Oct 06 2014

Phandelver as Plot Point Campaign

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I may be projecting, but I’m fairly sure I see some Savage Worlds influence in 5E, particularly around inspiration (which acts something like SW bennies) and around the organization of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure in the Starter Set, which has an uncanny resemblance to a smallish Plot Point Campaign.

Plot Point Campaigns (or PPCs), for those not familiar, are essentially “campaign-in-a-book” supplements for Savage Worlds in which there is a major story arc (the “plot points,” so to speak), but there are also tons and tons of smaller adventure hooks. Generally speaking no single scenario (including the “big finish”) is longer than a page or two, and everything is very sketchy and loosely-connected. The main thrust of the campaign is usually scattered across the map and delves deeply into the setting’s backstory: in 50 Fathoms, the archetypal PPC, the main campaign is all about discovering the story of the three witches who are drowning the world, and thwarting their apocalyptic plans. But there are so many side stories that it could take years for the players to get there, if ever. The PPC gives you an opening scenario that immediately puts your players into the middle of the action, but where they go from there is pretty much up to them.

Usually in a PPC, later scenarios have “prerequisites” before they can happen: “none of the Colonize Monster Island quests can happen until the players have completed the Discover Monster Island quest,” that kind of thing. But beyond that, there’s very little structure. Don’t give a damn about Monster Island? That’s fine, there’s plenty to do over in Adventurelandia. Some quests are stand-alones, some come in chains, some of them are cross-referencing, and so on. But all are short and usually only developed in the sketchiest way, allowing lots of room for GM interpretation and fleshing out.

The best PPCs also include a method for procedurally-generating content, when the GM needs a “filler adventure” or the players decide to wander off the map. It can be as simple as a handful of “insert here” encounters, or it can be as complex as a matrix of rolling on columns A, B, C, and D to get “The Prince wants you to kidnap/steal the sacred gem of Ul from the tomb of a cursed priest.” 50 Fathoms also has a Traveller-esque trading system, designed to get your characters schlepping stuff from place to place so you can find the interesting patrons in each location. [1]

It occurred to me, as I was going through Phandelver, that it appears to have been written in a similar way. As a PPC, the Rockseeker Brothers, their attempts to excavate Wave Echo Cave, and the machinations of The Black Spider would be the main plot points, with the Redbrands, Thundertree, Old Owl Well, Wyvern Tor, and Conyberry all being side-stories, and the wandering monster table being the filler “adventure generator.” The main difference is scale. In a PPC, you have a large-scale campaign presented in tiny, sketchy chunks; in Phandelver, you have a small-scale campaign presented in big, detailed pieces.

This, I think, is pretty nifty, and I’d really like to see WotC continue this approach in the future. How cool would a 5E Eberron Plot Point Campaign be, for instance? Not a single mega-adventure like Seekers of Ashen Crown, which only works if your players are willing to follow a single spoon-fed storyline, but a tapestry of scenario hooks so that if your players hop on an airship to Karrnath on short notice, you could just turn to the Karrnath section of the book and have five paragraphs of potential things ready to go when they got there? With bounded accuracy and the flatter power curve, I can imagine a supplement like this really working in a way that it couldn’t have done in 3.x/PF or 4E, and I would actually very much love to see it.

-The Gneech

[1] There’s probably a very interesting blog post to be written about how 50 Fathoms is basically a Traveller campaign with a fantasy skin… but that’s for another time. Or perhaps another blogger.

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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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Dec 17 2012

Monday Monster: Tremorwhip

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Tremorwhips are burrowing, vaguely snake-like creatures native to Coventry. The smallest specimens have deadly venom; the largest specimens have long, barbed tentacles and swordlike stingers on the end of their tails. They are attracted to vibrations in the ground, making them a perennial road hazard and a constant nuisance at industrial stations. This is a fairly typical specimen, roughly 20′ long (rising 12′ from the ground when attacking) with two tentacles.


The Worm King by ~Marauder6272 on deviantART

Tremorwhip

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6(A), Spirit d10, Strength d12+2, Vigor d10
Skills: Fighting d6, Notice d10, Stealth d10
Pace: 6/20, Parry: 5, Toughness: 12(2), Charisma: 0
Bite/Lash: d6 (Str+d6)
Burrowing 20″: Surprise on Stealth vs. Notice (+2 attack; +4 raise)
Hardy: Once Shaken, further Shaken results ignored
Large: Attackers gain +2 on attack rolls
Natural Armor +2: Natural defenses
Size +3: Adjustment to Toughness based on creature’s mass
Slam: Opposed Fighting vs. Agility for 4d6 damage
Stretch: Reach for slam attack equal to current Size
Swallow Whole: Fighting -2 to swallow target 3 sizes smaller; swallowed target is immobile and takes automatic bite damage each round; attacks from inside the tremorwhip ignore armor and size bonuses to Toughness

Text and “Coventry” setting ©2012 by John “The Gneech” Robey. Artwork ©2009-2012 by Marauder6272. Stat block created by Hero Lab® (Registered Trademarks of LWD Technology, Inc. Free download at http://www.wolflair.com). Savage Worlds is Copyright © 2004-2012 by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. All rights reserved.

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Dec 10 2012

Coventry: A Savage Worlds Campaign

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I’ve been making a few noises about this for a while now, but the Players Handbook for my new Savage Worlds campaign inspired by Borderlands is finally ready!

Coventry Players Guide for Savage Worlds, by The Gneech
(click through for PDF)

From the guide:

Coventry is a gung-ho adventure campaign somewhere between Mad Max and Cowboy Bebop, with a side of Escape From L.A. The year is 2766 and your characters all live on the quarantined prison world of Coventry, trying to make your way as best you can among the local monsters, the faction wars, the octane-sucking racing circuit, and of course the occasional insane robot. You might be a local, born and raised on Coventry, you might have been “dropped” here, or you might even have arrived here by accident due to a shipwreck or other mishap. However you came to be here, however, it’s all but impossible to leave.

The prison world of Coventry originally appeared in my Star Hero campaign in the early ’90s (Holy crap, was that really 20 years ago? O.o), and I’ve toyed with the idea of running a game there off and on many times since then, but it wasn’t until the Savage Worlds setting 50 Fathoms, combined with playing Borderlands 2, that a solid vision of how to make it work as a campaign finally gelled. By using the Savage Worlds “Plot Point” model, all I have to do is toss out a few hooks and let the players create the actual campaign, by fleshing out the ones they bite on.

Coventry as it appears here is a bit different from my initial conception in details, but much the same in spirit. I originally pictured it as a kind of “lost world” jungle setting with megafauna and people attempting to carve civilization out of it without help from the outside, but after playing Borderlands the idea of it being more like a dystopian “through the looking glass” world full to the brim with its own variety of Mad Hatters really appealed to me. This version is also in a separate continuity from my Star Hero game, not so much to avoid any clash with previous continuity (assuming any of could even remember the previous continuity), as just for stylistic reasons.

I’m thinking about trying to write up the setting for eventual publication as an officially-licensed Savage Worlds setting, but that will take time, development, and probably a Kickstarter campaign to finance some non-cribbed artwork. What I’ve got here is a draft/proof-of-concept more than anything else, but I’m pleased with it and I think the group will have fun with it.

…After we finish the current Ghostbusters scenario, of course. ¬.¬

Still! Players, start your thinkers. If all goes well, we could be playing this game on the 29th.

-The Gneech

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