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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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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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. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

5e Adventure Review: Ship of the Damned

You know what this blog doesn't do? Reviews!

And fair enough that I don't write reviews. I have no taste! I've run, what, one reasonably long campaign, a few short, aborted campaigns, and some one-shots? And I've hardly read any modules or published adventures at all! Really, who would take my recommendations on this front seriously?

The realization struck me as I was halfway through writing this review that in such scenarios, recommendations and the qualifications to provide them are moot. The subject under discussion today is plainly of poor quality. Nobody would purchase it on my say-so. No, what the blog-reading audience wants is blood. The grasping, thirsting audience may only be sated by my ripping into a work and finding new, verbose ways to trash it. How else could Bryce maintain such a readership when the bulk of his reviews are of poor products? 

That must be it. He and I are of the blood, love and rhetoric school. We can praise a work by contrasting it to worse works it outshines, and we can muster up terrific rhetoric in the process of destroying others, and we can do all three, together or in sequence. But we can never do without the blood.


Ship of the Damned
By MonkeyDM
Art by Limithron
5e
6th level
A horrific terror on the high seas has been ravaging ports and settlements, leaving few survivors to tell the tale. Now its up to you to hunt down and take out Captain Catacomb, the feared Pirate Vampire behind it all.
This 11-page adventure bills itself as a Halloween one-shot, and describes the cursed ship of a vampire pirate, with a handful of combats and traps. I received it as a gift from one of my players, and figured that trying to ape Bryce's schtick would be a valuable exercise in blogging. 

Note that this is a Roll20 adventure. As in, I have to go into Roll20, start a new game, add it in, and then I can actually read the damn thing. Now, it is available as a free PDF (listed as "Free Vampirate Adventure") although you have to track it down on Reddit. But even that's not the whole story, as the free PDF is missing sections C and D! I shall limit myself (mostly) to commenting on and quoting from what is freely available. 

Underlines are mine, bold are in the original adventure. 

Where do we start? With a single, unevocative hook which mentions neither reward nor motivation! Of course! This wouldn't be a 5e adventure without that!

Okay, okay, but that's standard. What is there that might be unusual?

For one, several typographical errors on the first page (which as I read ahead, do not abate), and the insistence on listing multiple monsters with their singular name. Sometimes skills within parentheses are capitalized (as they should be, below) but usually aren't, and parenthetical asides are capitalized when they shouldn't be. Text that should be in quotes is presented plainly. The author visibly screws up the markup at one point. 

Some of this is fixed in the Roll20 version, but hardly all of it. If I looked at both side by side, might I notice unique errors in each?

I know that must sound intensely petty, but my stint as a copyeditor for my school paper trained me to see this shit, and ingrained in me good habits. In the process of trying to make my own adventure, I strove to remove every extraneous word. It taught me how hard adventure writing really is. And then … this. 
A successful DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check will reveal to the players that, half-translucent below then(sic) (In area B.1) are 3 ghostly pirate(sic), which seem oblivious to their presence if they didn't trigger the trap in area A.3.
Well, are they oblivious or not? There's a lot of seeming in this adventure, objects which seem to stare at you, rooms in which only death and decay seem to exist. Just as often, skill checks reveal things. It seems (aha! There it is!) to be a writing tic. 

There's off-putting parenthetical intrusions into the text, such as insisting that the poop deck is the historically accurate name, and offhandedly saying a lizardman NPC is cute. I haven't seen anything like it before (again, not much said there) and I don't like it, but could be passed off as an element of authorial voice, and I can conceive of a reader who would think, "Why yes, that lizardman is cute!" It's just not me. 

Here's some of the read-aloud.
"As you look around, the world seems to have fallen to silence, not a single soul is seen around you, the deck is completely empty. You see ropes, barrels, ladders and sails, but no one to man them. When you listen, only the murmur of the waves and the wind can be heard. Behind you is what you reckon to be the helm and captain's cabin, in front of you the bow of the deck but the way there seems covered by a thick green fog."
Not the longest I've ever seen by far, but it's befuddling. Doubt is inserted into what should be plainly visible features of the environment. More galling, it's a bad habit of narration I'm guilty of, and which I deliberately tried to cut down on in CX. Yet here it is enshrined in the read-aloud
If the players climb up there, the bat-dragon figurehead will look at them during their climb up. Once up there, one could swear that it winks.
What do you mean "if?" The players are already climbing or else I wouldn't be referencing that section of the text. Again, more seeming. It feels as though the author is embarrassed at including weird elements and tries to distance themselves, as though, when the party is assaulting the ghost ship of a vampirate captain, I want to leave them in any suspense about whether the masthead is animate. Of course it is! Why cheapen the moment with qualifications?
After the battle, as the chaos clears, the players find a small book, laying on the desk it's written in Common with really poor grammar.
A wonderful addition to the literary genre of "phrases which describe the work itself." And what boldness with which the frame after combat is forcefully shifted to exposition (pointless, natch)!
In the closet, fancy noble clothes can be found, as well as a more relaxed bed robe with little cute skulls embroidered on it, on the etiquette on the back is written To Captain Catacomb, from Mama, with love. 
In the latrines, well you'll find what you normally find in latrines, feel free to lengthen or shorten your description with that information.
That's a keyed room! No, actually, that's two keyed rooms on the map, listed under a single entry. Why separate them out? Why not merge them into the larger room they're a part of? More to the point, why is the Captain's Cabin split across multiple keys, some of which aren't separated by doors, while two subrooms, which are separated by doors, are crammed together while having separate keys? 

Why are the little skulls described as "cute" when that should be a conclusion the players come to, rather than being prescribed by the GM text? Why does that description violate the ordering of adjectives, a grammatical rule which every English speaker learns subconsciously? It's [quality] [size] [noun], not [size] [quality] [noun]. 

And why the latrine description? I'm not asking why about any aspect of it, or why it does something, but why of the thing itself. Is this a sick joke? It's self-consciously pointless text used to describe a latrine. Is this an Infinite Jest-esque prank at my expense? Will MonkeyDM's perverted genius become clear only with repeated readings?

Is this an ESL author? I suppose that would explain some of the errors, but hardly all of them, and it would double my recommendation to get a damn editor. At least get a native speaker to look it over. People will copyedit for free! Hell, I will copyedit for free. I've done it before. I'll make a pledge. If you read this post and contact me, whether via comment or Discord, to copyedit your work, I'll take you up, so long as it's not too long. 

[At this point in the writing process I took a chill pill and returned to the topic at hand]

In fact, there seems to be a deliberate effort to inflate the number of keyed rooms. When I first counted up the rooms by my typical method (skip to the end of each section, take the last room number and add them all together) I was quite impressed by the ratio of rooms to pages. Not so. 

Rooms B10-B20 are all under the same key! A central room and ten bedrooms adjacent, eight of which are occupied by sleeping monsters. There's nothing unique about any of them, no indication which monsters inhabit which, just numbers on a map!

Bryce has described similar phenomena in the past, but I didn't fully understand his meaning. The keying process is nigh-vestigial in places! The rooms have numbers, but in many cases the transitions between them aren't clearly demarcated, or there is no reason to key them separately! It's the structure of a keyed dungeon, applied blindly and purposelessly!
E.1. Dungeon
This are(sic) contains 1d4 commoners in various states on health. They are all suffer from 3 or 4 levels of exhaustion. Their cells can be unlocked with a DC 15 Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, or using the key that Captain Catacomb has.
Thee or four levels of exhaustion? Could the author not make up his mind? Unless the commoners are getting into combat, there isn't a meaningful difference, so just pick one! The key that Captain Catacomb has? Why not "Captain Catacomb's key?" It's even alliterative! Does the 5e crowd simply lack the instinct to cut down on unnecessary words?

Only the vaguest possible attempt to describe the prisoners' state, and no effort at all in describing the dungeon of a vampire pirate. Are you shitting me? Of all the times to add exactly no flavor, you choose now?

Oh, and it just gets better, here's the read-aloud in the next room.
A literal sea of bones has formed from the countless corpses that Catacomb has desecrated over the years. This area is constituted of bloody femurs, broken skulls, shattered spines and more. Enough to constitute an anatomical course. On top of the massive pile of Bones stands Captain Catacomb, and next to him a large, bone white Umbral Skullbearer.
It goes on for another paragraph after that, initiating the final combat without so much as a villain monologue. Also, the captain's pet monster is described as an Umbral Skullbearer here, but as a Gleaming Skullbearer everywhere else, and Reddit assures me those are two monsters which fight very differently. 

A literal sea of bones? You know what, if there had been even a token environmental effect from fighting atop a pile of bones, I would accept that wholeheartedly. But no. Not even difficult terrain!

It just keeps going! The key cross-references to itself! The room text instructs the GM to congratulate the players for stopping the vile experiments of Ghostbeard. Ghostbeard! A name which appears nowhere else in the adventure, which I can only guess is another name for the vampire captain that got missed in editing. And the portrait of the vampire captain shows him clean-shaven!

The treasure? 2300gp, a rare magic item and a very rare magic item. Not only no flavor, but not even any particular items!

The ship's curse prevents characters from taking long rests, though the GM may "wave(sic) this restriction" if they wish. Is there any penalty for spamming short rests? Nope! There are no wanderers, or any indication that the monsters leave their respective closets. The captain just waits at the bottom of the ship, not doing anything in particular, and attacks immediately. There are no opportunities for negotiation (except for a trivial instance with some hags in the paid version). Imagine leading a mutiny of the undead crew against the captain that holds their souls captive. That would be cool! But no, you just go from room to room, slaying whatever is within until you reach the boss. 

Was this adventure playtested at all? There are no playtesters credited, but they usually aren't so that tells me nothing. Personally, I doubt it. If the author didn't even get a second pair of eyes to fix the spelling and grammar, I don't think anyone ran through this. 

Is there anything it does well? It makes use of inline statblocks (given this is 5e, they take up between a quarter and a half of the page, but still). It bolds skill checks, which makes it easier to skim. WOTC's own Rime of the Frostmaiden doesn't do that. 

And the art is … well, here it's nothing to write home about, but the artist's other work is filled with naval and island maps I quite like, and may use. 

Most of the adventure is available for free, so I guess that counts as a preview? Roll20 doesn't have that though. Actually, I don't think Roll20 has any kind of rating system. Yet this author's work is prominently displayed on the front page of the marketplace! Why? A cursory glance at the author's other work shows it to be of the same quality. 

Is this why Bryce is so cynical? If I keep down this path, will I too become cranky and turn off spellcheck on my blog?

You can read the free version here

Should I give this a rating? Given my general lack of perspective, I don't think it really makes sense. Eh, whatever.

DAH VURST!1!!!1!

Friday, February 26, 2021

Towards Seasonal Campaigns

[Epistemic Status: Speculative. I haven't tried out anything I'm writing below, though I intend to test it out soon.]

With the conclusion of my long-running Castle Xyntillan campaign, I allow myself to breathe a sigh of relief and take a break for a short while. I'm still running my Icewind Dale game, but that's compatible with a break.

Still, I know it won't be long before I'm back to running another campaign. I've got too many ideas on the brain. I'll make a post listing those soon enough, but before I commit to a new campaign, I need to think of my future schedule.

I started the CX campaign in April of 2020, a couple months after the breakout of the pandemic and my return home. I was starved for play, the summer stretched out before me and the end of lockdown was nowhere in sight. I didn't know how long the campaign would go, and didn't much mind.

Now, my schedule is a good deal more concrete. With multiple vaccines out, I hope to return to my old schedule later this year, and if I'm still playing TTRPGs at all then, I will be prioritizing in-person games. So whatever I start in the next month, I want it to conclude, not just fizzle, but properly conclude, before September. And even if it's good, I don't necessarily want to stick to the same campaign all that time. I might want some variety.

What sort of campaign could give me flexibility, the opportunity to conclude solidly, and do so in a set window of time? The seasonal campaign.




The Seasonal Campaign

This is a concept I picked up a little while ago, though I completely forget from where. It's not original to me! 

The seasonal campaign is modeled on the structure of serial television. You're only guaranteed the first season (so long as the pilot gets picked up). You could get cancelled for any number of reasons after that. So you've got to deliver a satisfying story in a set number of episodes, while leaving threads for a subsequent season to build on if you're fortunate enough to get renewed. 

The application to TTRPGs is clear. Set a duration of play; thirteen sessions, give or take one, seems right, it covers about three months real time, enough to get attached but doesn't overstay its welcome. The duration of a modern-day TV season. 

Make it clear from session 0 that this is the duration of the campaign. If the players and GM enjoy it, it can be renewed for another season. The most obvious way is to continue the same plot and setting with the same characters; but the new season offers other opportunities. Make your game an anthology, moving to another part of the setting, or a new plot, or switch out characters.

The benefits we outlined above; the short and concrete term of the campaign allows for campaigns to conclude more often and avoid fizzling out, set expectations for short-term play, and allow flexibility in switching between groups, setting, characters and even systems. 

What are the downsides? If you're running seasonal campaigns, switching periodically, you can't have the experience of building a single setting or campaign over the long term. I'm talking really long-term, like Rick Stump's campaigns with his kids which have been going for decades. If you take the seasonal path, then that sort of play is forever closed to you.

You'll probably have a hard time adapting campaign books to your purpose. Short modules are fine, but whole campaign books spill over multiple tiers and (due to Wizards) don't split their chapters in complementary ways.

Systems and Leveling

This, incidentally, touches on a point I forgot to include in my CX Post-Mortem. The expected speed of advancement between groups and systems. In modern 5e games, the expectations seems to be levelling once every few sessions (five or six on the upper bound, at least that's how I interpret the milestone leveling advice from the campaign books). In CX, the pace was dramatically less predictable. They leveled, on average, once every six or seven sessions, but at one point jumped one or two levels from a single discovery, and went for a while without leveling after that. It ended at level 6.

That unpredictability is key. Old-school games, especially those where gold-for-XP reins supreme, are bound to have uneven progression, if only on the micro-level. Plus, many old-school systems have characters level at different rates anyway!

In contrast, 5e usually focuses on XP-for-combat (which appears to me much less unpredictable) or milestone XP (you level when I tell you!). This lends itself very well to campaigns with predetermined plots (Icewind Dale uses it) but also to seasonal campaigns. 

But first, a caveat.

I'm not into the full 1-20 level progression, the upper tiers of play just seem ridiculous. But it strikes me that even if you go for all of it, the typical pace of leveling will lead to campaigns that can't possibly last more than a couple years, even if you stretch out the levels. Much less if leveling is faster, and less than that if the campaign doesn't go to level 20. I mean, my Icewind Dale campaign is supposed to go from 1-12 or 13, and I expect it will last roughly as long as my CX campaign, if not less

This is all assuming low mortality and a coherent group of characters from start to finish. Old-school games aren't limited to that, but 5e is very strongly influenced by that assumption.

My conclusion is that this sort of seasonal play is probably quite good for 5e and similar systems. Old-school systems and campaigns benefit from longer term play and less discrete divisions. 

This also dovetails nicely with the concept of tiers of play built into 5e's level system. No, I'm not talking about the tiers described in the DMG, which don't make very much sense in light of level progression. I'm talking about the AngryGM's tiered encounter design system. The tiers go as follows: Apprentice (1st and 2nd level), Journeyman (3rd to 5th level), Adventurer (6th to 8th level), Veteran (9th to 11th level), Champion (12th to 14th level), Heroic (15th to 17th level), and Legendary (18th level +).

Behold! The table upon which all my hopes rest!

The synergy between seasonal play and tiered play is the entire reason I got interested in the concept to begin with. Angry's Division of Tiers is structured such that the end of each tier coincides with a major jump in character power, as opposed to the WOTC Division, which starts each tier after the first with a power jump. 

Angry uses the tier system to build his encounters, targeting the center of the appropriate tier. So long as you're in the 3-5 tier, you'll be facing encounters tuned for level 4. At the start of the tier, you'll be struggling. Then, you'll start turning the tables. Finally, when characters get a massive power boost, they start tearing encounters apart, and feel like badasses. 

So you tie each tier of play to a season. At the start, the party is dealing with tough new threats. They're on the run, reacting instead of acting. Then they get their feet back under them, figure out what's going on, and finally get powerful enough to trounce the encounters which gave them a hard time a few sessions ago. They get the opportunity to test their new and improved abilities against threats they already have a frame of reference for, and get to feel dominant

The season ends, and if the game is renewed, the next season begins at the start of the next tier. On paper, they're even more powerful than where they ended, but they're now facing even greater threats than before, and the cycle begins anew.

I'm really, really tempted to test this theory out, not in the least because Angry's encounter-building table in the linked page is very easy to use, and without it I wouldn't be doing any 5e homebrew at all. It'll also be a palate cleanser, a short-term plot driven 5e campaign. Everything the miniature Alexis Smolensk on my shoulder despises. I'll probably do Age of Sail pirates. Do Apprentice Tier in the first few sessions, then Journeyman Tier with the rest. 

Avast me hearties!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Castle Xyntillan Megapost

Welcome! To

Castle Xyntillan: The Campaign: The Session Reports: The Megapost

With the conclusion of the campaign, I've compiled everything into one document for ease of reading. Enjoy!

Preparation



Epilogue/Analysis/Advice




Sessions