot holes and lacks player agency in places. "Legacy" is more dramatic, I think, so that probably sways it for me. Interestingly both have the same format: three factions that the players clash against, dynamically whittled down to one over the course of three acts. It's a nice model, and marks quite a departure from previous seasons.

If you like "Legacy of the Crystal Shard", "King of the Wolves" lets you carry on your adventures in the Dale once the season is complete. If you do get to play it, I'd be delighted to hear how it panned out (for us, it was nearly a TPK)!

Sunday 8 December 2013

Dragonmeet 2013

Yesterday we attended our first RPG convention: Dragonmeet 2013, which was held in Kensington Town Hall. It's only a day-long affair, but it's been running for decades and tends to attract quite a buzz. This time I couldn't resist attending: I'd heard that 4E lead designer Rob Heinsoo was going this year, along with my childhood superstars Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, co-creators of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Stacey and I packed a bunch of books on the off-chance of getting them signed, and headed up to London. Funnily enough, we found ourselves next to Rob Heinsoo on the tube to Kensington, but didn't introduce ourselves as we were only half sure it was him (choosing instead to eye him suspiciously).

Dragonmeet has two gaming slots: morning and afternoon. We skipped the morning slot to catch the Games Workshop seminar and take in the stalls, picking up this fantastic art print from D&D regular Ralph Horsley (apparently it was scheduled for the Elminster's Forgotten Realms book, but somehow never made the cut!). The Games Workshop seminar itself was unmissable stuff. It was fascinating to hear how humble the company's origins were: with Jackson and Livingstone sleeping for months in a camper van parked outside their office, using the local squash club to shower and shave (apparently they got to be pretty mean squash players!). Their many anecdotes were accompanied by a set of slides, which included a rare showing of the original Talisman playtest, and early photographs of Steve and Ian alongside US contacts such as Gary Gygax and Fritz Leiber. Their passion for the hobby really shone through during the talk, and reminded me what a great debt we UK gamers owe to them!

After lunch Stacey got her Player's Handbook signed by Rob Heinsoo, who kindly took a few minutes to talk to us about 4E and 13th Age, his latest project. He came across as a really charming guy, and it was fascinating to hear his own thoughts on 4E's strengths and weaknesses. I picked up 13th Age a while back, so I'll have to give it a spin when we get the chance!

In the afternoon we played in Rich Green's 4E game "Flotsam and Jetsam", which was staged in Parsantium, a city of his own creation. Parsantium draws heavily on Indian and Asian mythology, featuring crazed cultists of Kali, the monkey god Hanuman, and Rakshasa overlords. I've always preferred Eastern over Christian myth for my fantasy, so I really enjoyed this setup. I also got to play a gnoll fighter, which was awesome because - well, gnoll fighter! In the end, "Shak" got to claim some heads, Stacey's Eladrin wizard got to cast some fun illusions, and our merry band saved the slums from slavers, Thuggee assassins, and various Underdark ne'er do wells. I was pleased to hear that Rich was the co-author of the wonderful 4E Midgard Bestiary, and is soon to be kickstarting the Parsantium city book (or more accurately kickfinishing, as it's already written!). You can check out his blog here.

Overall we had a great time, and are definitely up for more. My only criticism would be that attending both gaming slots means missing the stalls, so it would be nice if they stayed open a little later. Other than that, it was a real blast!

My signed original of "Forest of Doom", and Stacey's signed PHB!