Don’t be Anakin: dealing with bickering PCs, continued

Last week I discussed the problem of PC bickering in RPGs, and suggested two models for players to follow. The bad model is Anakin and Obi-Wan from the Star Wars prequels. The good model is Frank Castle and Microchip from Netflix’s The Punisher.

So how can we push bickering PCs away from the Anakin/Obi-Wan model? There are a few options, for both GMs and PCs.

GMs:

  1. Tie characters’ backgrounds together. I often have at least two of them know each other, maybe working together on a mission. This gives them a reason to try and cooperate.
  2. Give the group a reason to be together. Chance encounters make work for the first adventure; e.g. characters all hear about a dungeon that needs clearing, and decide to work together. But why wouldn’t the LG paladin leave the bickering CN party to find better friends after they clear the dungeon? They need to be forced to stay together; options include a divine command, a threat that strikes them before they can disband, etc.
  3. Be willing to mess with difficult players. I have a post planned for how to deal with chaotic neutral players, and this is part of it. When players act out of character to try and be funny, have NPCs respond as they would in real life; if a belligerent and irritating man tried to buy a beer from my bar, I–at the least–wouldn’t tell him any of my town’s secrets. And if a player’s teasing is harming another player’s experience, make that player fall into a pit or get splashed by mud; something harmless that lets them know they need to stop.

Players:

  1. Put some effort into your characters’ backgrounds. Just like the GM should tie characters together, players can think about how their characters know each other. Are they childhood friends, business partners, etc? Beyond that, fleshing out your character’s background and personality is important. “I’m a loner,” lends itself to disruptive behavior. “I pretend to be a loner because I’m hurting over my family’s death,” gives us a character who may seem unpleasant, but does care about something.
  2. Be a team player. It might seem more fun to try and pick-pocket your party’s wizard than keep watch for monsters. But the point of this game is cooperation. A lot of bickering comes down to players trying to create a fun situation for themselves without thinking of what the party needs to accomplish its goals. If your character isn’t interested in working with the others, and finds their planning and rules irritating, maybe they should leave the party… 
  3. Be sensitive to other players. This is more on the meta-game side. Some players may enjoy “giving crap” as we used to say where I grew up. Others find it annoying, or may think they’re being picked on. Try and be aware of how the target of your bickering or teasing is reacting. If they aren’t laughing, then stop. Again, the point of this is to work together and have fun.

D&D and other RPGs are supposed to be fun. You don’t have to take them seriously as you would your job. You’re not an actor in a play; there’s no script. But sometimes “having fun” can make the game less fun. When in doubt, just think: am I being Anakin, or Frank Castle? Don’t be Anakin.

So there are my ideas. Any thoughts? Is this not as big of a deal as I think? Other suggestions to deal with this issue?

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Are you Obi-Wan or Microchip? Models for bickering PCs

Players in table-top RPGs, whether it’s D&D or some other system like Shadowrun, love to bicker. I’m not sure why, but in every game–whether I’m GM or a player–there are bickering player characters. Sometimes it can be funny, other times it can be really annoying and harms immersion. So I thought I’d look for good models for bickering relationships; they can guide players’ behavior and suggest why some are more annoying than others. I stumbled on two sets in plain sight: Anakin and Obi-Wan from the Star Wars prequels, and Frank Castle and Microchip from Season Two of Netflix’s “The Punisher.”

What do I mean by bickering PCs? PCs who interact with each other during exploration or combat, but primarily in a negative way. They’ll tease each other, complain when someone messes up. They might groan when a lawful good player refuses to accept a reward for a task, or a chaotic neutral player suddenly turns into Charlie from “The Gang solves the gas crisis” episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For example, in one game my CG cleric and a LG paladin were both agents of the Order of the Gauntlet. I would tease him for being overly-serious, he would make passive-aggressive jabs when I messed up.

Why is this an issue? I admit it can be funny at times. People enjoyed our antics in the game. Everyone who’s read Weiss and Hickman’s Dragonlance novels sees how a tense party atmosphere can work. It’s also fun to inject some Lethal Weapon into their games. But it can be tiresome. Sometimes players take it too far, bickering and teasing instead of advancing the game. Other times it can inhibit role-playing, when one player tries to take things seriously and others just tease them. It also harms immersion; you get to the point when you start to wonder why these people would put up with each other?

So what is the relevance of Star Wars and the Punisher? Well, they both have a set of bickering partners. But in one–The Punisher–it is really well done and believable. In the other–the Star Wars prequels–it is irritating to the point of rage-inducing (like most of the prequels).

In Episodes 2 and 3 of the Star Wars movie, Anakin and Obi-Wan are partners and–we are told–great friends. Obi-Wan trained Anakin since he was a child, and they served together on many Jedi missions. And as depicted in the Clone Wars TV series, they fought side by side for much of that protracted conflict. But they seem to hate each other. Obi-Wan is constantly admonishing Anakin. Anakin makes creepily dark statements about Obi-Wan, or whines petulantly behind his back. The movie tells us they are good friends, but besides a few nice moments they seem to hate each other.

By contrast, in the second season of the Punisher, Castle and Microchip are forced to work together due to a common enemy (I won’t say more in case you haven’t seen it yet). They, to put it mildly, do not like each other. Castle doesn’t trust Microchip, and Microchip tires of Castle’s abrasiveness. But they both realize their partnership is the only way they’ll take down an evil conspiracy. And over time they develop a grudging respect, and kind of bond by the end of the season. It makes sense why they’d work together despite their problems and, like real people, their interactions gradually change them.

You can see the difference, right? One is contrived, and one is organic. In one, it makes sense why people who bicker would work together. In the other, you’re not sure why they tolerate each other’s presence. And in one, the relationship develops over time.

We all know Anakin/Obi-Wan PCs. These are the half-orcs who just want to get drunk and belligerent with their party members. The chaotic neutral rogue who loudly complains about other characters, and refuses to work with them without more money (I know I said this isn’t D&D specific, but these are the most widely-accessible examples). It’s annoying as a player, as it’s often an attempt to be funny that doesn’t really work. And it’d be annoying as the PC; when I have co-workers who are constantly mean to me, I just quit. So why would this party stay together?

Granted, Castle/Microchip PCs are harder to pull off. It requires a lot of work by the GM/DM to tie characters’ backgrounds together, and make their interactions part of the plot. It also requires work by PCs. PCs must take seriously their characters’ motivations, and allow for their personalities to develop as the story progresses. They also need to take the game more seriously than they would a re-enactment of “It’s always sunny in Philadelphia.”

Next week, I’ll provide some tips on how to have Castle/Microchip interactions in your game.

 

Star Wars EOTE: The Lightsaber, conclusion

Last time, the party entered into the Jedi ruins lost in the swamps. They progress further into the dangerous ruins…

This is the conclusion to The Lightsaber, part II, an adventure I wrote for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This system lets players partake in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler).

The group continued in the direction the Yarkura indicated, coming to a room whose floor had partially collapsed. Beyond the chasm, the wall to the west had collapsed and the saw a shaft going down. They tried to jump over the chasm, and mostly succeeded, although Sarek took some strain when he nearly missed his landing. Looking down, they saw a moderate drop into darkness.

Sarek had climbing gear, so he hooked it up and headed down into the shaft. He made it to the bottom, but the rock he’d attached the gear to came lose, and it tumbled down after him [he rolled a despair on his check after I used a destiny point]. He scoped out the area, and with another great perception check heard more metallic stomping to the north, a wet, musty smell to the south, and nothing from the passage to the west. The other characters flipped a destiny point to find some rope-like wire and climb down, although Bint slipped and took some damage.

Following the Yarkura’s directions, the group headed west along a curving passageway. As they got close to an opening, the datapad started beeping, indicating a hazard up ahead; the computer program identified it as an intruder. Creeping up to the doorway, the group saw a shaft like the one they had climbed down, although this opened to the sky. In the center were piles of boxes and sacks beside an ancient airspeeder. Changkayshk decided to toss some stun grenades into the room [I rolled randomly to see if they would hit anything]. One exploded with no effect, the other exploded and was followed by a loud shriek.

The group burst into the room and saw the Rodian who had attacked them on Chordaan, although he looked much worse than before due to the critical hit he’d received. The Rodian called out, and everyone rolled for initiative. First up was the Chiss bounty hunter from Chordaan (who was hiding at the other end of the room). She fired but missed. Some of the group opened fire on the Rodian, while Changkayshk ran to the center of the room and tossed a grenade at the Chiss. It hit her, seriously wounding her, while the Rodian went down under the group’s attack. The Chiss bounty hunter then activated her jetpack (she had a spare) and flew into the center of the room to attack the Wookie. She managed to stab him with her vibroknife, but he killed her in his counterattack.

Before she died, she pressed a button attached to her backpack, and the group heard an explosion as the temple started to shake and tumble. [she had destroyed her ship, causing the temple to collapse]. The Wookie rushed to load the crates (which they identified as Jedi relics) onto the airspeeder, while Sarek and Bint tried to repair it. They got it running and took off just as the temple collapsed. Outside, they landed by their speeder although Sarek wasn’t sure how to land and the ship crashed, causing everyone to take some strain and the ship to be destroyed.

At this point, we had five minutes left before we had to end for the night, so I concluded the adventure in cinematic fashion, just telling them what happened. They returned to the old lady and gave her back the lightspeeder, as they’d asked to do. The group then returned to the city and met Oparro the next morning. He told them to stow the relics on their ship, and they’d head separately for Subterrell, where they would meet his buyer.

As they were leaving they saw crowds gathered, being shepherded by Stormtroopers. They found out that the new Moff for the system was landing for an inspection. As they saw an Imperial shuttle heading towards the surface, Sarek’s datapad started beeping; it was the surveillance tracker he put on the Rebel speeder. They then saw a speeder burst past Stormtroopers and race down the street. Directly underneath the shuttle, a flame burst from the back of the speeder and it shot up into the shuttle, exploding and destroying it. [this is what the Rebels were doing—designing a speeder that could fly into the shuttle as a makeshift bomb. The Rebel leader hoped to provoke an Imperial crackdown that would cause the populace to revolt].

The group rushed back to their ship, took off, and escaped TIE fighters to jump to hyperspace. We decided to shift gears and start playing the Force and Destiny Star Wars game (which allows players to create force users) so we didn’t finish my story arc. I sent the group a writeup on the conclusion, though, so they would know what happened.

[This was an interesting exercise for me in adaptability. I didn’t think they’d go with Oparro in part 1, so I had to adjust the plot. I was initially going to have them do a random job for the Rebels/Donaldo/Deg-Lilek (whoever they ended up with) that would get them further embroiled in the search for Jedi relics and lead to the mysterious “other buyer.” Working with Oparro made the connection to the other buyer more obvious, so I decided to work in Deg-Lilek and the Rebels in a more secondary manner.

A few things worked well. My players really liked the overland exploration mechanic, and it added some fun randomness. This is before I read The Angry GM’s great post on overland travel, and I may tweak it based on his recommendations if I run this again. The players also liked the NPCs they encountered–even when they tried to kill them–and got pretty excited with the quick start of the adventure (being attacked by a bounty hunter in a bar). My takeaways are to throw players right into the action (especially in middle-place adventures), and put a lot of work into the world they travel through.

But I ran into a few problems. One was a clear failure point: if the players couldn’t convince the old lady to help them, the adventure stopped. They weren’t able to do this, and I had to improvise on the fly. It’s good to always have a back-up path for essential tasks. I also added a few too many “red herrings,” as they called them; the Rebels being a main one, and some of the other overland encounters (one was a TIE fighter patrol overhead). Finally, I think it dragged a little; the set-up plus the overland exploration plus the dungeon all on the same plot thread was too much.

Overall, I think the issue was ambition. This was one of my first home-brew adventure and first time GM-ing EOTE. I tried to pack too much open-ended choices and plot complexity in, before getting a sense for how it would work in practice. That’s why later adventures–like the ones I posted on this site–were a bit narrower.

So that was my EOTE adventure. Hope you enjoyed it, and it gave you a sense for this great game. I am hoping to get the Age of Rebellion game–focusing on Rebel operatives–and run some more games in the future, so be on the lookout for future work on this topic.

Star Wars: EOTE- The Lightsaber, part 3

For a previous game group, I had written up an adventure for the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game system. This system lets players partake in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler). Last time, the party agreed to search out a hidden Jedi temple in the swamps of Atzerri, to recover relics for a mysterious buyer. They had just arrived at the temple after a perilous journey through the swamps…

[I had designed the temple as basically a D&D dungeon crawl for Star Wars. I actually made use of some of the random dungeon generator tables in the fifth edition D&D Dungeonmaster’s Guide, adapting them for Star Wars. I decided the temple would be stocked with ancient droids, as well as other denizens that had moved in—a few monsters as well as some scavengers. Because the droids were so old, they might malfunction—whenever the group encountered a droid, I rolled a d100. On a high roll, there was a chance of the droid attacking a random target, exploding, or shutting down.]

The group approached the broken down protocol droid they found outside the temple, and Alex reactivated it. The droid at first thought they were his masters, but soon realized they were new and introduced himself as part of an Old Republic expedition, made up of scientists and a Jedi. The temple was built by the Kwa, which Bint’s lore knowledge revealed was an ancient race that helped to discover the Force and gather the first Jedi. The droid said his masters  went into the temple to investigate and never returned. When the group revealed he had been waiting for hundreds of years, the droid agreed to accompany them.

The group, with the protocol droid in tow, entered the temple. The first chamber was long, stretching into the darkness, with columns along the edge. They saw the remains of a camp halfway down the room and approached. As they did, an astromech and two maintenance droids came out of the darkness. The astromech and one of the maintenance droids were so excited to see people they short-circuited. Alex fixed them, and the group decided they wanted what they called a “droid army,” so he reprogrammed all of the droids to follow him. They then explored the camp. They found some records on an old datapad, pointing to a shaft in the center of the temple that would lead down to an important area. They also found that the Jedi and scientists decided to split up and explore the temple. That was the last recorded information.

[Even though their GM helpfully directed them towards the center of the temple] the group decided to take the door to the east. An incredibly successful perception check from Sarek helped them hear what sounded like metallic stomping far up the tunnel they’d entered [a security droid they’d encounter]. As they headed up the tunnel, they came to a door on either side, while the passage continued. The group entered the door to the north, and found a kind of audience chamber, with a podium and rows of pews. They began exploring the room, and found a satchel but noticed it was covered with a kind of mold. An investigation with their scanner revealed it was toxic. The group tried to be careful opening the satchel, but caused the mold to puff into the air, choking them. All members successfully passed a resolution check, however, and they were fine.

They continued down the passage and, sneaking towards the room from which the stomping noise originated, saw a security droid patrolling back and forth in a type of kitchen, with two maintenance droids buzzing around. ChangKayshk took a shot at the security droid, injuring it. The security droid spun around and fired, but missed. Then Sarek finished it off. This enraged one of the maintenance droids [I rolled the appropriate number on my random table] and it attacked them. It wasn’t able to do much besides bouncing against their feet, however, and Bint turned it off.

The group explored the kitchen but found little of value and took a door to the north. Sneaking in, they saw a kind of trophy room, with a Yarkora poking through the treasure. They decided to try and chat with him, and walked in, introducing themselves. The Yarkora told them he was searching for treasure, and asked what they were here for. At this moment, ChangKayshk got tired of talking [or his player did] and fired on the Yarkora. In the initiative roll, the Yarkora went first, so he noticed the Wookie raising his blaster, and fired at him, the bolt grazing the Wookie’s shoulder. The Yarkora also called for help to the room to the northwest. ChangKayshk fired, hitting the Yarkora. Bint and Sarek hid, not wanting to take part in this. The Yarkora fired again, missing the group, and Changkayshk threw a grenade at the Yarkora, seriously injuring him. Two humans arrived in the doorway and fired at the group, missing. Changkayshk then threw another grenade, nearly killing one of the men and wounding the other [just an aside, grenades are kind of  underpowered in EOTE].

At this point, the Yarkora had enough, and surrendered. Bint patched up the treasure hunters, and demanded they turn over everything they found. The Yarkora offered instead to help them in their search. The group told them they were looking for a Jedi treasure, and the Yarkora directed them to a room in the lower level they noticed, but hadn’t explored. The treasure hunters limped away, and the group explored the next room, a library. They found a computer terminal, and managed—with a successful computer check—to activate it. This let them download information on security systems and hazards to their datapad before the console shorted out.

They moved deeper into the ruin…Tune in next time for the conclusion!

Star Wars Edge of the Empire: The Lightsaber, part II, cont.

In a previous post, I presented a home-brew adventure I made for the excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire sessions. This game system lets you play in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, as bounty hunters, smugglers and the like (for more on character creation, see this post).

This adventure is the sequel to my first home-brew adventure for this system, in which a ragtag group is hired by a crimelord (Deg-Lilek) to steal a lightsaber. In this adventure, after allying with the crimelord’s treacherous former agent (Oparro), they agree to help him find more Jedi relics to sell to a mysterious buyer. Last time, the group escaped (barely) a Chiss bounty hunter, and headed out into the swamps of Atzerri to search for a Jedi ruin. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler)

The group  headed out into the swamp. They succeeded in their survival checks [a mechanic I’m using to approximate exploration, see the previous post] and soon found the old lady’s hut. Wary of traps, they searched for any hazards but, not noticing anything, sped through her clearing. Unbeknownst to them, the old lady’s protectors had rigged a stun grenade as a trap. Their speeder tripped it, and it exploded, frying some of the speeder’s circuitry and causing it to tip off course.

Alex managed to right the craft, but just as he did blaster bolts rang out from two snipers in the trees. Sarek was hit in the shoulder, as was Alex, although he noticed the attacker’s blaster rifle short out after the bolt was fired. Changkaishk and Sarek returned fire. Sarek killed one of the snipers, and the other—whose blaster shorted out—attempted to get down from the tree in which he was hiding. He tripped and fell, spraining his ankle, and ran behind the hut.

Alex maneuvered the speeder behind the hut to catch the man, where he had pulled a vibroknife and was waiting for them. Changkaishk tried to jump out of the speeder at him but tripped and fell back in his seat, causing the speeder to hit the ground. Bint was successful, tackling the man and knocking him out.

At this point, the old lady appeared. She was understandably angry the group had attacked her, and even more angry when she recognized them from the last time her home was attacked. After a few failed attempts to mollify her, she agreed to give them the information they wanted if they would heal her protector and agree to leave her alone. She told them her husband was a fugitive Jedi who ended up on Atzerri after the purge. They fell in love and married, and he helped out other swamp settlers when he could while also travelling to nearby systems to find Jedi artifacts before the Empire was able to get them. When he died, the settlers he’d helped swore to protect his widow (these are the people that have been trying, unsuccessful, to disrupt the group’s quest). And he hid the relics in a ruined temple to the north, to which she directed the group. The group secretly decided, once this was all over, to return the lightsaber to her to make up for the trouble they’d caused.

They set out for temple, and after a few hours of travelling came to a deep and wide pool of water. [one of the random wilderness encounters I came up with] Their speeder didn’t work over water so they created a makeshift pontoon and sped across. Unfortunately, they got stuck on a submerged log just as a giant aquatic beast was heading towards them. They managed to dislodge their speeder just in time and get to the other side.

The group traveled on, with Bint in the front keeping watch as Alex piloted. Bint was not paying great attention, however, as the speeder burst out into a clearing full of heavily-armed people. Alex managed to reverse the speeder into the cover of the trees before they were spotted, however. Sarek snuck up to the treeline to investigate. [this was a set encounter]

He saw about a dozen people, some patrolling around, some working on a speeder and loading crates into. And he saw a Twi’ilek woman who appeared to be the leader, as she was giving orders, and a Sullustan beside her. Sarek recognized the Sullustan as the rebel leader they betrayed last time. Using his electrobinoculars and knowledge of explosives, Sarek realized the Rebels were loading explosives onto the speeder. The group didn’t want to get sidetracked with this encounter, but before they left Sarek fired a tracking dart at the Rebel speeder so they could tell if it was approaching.

The group continued on to the ruined temple, succeeding in their survival skills and getting there quickly. The ruins were the bottom two levels of a step pyramid. As they approached, the ground rose and they saw hints of civilization in the trees and plants—bits of metal and plasteel. The temple itself had no overgrowth at all, as if the swamp had pulled back. They saw an opening on the ground level, and a crumpled droid sitting there….Tune in next time!

 

Why is Forgotten Realms a good default setting?

Now that 5th edition D&D is well-established (and an amazing success), it’s clear the Forgotten Realms setting is now the default for the game. No one seems very excited about this. Many long for more exotic campaign settings–like Dark Sun or Eberron–or get tired of the Forgotten Realms lore. As someone who first got into D&D lore through Dragonlance, I definitely get that. But there are a few reasons why Forgotten Realms is actually a great default campaign setting.

As The Angry GM usefully clarified, campaign settings are “materials that [provide] details about particular worlds.” That is, they provide information on the context in which D&D adventures occur. The first campaign settings for D&D were Blackmoor and Greyhawk, which grew out of the games of D&D’s founders. Others came later. These include the Forgotten Realms, a fantasy world based on the works of Ed Greenwood. Additional settings are Dragonlance (a medieval fantasy world featuring, appropriately enough, a strong role for dragons), Dark Sun (a desert-based world), and the horror setting of Ravenloft.

But Forgotten Realms has become the default setting for D&D. 4th edition D&D was based on a massive change to the worlds of Forgotten Realms, while 5th edition D&D restored the setting to its earlier form. Spin-off media–like the excellent Baldur’s Gate games–were set in the Forgotten Realms. And all published adventures and source books for 5th edition D&D have focused on this setting.

This can be a bit limiting. Even though the Forgotten Realms is a fantastical world, it is a “conventional” one. Readers of Tolkien would find it familiar. It doesn’t push the boundaries of fantasy in the way other settings did. Dark Sun felt like a post-apocalyptic movie, while Eberron was more reminiscent of steam punk. Likewise, Dragonlance, while “conventional” fantasy, revolved around a massive struggle between good and evil gods.

Beyond feeling “conventional,” the Forgotten Realms also has few surprises. Long-time D&D players, or new-comers who played Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights games on the PC, will comes across familiar settings and dilemmas. Threats from the Underdark–featured in the excellent Out of the Abyss campaign–aren’t quite as exotic for readers of R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels. Even the new Tomb of Annihilation–which my group is currently running–set in the far-away land of Chult felt familiar to me, as I’d played the Storm of Zehir expansion for Neverwinter Nights 2.

So it makes sense that 5e players yearn for something more. And it’s very possible WOTC will put out new campaign settings (or updated versions of old ones), now that they’ve got 5e off the ground. Rumors of such a move keep popping up. But there are reasons why Forgotten Realms is good default setting.

First is its conventional nature. As I said, anyone who’s read Tolkien (or most other classic fantasy) would recognize how the Forgotten Realms work. There are elves, human and dwarves; other races are more exotic, but at least there’s this foundation. There are goblins, trolls and orcs to ground the more unique monsters. The world, because it feels “normal” (for fantasy), fades into the background, allowing for a greater focus on the adventures.

Second is the accessibility. This is related to the above, but distinct. Newcomers to D&D who play Starjammer would first have to learn how this unique world works. Likewise, newcomers to other RPGs like Shadowrun need to learn the lore of the system to understand why orcs and humans are using computers together. But new players picking up a Forgotten Realms adventure can just get started (once they learn the rules, of course). Veteran players want want to shake things up, but the recognizable nature of the Forgotten Realms make D&D more accessible to new players.

Finally, the lack of any broad defining feature is a good thing. The Forgotten Realms setting isn’t about the campaigns that go in it, it just contains them. Since 5e came out, players have prevented the rise of Tiamat, stopped demons from overtaking the Underdark, and restored order to the giants’ society. But the Forgotten Realms remain the same. This is partly for convenience (they can’t revamp the setting every year) but also part of the design. Unlike Dragonlance or Ravenloft, the Forgotten Realms aren’t defined by one threat or conflict. This may make adventures feel less significant, but it also allow for a broader array of adventures. And remember, when WOTC tried to add an epic-level event to the Forgotten Realms–with the spellplague in 4e–the results were…controversial.

So there’s my thoughts. I’d of course love to see another campaign setting (I really want Dragonlance…) but I’m also perfectly happy with Forgotten Realms. What do the rest of you think?

 

Star Wars Edge of the Empire sessions: The Lightsaber, part II

Awhile ago, I posted a walkthrough of an adventure I wrote for the excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empires RPG. This great RPG is set in the seedier part of the Star Wars universe. PCs play as smugglers, scoundrels, and fugitives exploring the Outer Rim. It’s a really fun system that lends itself to narrative gameplay.

Well after my group finished the first adventure, they were excited enough that they wanted the story to continue. In the first Episode, the group was hired by a crimelord to retrieve an item from Oparro, a wayward employee. Along the way they learn the item is a lightsaber, and that both the Rebels and an Imperial officer want it as well. The group ends up deciding to ally with Oparro, who found another buyer for the lightsaber. They agreed to help him turn the Lightsaber over to his “other buyer” in exchange for lots of money. They found the lightsaber in the possession of an old lady, the widow of a former Jedi. The group retrieved it from the old lady’s guards, ambushed the Imperials and Rebels, and escaped an Imperial cruiser. Oparro took the lightsaber, gave them some collateral, and asked them to wait for him on the nearby planet Chordaan.

As with last time, the group was Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler).

I introduced a new mechanic for this episode—planetary exploration. Since the group had to find the ruined temple as part of the quest, I thought it’d be fun to explore the swamp on the way there. So I decided the group would make difficult survival checks with a setback die. If they succeeded they made it to their next stop. If they failed, I rolled for a random encounter on a table I created. Encounters included impassable terrain, a pocket of exploding swamp gas, a hive of biting flying ants, an escaped Gundark, high ground that aided their search, buzzing TIE fighters, an area of Light side force energy, and a possibly hostile encounter with some smugglers.

Episode II opens as the group has gone broke while waiting and Oparro has asked them to return to Atzerri. They gathered in their favorite cantina for one more drink, when a mysterious stranger walked up to the table…

The stranger was their waiter, bringing them drinks sent by an attractive Chiss woman. The Chiss woman walked over, and announced herself as a bounty hunter sent by the crimelord (Deg-Lilek). She was joined by two Aqualish and a Rodian and asked them to step outside.

Bint becomes aggressive and decided to kick her in the shin then punch her to set up an escape. His player rolled an athletics check for the kick but failed; he managed only to annoy her and enter into structured time. The Chiss woman went first, shooting Bint for moderate damage. Alex then flipped the table up for cover, while Bint, Ecks and Sarek opened fire. They killed the two Aqualish, but the Chiss and Rodian were unharmed.

Back at the top, the Chiss woman stepped back, pulled out a heavy blaster rifle, and fires at Sarek (who she sees as the obvious threat). She did (I rolled) well, hitting for lots of damage and two critical hits. Sarek was wounded and hit his head, making it more difficult for him to perform intellect or cunning checks for the time being. Bint rushed to heal Sarek while Alex tossed a grenade at the Chiss woman (before using a destiny point to ensure all innocent bystanders have fled). The grenade exploded, tossing her behind the bar. Meanwhile, the Rodian fired but misses; he was then severely wounded when a revived Sarek shoots him. At this point, I decided it’s time for the NPCs to flee. The Chiss woman jumped over the bar and runs outside (thanks to a well-rolled athletics check) and the Rodian ran into the crowd.

Outside, the Chiss woman took off in her jetpack just as the police arrived. Sarek managed to shoot her down—doing enough damage to completely destroy the jetpack, causing her to fall into a dark alleyway—before the police surrounded them. The group tried to talk their way out of it but the grizzled police sergeant (whom I had to make up on the fly) had none of it, directing his men to tase the characters whenever they talk back. He eventually had them leave the planet, not wanting to deal with the paperwork, and they took off. [In contrast to the first Episode, this adventure nearly did the group in as the Chiss was more powerful than I expected. I had to make it easier subtly, such as by having them run away.]

The group arrived back at Atzerri, and headed to meet Oparro. They were rather suspicious—thanks to the near-miss with the bounty hunter on Chordaan—and tried to get as much information as they could before meeting him. They even worked out a plan where one person would stay outside the meeting point (a private room in Dak’s Cantina) and listen in through custom-made Bluetooth-like comlinks. I wanted to tell them they could relax, since all they were doing was receiving their mission, but I thought I’d let it play out.

Oparro told them if they do one more job he’ll give them double what he’d offered (a total of 30,000 credits). He said his buyer wants more relics from the Jedi, and heard there’s a stash on Atzerri; the old lady from the swamp is a likely source of information, so he asks the group to visit her. They agreed, in return for an unspecified favor on top of the 30,000.

[This was a basic interaction designed to give them their task, but I think I spiced it up in a few ways. They were nervous after the bounty hunter incident, so they saw the possibility of danger. And I had them pick up a few signs that something was up—there were increased Imperial patrols on the planet and Oparro seemed to have a lot more money and power than he did before (both of which will be explained eventually).]

Next week, the group heads out into the swamps of Atzerri…

Solo RPing: Roland “saves” the inn

As my Twitter followers know, we recently had a new baby. Babies are great, but it makes it hard to game (or really do anything but take care of the baby). As a result, I’ve been kind of desperate for gaming. So during some down-time, I decided to do some “solo RP-ing;” I set up a basic scenario and ran through it with dice rolls.

This scenario involves Roland–my Aasimar sorcerer (formerly a paladin) I’ve been writing about–encountering some ruffians in an inn. Specifically, it’s my level 5 Paladin facing off against two thugs (from the 5e Monster Manual).  In addition to giving me something to do, it also serves a gameplay purpose. I used it to work out how Roland would respond in a specific social situation. I also used it to “play test” a sorcerer, as I haven’t used this class before.

Hope you enjoy:

Roland plopped down into his seat in the crossroad inn, weary from his days of travel on the road. He left Oakhurst–promising the party he would return–to meet with a sage who may know something of his father’s ring he carried with him. The sage was little help, however, so Roland, disappointed, was heading back to rendezvous with his party.

He had just been served a glass of bitter lager when he noticed the two ruffians a few tables over. They were shouting profanities, growling at any customers who looked at them, and grabbing waitresses that walked by. Roland knew that, despite his increased arcane powers, he would struggle in a one on one battle. He also remembered his mother urging him to keep his powers hidden. But he could hear his deva guardian calling on him to punish the evildoers.

Roland strode over, holding his hood over his Aasimar features. “Gentleman,” he said, tapping one thug on the shoulder. “You are disturbing the inn’s patrons. How about I buy you a drink, and then you move on?”

“Piss off,” growled one thug. [failed persuasion challenge]. “What are you hiding under that hood, a wart?” The two thugs laughed at this not quite funny joke.

Roland sighed. “I’m going to ask you one more time,” he said, his voice taking on celestial,r rumbling echoes. “Leave now or I will become angry.”

The thugs were a little shaken, but weren’t about to act scared in front of an audience [barely successful intimidation challenge, gave thugs disadvantage on next attack]. “I think you’re the one who needs to leave,” the thug shouted as he jumped up and lunged at Roland.

Roland was prepared, readied a spell [went first in initiative]. He threw back his hood, his eyes glowing with radiant fire. Holding aloft the ring on his left hand–which had started to glow as well–he grasped the light emanating from it in his right hand, stretching it across the two men. Roland then gestured and uttered arcane words. Frost suddenly appeared, covering the two thugs. They screamed in pain and stumbled back. [used 2 sorcery points to twin “frostbite,” and cast. They failed Con check, taking 10 damage and getting disadvantage on next attack.]

The thugs, injured but enraged, attacked. The first drew his mace and swung twice; he was thrown off by his frigid limbs, however, and missed. The second was more able to shrug off the effects of the spell and the Aasimar’s intimidating glare. One swing nearly hit, but Roland cast shield, and the mace bounced off the arcane barrier. The second time he connected with Roland, causing pain to shoot through his arm [one hits, for 5 damage].
Roland realized he had to act quickly. Swirling the light from his ring, he squeezed it into a cone. He dipped his right hand into the cone of arcane energy, swinging it across one thug’s face as he uttered mystic words. The thug suddenly started stumbling around, shouting that he was blind. As he pulled his hand back, he flicked the remaining cone of energy at the second thug. It formed into a mote of fire. The thug ducked, and the fire bolt burst against a neighboring table, setting it aflame. [used 2 more sorcery points to quicken blindness to be a bonus action. Cast fire bolt as an action, but missed]

The thugs were now fearful, and channeled that fear into rage. The blinded one swung wildly, missing Roland with the first swing but connecting on the second. As the mace came down on his head, Roland cast shield again, and the mace bounced off harmlessly. The second thug, eager to end this fight, charged and hit Roland twice with the mace, knocking him to the ground. (edited)

Roland knew the fight was turning against him. He had an idea. Roland began to cast a spell, but stopped, catching the arcane energies swirling around him and pushing them into his ring. He then pulled at the mist from the ring, uttering the incantations for a spell as he gestured quickly with his hands. Recalling his religious instructions with the knightly order, he formed the image of a vrock demon in his mind. The demon appeared beside him, lunging at the two thugs with a horrid scream. The thugs’ will broke, and they ran, screaming from the inn [turned a spell into a sorcery point, then quickened silent image to cast as a bonus action, casting minor illusion as an action. Silent image created the demon, and minor illusion the scream. I also did a Religion check to see if I could recall the demon as I’d never actually seen it.]

Exhausted, Roland steadied himself on a chair as the inn’s owner and wait staff doused the flames of the next table. Roland looked up, hands raised and ready to ward off effusive thanks of the inn’s patrons. Instead, he looked into glowers and fearful stares.

“I, uh,” Roland said, trying to summon an appropriate speech. “I apologize it took me so long to deal with these ruffians, but all is well. No need for a reward.”

“No need for a, what, I-!” sputtered the inn keeper. The waitress who had received most of the thug’s unwanted attention put her hand on his arm.

“I appreciate the thought,” she said. “Although the scared customers and burned up table may be worse than two jerks. You wouldn’t happen to have gold to cover the damage, would you?”

Roland smiled, shook his head. “I donated all my gold to the Oakhurst temple of Tyr. But never fear, if trouble ever arises in this fair inn again, I will return. Now, I must be off.”

Roland finished the rest of his beer, and walked around, satisfied in his defense of the good.

Why The Sunless Citadel is a great adventure, part 2

Last time I discussed a few reasons why The Sunless Citadel–as presented in the D&D 5e Tales from the Yawning Portal book–is such a great adventure.  I argued it partly had to do with its pacing; characters leveled up enough to reward effort but not too quickly to appreciate it. The story was useful, but not overwhelming, and players had a lot of freedom for how they completed the adventure. And the encounters are diverse, with players fighting different types of monsters, exploring twisting corridors, and interacting with interesting characters. Identifying these aspects of this great adventure can, hopefully, help us with our own adventure creation.

Here are a few more reasons.

4. Amount of treasure: This can be hard for DMs. You want your players to feel excited about your dungeons, and find them worth running. So you’re tempted to throw in lots of great magic items. But you’re also worried about the players becoming too powerful, or for magic items to become so plentiful they’re kind of ho hum. In some of the D&D computer games, like Baldur’s Gate, there are so many magic items I rarely use most of them. The game, of course, compensates by making many encounters impossible without magic items. A DM from childhood–a math teacher who organized D&D sessions for students–by contrast, liked to randomly “disappear” magic items we found, to avoid us getting comfortable. This made 14 year old me very mad.

Sunless Citadel balanced this well. By the time we finished, we had found some magic armor, a few magic weapons, some spell scrolls (which we used), and the aforementioned potion of firebreath. There may have been more we missed, of course. This was enough for us to feel rewarded. And when we used these items in the future, we’d remember the adventure they came from. But we were hardly over-powered, and none of the items made any fight easy. I don’t know that there’s a good rule for this. The DM’s Guide has tables for loot based on challenge rating, but there’s a lot of randomness there. Sunless Citadel may actually be a good guide for amount of treasure as you create your own dungeons.

5. Memorable-ness: That’s not really a word, I guess, but you get what I’m saying. The Sunless Citadel is kind of hard to forget. Part of this is the encounters: the evil tree, the kobold royal court. But it’s also the setting. The “dungeon” is a citadel that sunk into the earth. Characters have to climb down to the top of the citadel through a steep ravine. They then exit into foreboding woods through the bottom of the citadel. The dungeon could easily have just been a dungeon, but the interesting setting made everything that happened in it more memborable.

It is worth remembering that the dungeon is not just a container for encounters, it needs to be memorable in its itself. I’ve tried to do this with my own adventures. In A Shadow in the Woods, the final battle is in a castle submerged in the mud of a swamp. After the heroes defeat the boss, the castle starts sinking, and the players need to escape as the walls tumble around them. The Elder God’s Cavern–my current D&D adventure I’m running–starts pretty stereotypically in the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. But I try to make it interesting by adding unique encounters, like a containment cell for undead and a rift emitting madness-inducing steam. I also use less conventional locales for lower levels.

So that’s what I think made Sunless Citadel so great. What do you think? Am I missing anything? Do you have any thoughts on how to use these attributes in our own dungeons?

Why the Sunless Citadel is a great adventure, part 1

As my readers probably know, I recently finished a run through the Sunless Citadel with my D&D group. This adventure was originally released for 3rd edition D&D in 2000, and it was updated as part of the Tales from the Yawning Portal dungeon crawl book for fifth edition D&D. The adventure takes character from level 1 to 5, and is considered one of the best dungeon crawls released for the gaming system.

I certainly agree. My group had a lot of fun running through this adventure. It had great combat, interesting social interactions, and tricky exploration. It also gave us a chance to get to known our characters before we started the longer Tomb of Annihilation campaign. But why is it so great? Can we identify its characteristics, and maybe use this to improve our own adventures?

I believe we can. There are several generalizable features of this adventure that make it such a joy to play. Five, in fact.

  1. Pacing: The adventure took us from level 1 to level 5 at a good pace. It took us three 4 hour sessions to run through the entire thing (rushing a bit through some parts).  So that was a little over an hour of gameplay per level. This was enough time for us to get used to our characters at each level so we appreciate the change of leveling up, without getting frustrating by being stuck with the same abilities for too long of a time.

This is easy to mess up. Some adventures feel like they zoom through early levels. This can be nice, as players get to the more interesting higher levels more quickly. But there is little sense of accomplishment, and you don’t feel your character growing organically. A few of the introductory adventures for 5th edition campaigns have suffered from this problem, including “Death House” from Curse of Strahd and “A great upheaval” from Storm King’s Thunder. By contrast, leveling up too slowly would be boring. There is only so much you can do at level 1, and characters would quickly lose interest. Sunless Citadel had this pacing down perfectly.  

2. Amount of story: The adventure had a story motivating the characters’ actions, but it didn’t determine them. We had to investigate the source of strange apples and rescue some villagers. As we made our way through the citadel, we picked up hints of a darker plot behind these events (although we weren’t interested in exploring them). Beyond that, we were free to do what we wished. We could explore the dungeon any way we wanted, and interact with its inhabitants as we saw fit.

Some adventures suffer from too much story. The plot is so intricate, and future episodes depend so much on characters resolving problems in a certain way, that it feels like you’re just watching a movie. Some refer to this as “railroading.” I think this was an issue with the Horde of the Dragon Queen, with several episodes giving little choice to the character as they had to advance the story. It also came up, to a lesser extent, with some of Out of the AbyssSunless Citadel, by contrast, provided players a rather simple problem to solve, which they could do in any way they could think of.

3. Diversity of encounters: This adventure was never boring, because we never repeated an encounter. We dealt with a goblin ambush, a tough battle against hobgoblins and goblin magic-users, a twig blight attack, and a standoff with bugbears. There were also numerous non-combat adventures. There was the social part. We negotiated with kobolds, emptied a common room of goblins with telepathic warnings, and traded barbs with an evil druid. There was exploration, as the twisting corridors of this incredible dungeon (see below) caused us to be on the verge of being lost the entire time. And there were some puzzles, like a fountain with strange red liquid (solved by our dwarf barbarian who drank some, discovering it was a potion of firebreath).

It’s very easy for adventures, especially low-level ones, to become monotonous. There’s only so much you can fight at first level. This has led some to become frustrated with the ubiquitous “goblin fights,” and others to suggest tips to ensure encounters remain interesting. For level 1 of my D&D dungeon (still ongoing), the Elder God’s Cavern, I struggled to come up with a diversity of encounters for adventurers to deal with. I dealt with this partly through general guidelines–like the “five room dungeon”–and partly by reading through low-level dungeons like this one.

I’ll continue with the final two reasons next week.