Jul 25 2013

Thoughts On My Eberron Game

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We’re finally getting to session two of my new Eberron game this weekend; I’ve been champing at the bit for the past two weeks to get back to it. It’s also probably the last session before one of the players moves out to California, which fills the rest of us with terror and dismay. Regardless of whether we set up an iPad in his chair and have him here remotely, or he moves on to something more local to himself on Saturday nights, our group is about to go through another one of its periodic sea-changes, and as the current configuration has probably been the best our group has had in years, we’re anxious as to what will come. But that’s another topic! I want to talk about this Eberron game and what’s got me so eager for it.

Normally when I come up with a campaign idea, I start with a general vision of what kind of experience the campaign should be, try to figure out potential ways my players might engage with and enjoy it, and present it to them, knowing that they’ll probably come up with something at complete right angles to it and we’ll have to work as a group to synthesize it all. I often try to emulate a particular feel for a campaign, whether it’s Howardian sword-and-sorcery, loopy CRPG/cartoon silliness, or “old-school dungeon crawling.” Sometimes it works beautifully, sometimes it crashes, and sometimes it just sorta sits there.

This time, I came to it from the other direction: specifically, certain players had characters I knew they wanted to play, and there were certain fantasy elements I knew I wanted to play with but hadn’t yet, and so I came up with a campaign framework that had room for those things, handed it to the players, and said, “Here you go– as long as you can think of a reason your character would be in situation X, you can play whatever you want.” The players responded with enthusiasm, which is always gratifying. ;)

Note that I’m not advocating one of these approaches over the other: they can both serve a campaign and a group well, but they can also both go pffft. The structure of my usual approach can be very useful for players who don’t know what they want to do and can simply take their cues from the background, but of course it can also be quite shackling to somebody who wants to play a bomb-throwing alchemist in a Tolkien-style fantasy where such things would be the craft of The Enemy and not suitable for heroes (to use a real-life example). The approach I took for this game is great for someone who has a character near and dear to their heart that they want to get some action, but it puts a lot of the burden of “making your character work” on the player and might not provide as in-depth an immersive experience.

In any case, for this particular campaign, and in the context of “play what you want, we’ll make it work,” Eberron is in some ways the perfect setting. Heck, Rule #1 of the Ten Important Facts About Eberron is “If it exists in the D&D world, then it has a place in Eberron.” Human fighter? Come on down. Gnome half-dragon with a crazy quilt of prestige classes? We’ll find a spot for you. That’s what Eberron is for.

In spite of all this wiggle room (or possibly rope with which to hang yourself), Eberron never feels like a giant “just toss it all in” mess. In fact, it’s one of the few RPG worlds I’ve seen where the system artifacts and the game setting actually seem to work together as a cohesive whole instead of actually fighting with one another.

The quasi-medieval default of most fantasy settings really starts to break down when you add magical healing as common, monsters in vast complexes just outside of town, and groups of mercenary adventurers sporting items of power that are worth more gold than the entire kingdom will ever see. Eberron starts from the premise that these things exist and then says “What would a world be like where this happened?” Magic shops? Heck, Eberron has an entire magic economy. The fortunes of House Cannith, House Lyrandar, and House Sivis were built on the manufacture of magic items. That kingdom across the border with an army of the dead? We can’t just go to war with them, we’ve got trade agreements to think of!

There are lots of other cool little touches, too, from “manifest zones” (places where the borders between dimensions get a bit wibbly-wobbly, giving you an in-world reason to have a random sea of lava in a dungeon room if you want one) to “flying carpet races” in Sharn. In short, while having all the underpinnings of Dungeons and Dragons (or Pathfinder, in my particular case), Eberron is a setting that smiles and says, “Go on, have fun with it. I can take it.”

I intend to do just that. And with the players eager to go as well, I expect many good times to be had with this game. Although I originally intended for it to be a self-contained 4-6 level story arc, it may just end up being something that goes on indefinitely. And even if it doesn’t, I’ve now got some cool ideas for future campaigns that could also work in Eberron down the road.

-The Gneech

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Jul 03 2013

Monday Monster: Cthulid

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This one’s not actually mine, so instead of just copying it wholesale, I’ll link it for you:

Errant d20 Designer: Cthulid

It’s a CR 9 large humanoid, something like a cross between an ogre and a mind flayer. Not as huge and epic as a star-spawn of Cthulhu, but definitely an “Oh #&^%@!!!” moment for most parties. Makes a great solo/final boss for a level 7-8 adventure with a Lovecraftian/Howardian vibe.

It’s currently written with psi-like abilities (c/o Psionics Unleashed, which is thought of by many as the “core” psionic rules for Pathfinder, even if it’s from a third party). The ability descriptions are in the d20PFSrd, but if you don’t want to use those, they could easily be swapped out for similar spell-like abilities instead.

Created by Tim Wallace. Nice job, Tim!

-The Gneech

PS: Yes, I know it’s not really Monday. ;P

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Jun 30 2013

Big Damn Antiheroes

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We had the character creation and prologue session of my new Pathfinder campaign set in Eberron last night.

Unfortunately, two players were absent from the session, which threw something of a monkeywrench into my plans for the whole “shared origin” thing, but we decided to roll with it anyway with just the players at hand, since gaming opportunities are so few and far between for us these days. If I’d had time I would have rescaled the scenario a bit, but the group managed to get through it with only one character ever in actual danger of biting the bullet– it just ran longer than I’d planned for with the reduced firepower.

The background of the campaign is that during the Last War, the characters were mercenaries in the same unit fighting for Breland, engaged in a skirmish action near the edge of the Breland/Cyre border, brought back together four years later by fate or circumstance as they become embroiled in a new set of plots and intrigues. With the reduced group, this changes the background a little– the rest of the group will have to be integrated in at the beginning of the next session– but it still provides a shared background for three of the PCs, anyway.

The makeup of this group is interesting so far, in that instead of being the usual mix of heroes and professional adventurers, it’s a sort of ramshackle collection of ne’er-do-wells, most of whom have little business being out of prison, much less doing that whole “hero” thing:

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Jun 25 2013

Onward to Eberron

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As obvious a thing as it may be to say, gaming is a group activity. You have to have buy-in from everyone in the group in order for it to work. And while some of the players in my group are perfectly happy to play whatever game is put in front of them, I was receiving feedback from other members expressing preference for another direction. On the other hand, GMing is a boatload of work, and so you really have to be interested in what you’re doing to make it worth the effort. So choosing a game and managing a group is an exercise in finding common ground.

To that end, I decided to drop the Coventry campaign; my intention was to pick up and do more with Fortress of Tears, but for whatever reason, I’m finding myself blocked on it. So I decided to stop and think a minute about what I could run that would please the players (many of whom have stated a clear preference for some incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons) but would also please myself.

I was very surprised when Keith Baker’s Eberron setting stepped up and said, “‘ave a go, mate.” I was quite indifferent to Eberron when it first came out… I didn’t dislike it, and I certainly didn’t hate it for not being Forgotten Realms the way so many others in the RPG community seemed to, but it also wasn’t what I was looking for in D&D at the time.

Some of that was because it looked too much like a fusion of D&D and the Star Wars prequels (with Sharn standing in for Coruscant, warforged standing in for droids, etc.), and my feeling was, “There’s already a Star Wars RPG, what do we need this for?” That feeling was so strong that I actually nabbed bits from Eberron for the Star Wars campaign I was running, and sure enough, they felt right at home.

With the passage of time, I don’t think that was an inaccurate assessment, but it’s also less of an issue now than it was then. The Star Wars prequels have faded into the mists of pop culture history, and the other facets of Eberron can start to shine. When you can come back to Eberron on its own merits, there’s quite a lot to like there. It also has several “tweakable” settings that you can play up or down as you wish. Want steampunk? It can do steampunk. Want cosmic horror? It can do cosmic horror. Want jungle exploring? It can do jungle exploring. Want steampunk exploring of cosmic horror in the jungle? Yup, it can do that.

Still, the real surprise to me, was how well 4e treated Eberron– especially when you consider how it did its damnedest to destroy everything else. While Forgotten Realms got blown up (again) and Greyhawk got thrown under the nearest bus, Eberron got away with just having dragonborn and tieflings shoehorned into the corners, plus some easily-ignorable shuffling of its cosmology.

Mark of Prophecy, the introductory adventure in the 4e campaign guide, starts brilliantly. Seekers of the Ashen Crown, the largest of the 4e Eberron adventures, has as much intrigue and roleplaying material in it as any of the 3.x stuff for Eberron did, and considerably more than, say, Revenge of the Giants. It’s still in the “delve format,” alas, but once you get past that annoyance it’s a solid, well-written adventure.

So, I admit, I’m pretty excited about this new campaign. As always, I wish I was playing in it rather than running it, but that’s the story of my life as far as gaming is concerned. I have a rough campaign outline that should take the game from 3rd level to 8th, allowing for wiggle room as the PCs decide to turn left instead of right or what-have-you. Beyond that will just have to see what the future brings. Life changes are surely going to throw a spanner in the works by then, if not before!

-The Gneech

PS: For those curious, I’m running the game in Pathfinder, using fan conversions and/or custom data in Hero Lab.

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Apr 01 2013

Savage Worlds: It Is What It Says On the Tin

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So I’ve got a few sessions of Savage Worlds under my belt, most notably using it for Ghostbusters, but also with two sessions’ worth of Coventry, and the time is coming for me to decide what I actually think of it– and more importantly, if I want to keep using it or not.

Savage Worlds does have a lot going for it. Because there’s no such thing as “balance,” GM prep is easy– I think up a thing, assign a few dice to it, and go. If I can’t decide what the value for a given Trait should be, I make it d6 and call it done. Because there’s no hit-point tracking and very little in the way of status effects, combat is always very fast. In a deliberate attempt to push the system’s limits (and see where they were), I came up with a couple of different scenarios that involved lots of NPCs on both sides, with the players controlling allies as the game recommends, and I have to say that the combat system worked like a well-oiled machine. The only times that wasn’t true were situations where I couldn’t remember the rules (or kept remembering them wrong).

On the other hand, for the same reason of there being no such thing as “balance,” it can be difficult to tweak a scenario for maximum enjoyment. Depending on how kind/cruel the dice are, and how well bennies get applied, any creature tougher than a goblin could potentially be a cakewalk or a TPK. In one instance, an NPC attacked a huge monster with a machine gun and all the NPC’s dice exploded, meaning she hit it with raises each time, rolling enormous amounts of damage. Even though the huge monster was a wildcard and had bennies of its own to spend, she still burned through ‘em and killed the thing with one pull of the trigger.

In the same session, the PCs, by judicious use of bennies and a lot of crazy firepower, obliterated dozens of enemy forces, only to have one of their own number blown to a fine red spray by a machine gun fired from a helicopter. The game is just as it says on the tin: savage indeed.

This OMGdeadly nature of the game is not as big a deal in Ghostbusters– one of the campaign’s house rules is that if you get incapacitated, that just means your character is sent to the hospital in traction until the next session– but in a setting where character death is a real danger, it takes some getting used to. One of my players in particular loves to throw his character right into the middle of the biggest hornet’s nest he can find (which is why he went up against the helicopter with a machine gun), which is all well and good in a game like Pathfinder, where there’s probably a cleric around to pump him full of healing, but in Savage Worlds is an express ticket to Dirtnapville.

It also means that I have to come up with “more stuff” to put into any given scenario to keep the players from feeling like they haven’t had to work for their success. After handily chewing through two dozen guys, they’re not likely to find six guys a challenge, unless I crank up the skills of those six guys to 11 (which could tip the balance quickly into TPK). It’s very twitchy. Pathfinder and the like are pretty forgiving systems, with lots of wiggle room for players to get in over their head and back out again. Savage Worlds, not so much. Where PF says “fine, scratched, hurt, in danger, dead,” SW says “Fine, fine, dead.”

Another factor here is that the difficulty to shoot anyone is almost always 4. Difficulty to shoot a big, slow-moving goon? 4. Difficulty to shoot Spider-Man when he’s jumping all around? 4. There are modifiers for range and extreme size and so forth (and a few Edges at higher levels that give you some dodging bonuses), but any setting where most fighting is done with guns, you pretty much have to depend on cover to keep you alive. The problem, from a tabletop RPG standpoint, is that standing behind cover and plinking away at someone else behind cover, just isn’t much fun. Realistic? Probably. Is realistic always a good thing? Probably not.

All of this said… dayum, but prep is easy. I looooove that. So… tough call!

Players, what do you think?

-The Gneech

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Mar 25 2013

Random D&D Higher-Level Campaign Starter Idea

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This just popped into my head, but it seems like it would be a fun idea for a one-off game.

Create any legal Pathfinder [or insert your game system of choice here] character of level 1d4+6 with level-appropriate gear.

You wake up, startled, and look around. Before you are a handful of other adventurers, similarly coming to their senses, as well as a woman in what appear to be priestly robes, who wields a magic wand. Surrounding you are several smashed and long-crumbled statues.

The woman speaks to you in a heavily-accented variant of the common tongue that takes you a few moments to comprehend. “Are you all right? Can you understand me? You have been restored from petrification by a medusa, centuries ago. The medusa is long dead. We have revived you because a great threat has arisen… and we have no heroes who have the strength to fight it. We hope that you, great warriors of the past, may have that strength…”

There you go, have fun with it. Depending on how weird you wanted to get you could tweak the available classes (say, disallow Gunslingers at the start of the game, even though there are Gunslinger NPC threats) or go for a superscience-and-sorcery angle a la Thundarr the Barbarian, depending on how long the PCs spent petrified. The PCs themselves could be from any number of different eras of your campaign world’s past.

-The Gneech

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