Friday, October 22, 2021

Ptolus Session 1: Meet the Rats

We return for our first full (though in practice second) session of Ptolus: In The Shadow of the Spire. After establishing themselves in the city and building a few connections, the party gets down to the business of making hard cash and figuring out how to bring the fight to the Balacazars.

The Party

Dmitree
, human druid. Seeking out the famed druid Andach and the answer to the last riddle posed by his cousin
Jaiden Daham/Cunningham, aasimar paladin. spent most of his young life in the back of the ironworkers' guildhall, seeking vengeance on the Balacazars for the debt in which they old his family
Miranir/Meep, half-elf warlock, an orphan raised by the Sages' guild, almost died when their headquarters suffered a fire, was rescued by his patron's intervention. Nicknamed for his first word
Lucien Chenier, half-elf bard, has earned the ire of various nobles thanks to his irreverent and abrasive performances, now laying low.

Notable Deeds

Lost membership in the Ironworkers' Guild
Found a hidden Longfingers Guild dead drop
Made contact with a Longfingers Guild member
Found a ratman nest in the sewers and slew many of them

The Broadsheets

The Courier, 8th of Wind 721

ITLESTEIN TALKS AND WALKS!

After his arrest two days past for treasonous speech outside the Oldtown Admin, D-R leader Helmut Itlestein is released in order to ‘not impede his duties to his congregants.’ Meanwhile, HI’s little helpers rot in jail. So much for a man of the people! Watch out for the city’s most heretical high priest, and stay safe Ptolus.


The Midtown Partisan, 8 Wind 721

BALACAZAR: TOO MUCH CRIME!

Balacazar head gave a speech declaring the KCL’s recent attack against him shows how bad crime is. He’s taking to the streets to ‘keep people safe’ from them. We’re sure Lord B. knows more about Ptolus’ crime than we do, and wish him the best in his holy crusade.


The Noble Record, Wind 721

A SHADOWY AFFAIR!? 

ERTHUO CHAMBERMAID TELLS ALL!

Who is Lady Erthuo’s most recent beau, and why is she hiding them? The NR’s secret sources have the whole sordid tale, and this is one for the books. 


The Guilder, Wednesday 8 of Wind 721

THE SILVERSMITHS: 

BREAKING BREAD OR BREAKING BRICKS?

The Silver Guildmaster sat down to dinner with the head of the Masons. Is this a friendly chat, or muscle deal for his fight against the goldsmiths? Find out!


The Market Voice, Wed 8th of Wind 721

The allure of the far east can be yours, with Faraway Scents! Just off Horseweed St

Your posters and flyers, printed at Blackstock! Intersection of Iron St and Carriage Row

Hunting ratmen? Get Bith’s best! Calabis St



The Game
  • The party woke in the Ghostly Minstrel on the 8th of Wind, 721, their third day in the city of Ptolus. Their gnomish partner Anageo Quigg has made his way home last night. They dug into some cheese, oats and cold fish as they read the broadsheets. 
  • Their breakfast was interrupted by an eight-year old courier carrying a message for 'Jaiden Cunningham.' It was a note from the Ironworkers' Guild, reprimanding him for failing to do his guild job, and giving him another task: going to the Darkbirth Madhouse and getting a guild member, Spyncer Coil, out. The courier energetically demanded a silver shield from Jaiden until Lucien pointed out that couriers in Ptolus get paid up front. The courier left in a huff, his con unsuccessful.
Darkbirth Madhouse
  • The party discussed their next move, and settled on checking out the Madhouse. However, once at the site and learning about its history, they decided that signing out a patient would be someone else's problem. Jaiden took the guild note and scribbled 'Unsubscribe all' on the backside, and handed a silver coin to a passing courier to get it over to the Ironworker's Guild. 
  • With Jaiden soon to be an ex-member of one of the city's most powerful guilds, the party returned to Delver's Square and geared up for another shot at the dungeon. They settled on following the trail of chalk marks they found in the northern sewers in their last delve, and at the end, found a loose brick with a note hidden behind it. They read it, copied it, and then replaced it as best they could. 
Alley off 83 Yarrow St. Wait at least half an hour
Codeword, Rutabaga 
This symbol was also on the note
  • As they were doing this, Lucien heard a voice speaking in his head, alternating between pleas for help and food. A slimy tentacle snuck out from the sewer muck, but the party sprang away. The voice declared it only wanted to shake their hands. Miranir stepped forward and offered his hand in friendship. He barely avoided being grappled and dragged into the muck, as a great, bulky mass swelled out. They struck at it and ran away, the telepathic voice cursing them.
  • The party resolved to follow the clue on the note, and traveled up to Oldtown. There they found a dead-end alley right where the note said, and after some searching, found the same symbol on the note carved into a brick, which was not loose. They waited at the mouth of the alley for some time, and then a voice came from behind Dmitree. 
"Whaddaya want?"
  • The voice had no obvious source. Dmitree gave the password, and the voice cackled. It complained that this job had been unusually difficult, but it had discovered that two days earlier, Malkeen Balacazar had entered the city with a rusted iron box, which in fact contained a Dwarvenhearth key. Lucien and Miranir knew stories about the ancient dwarven city below Ptolus, untouched by surface dwellers for many centuries at least. A key into Dwarvenhearth could be immensely valuable.
  • The party thanked the voice for the information, and informed it that another person would be coming by later for the same report. They observed that across from the alley was Menasa's, a boarding house, and after considering waiting on the roof, decided to rent a room there for the night and stake out the alley to see who else came by.
  • Soon after getting the (remarkably cheap) room, conveniently endowed with a balcony, they settled in to watch the place. Lucien checked out some of the neighboring rooms to ensure they were secure, and barged in on a couple in the throes of passion. Meanwhile, Dmitree remembered he was still on Quigg's payroll as an advertiser, and decided to grow out the nearby plants and fashion the vines into a banner. With several hours' work, during which nobody went to stand at the mouth of the alley, Dmitree, hung a net of vines which advertised Wondrous Tattoos in North Market. 
  • Several interested customers came into the boarding house to ask about the banner, and Dmitree, who unconvincingly gave his name as 'Mossy Silverthorn' got a stern talking to from Menasa for failing to pay her for use of her façade, and Lucien had to advocate on his behalf and take down the banner himself. 
  • Some hours later, well after sunset, an elven woman with silvery hair stops at the mouth of the alley and leans against the marked brick. With the exception of Lucien, she notices the whole group watching her from the balcony. She stealthily performs a magic spell, and shortly afterwards subtly beckons to the group. 
  • They descend to meet her, and Miranir brazenly asks if she's a member of the Longfingers Guild. Lucien has to work hard to salvage the situation, but does eventually convince this woman, Chelsean Featherhair, that his companion meant no offense by it. Chelsean casts a sound-muffling spell around them and questions the party. The party make their services available to the Longfingers in any operation which would harm the Balacazars or Killravens. 
  • She tells the party she'll send word once she has a job for them, confirms the intel on Malkeen Balacazar, and excuses herself. The party decides the night is young, and that since it's always dark in the dungeon, there's no wrong time to delve. This time, they went looking for ratmen, since they'd heard the bounty per tail got raised from 2 to 3 gold pieces each. 
  • That night they located and fell upon a heavily infested ratman nest in the sewers, slaying many, but receiving heavy wounds of their own in turn. When they realized the nest extended far beyond their expectations, and heard the rumbling of many rats further in the tunnels, they turned tail and ran for the surface. They stayed in Menasa's boarding house that night, the couple in the other room making sleep difficult. 
  • The next morning, they waited with no reward for a message from Chelsean and the Longfingers, and returned to the sewers for more rat tails, this time encountering a patrol of rat-men, including one armed with a rusty pistol. The party made short work of even this foe and returned to the Ghostly Minstrel to count their hard-earned coin.

Notes

The end of the session was dominated by combat in the sewers vs ratmen, and I felt that it was insufficiently engaging or dynamic. I can do much better. I also gave some very heavy-handed hints to the players at various times, letting them know that I was perfectly willing to throw challenges that their 1st-level asses couldn't handle, namely the otyugh and the swarm of ratmen. Have you seen the roster on that dungeon?! That's a lot of ratmen. 

Speaking of which, as much as the format of Ptolus is excellent for the city sections, it really falls apart for me in the dungeons. Large blocks of text with the relevant contents buried inside. Unlike the standalone locations of the city, individual dungeon rooms are much, much less sticky, and it's harder for me to get a good handle on them. I think I'll wind up making a bulleted roster for the dungeons, especially so that I can organize enemy responses to incursions, especially for these large ones with many rooms and many, many enemies. These are no lair dungeons.

I expect to make broadsheet cards for my players each session, though perhaps not for every paper each time. This time, for example, there wasn't anything from the Ptolus Herald, since their headquarters had just been raided by the guard. Giving them a fuller complement this time served to introduce the different papers, their subjects and biases. 

With the Longfingers cache, I was sort of running by the seat of my pants. I'd figured it would leads them to Shim's meeting point in Skulk Alley, but I wasn't sure what Shim would have for them. I let the encounter play for a little while before the party convinced him to give the report, by which time I'd settled on the Dwarvenhearth key lead. 

Regarding Miranir's blunt approach of Chelsean, I'm not sure how much of that was him playing his character and how much was a mismatch in expectations between player and GM. I try to play NPCs are more or less realistic people, and just going up to someone and asking them if they're a member of a criminal organization is not likely to be a good approach. In this scenario, the Longfingers now consider the party a disposable asset to be burned as soon as is convenient, whereas if they'd done a better job, Chelsean may have seen them as more reliable agents. 

Not sure what Jaiden's player was going for with dissing the Ironworkers' Guild. it's going to come back and bite him in the ass not too long from now, though. Nobody disses the Guild.

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Thanks for reading! If you're keeping up with the campaign then comment below, be sure to follow the blog and share it with others. until next time, have an excellent week.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Ptolus Session 0: The First Steps

Why the lengthy silence? Well, besides my return to class, I've started a new campaign. It took a couple weeks, what with getting college students to agree to a schedule being like herding cats, but I managed. Just a few hours ago we had our first session of Ptolus: In The Shadow of the Spire

Clearly I was inspired by the Alexandrian's campaign set in the same city, and then recent release of the book in 5th edition (by far the easiest game for people to agree on) was a godsend. It's huge, but planes offer plenty of reading time. I'll write up my process for starting the campaign later, but now I want to put finger to board and actually record the events of the game, like I did back the olden days of the Xyntillan campaign (which ended not even a year ago. This is weird). 

The Party

Dmitree, human druid. Seeking out the famed druid Andach and the answer to the last riddle posed by his cousin
Jaiden Daham/Cunningham, aasimar paladin. spent most of his young life in the back of the ironworkers' guildhall, seeking vengeance on the Balacazars for the debt in which they old his family
Miranir/Meep, half-elf warlock, an orphan raised by the Sages' guild, almost died when their headquarters suffered a fire, was rescued by his patron's intervention. Nicknamed for his first word
Lucien Chenier, half-elf bard, has earned the ire of various nobles thanks to his irreverent and abrasive performances, now laying low.

Notable Deeds

Investigated Shilukar's bounty
Entered the dungeon for the first time
Recovered a Runihan signet
Aided Anageo Quigg

The Game
  • While Miranir and Lucien had prior acquaintance, the group as a whole met in the spring of 721, when they all sat outside the South Gate to enter the city, most returning from an errand or travel, Dmitree coming for the first time. 
  • The Commissar's Men interrogated the crowd and searched them for contraband. It came out that Jaiden had no citizenship papers, but his letter of recommendation from the Shuul and a sympathetic guard sufficed to get the young man through the gate.
  • A young woman, Tellith Herdsman, was in the same cluster as the party, and she recognized 'Meep.' He stayed at the inn she works at, the Ghostly Minstrel, for a while after the fire. She recommended everyone stay there, and handed out coupons for the Shadow Theater (a copper penny off!)
  • While they were waiting to get in, a hooded man with a black sun tattooed over one eye and his crew rode up to the gate. They were allowed passage without any questioning. This was Malkeen Balacazar, scion and presumed heir of the Balacazar crime family. 
  • Some time after the eight bell, the party was allowed into the city, and took their morning meal at the Welcome Inn. Their mutual interrogation quickly forged bonds. It came out that Dmitree knew nothing of city life and Jaiden knew much less than he should, while Miranir and Lucien knew the city well. They became fascinated by a poster seeking the capture or death of a dark-elf thief named Shilukar, and resolved to visit the noble House Abanar to inquire after the 1000gp bounty.
  • Then they saw a man at the bar, wearing the sigil of the Balacazar family, stabbed in the back. The party did nothing to interfere as the assassin finished the job, announced 'nobody gets away from Korben Trollone!' and ran. The proprietor shaking and crying, the party snuck out the back. They gathered afterwards that the killer must have been an agent of the Killraven Crime League, a new crime empire taking on the entrenched Balacazars; the turf war is escalating.
  • They head over to the Guildhouse of Iron, where Jaiden became an official member and got directions to get citizenship papers in Oldtown. He was also given a list of errands and deliveries to make in the area, which he promptly discarded.
  • At the Administration Building, they witnessed a gathering of the democratic-republican movement, with the priest Helmut Itlestein presiding and preaching radical social transformation. The small crowd was soon dispersed and Itlestein was gently led away by the guard. 
Party: Silly priest, democracy will never work!
  • After even more bureaucracy, Jaiden finally had his papers. With that, they went over to Oldtown and, after further grilling by the officers at the Dalenguard fortress, were permitted to enter the Nobles' Quarter. They made haste to the Abanar estate, where a  high-falutin' footman at the gate filled them in on the bounty, and the fact that nobody had any leads. The party resolved to search for this elusive figure, theorizing that he was robbing noble houses on the behalf of the Killraven Crime League.
  • They knew dark elves live underground, and there's one organization which knows more than any other about the tunnels beneath Ptolus; the Delver's Guild. They high-tailed it to Delver's Square and down the stairs below the statue of the hero Abesh Runihan into the Undercity Market.  
  • There they asked about and were shown to the Maproom. The guild librarian, Shad Livbovic, attended to them. He persuaded them to enroll as associate guildsmen and gave them a simple job to get them started, instead of letting them go chasing through the dungeons beneath North Market.
  • So the party went down into the dungeon with a pile of crates to restock the safe rooms underneath Midtown.  On their way back, they came across a ghoul and two zombies feeding on the corpses of fallen delvers. They slew the undead monstrosities, with Miranir taking a few zombie fists to the face, and determined that these delvers had been fleeing from the deep dungeons and got ambushed by the undead. 
  • They took up the bodies and returned them to the guild along with their equipment, and found one of the dead clutching a silver swallow signet. After asking around, they identified the signet as the symbol of Abesh Runihan, a trinket that may be worth a pretty penny to a collector.
  • They returned to the surface and decided to take up residence in the Ghostly Minstrel, just a few steps away from the entrance. Tellith showed them to their rooms and they took dinner in the taproom. They were surrounded by well-known delvers and adventurers, including the wyvern-rider Daersidian Ringsire, Inverted Pyramid representative Jevicca Nor, and paladin Steron Vsool
  • The next morning they woke to the bells of St Gustav's and returned to the Delver's Guid. Shad gave them another assignment in the direction of North Market, restocking and refining the maps where the dungeon meets the sewers. While down there, the party encountered a pair of rough-looking humans climbing up out of the sewers onto the street. They hailed them, got rebuffed, but passed in peace. 
  • They climbed up to an alley in southeast North Market, and got a noseful of a smell much worse than the sewer from a passerby covered from head to toe. They trailed him to a shop named 'Wondrous Tattoos' and snuck around to the back entrance. They heard an argument between a deep, raspy voice and a gnome about the gnome's debt. They realized they had trailed a creature named Durant, a local Killraven crimeboss known as 'the Stink Man.'
  • Dmitree went back through the front door and declared he was looking for a job. He saw Durant wasn't human, but a scaly, lizard-like humanoid. The gnome grew increasingly tense and Meep followed Dmitree, posing as a customer. Durant the Stink Man twigged to the situation and left the gnome, Anageo Quigg, to his 'customers.'
Anageo Quigg and Durant the Stink Man
  • The party all came in and learned of Anageo's woe, deep in debt to Killraven and with almost no customers to support his expensive shop. His trade was not just in tattoos, but in very expensive magical tattoos, well outside the party's price range. With further discussion, the party realized Quigg had neglected to advertise his shop in the least, and was surprised to learn the nature of his wares was not apparent from his sign. 
  • Dmitree got himself hired for a silver piece a day as Quigg's marketing agent, while Miranir got a tattoo of a crossed bow and arrow on the back of his neck. They also invited the lonely gnome to go out drinking with them in the Minstrel. That night, after returning to Shad for their pay and putting up signs and posters in the guildhall, they got Anageo to loosen up. They also met one of Ptolus' more unusual residents the ogre mage Urlenius, who swapped heavily embellished stories of his own heroics and seemed sincerely impressed by the party's own, more meager tales. 
Anageo: Mr Urlenius, sir, would you like a magic tattoo?
Urlenius, the Star of Navashtrom: WOULD I LIKE A MAGIC TATTOO!?
  •  The party turned in for the night, knowing they had done some good today. 

Notes 

With the exception of introducing a few family members to roleplaying in a brief,  haphazard session this summer, this is my first time running a game in-person for ... almost two years. I've gotten a lot better since then. 

The room we commandeer for our sessions is spacious, with a great long table, so I have space to get up and walk around. In the first scene where the players were getting harangued by guards, I went up to each player and got in their faces, grabbing their 'papers' (character sheets) and generally adding a lot of physicality to the roleplay on my end. It's a whole new dimension I've not been able to put to use, and I'm making up for last time. Also, in the few months I got into the habit of pacing about during online games, and it's stuck, such that I only sit down when I need to check my notes. When improvising or roleplaying I'm on my feet.

Also a part of being in-person for the first time in a while, I have access to physical props. While I'm not a crafty person, I make extensive use of flashcards with the names, locations and descriptions of NPCs which I hand out like business cards. They're very good for players, especially with the spellings of fantasy names, and their status as physical objects and reminders make the NPCs who get them stand out more. 

This being our session 0, they just made characters and jumped right in. Consequently, the backstories and their integrations into the world don't make perfect sense, such as how Jaiden spent his whole life in the Ironworkers' Guild, yet needed a letter of introduction from the Shuul to become a member. This stuff just happens. 

I used this first session to not only set up characters and factions, but also set up themes. One of the biggest is that Ptolus, though it can be dark, is not grimdark. Evil exists alongside good, and the players are agents with the ability to do both. Very often, problems aren't solved best, or solved at all, with combat, as with Quigg's tattoo parlor; the party is rewarded, monetarily and emotionally, by engaging in creative, interpersonal problem solving through roleplay. 

I wasn't expecting to play a decently long session, and so didn't have all that much prepared. I was able to keep things running with some improvisation and by inserting some encounters/events I had in the back of my head, but I feel the game suffered for a lack of some ready detail; I didn't give a good sense of the Undercity Market, for example, and I don't think Shad Livbovic is supposed to be there. 

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That's all for this week. I'll be writing up some of my notes and prep later, and I think I'll keep up with thorough notes for the campaign. If you enjoy reading these and keeping up, be sure to comment below, follow the blog and share these posts. 

Until next time, have an excellent week!


Monday, August 9, 2021

Principles of RPG Narration

Over on the OSR Discord, user Sahh vented about her experiences with an unsatisfying DM, apparently running Hoard of the Dragon Queen in 5e. Near the end of that conversation, she asked, "anyone here got any good resources on how to condense Tolkienese into a few simple sentences to set a scene?"

This is where I got pinged in to the channel, with another user referring her to my previous post, Module Doctor: Oni Mother Okawa. I read through the conversation background and figured this would be a good subject for a blog post. Today we'll be looking resources, advice and processes for both improved narration at the table and improved writing for modules. 

Tiamat flies down from the skies, shimmering with
infernal energy, her five glorious heads roaring as one...

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, best to address the claim that boring, stuffy narration, or having to listen to NPCs talk to each other, is a '5e thing'.

On the one hand, there's nothing about the D&D 5e system that requires bad narration that overstays its welcome. If that's happening at your table, it's because the GM is choosing to do so, not because the rulebook says so. Whether this is an informed choice on the GM's part is another story.

However, this trend is most certainly a part of the expectations and culture surrounding the system. The published materials from WOTC tend to have blunt boxed text, as I complained in Stop Writing Lazy Quest Intros. I haven't read Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but I know by reputation that it's a boring and railroady module, so I wouldn't be surprised if this trend was even worse there. But official WOTC materials are heaven-sent next to some of the 3rd party products I've seen. 

More than anything, it strikes me as cargo-cult thinking. Many GMs, for a variety of reasons, don't fully understand the purpose and nature of narration, and so engage in imitation instead of deliberate problem-solving based on a situation, what Robert Pirsig called 'original seeing' in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is a phenomenon with roots in the surrounding culture of 5e, though the same may be said of other systems, perhaps to a greater degree. 

So now we come to the object-level question: how does one condense Tolkienese into a few simple sentences to set a scene?

Breaking Down the Object-Level Question

We have a problem: Tolkienese narration at a D&D table. We have a desired state: a few simple sentences. We have a known process to achieve it: condensation. And this is all in the service of a known goal: setting a scene. 

Breaking down the question in more detail will help us clarify what we need and ground our conclusions. 

First off, what is Tolkienese? In this context, it's referring to bloated and fanciful narration. It may be related to the 'High Gygaxian' dialect. Tolkienese is undesirable because it is at odds with the needs of the table, at least for Sahh, who wants to engage with the game world instead of listening to the GM drone on. 

As a sidenote, while Tolkien's actual prose of famously long-winded, it is also very economical, with little bloat. As one commentator once said, economy of language and getting to the damn point are two different skills, and it is possible to have one without the other. The GM in question lacks both. 

Rather than Tolkienese, we want a few simple sentences. That is to say, we want our narration to be short and easy to parse. We can get there by condensing existing prose to a more desirable state. And let us never forget our purpose: to set a scene at the table. Any tools, principles, rules and advice we make here are in service to this, and if they do not accomplish the goal, they should not be followed. 

More on Condensation: Joseph Manola

OSR blogger Joseph Manola has an excellent post which I revisit frequently: Conceptual Density (Or, What are RPG books *for*, anyway?'). Manola's thesis is that a good RPG book is dense with unusual, detailed, creative or otherwise inspiring material, while a bad one will endlessly detail an orc tribe with the exact tropes one would expect from an orc tribe. This claim is made at the macro-level of adventure design, but a symmetrical argument can be made at the micro-level of description and sentence creation.

Only give details the players wouldn't imagine for themselves upon hearing the base description, or which deserve emphasis. If my players encounter a troll (assuming they're familiar with trolls) I'm not going to ramble on about how it has bad breath, warts and a leathery green hide. 

However, if I really want to play up those aspects, I may give them more attention and really infuse them with detail, describing how the troll's hide cracks open with every movement, how pustules across its body pop and spill their sticky lymph with every step, only to coalesce and regenerate the next moment. 

I didn't add new information per se, but I made the perception which was already there more vivid. Alternately, I can add unusual details. Is this troll draped in the heraldry of knights it has killed and eaten? Are there half-formed screaming faces bubbling out of its skin, the beginning buds of another troll which must be routinely scraped off? These are things that players don't immediately think of when they hear 'troll' and so can be used to great effect. 

You'll know you succeed when, instead of following up your narration with, 'does anyone have fire damage?' they instead scream, 'HOOOOLEEEE SHIT KILL IT WITH FIRE!'

If you aren't doing either of those things, don't bother with detailed description of the troll. Your players have already imagined what you are about to say. Spend your narration budget on other elements. 

Objectives of Narration

Skerples, of the Coins and Scrolls blog, writes 3 Types of Modules, in which he lays out three approaches to the design of modules, namely, modules as manuals, as art, and as novels. Once again we can shrink this down to a micro-level point. There is no single goal to optimize for when narrating a scene. 

While Sahh and I both endorse terse and straightforward narration, this isn't because it's the One True Way, but for the results it achieves, namely, it gets the players back into the driver's seat as quickly as possible. There may be times when you want to lavish more detail on a scene, or build a particular impression or emotion. In those cases, economy of language falls by the wayside. 

Always keep in mind the goal of the narration and use the tools for the job, instead of mindlessly swinging around a hammer because an internet blogger wrote something about nails.

And what is the goal of narration? Well.

Elements of Narration

The Angry GM writes How to Talk to Players: The Art of Narration, and stresses for us that narration is not about 'painting with words' or 'immersing the players.' Those are (largely) desirable things, but they do not spring from narration alone, and they are not the goal. The goal is to impart information, and do so concisely. 

As we've pointed out before, players will create a mental image even with minimal detail from you. You don't need to paint a whole scene with words. You can take advantage of player imagination to fill in scenes for you, and focus your narration on relevant images. 

Product Examples: Narration in Print

Narration is made easier when you have material to reference, in the case of both read-aloud and DM text. Two products come to mind for this. One is Gabor 'Melan' Lux's Castle Xyntillan, a megadungeon which I will continue to shill until I take my final breath. The second are the modules of Joseph R Lewis.

(Incidentally, Lewis was party to that same Discord conversation referenced above)

Both exemplify terse, economical, and evocative text which can be translated easily into narration, in addition to possessing other sundry virtues. Your narration will improve with your ability to recognize and write effective text. 

The Limits of Narration

Xavier Lastra writes The Limits of Description part 2, and points out that descriptions in narration don't do what you think they do. Contrary to the above, painting an image with words is not nearly so desirable as one may think, because the ability of human language to describe sensory experiences is not as expansive as one would hope. Of the seven categories of descriptions, size, age, shape, color, origin, material and quality, few can be used effectively to do so effectively, and fewer still in RPG narration.

Size adjectives are narrow and mostly inadequate unless you reach for comparisons, and likewise for age. Words to describe non-geometrical shapes are particularly lacking, unless you are a mathematician or, again, reach for comparisons, 'leaf-shaped,' 'saddle-shaped,' and many natural shapes are so particular that the only point of comparison is itself. Color is rarely imprtant, and requires reference to existing objects unless you're sticking to ROYGBIV. 

Origin is an odd duck here, as its worth depends entirely on contextual knowledge. If I'm running a group that knows FR lore, then I can talk about Ostorian or Netherese ruins, and that will communicate a great deal. For games set in our own world, I can likewise appeal to history if my group is sufficiently cultured to know the implications of an Achamaenid saber. But if we're running in a brand new homebrew world, or a setting that most don't know too well, the origins of an object are a very weak descriptor. Material is in a similar predicament, especially if you're trying to appeal to the obscure or strange. 

What does effective description look like then? Again, don't try to paint a picture with words, you haven't the time. Describe relevant attributes and focus on a smaller number of effective descriptors. An NPC's eye color doesn't matter unless it matters. If an assassin had blue eyes and there's only a small group fo blue-eyed people, that's relevant, but not otherwise.

Sentence Level Examples: Oni Mother Okawa

'Alright, Mr Big Shot,' asks the hypothetical reader in my head, 'this is all well and good, but how do I actually do it?' To wit, some more examples are in order.

I'll take from my own previous post, linked up top, and show how I condensed the opening readaloud of Oni Mother Okawa, in even more detail than before. 
‘Trudging through the snow, the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy. Whether it be for experienced travellers (sic), weary adventurers or just determined traders, this trail is by no means easy. Even less so due to the noises that accompany it. Out of fear that a demon might hide at every step, every rush of wind is cause for concern. One can never be too careful around these parts. But that is now all in the past. Not long ago, you found yourself at the entrance to a beautiful wooden building, with shining lights all around. And there you are now, inside the warm interior of the bathhouse, taking off your large winter coats and scarves and finally revealing your faces once more.’
Let's color code this
Trudging through the snow, the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy. Whether it be for experienced travellers (sic), weary adventurers or just determined traders, this trail is by no means easy. Even less so due to the noises that accompany it. Out of fear that a demon might hide at every step, every rush of wind is cause for concern. One can never be too careful around these parts. But that is now all in the past. Not long ago, you found yourself at the entrance to a beautiful wooden building, with shining lights all around. And there you are now, inside the warm interior of the bathhouse, taking off your large winter coats and scarves and finally revealing your faces once more.’
Red is outright repetition, blue is unnecessary prose, orange is redundant/overwrought, and green is the stuff we actually want, the bits describing the actual scene or setting the tone. They're not good here, but they are what we want to focus on and polish.

So we cut out everything else.
Trudging through the snow the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy experienced travellers (sic), weary adventurers or just determined traders fear that a demon might hide at every step every rush of wind is cause for concern beautiful wooden building, with shining lights all around inside the warm interior of the bathhouse, taking off your large winter coats and scarves and finally revealing your faces once more.’
Now that your read-aloud looks like it's been de-fnorded, we can get to work. We've identified the parts of description doing actual work, and need to put them together.

'Trudging through the snow'
'the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy'
A contrast between 'experienced travelers, weary adventurers and determined traders'
The fear of demons
The paranoia created by the wind in conjunction with the above
Arrival at a beautiful, well lit wooden building
Warmth, comfort, relief

[Reader exercise: Before reading further, try to take the above and rewrite it yourself. The exact way you do it will depend on your own style and ability.]

[Done? Read ahead.]


In the end, I wound up reversing and joining points 2 and 3, condensed 4 and 5, 
'Trudging through the snow, neither experienced travelers, weary adventurers nor determined traders find the trail to Okawa's Bathhouse easy. Even worse is the rushing wind that might cover a demon's approach at every step. But now you find yourself in a beautiful wooden building hung with shining lights, where you cast off heavy winter coats and scarves and reveal your faces once more.'
If you want to cut it down further, remove 'trudging through the snow,' which confuses the scene a bit, and let the 'heavy winter coats' communicate the season and weather. That, and consider exchanging or removing 'weary adventurers' which doesn't quite fit in the set.

This will look different for you, and the goal should not be to imitate any one style. Still, I get a lot of mileage out of rearranging clauses and joining them together. 

Fully General Speech Advice

I joined a new RPG server at the start of lockdown, which has profited me two solid campaigns which are just now coming to a close, as well as several one-shots. Like a good online citizen, I keep my personal information locked up tight, and the image my fellow players and GMs form of me are created entirely by my speech. 

On several occasions, that image has been 'college professor,' which I find hilarious. The reason for this is the way I speak. I will now give my #1 piece of advice for public speaking

Eliminate filler words from your vocabulary. I'm speaking primarily about hesitation markers, exclamations like 'um', 'ah,' 'like,' 'I mean.' This same advice applies, to a lesser extent, to hedge words, such as 'just' or 'really.' Hedge words can serve a purpose, though they must be purposeful instead of reflexive, but the hesitation markers must go. Start practicing today. When you notice yourself using them, take a moment to collect your thoughts and say your piece fluently.

"But what if I can't figure out everything I want to say and need a little time?"

What do you mean, 'what if?' It's not a matter of if. You will have moments where your sentence gets away from you, where you need to clarify, or just need a spare moment to consider your next words. In those cases, which happen to everyone, don't try to replace those filler words with anything. Use silence.

Silence is very effective when used as part of a speech, or even a conversation, so long as you can maintain the floor during that silence. This is much easier in person where you can use body language to indicate you're still speaking. 

"But won't it be awkward?" 

Only if you make it awkward. I've gotten immense mileage out of randomly stopping in the middle of sentences, looking pensive for a span of no more than three seconds, and then continuing as if there had been no pause. 

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If you enjoyed this post, be sure to leave your comments below, follow the blog, and share it with others. until next time, have an excellent week!

Saturday, July 31, 2021

I Made a Module: The Robo-Yakuza of Hammer Street!

Before this post begins: if you're a Swede who runs Firefox on a Mac... leave a comment please? You know who you are.
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I was halfway through reviewing and editing part 2 of Oni Mother Okawa when I became altogether disillusioned with the project. I wondered if 5e shovelware adventures were worth the effort. I wondered if the whole genre of linear one-shots should simply be cast into the pit. 

I reconsidered, and found that it was a little too harsh. For sure, the quality loss from pumping out one-shots at top speed is unavoidable, but linearity does not a bad adventure make on its own, especially for a beer-and-pretzels one-shot. Those modules have a place in the RPG marketplace, and while it's not a high and glorious place, like those occupied by bespoke RPG books like Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth, or by impressively terse and functional books like Melan's Castle Xyntillan, it's still a place of value.

Goodness knows that they can provide inspiration, and when you've got a weekly game coming up and don't have anything prepped, a good one-shot can be heaven sent.

But it's undeniable that the market is flooded with products of poor quality. Some are bad because they were made on a minimal schedule. Others just had minimal effort put into them. Some are by designers who could make good stuff with extra time, while others are by designers who've fallen into design cargo cults (as Melan pointed out here) who lack basic understanding of design structures or what GMs need at the table. Yet others aren't written for use at the table at all, but rather as fiction, for GMs to fantasize about running the game. 

This flood does call into question what a good one-shot of this sort would look like. A linear, combat-focused, altogether unsophisticated one-and-done adventure. It'd have to be concise, easy to use at the table. It would use read-aloud and boxed text, but intelligently and in moderation. It would be evocative. 

I resolved to write such an adventure, to demonstrate that higher standards should be held for the genre and to show that I'm not just a blowhard critic.

So I did.

An unrelated pulp cover for the thumbnail
Looks awesome though

I took my notes for a pulpy, combat-focused one-shot I ran months ago, and in the course of a few days turned it into a 3 page module. You can download it here

Is it publishable? No. At least, not to my standards. The formatting is amateurish and done with a free website, and I definitely missed a typo somewhere. I've only playtested it once. There's no artwork, and the statblocks are in plaintext. 

I'm looking to fix all of those, get some more eyes on it, some art, more playtesting, and eventually publish it. But even without any of that, I'd confidently place this draft against most published modules in the same genre. 

It knows what it is — linear pulp schlock — and seeks to excel as that. It is

THE ROBO-YAKUZA OF HAMMER STREET! 

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If you've enjoyed this post, be sure to follow the blog and comment below! Until the next time, have a great week!

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Module Doctor: Oni Mother Okawa Part 1

Some months ago I published a 'review' of a 5e module I'd received as a gift from one of my players, Ship of the Damned. The module variously disappointed and mystified me, and I tested out a new tone for the blog by aping the 'angry rhetorical questions' style exemplified by Bryce Lynch. The reaction was so-so, though I found it very cathartic to write. 

Now that same player has gifted me another module by the same author, and again this one was featured on the front page of the Roll20 marketplace. 

I'm going to dive back in, but this time with a style more my own, as a script doctor, imagining I was handed this text shortly before release and tasked with improving it with minimal changes. I'm going to select bits and pieces of read aloud and GM text, mostly looking at the writing, but occasionally at the design as well.

Oni Mother Okawa is a pair of one-shot adventures surrounding the same villain, designed to be used in sequence or standalone, for a party of level 4-5 PCs in D&D 5e. I'll be looking at part 1 today.


Read-Aloud 1
‘Trudging through the snow, the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy. Whether it be for experienced travellers (sic), weary adventurers or just determined traders, this trail is by no means easy. Even less so due to the noises that accompany it. Out of fear that a demon might hide at every step, every rush of wind is cause for concern. One can never be too careful around these parts. But that is now all in the past. Not long ago, you found yourself at the entrance to a beautiful wooden building, with shining lights all around. And there you are now, inside the warm interior of the bathhouse, taking off your large winter coats and scarves and finally revealing your faces once more.’
to
'Trudging through the snow, neither experienced travelers, weary adventurers nor determined traders find the trail to Okawa's Bathhouse easy. Even worse is the rushing wind that might cover a demon's approach at every step. But now you find yourself in a beautiful wooden building hung with shining lights, where you cast off heavy winter coats and scarves and reveal your faces once more.'
Here we've cut 3 lines by eliminating redundancy and stitching sentences together. We still hit every beat in the original, trudging through snow, rushing wind heralding demons, the difficulty of the trail, relief of tension, a description of the bathhouse and a focus on the PCs. Those second person action descriptions, 'you cast off heavy winter coats' are appropriate when setting a scene, but rarely elsewhere, so look out for them.

We've also cut down from eight sentences to 3, from 126 words to 63, exactly half, though the average word count of each sentence is longer. I find that a smaller number of long sentences are easier to swallow at the table, especially if they're focused and don't ramble. This is more than I would advise for a room description, but for an introduction to the adventure it'll do.

We'll also be replacing or deleting 'large' and 'small', aka the two most boring descriptors in writing. If the size matters, you can find a better replacements with comparisons. Usually it doesn't, and you can use a different class of descriptor. If you want to bring across the relief of taking off a winter coat, you can emphasize its weight, bulk, the sweat which has accumulated underneath. But 'large'? As my old choir director was fond of saying in a nasally voice, "We don' need it!" If you can't find a replacement, let economy of language guide you instead.

GM Text 1
An evil spirit and trusted ally of Okawa, Mayeda deceitfully maintains herself as the person at the front desk. She offers nothing but grace, calmness and welcoming. She is also the one in charge of making sure Okawa knows of everyone who comes in.
to
Mayeda manages the front desk with grace, serenity and hospitality. Through her, Okawa knows of everyone who comes in.
Mayeda, in fact, does not 'deceitfully maintain herself as the person at the front desk.' As far as the adventure makes us aware, she is the person at the front desk, all the time. She's deceitful in other ways to be sure, (she's a succubus after all) but by George, as a desk manager she is impeccable!

Also, 'grace, calmness and welcoming.' Calmness is also a noun, and therefore a grammatical choice, but can be substituted with 'calm' or even better with 'serenity' to keep it from tasting awkward. 'Welcoming' is a gerund or participle, not a noun, and is best replaced with 'hospitality,' though figures of speech such as 'open arms' also work, just not as well in lists like these. From 44 words to 19, from four clauses to two.

Read-Aloud 2
‘Lowly croaking from their pond, you observe two seemingly innocent toads, both of which are looking at you with an intense look, though it is also filled with frog-like indifference.’
to 
'Croaking from their pond, two toads fix you an intense look.'
A bunch of confusing choices here. First, the toads are 'seemingly' innocent. This author uses seeming as a crutch, as noted in the prior post, but here it raises too many questions. First, I dare you to find a group that will accept anything as 'innocent' after their GM describes it as such. Second, what could it mean for the toads to only seem innocent? This is read aloud text in which the GM serves as the PCs' eyes and ears, so this indicates the toads' innocence is a façade through which the players can see. Third, there are no innocent toads, just as there are no innocent ducks.


Fourth, another instance of a second person action, 'you observe.' This might seem innocuous. You're telling the PCs what they see, after all, and the injunction against second person actions exists to prevent GMs from assuming player agency. But in fact, it should still be avoided in this case, as the GM is meant to be the players' eyes and ears, to give as accurate and relevant an understanding of their environment as possible, and not to draw attention to this fact, thus creating unnecessary distance. 

Is that petty? Yes, incredibly so. Finally, the last bit about 'frog-like indifference' just sounds ridiculous when paired with an intense stare, though if you really wanted to you could keep it in. Just replace it with 'toady' or 'froggy' indifference, which highlights the humor here. From 30 words to 11, demonstrating that even the shorter descriptions can be dramatically cut back with little loss.

Read-Aloud 3
‘Majestic and yet frightening, the back of this large courtyard gives way to a gigantic skull, the nature of which you are unsure, but it is most likely demonic. It seems to lead way into a dark, deep cave, but you see it has mostly been sealed off with well-placed rocks and planks of wood. Yet, some small cracks are ever apparent, to such an extent that you can see a bat resting at the top of the skull. You are unsure what it’s waiting for, but it is there, ever-watchful.’
to
'At the back of the snowy courtyard stands a house-sized demonic skull. The cavernous mouth is sealed off with rocks and planks, yet small cracks poke through. A bat rests atop the skull, ever-watchful.'
'Majestic and yet frightening' are conclusions for the PCs to come to themselves, our old friend 'seeming' returns, and, most strangely, I can't tell for the life of me how the small cracks in the mouth seals have anything to do with the bat which rests atop the skull. And again, 'You are unsure what it’s waiting for,' is a conclusion for the PCs. 

Also worth noting, the skull as shown on the map is almost the size of the bathhouse itself, and really ought to be mentioned when the party first enters the area, preferably in an overview. From 91 words to 35.

Read-Aloud 4

‘As you lay waste to the final remains of the demonic presence around you, you begin (sic) the rapid sound of sandals stepping on stone and snow. From behind you, you notice a beautiful female figure. Despite her age, there is no doubt this woman is still within her prime. A mane of beautiful silver-white hair descends upon her shoulders and her stunning, perfectly-symmetrical face. She comes towards all of you with a concerned look. “Are you alright?” she asks, visibly frightened. “I am Mother Okawa. Are you hurt?” She says, looking around frantically.’

 to

'As the last of the demonic host is destroyed, a beautiful, silver-haired woman rushes towards you. She is doubtless in her prime despite her age, and a concerned look mars her perfectly symmetrical face. She looks around frantically and asks, visibly frightened, "I am Mother Okawa. Are you hurt?"'

Coming right after combat, this read aloud is liable to give the players whiplash. I know Thanatos and Eros are kissing cousins, but I don't think this is what Freud had in mind. Give your players a break before foisting your MILF NPCs on them, please. The dialogue is also so on-the-nose and generic as to be unintentionally hilarious, but I'm not expecting much more.

But since I'm trying to stick as close to the original as possible, stitch the clauses together, cut filler, and use forward dialogue tags, you'll be fine. 93 words to 49.

Read-Aloud 5
‘With a quickened pace and a gentle step, Mother Okawa takes you to the side of the main building you had made your way into originally. She unlocks a sliding door, before leading you inside what you instantly recognize to be a small kitchen. The smells are intense and poignant and there barely is enough room for one person, let alone the whole lot of you. Despite that, she locks the door behind you with a sigh. “I feel much safer talking in private. I no longer know who to trust and who to be weary (sic) of. I must show you something.” She utters those words, before she begins searching around frantically.’
to
'Mother Okawa leads you to the side of the bathhouse and into her cramped kitchen, smothered in intense and pungent scents. She locks the door, sighs, and searches about frantically. "I feel much safer talking in private. I no longer know whom to trust and of whom to be wary. I must show you something."'
Calling the smells 'poignant' isn't actually incorrect, but it is an archaic use of the word, so I would still replace it with 'pungent.' Overly lengthy and awkward phrasing abounds. You really don't need as much exposition as you think you do. Also, it's 'whom to be wary of', not 'who.' Quick test: Who did it? He did it. Whom do you trust? I trust him. 112 words to 55


Read-Aloud 6
‘You push through the harsh weather and feel the distant storm approaching. Due to the clouds, you’re unsure if you’re close to nightfall or not, but what you are sure of is that soon enough, a storm will come, so you have to push through before it catches you out.’
to
'The weather grows harsher and blocks the sky. A storm is coming.'
This read aloud is repeating itself to hide that there's almost nothing here. The storm is getting closer and you can't tell the time of day. That's what 50 words get spent on. The directive to push through before the storm catches the party out comes from the GM as GM, not the GM as player eyes and ears, and should not be in read aloud. Also, there's no choice in how to proceed, no consequences for choosing to push on or take it slow, it's just a trigger for saving throws. 50 words to 12.

Read-Aloud 7
‘As you continue on, you begin to hear the wind picking up. You see as icy fog gathers around you and the only things distinguishable in the darkness here and there are icicles of sorts, set up almost like outcroppings which one could hold onto to push themselves forward.’
to
The wind picks up and icy fog gathers. The world is dark and indistinct except for icicles here and there.

This is pretty heavy handed. The icicles are actually ice mephits, and the GM wants to bait the players into grabbing onto them, so that they can have a 'gotcha!' moment. Though the ice mephits attack immediately anyway, so, again, there's no choice here. Show me a group that falls for this and I'll eat my shoe. 49 words to 20. 

GM Text 2
In order to find the cave, the party must now make a final push through the storm. They must all make a DC 16 Wisdom (Perception) check. If at least one of the party members succeeded, they notice a large outcropping of rock, which seems to indicate a cave entrance akin to that which Okawa described. 
GM NOTE: In the sad situation where all your players fail this check, simply have them make another DC 15 Constitution saving throw, taking 2d8 cold damage on a failure. Then, allow them to try the check again. Repeat the process until they succeed. Hopefully this won’t take too many tries, or someone might die.
I know I said I was going to stick to just criticizing the writing, but this sort of design is galling. It's thankfully permissive, as only one party member needs to make the check, but that doesn't make it good design. If you're deliberately making the check so easy that only the unluckiest parties will fail more than a couple times, why require the check, let alone call for repeats? Ah, there's the angry rhetorical questions creeping back in.

The answer is that the author has seen this sort of thing elsewhere and feels compelled to add mechanical elements at every stage. It's the RPG design cargo cult rearing its ugly head.

Here's my alternate version:
As the party makes the final push through the storm and searches for the cave, call for a DC 16 Wisdom (Perception) check. If at least one succeeds, they locate the entrance. Otherwise, the lowest-rolling PC breaks through the ice above the cavern, and must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or fall to the floor below and take 2d6 bludgeoning damage.
I'm still not happy with it as a piece of design, but it limits the punishment to the party and allows failure to move the game forward in a humorous way.

GM Text 3
Within every chamber, they can choose to inspect and look around with a DC 14 Intelligence (Investigation) check, but they won’t find anything like the amulet. If they choose to just perceive, they can make a DC 14 Wisdom (Perception) check, which will reveal a sound coming from the back part of the cave, like that of a consistent pulse.
This is bizarre in a number of ways. First, because the amulet is not hidden. It's in a puzzle room at the end of the cave, which is one of the chambers of course, and is mentioned in the read aloud for that room. The purpose of that sentence seems (because I do not have access to MonkeyDM's thought process, so seeming is a valid choice here) to be to instruct the GM that, if the party starts rolling Investigation checks in the rooms, they should not find the amulet. Because it isn't there. Which brings me to question why they would be rolling to begin with. Either this is written with the assumption that PCs roll their own checks whenever they feel like it, which is wrong and dumb and not kosher, or it is assumed that the PCs will want to search for the amulet in every room (a valid assumption) and that the GM will call for a check, with a DC set by the GM text, which nevertheless has no chance of success and does not uncover any unintended objects either.

And then, the party can actually discover something if they choose to perceive instead of investigate, as though, in this context, that's a distinction with any player-side difference at all. Which it isn't. And, by the way, the only thing they can discover is a pointer yelling at them to go to the end of the very linear cave. Which 100% of parties will do anyway. 

Read-Aloud 8
‘The moment you walk in, the first thing you notice is quite a large skull, bestial in nature, which looks to be picked clean of any muscle, flesh or anything of the like. Bits of it seem scratched and broken, but you are unsure of the source.’
Keep in mind, this is in the same room as the previous GM text, ie the first room the party walks into. This should have been in the previous read aloud. Here's how it plays out at the table: the party walks into the cave, get a mountain of read aloud dumped on their heads, get the whole business about a sound at the back of the cave, and then the GM says, 'wait, shit' and narrates the read aloud describing the first thing they notice in the room they were already in. I'm not even going to correct this one.

GM Text 4
Moving through, every creature must make a DC 14 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. On a failed check, they scratch themselves against the rocks and take 1d4 slashing damage. 
GM NOTE: The damage is low, but this will help ease in the dramatic tension of this tunnel being narrow and them not knowing what is at the other end.
That's not what dramatic tension is, and even if it was, you wouldn't want to discharge it on random checks. The mere act of describing a narrow corridor and not knowing what's on the other side does not generate tension at the table. Just cut this.

Read-Aloud 9
‘Past the tunnel, in a small, circular chamber, you find what can only be described as the remnants of bone marrow, the contents of which are leaking into a natural pool formed on the stone. You are unsure, once again, what creature has caused this, but the bones are incredibly large. Whatever creature calls this place its own, it’s not friendly.’
to
'Cracked bones spill their marrow into a pool in the center of the circular chamber.'
The creature, incidentally, is a winter wolf, and it must be the dumbest wolf I've ever heard of to leave perfectly good marrow spilling onto the floor. Is this conspicuous consumption? Was it planning to invite its wolf buddies over later and wanted them to know how successful a hunter it was? 61 words to 15. 

Conclusion

That's as much of Part 1 as I'm willing to go through. We reliably cut between a half and two thirds of read aloud text without losing critical information or texture, and found that GM text was often inconsistent or perverse.

If I was hired to doctor this module for real, would I run the reworked version at my table? Likely not, unless it's a playtest group. The hook and concept are basic, the adventure itself is formulaic and has little soul, and it contains no notable choices or moments for negotiation. Its conceptual density is low. It has... a convoluted puzzle? Quasits disguised as small animals? If you gave me the pitch, "An oni runs a bathhouse and manipulates adventurers," and told me to run my Saturday night game based on that, I'd likely hit similar beats. 

Again, it bears mentioning that this module was gifted to me by an active player in two of my games, who saw it featured prominently on the markteplace, assumed it was of good quality on that basis, and wanted me to have more resources at my disposal as a GM. This is the sort of content that reaches the front page. People clearly worked very hard on this, especially the artists and whoever engineered the inbuilt dynamic lighting, but the adventure it dresses up is not worth the effort. 

I suspect this exists for the sake of the cartographer more than anyone else, and they are very nice maps to be sure. I'd consider buying some of them for my own Roll20 games. But I'd rather not have to deal with the fiction that this is a coherent and worthwhile adventure instead of a map pack. That's also likely why these adventures get so promoted by the site, maps are porn for GMs

If you've stuck with me long enough to read this far down, heed my words. If you're making your own module, get a critical pair of eyes on your work. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I will do this if you ask me to, no charge. Hell, I am doing that now for a small 3rd party publisher. 

Demand more from your paid modules.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

My Mapping Journey: Or, How to Moderately Screw It Up

(Still around! Not gone! Lots of running, and even some playing, just not much writing!)

I've been keeping abreast of the Angry GM's Open World posts, the latest of which takes a strong stance on prep time vs play time, namely that for each period of play, one should generally spend less than half that time prepping. That includes maps, which should be crude and utilitarian unless they're player-facing aids, and especially battlemaps, which you mostly don't need.

Which got me thinking about my own journey through mapping in games. 

The vast majority of time I've spent playing and running games has been in the last year and change, ie in the pandemic, and that means online play. In that time, I've used a different approach with nearly every campaign. In Castle Xyntillan, I had the players draw their own map with Mipui, with more than a little help from me to make to accurate to the original book.

Later when I got involved in some other campaigns, I started using Roll20. 

In my Icewind Dale campaign I've been using the official digital book, with most necessary maps already included. Those which aren't (some quite bafflingly absent) I stole from the subreddit. In my current Legend of the 5 Rings game, I'm mostly displaying a poster map of the Empire, and switching to a dojo battlemap which I draw on to represent various environments (it's all the dojo of life, you see). 

As a result, I spend almost no time mapping, and in the L5R game in particular I use theater of the mind almost exclusively. 

I bring all this up to contrast what not to do with mapping in Roll20, or any other VTT software. 

The first time I used Roll20, I was hooked into GMing on a 5e West Marches server, and told to make a quick intro adventure to get new players a first session.

Given very few constraints, I decided that I wanted to adapt a module instead of making up my own dungeon on the fly. I selected Raggi's Tower of the Stargazer, which I adore both on it's own merits and as a metal reference. 

Where was your star?
Was it far? Was it far? 
WAS IT FAAAAAAAR!?


Given that I already had the module and its map, I figured this would be quick and easy, just need to replicate what's in front of me in digital form.

Pop quiz, hotshot. You're adapting a map into a VTT, you refuse to employ quality (that is, paid) assets, and you've literally never done this before. Do you;

A) Use simple shapes and outlines to show the basics of the space and leave the rest to description?

B) Screenshot the preexisting, beautifully detailed maps and size them properly in the VTT?

C) Do your damnedest to replicate every single piece of furniture, spending the better part of days just trying to find the right asset and routinely screwing up all the layers because you still have no idea how the system works. 

You can guess what I picked. The first two options didn't even occur to me, though looking back almost a year later they're both painfully obvious. 

I wound up running a single session of the Tower with a slapdash 5e retrofit, and afterwards spent my time on that server processing character submissions. 

NEVER. AGAIN.

I am perfectly content with my theater of the mind and pirated screenshots, thank you very much. 

All you boys, girls and sentient AI looking to get into online GMing, follow the Angry GM's advice here. If your prep time is taking anywhere near the expected amount of play time, let alone for a sub-component like mapping, something's wrong in your approach. 

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If you enjoyed this post, be sure to comment below and follow the blog! Until next time, have an excellent week, and I hope to see you all here soon.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Campaign That Wasn't: Curse of the Wednesdays

Woof! Now that's what I call a hiatus. Rest assured, I've been active gaming (in particular, learning a new system) and don't intend to stop writing for the blog. Just need to work my way back in with a few short posts before diving into any systems or writing longform. 

I find true the maxim that if you need something done, ask a busy person to do it. Around last month I very suddenly became less busy, and my drive to write fell substantially as a result. So here's a story of what I did(n't get to do) in between. 

Over my little break, I unexpectedly dove into Legend of the 5 Rings RPG, a system and setting based on the collective card game of the same name. I ran my first session earlier this week after some ill-fated attempts to join a game, which resulted in playing a quarter of a session over two weeks. This is about that latter tale. Next post is about some system considerations and how that impacts player expectations. Right now, funny story. 

Just two blokes against the GM's world

The Curse of the Wednesdays

When I first got into L5R, I obviously wanted to find a game to try out the system. I had little luck. Most games were for the 5th edition, not the 4th I was interested in. Still, I applied for a 5th ed game promoted by a GM looking to upload the recordings online and build a career as a paid GM. 

And I got rejected, as the game was already full. Ah well. I put it behind me and looked elsewhere. 

Imagine my surprise when I got pinged a few days later asking if I still want to play. It turns out his group had unusual bad luck and, despite the large group he'd recruited for just this purpose, needed another player for this session to go forward. 

The game was in 3 hours, of course. Cue speed-reading the rulebook and making a character in a system I don't understand. 

When I arrive on their server, I get an inkling of what's going on. Seven players, besides me, had been gathered explicitly to offset the tendency of online randoms to flake, find schedule conflicts and disappear without warning. Nevertheless, one player suffered a sudden death in the family, the Lion player had work at the time, the Mantis had recently developed a kidney stone and was in and out of the doctor's office, and the remaining players either flaked, ghosted or were unavailable for miscellaneous reasons I can't recall. This would have been their second session, except that they had missed a few players the previous week and only had a session zero then. 

It was me (CRAB CLAN! BEST CLAN! CLACKETY CLACK!) and the Falcon player with the GM, waiting on the Mantis, who insisted that she would be present at a slightly delayed hour and the game could go forward. 

I found the Falcon to be good company, and the GM was largely quiet. Good thing as well, as we spent the next two hours waiting before it was called off and delayed to next week. We learned the next day that our Mantis had truly abysmal luck on her end, running out of cell battery at the same time that her PC decided to buckle down for a lengthy update. 

I tweaked several errors in my character waiting for next session, looking forward to actually playing. In the intervening days, a couple players I didn't know left the server. I spoke with the GM, and in one conversation he told me that he was looking at paid GMing because, after so many years of running the game, he was fatigued and it just wasn't enough to run without recompense. 

I really should have run at that point. 

The next Wednesday rolled around and it was me, the Falcon, and the Lion. The Mantis was once again unavailable. Still, 3 is a quorum and we got down to playing. 

Now, I don't want to come across as overly harsh here. I want to come across exactly as harsh as necessary. I've spent most of my RPG-playing career as a GM. I treasure moments to sit on the other side of the screen and play, especially when the GM is new and just spreading their wings for the first time. It has its own charm, and even GMs with very loose system knowledge can run solid sessions with enthusiasm and reasonable calls.

So I was surprised to find a GM, supposedly very experienced and looking to get paid for this, delivering an extremely low-energy exposition dump, at the end of which he simply fell silent. Only with further player prodding did he realize that he forgot to set the scene. So he set us in the middle of Winter Court, called for us to make Earth rolls to stay awake during the proceedings (we failed) and then had a major NPC break into the room and make a startling declaration. In the GM's own words, both the NPC and the news were "a big fucking deal."

The Lion player developed convenient connection issues early into the game and had to drop out, leaving just me and the Falcon. As soon as the second wave of exposition was over and our characters were awake, I finally got to investigate a bit. Literally, exactly as the GM was telling me what to roll, his voice sputtered out and he disconnected from his own server. 

The Falcon and I spent the next few minutes laughing our asses off and confirming that the other had experienced the same thing. He even pointed out to me a detail I'd missed, that the GM's repeated swearing in odd places, beyond killing the tone, also would have made it difficult to monetize the audio on Youtube. And lest I not stress this enough, this game was supposed to be a demo reel in support of getting paying players. 

When he reconnected, we learned that his entire neighborhood's wifi had gone out, and the session was delayed again to next week. 

I would like to say I left immediately, but it took the Falcon letting me know he was bailing to do the same myself. He ghosted, but I took the time to write a polite, but firm message to the GM explaining why I left and that I wouldn't advise GMing as a career for him. His only response was, "Well ok." 

I subsequently invited the Falcon to join my regular server, opened a side-game there to introduce players there to L5R 4e, and had a fun first session that I expect will continue for the foreseeable future. It even took place on the same day and time as the old game, the cad that I am. 

Thus was the Curse of the Wednesdays broken.