Taking Stock in 2010

New Year’s Resolutions are the among the most pointless and misguided inventions of mankind. The change in year is just an artificial construct necessary for measuring the passage of time. It doesn’t really mean anything. Midnight on the 31st of December is no more important that midnight on any other day of the year. The only significance it has, is the one that we give it. If you want to change your life, give up a filthy habit or start a new one, then do it now. Why wait for cusp of the year? It’s procrastination, and shows a distinct lack of commitment to your cause.

So this post is not a list of New Year’s Resolutions. Call it instead my intentions for the next year regarding all things roleplaying. It has been one year since we embarked on our joint quest to create a hybrid version of the D&D game. It is appropriate to take stock and see exactly where we think we’re going with this. There is also the issue of my ongoing campaigns, and the new weekly game that is due to begin next September. As many of you reading this blog are also my players, any input on my intended direction for the campaign would be very welcome. So let’s make a start.

Iourn

As I mentioned before, September 2010 is the tenth anniversary of our first Iourn session. This has prompted me to cast a critical eye on the setting, its current direction and what I want to do with it in the future. I think that over the past few campaigns, the setting has rather lost its lustre. For a while each campaign was better than the one that preceded it, with The Crucible of Youth being a creative high for me, and featuring tour-de-force performances from the players. Since then, it’s all rather gone down hill. While enjoyable on many levels, the Game of Souls and (particularly) The Hand that Rocks the Cradle weren’t really in the same league.

There’s no one reason for this, but I think the lack of time and attention that I’m able to lavish on the campaigns has to be a major factor. It’s not just about having material to run through every week, it’s about tying that material together into a rich and coherent story that weaves together the background material provided by the players into the ongoing narrative. One of the reasons The Crucible of Youth worked so well was because I didn’t bother writing any adventures until after I’d had the character backgrounds. There’s wisdom in that approach. I’ve also come to believe that campaign logs have a great role to play in keeping the game alive between sessions, and in maintaining consistency and verisimilitude from session to session. Any new campaign I ran would have to have campaign log accompaniment.

Of course, the campaign logs are the first thing to go when I’m pushed for time. As INdran continually points out, there are literally hundreds of unwritten or unfinished logs over on the Iourn website. This lack of narrative information actively hurts the credibility of the setting and makes it far more difficult for me as a GM to keep track of events. That’s why I started writing the Timelines, but then I ran of time to do those as well. In the future I either have to be more disciplined in writing the logs, or I have delegate their responsibility to a willing players. And I’m far too much of a control freak for that.

I therefore think Iourn has to enter an extended period of re-examination and rationalisation for its own good. I need to take the time to build up my narrative understanding of the world, and draw together all my notes from a hundred different Word files into one coherent whole. I am not therefore running a weekly Iourn campaign from September 2010. I will still be running a weekly game (you can read on to find out what that will be), but it will not be set on Iourn. I’m not abandoning the setting by any means, but I am giving it a good polish.

I should point out that this decision will have no effect at all on the League of Light campaign, that will continue at its current pace for the foreseeable future. Anything that happens in that campaign can be more properly discussed at the next retreat. However, I would like to moot that the next weekend game takes place on 24-26 September next year. A little earlier than usual, but dead on the tenth anniversary of the first ever session. That date seems extremely appropriate, and we can do something special.

Hybrid Dungeons and Dragons

So, it’s been one year since we embarked on the HD&D project. What have we actually achieved? Well, we’ve got a few races hammered out, the full skill system, a bucket of feats and the combat system (finishing soon, I promise). We’ve discussed – at length – how all the mechanics should work, and what principles HD&D should live by. We have done a great deal, but we’re still not close to a working playtest. There’s also been less and less discussion of HD&D with each successive post. So have we grown cold to the idea, or is it simply taking too damn long to get anywhere?

These are legitimate concerns. Even if HD&D has no bugs and turns out to be the greatest fantasy roleplaying rules ever, do we really want to wait ten years for me to finish writing it? We still don’t have any character classes, a magic system, spells, monsters and umpteen other important things. Games like D&D and Pathfinder have a squad of professionals writing the game from 9-5, Monday to Friday. I don’t have the luxury of that sort of time to devote to it. Neither do we have the capacity to playtest the rules as thoroughly as they need to be playtested. At what point do we cut our losses and say that HD&D will never be finished?

I don’t want to sound defeatist, and I have no intention of giving up on HD&D yet, but I am going to need some serious help to make this a reality. Over the next few weeks I’m going to post the rules on Atypical Combat, Wounds & Healing, selected weapons and then (finally) the rules for the Fighter class. When I’ve done that, I think we’ll have all the rules we need to make an informed decision on the future of HD&D.

You see there is a prime alternative to HD&D lurking in the wings called Pathfinder. It’s a far more logical extension of the third edition rules than 4e, and it corrects many of the problems I had with version 3.5. However, Pathfinder is not a perfect fit. Its combat is still heavily dependent on the use of miniatures, and it hasn’t really solved the problems inherent in the magic system, multiclassing, playing powerful races or advancing to very high levels. Pathfinder is an open gaming product in the spirit of third edition, so all the rules are available freely online. You can look at them and see what you think.

The thing is that if we did adopt Pathfinder, I still couldn’t run it as published. We’d ultimately wind up playing a hybrid of third edition, Pathfinder and some of my better ideas from HD&D. I would have to come up with all these house rules anyway, so perhaps the time would be better spent writing HD&D? The next few months should allow us all to make that decision once and for all.

BUT… if we do press on with HD&D after the rules for the fighter are published, then I’m going to have to ask you to step up and shoulder some of the workload. I can’t come up with all the character classes, spells, prestige classes, talents, feats and monsters that will be necessary to even playtest the game. So it’s not just a case of whether I have the time to make this work, but whether you have the time to help me.

Iourn.com

As I mentioned above, I have significant plans to go back and add a lot more content to this site over the next twenty months or so. You will also recall from a recent blog post, that I have intentions to revamp the look of the site and drag it into the twenty-first century. It won’t be cutting edge, but at least it’ll look like a site that was made in 2005 rather than 1995. However, the appearance of the site is not the real reason I want to tackle this project. I think that a change in the structure can actively help me get more information about the setting online. However, I want to see if the new structure works first.

Which is where Karris’Mohr comes in.

Karris’Mohr is Marc’s fourth edition campaign setting that we are currently playing each week. And, like Marc’s Cthulhu game before it, I’ve been taking copious notes in order to keep track of what’s going on. At present I am collating those notes into a coherent whole. Once that is done I’ll post them online in a new website that will be designed to have the same structure as the future Iourn site. We’re less than twenty-five sessions into Karris’Mohr. Regardless of how deep and colourful the game is, there is significantly less information available about it than there is about Iourn. The great swamp city will be my guinea pig.

I should be in a position to distribute the content of the site to Marc and my fellow players at some point in January, with the site itself going live later in the year – hopefully before the next Retreat in March. Once it’s created, I’ll do my best to keep the content up to date – which will also give me an idea of the sort of workload I can expect from my own ongoing games in the future.

If the structure is successful, I will look at porting over the content of the Iourn and FBI sites to the new format. However, both sites will require a bit of a shake-up and additional content if they are going to successfully fit in with what I have in mind. What is most likely to happen is that Karris’Mohr will appear next March, but the rest of Iourn.com won’t follow suit for about a year, as the planets align and I finish the work that has been pending for the best part of a decade.

The Next Weekly Campaign

Taking time out to play week after week is a pleasure. At present I feel no burning desire to run a game. I’m enjoying the peace and quiet. However, I have been having ideas about what I want to do next. Give me a few months, and I’ll be straining at the bit to get back behind the screen. I think it needs to be something other than stock fantasy D&D. I want to do something different, that gives me the chance to tell slightly different sorts of stories. However, I’m going to ease myself in gently.

Fourth Edition Dark Sun

In August, Wizards are releasing a new edition of the fantastic Dark Sun campaign setting. I cut my GMing teeth on 2nd edition Dark Sun back in 1993 – I loved the setting then, and I still love it now. I don’t see how on Athas they can make it work under the fourth edition rules, but I’ll be interested to see them try. However, I am not running an extended Dark Sun campaign. Although I can see how I might make it work, my patience with 4e is finite. We’ll drop into the burnt world for about six sessions and then get out again. I might run a published scenario – either one of the new ones, or a converted one from second edition.

I’m going to try and keep my 4e house-rules to a minimum. The game works best when you don’t try to overcomplicate it too much. That said I will probably be instigating the following changes to the rules as published in PHB1:

  • I’m going to partially use the optional rules for Inherent Bonuses from p138 of DMG2. Under these rules all PCs get +1 to attack and damage rolls at levels 2, 7, 12, 17, 22 and 27; and they get +1 to all defences at levels 4, 9, 14, 19, 24 and 29. These bonuses replace the bonuses the system otherwise expects you to get from magic items.
  • All Daily Powers can be used once per encounter instead. This poses no problems for 95% of powers. If using a daily power every five minutes would break the game, then that power becomes a ritual or it is simply excised from the game.
  • Rituals take time, effort and know-how but they don’t necessarily require money. I’ll alter the economics of rituals, and also rationalise the lists so that ritual casting is only open to certain specific classes.

I’m not going to spend any time looking at these house rules until character generation. If someone wants to play (e.g.) an Avenger then we can look at the Avenger’s daily powers together and work out which ones we need to change. It won’t take too long. I went through the entire cleric power list in PHB1 in about ten minutes and identified seven powers I thought could be converted to rituals. All the various electronic resources provided by D&DI will certainly help in this.

Sanctuary Campaign

At present I’m watching an unprecedented amount of television. One of the programmes that I haven’t given up on is Sanctuary. The premise of the series is that our world is filled with different thinking races collectively known as “abnormals”. These beings might resemble creatures of myth and folklore such as mermaids, werewolves and vampires but they true breeding races in their own right. In the nineteenth century a scientist named Helen Magnus gained immortality and set about creating a refuge to help these abnormals survive in the world, while at the same time protecting the world from abnormals that did not want to be helped. By the present-day she has a worldwide network of Sanctuaries for these creatures.

I always thought that Sanctuary had great potential as a role-playing game. Many of the main characters are supernatural creatures, or individuals of history and folklore. Sort of an ersatz League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, if you will. This is the series where Bigfoot teams up with Jack the Ripper and fights crime. That one line alone is enough to send you imaginations running isn’t it?

Unfortunately, the series itself has never really lived up to its promise. It’s entertaining, and the characters are endearing enough, but it’s all rather bland. It isn’t quite daring enough to push the limits of its own concept, and suffers from the ‘Star Trek Syndrome’ of effectively resetting between episodes. But there’s definitely something there that I can use, and it’s definitely different from anything that I’ve done before. And I definitely want to try it. So the question is how to convert Sanctuary the TV series into an as-yet-unnamed roleplaying setting that bleeds cool from every pore.

From the outset I wanted a game where players can take on (almost) any character they want. This could be a character of their own devising, one plucked from literature or something out of legend or myth. If I wind up with a party consisting of a vampire, the golem of Prague and Spring-Heeled Jack then so much the better. I intend to run the game under the versatile, simple and deadly Basic Roleplaying System (the percentile system used by Call of Cthulhu). For the most part I’m not going to worry about rules. As long as each PC has a distinct role, and as long as those roles don’t overlap, I don’t think the characters need to be balanced. There will be far more roleplaying and co-operative storytelling than fighting.

The TV series is grounded very much in the present-day, and the Sanctuary is the sort of high-tech environment that would make Bil Gates green with envy. I’m not sure I want to go down that route. Science fiction is tricky to pull off if you have little understanding of science, and the modern world seems a little too small for all these abnormal races to have gone unnoticed by the population for so long. Therefore I’m going to dial the setting back to the nineteenth century when there was only one Sanctuary. You’ll probably also find that I’ve dispensed with most of the other trappings of the series, like the term “abnormal” which is bloody awful. I much prefer the term “deviant” which has far more interesting connotations, and seems a better fit for the Victorian age. In summary:

The Campaign Setting: The 1890s in a world familiar to our own, but differing in several key regards. The supernatural creatures of myth and legend walk the Earth. They are few and have managed to keep themselves hidden from the bulk of humanity, but in an age of exploration and discovery this is becoming increasingly difficult. A noted philanthropist named Magnus has established a sanctuary for these deviant races to help protect them from the predations of the world, and also protect the world from them. He is well-regarded, respected and feared in equal measure. This Victorian age sports wonders not seen in our reality: thinking automata, analytical engines, etheric shock rifles and all manner of weird science exists side-by-side with secretive thaumaturgists, phrenologists and mediums. These resources are used by Magnus in pursuit of his goals, as well as by his nefarious enemies.

The Player Characters: You are disparate individuals: perhaps human, perhaps deviant, but certainly humanoid and capable of passing as human in Victorian Society – even if you have to wear heavy make-up, a hood or bandages. You each owe a debt of gratitude or of friendship to Magnus. When he asks for your help on a delicate matter you drop what you’re doing and come to the sanctuary in London to offer your assistance. And that’s when the campaign begins.

The Inspiration: Sanctuary, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic, not the film), Cthulhu by Gaslight, GURPS Steampunk, From Hell, For Faerie Queen and Country, and pretty much anything by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.

Although my understanding of history is far better than my understanding of science, this will not be a campaign that slavishly recreates Victorian England. Certain facts will be unchanged, and the game will be set in the creepy smog-filled London that you would expect; but I will take liberties where I have to for the good of the story. The game will involve mystery, investigation and adventure. I’m not going for the sort of claustrophobic horror that Cthulhu does so well; this campaign will be a romp through a fantastical reinterpretation of the nineteenth century. Heroism, death-defying leaps and pithy one-liners are required.

So am I selling it to you? This campaign would start after Dark Sun, but hopefully before Christmas next year. It’s my intention to finally break with the convention of playing to the university calendar. I would hope to run the campaign in short bursts (one adventure at a time) and then pause for a few weeks while Marc resumed his weekly Karris’Mohr game. In this way, I would hope that we might be able to share the available game nights between us. It might also give me a chance to catch up on the campaign’s housekeeping.

If you want to play, then start thinking about a character not. Just as in the Crucible of Youth I want to build the campaign around your characters. If one of the PCs is a member of the Golden Dawn who draws magical power from a tarot deck, then I’ll create all the various connections that that requires. If you want to play a vampire then you tell me how vampires work in this game setting. I have no preconceptions. Rules aren’t important at this stage. We can work them out later (the BRP rulebook is very thick), it’s the concept that is the key.

Comments

Over to you.

The Next Weekly Campaign

With the Game of Souls campaign coming to an end in seven weeks, attention is inevitably drawn toward what will replace it. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the release of fourth edition, nothing would replace it. I would be taking the year off running games to recharge my creative batteries and generally get on with other things. I do that periodically, and it’s jolly good fun.

But fourth edition won’t let me do this. Obviously, I could just refrain from running a weekly campaign come September, but the change in edition has me all of a tiz. I want to run a game, I want to put the new rules into practice and have fun adapting them to my own sensibilities. However, this desire is flying in the face of some rather harsh realities.

For whatever reason, the last two years have not been good to the weekly game. If everything goes according to plan between now and June, I will still have only run 40 sessions instead of 60. I’ve also found less and less time available to prepare for each session. Reasons don’t matter, only the results. The stark truth is that I don’t have the time prepare a new campaign to the standard I would like between now and October. I have some strong ideas, but they are not hammered out in to a plot or a setting yet, and frankly if I can’t do the ideas justice I’d sooner not use them at all.

But I still want to run a game. I still need to run a game to judge and to test the fourth edition rules. Therefore I am still going to run a game, but it’s not going to be original and its not going to be set on Iourn. For the first time since 1998 I am going to build the campaign around published scenarios. I will start the new campaign in October with the first published 4e adventure: Keep on the Shadowfell. Once we have played through that I’ll move on to Thunderspire Labyrinth and then to Pyramid of Shadow and so on and so forth.

So what does this mean – beyond me hoping that none of you are going to go out and read the adventure? Well, if I’m following published D&D adventures then there’s going to be a certain degree of dungeoneering. I’ve tended to shy away from that type of gaming because it tends to bore me to tears. However, running official adventures will put the system through its mechanical paces and it will give all of us a very good understanding of how fourth edition works. And how it doesn’t work.

At this point, I would like to make clear that I do not intend for the next weekly campaign to be a mindless dungeon bash – despite the source material, there will be plenty of scope for roleplaying. Neither will it be an extended year-long playtest for Fourth Edition Iourn, although will undoubtedly serve in that role. I have greater aspirations for the game than that. Back in 1998 I ran a successful Ravenloft game for a year. The entire campaign was built around one 32-page module (the excellent, Ship of Horror). By the time I had finished, the game bore only a passing resemblance to the module itself. I suspect things will follow much the same lines this time round.

The campaign will be open to any option available in the new Player’s Handbook I published in June. It’s my intention to get together for character generation at some point over the Summer in preparation for the campaign in the Autumn. It goes without saying that anyone currently playing in the weekly game is more than welcome to play in the new campaign. However, any player would need to put up with an unusual number of rules changes over the year, as I try out and discard house rules with alarming regularity.

As the game is not set on Iourn, I am freed on the need to record every event and character in excruciating detail for the purposes of the campaign log. What I will be doing instead is putting details of each session up on this blog, with a particular emphasis on the mechanics of the game rather than the events. Hopefully, that will be a spring board to interesting and helpful discussions. It will feel like all of you are playing the new campaign. We’ll have a cosy, community feel.

The campaign that begins with Keep on the Shadowfell will run for one year. Whether I keep the game to the university term time is unknown at present, and is somewhat dependent upon when Marc wants to run his game. However, there will be at least thirty sessions. Advancement is likely to be swift (i.e. as the rules suggest) so I can get a good idea of at Heroic (1-10) and Paragon (11-20) level adventuring. I can’t imagine that I’ll be running an epic game in fourth edition for some considerable time, so that can wait.

There is little more to say except… watch this space.