Friday, April 29, 2011

Campaign Considerations - Mother, Jugs, & Speed

Working in the downtown region of a moderately-sized city, I hear my share of sirens. Even as I drove home, we had to pause for at least two different sets of emergency vehicles. One of these vehicles was an ambulance, and it sparked a memory of one of my favorite (non Sci-Fi or Fantasy) movies to come out of the 1970s - Mother, Jugs, & Speed.

While I doubt you could make a movie with that title these days, they did in 1976, and it starred Bill Cosby, Harvey Keitel, Raquel Welch, Larry Hagman, & Bruce Davidson (among others). Go ahead and read the Wiki about it right here before we continue.

You might be wondering how a dark comedy like this could spark the idea for an Dungeons & Dragons setting, but as I break it down, you should be able to see that the basic plot of this film could be the basis of a very dynamic and unique urban campaign.

Okay. So let's get some basics out of the way. If you linked over to the Wiki to read about the movie, you'll realize that the basic plot is about a struggling ambulance company trying to compete with a better funded organization for a city contract. The members of the struggling company all have their fair share of demons, and the realities of "life in the city" lead to dark and humorous adventures.  The members of the struggling company, "F & B Ambulance" face challenges both from their occupation as ambulance workers and the organization that employs them. 

If you're still trying to put these two things (city ambulance company and Dungeons & Dragons) together, that's okay. Let me walk you through it, piece by piece. I'll set out the main elements of the story (as presented by the movie), and then I'll discuss how I'd handle these for a fantasy setting. Ready?

Let's do this.

MJ&S: Takes place in the city.
Campaign: No problem here. Urban settings for fantasy games are popular and fun to play. Visit Lankhmar, Waterdeep, or Robert Asprin's "Thieves' World". This would be another great city. Perhaps it could be used as a city to drop into anyone's campaign. The city would probably have some of what I would call "high magic" elements, although it would work in a "low magic" environment as well.

MJ&S: Characters are employees (of varying backgrounds) who work as EMTs for a private ambulance company.
Campaign: There are several ways to take this, but why not go for a direct translation here. Characters are employees of a city healing service. If healing is the milieu of religion, then the competing groups might be different temples trying to gain followers by showing the city ruler who is best at healing (which also potentially gains them converts). Imagine is temples began to engage in a "War of Healing". What would that look like? On the other hand, if the competing groups are guilds or similar type businesses, they simply might be gunning for the most coin. Rescued people pay a fee to be assisted by the healing service. Where there's money, there's conflict.

MJ&S: The characters in the movie often arrive at an injury scene where danger is unfolding.
Campaign: Well, this situation pretty much defines the meat of an encounter, right? Healing services might arrive to rescue somebody while the encounter is in progress, the enemy blasting away. Perhaps a rival company arrives at the same time, and snipes at the characters' group, in order to gain the rescue fee.

MJ&S: Some of the more experienced characters have nicer ambulances and equipment.
Campaign: Efficiently designed wagons serve as the ambulances in this campaign. Perhaps as the characters gain levels or tiers, their wagons are given special abilities or even more equipment. Maybe the animals that pull the wagons are better (or even intelligent!).  Perhaps DMs can give their players the opportunity to "trick out" their character's wagons for different benefits.

The characters have EMT training which gives them first aid skills.
Campaign: Characters might be actual healers (clerics, paladins, etc.). Or, in a low magic campaign, perhaps the healers use an actual "heal" skill of some kind. In a world where alchemy is common, potions & other substances might enhance "normal" healing, and would be carried by the characters. In either case, the character's main job is that of search and rescue (which is actually a little beyond the straight-forward task of the EMT).

That's just a few of the major elements that can be easily translated from this modern story to a fantasy type environment. However, there are a few things that need to be addressed for such a campaign setting to work well.

1) In the modern world, people call for help with phones. In most fantasy settings, instant communication would almost have to be the purview of magic users. At the least, some form of device would have to enable that kind of "summoning" for help. Maybe utilization of the artificer class (as per Eberron) could fill this gap. Be prepared to have your city use this kind of communication for other uses.

2) In most fantasy settings, healing is the purview of clerics and other classes for whom faith is a power source. While "civilian" injuries could probably use an ambulance service, would adventuring parties ever have need of one? Would the current rules for some games (particularly 4e) need to have some kind of modification to the death & dying rules? Without teleportation, how do ambulance crews get to the injured party before they die?

3) A good campaign setting should really utilize all types of character classes. Healers are an obvious choice, but fighters, magic-users, thieves, and others will want to be a part of the team. What kinds of scenarios can a city generate enough of, for these classes to be a legitimate part of an ambulance crew?

Well, what do you think? This is really just a rough outline. This idea has sparked such a keen interest, I might be looking to self-publish this idea as a campaign setting. I've never done that before, but this idea is unique enough, it might drive some interest.

Oh...before I go...I want to give a special shout-out to Quinn Murphy over at At-Will. After I introduced this idea over Twitter this morning, he was really helpful at amplifying those brain microwaves to really get this idea cooking. If you haven't visited his blog, for Pelor's sake, please go do that. He's big-times. You'll find a wealth of great info over there.

Further bulletins on this project as ideas develop.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Monstrous Considerations: Old Eighty - Nine

While I find myself immersed daily in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, there's one thing that I do quite rarely as it relates to my hobby. That is, I rarely dream about subject matter related to the game. I have odd dreams at times, most people do. I also have the occasional dream that gets uncomfortable. It is a stretch to call such dreams, "nightmares", as I'm skilled enough at lucid dreaming, to prevent myself from becoming too wrapped up in something overly frightening. Regardless of the type of dream, though, the subject matter is usually far more mundane and certainly not about Dungeons and Dragons.

The other night, however, I actually had a fairly lengthy and unusually vivid dream about a subject matter directly related to Dungeons & Dragons -- Ancient Red Dragons. The dream was so unusual that I wanted to record the major elements of it, and throw it up on the blog for your consideration. Here's what I dreamed about: 

NOTE: Everything described below is to my best remembrance as it occurred in the dream. I'll let you know when I'm extrapolating beyond what I saw or felt in the dream. This keeps me from having to constantly repeat, "as it was in the dream".  Thanks!

It might sounds odd, but this dream actually occurs in a modern context. That is, while I certainly dreamed about a dragon, the creature was something that had been carried forward, if you will, into a modern time setting. So modern, in fact, that in the initial part of the dream, the dragon was actually in the form of a steam locomotive.

The setting was an old amusement park, set above a series of old abandoned mines. Admittedly, the whole thing sort of had a weird Stephen King meets Scooby Doo feel to it, but without the goofy dog or permanently baked companion. In addition, in the upper levels of the mine, sat an old steam locomotive by the name of Old Eighty- Nine. The amusement park was more or less abandoned, but there was a small crew of maintenance (I guess?) workers that inhabited a small (one floor) office building in one corner of the area.

There was an established historical context to the area. The mine was rumored to contain treasure, but no one was ever able to retrieve it. It was also understood that the mines were originally coal mines. The dream never explained how a full sized steam locomotive could negotiate the tracks of a coal mine.

As the dream unfolded, a group of thieves/terrorists (they reminded me of the bad guys from Die Hard, but without all the sweet Alan Rickman action) decide they're going to go after the treasure. They jump one of the maintenance guys at the site of the locomotive. The worker is pretty cautionary, and tells the thieves something to the effect of, "look, I don't know about any treasure, but if you keep messing around on this train, something bad's gonna happen". Of course, no sooner than this is said, the whole area begins to rumble, and the steam train starts acting like it can really function.

At this point the worker (myself, maybe?), begins to flee toward the small office building. The steam locomotive (Old Eighty - Nine) pursues, as somehow the track it sits on leads straight to the (you guessed it) small office building. I (or the worker - you see, the dream perspective was switching back and forth pretty quick at this point) manage to make it safely into the building. For some reason, the locomotive cannot pursue (and doesn't crash into the building). Instead, it changes into an Ancient Red Dragon. The thieves (who had been pursuing the locomotive up until this point) pretty much shit themselves, and several are toasted by the dragon's breath. The rest begin to flee, and the dream ends with the dragon taking flight after them.

I don't know if the dragon ends it's pursuit after killing all the bad guys or if it simply goes back to it's cave. The dragon does fly over the office building a few times, but the building is impervious to the dragon for some reason. As for the dragon, the dream never really reveals what happened to it. It might have gone on a rampage over the rest of the city. Who can say?

The dream was interesting, and the scene for it even more peculiar - perfect fodder for a strange adventure in either a Dungeons & Dragons, or even a Modern campaign. Want to see what this dragon can do yourself?  Here's a little re-skinning I did of a dragon in the Monster Builder Tool. I used the old Monster Builder and upped the damage portions based on the new ranges established with the Monster Manual III.  Enjoy!

Do let me know if you've had similar dreams, or if you've ever incorporated your dreams into your own RPG games. I'd love to hear about it!

Well, there you have it. It's the first Dungeons & Dragons related dream I've had in a long time. I wonder what future dreams will hold?

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Immersion - Collaborative World Building Using The Solo Adventure.

Greetings, Readers!

I'm going to take a little break from the crunch you're used to, and actually talk a little bit about game theory (well, sort of). I want to talk a little bit today about immersion.

When someone speaks of immersion in a role-playing game, they're referring to that state a player enters, that dissolves away a little chunk of the real world, and replaces it with the setting that is being used in the game. I'm not speaking of losing touch with reality. Instead, I'm speaking of players that (while engaged in the game) begin to refer to your campaign setting as though it were a real place. Campaign settings that have great locations, interesting history, and intriguing personalities, get talked about over and over by the players, until the world itself comes alive.

I've seen this happen personally in a couple of ways. The first, is with my three years previous experience playing World of Warcraft. That setting is so rich (and I played so often), that places like Thunder Bluff, Booty Bay, & Stormwind became real. Not real in a tangible sense, but while I was playing, I felt I had been transported to a whole other place, separate from the real world.  The same is true with my second example. When I was a teenager playing Dungeons & Dragons, we almost exclusively played some version of the World of Greyhawk setting. Again, we played often enough that places like The Sea of Dust, The Horned Society, & The Scarlet Brotherhood seemed real. These places had real geography, religion, politics, even cultural differences.  Once again, it was a setting that when you sat down to play, you felt like you had been transported to another place.

I can't say my own campaigns have the same magic. I've tried to build an interesting campaign setting, but my players just don't seem engaged, and are mostly divorced from the process of world building. We have enjoyable games, but I can't help but think the fun would be enhanced if my players had more at stake in the game.

Yesterday evening, I was mulling over these thoughts with both Tracy Hurley (Sarah Darkmagic) and Quinn Murphy (At-Will).  SIDE NOTE: These two blogs are most excellent. If you're not reading them now, your RSS feed is incomplete.  In different ways, they're both experts and have a keen interest in immersion. I think all three of us feel that while 4th Edition is an awesome game, there are probably gaps in the design with regards to player immersion.  Both are advocates for increasing the amount of input the players have in world building. As a result of our discussions, I came to at least one solution (there are likely several) to provide a stop-gap measure until WotC decides to give us some additional tools. My solution is: The Solo Adventure.

That's right, the Solo Adventure. I'm not going to go into great detail about running Solo Adventures. Many have already written about that (even as recently as this fine article over at This Is My Game). What I want to talk about is how running a solo adventure for each of your players is a great way to help them become further immersed and invested in your campaign.

Immersion is about details. While some DMs will literally spend years working on the minutia of a campaign setting, not every DM has this kind of time. The best you can do is either build a rough skeleton, or cobble together previously existing stuff in order to have something that looks like a world. However, in the rush to throw together a campaign setting, the little details that really hook players in (the immersion part) can go missing. Here's how a Solo Adventure can help with that.

Every hero comes from somewhere. It's presumed (unless it's a really odd campaign) that the hero comes from fairly humble (or at least natural) origins. Before they began their careers, heroes might have spent time farming, bar tending, being a minor noble, or even a street urchin. While 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons presumes their heroic abilities were bestowed upon them early on, there's nothing that says the desire to go adventuring was bestowed at the same time. The point, is that before they stepped out into the world, each hero had a view of the world that was born out of this early life-experience/perspective.

This exploration of the early experience of the hero is where the DM can step in. If your player says that his character comes from a farm, then ask the player what farming is like in this part of the world. What crops or livestock did the hero's family raise? How were the goods brought to market? Were there important festivals or planting/harvest rituals?

Here's another example. Let's say your player's hero is an orphan (you can't swing a dead cat in some campaigns without hitting an orphan hero).  If the orphan was brought up in a monastery, you can then ask about religion. What kinds of rites did the monastery practice? Were there holidays? Did the orphans work as slaves, or were they rewarded? Did they have to stay until adulthood? Each question the DM asks, becomes an opportunity to expand the campaign setting and increase that player's immersion. Let the player run with the ideas. Then, as DM, incorporate them into your world. Of course, you'll want these various ideas to fit together properly, so you might not take all of their ideas to heart. Remember, though, that the thinking here is that you use most of them, thus giving your player a solid investment.

Once you've taken some notes, you can then incorporate some of this origin into a solo adventure. My recommendation (particularly if you have several players), is to make this adventure last for no more than one evening, two or three brief encounters at most. The goal here is to take the hero out of his "ordinary" life and put him on the path of the "extraordinary" adventurer's life.  My own recommendation is to provide some reward at the end of this adventure that becomes iconic to the character. Maybe a magic item or trait of some kind that stays relevant to the hero throughout most of his or her career.

You might ask, "but the heroes in my campaign are already *X* level. How do I work around that?"  That's an easy fix. Simply have your player bring back his hero as a 1st level character. The DDI Character builder makes that easy, but otherwise, it shouldn't be too difficult to do that from scratch. You don't keep track of XP, because your hero has already earned it. This "flashback" can either be integrated in the ongoing campaign (as a dream or revelation of some kind), or you can simply retro the information back into your setting.

The largest drawback this technique has, is time and effort on the part of the DM. For it to work properly, you need to run a solo adventure for each player. This can indeed take up some time. However, if you make the encounters short, and incorporate the "world building" portion as part of the activity, you can fill an evening. Your reward is that your players will have contributed something significant to your campaign setting, while at the same time, becoming more invested in their own characters' story lines. My players don't know it yet, but I plan on doing this with them in order to aid my own campaign. I wish you luck!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Lyrical Locations - The Paradise Steakhouse

I've made no real secret of the fact that music does a great deal to inspire me. While I don't have it playing in the background during my games (although many do indeed do that), I rely on music to keep me inspired and going when I need a lift.

The other day, it occurred to me that songs often mention locations that have no specific tie to a particular place, other than whatever is in the artist's mind at the time. As I thought of some of these places, I thought it might be fun to pick apart the lyrics of said songs and create locations that you can drop into any fantasy role-playing game.

I play 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, so the things and items described will be based on that version of the game. However, I think I can create enough "fluff" around these bits to create a location that you can use in just about any game.

The first location in this series is a place called "The Paradise Steakhouse". This location is based on the song of the same name written by Ian Anderson and performed by Jethro Tull.  Here are the lyrics to that song:


I'd like to take you
To the edge of every morning
On a magic eiderdown
To a window chair

In the Paradise Steakhouse
Where there's a cup of silver coffee
Steaming chrome reflections
From the mist in your hair

Try not to watch me
(Try not to watch me)
Just call me after dark-fall
(Call me after dark-fall)
I'll bring a whip to sow
My seed on your land

In the Paradise Steakhouse
There's a cup of silver coffee
A sheath of steel so you may hold
My sword in your hand

I'll cut you, divide you
Into tender pieces
No wings to fly away
Upon my dear

In the Paradise Steakhouse
On a plate upon a table
I will carve your name with care
To last the years

I'd like to eat you
(I'd like to eat you)
All fire will consume you
(Fire will consume you)
Roast on the spit of love
On this arrow true

In the Paradise Steakhouse
I'll taste every finger
Baking in the ashes
Till the flames rise anew

I'd like to take you
To the edge of every morning
On a magic eiderdown
To a window chair

In the Paradise Steakhouse
Where there's a cup of silver coffee
Steaming chrome reflections
From the mist in your hair

*These lyrics have been printed here without permission.

Get the PDF for the Paradise Steak House 

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

P.S.  If you like this series and you are an artist that would like some practice, I'd love to see illustrations. No pressure, no requirements. Just contribute as you may. Send me an email if you're interested.