Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New Year, New Games (and Old too...) - State of the Blog III Part One

Hello there gorgeous...

With the turn of the new year, it seems appropriate that I do another State of the Blog post, though this one will probably be even longer and more rambling than previous installments... So, hold onto your dicebags, 'cause here we go!

I had hoped to wrap up the two mini-campaigns I was running for my normal groups, a Numenera game for my Wednesday folk and a 5th Edition Planescape run through of the Eternal Boundary for my Sunday group. Unfortunately, weather and illness conspired to prevent me from wrapping up the Eternal Boundary before the end of the year. I'm continuing my current Apocalypse World game for the foreseeable future, as I want to see just how fucked things can get around Parcher's hold. So, here is a list of games I ran and played in 2016 and some reflections from and lessons gleaned from each. I in no way guarantee that this list is exhaustive, as I'm certain that I will have forgotten a game or two along the way. I also had planned to cover my gaming resolutions and new games I had in the pipe for 2017, but after seeing all my rambling, that will be saved for a part two...

Games of 2016 (In no particular order)

A Red and Pleasant Land - Planarch Codex (Ran)
  • We managed to get in a fifth, sixth and seventh session, continuing our snail's pace exploration of A Red and Pleasant Land using the Planarch Codex World of Dungeons 1979 hack of Dungeon world. Apologies to anyone who tries to listen along, I promise to put a snail gag into the next episode as we have been so very slow... But take heart! We have a new session scheduled in a few Fridays and will hopefully work out a schedule that is at least every other month, Ragarra willing.
  • I continue to enjoy just how easy it is to run this game though. Listening to and commenting on the previous episode is great prep for an upcoming episode (this is why there's no commentary for the 7th episode yet, as I'm saving that for the week I run the 8th), and A Red and Pleasant Land remains hands down my favorite book to run from. No matter what I need, it always seems to be at my fingertips.
  • Lessons Learned - MAPS! Maps make every game better. Really, I will never stop being pleased by this player drawn map from the 7th session. I really need to make more of my own maps and trick, er talk my players into making more too...

 Click to embiggen
Shattered World - Heavily Hacked 5e D&D (Ran)
  • I learned a ton running this game; it might have been beset by player scheduling conflicts, scheduling issues on my end, poor integration on my part of mechanics from other games, a scattershot plot and other issues, but I think on the whole it was enjoyable to run. I managed to run the game from 1st level up to 14th, though I think we skipped from 8th or 9th to 11th if I recall correctly.
  • Lessons Learned - One of the biggest lessons I learned is that high level 5th edition D&D is not my favorite. Above 10th level, it was difficult to challenge PCs without overwhelming them and I had to figure out how to avoid an endless barrage of counterspells nerfing any spellcasters I threw against them. From my point of view as a DM, they had nigh-endless resources to throw into any encounter and I had to make sure that they couldn't do single encounter days where they took a long rest after a single encounter (or even two). I think from the player perspective those nigh-endless resources seemed a bit like an overwhelming array of options or were often forgotten and I can see how some of my twisting encounters and such to provide challenges could have been seen as adversarial instead of just necessary to keep the game from devolving into the PCs steam-rolling over all and any obstacles.
  • I also learned that if I'm going to run an epic campaign, I need to have some better focus at the beginning. I didn't do a great job of setting up an end-game for the PCs at the start, so by the middle (or even before the middle) it was clear there needed to be more for the players to strive towards. 
  • Finally, even though you'd think I'd have learned my lesson on this before, I once again saw how you can throw too many mechanics from other games into a system and instead of fixing their flaws it can just complicate them. Much easier to steal strategies or settings from other games than to try and implement multiple mechanics into an existing system. If I were to go back and do this again, I would just run it as 13th Age.
Out of the Abyss - 5e D&D (Ran)
  • I wanted to like this, I really did. There are a ton of great, shining jewels to steal and put into other games, but in the end, it was just disorganized and difficult to run. The PCs are just dropped into a big swirling plot that isn't even laid out for the DM until the second half of the book and that just makes it difficult to drop hooks in to give PCs motivation.Combined with a growing disinterest in running D&D 5e and I was honestly glad to officially give this the axe in August and just tell my players we would play something else on Sundays. Maybe I'll return to this campaign in 5 or 10 years and go through and give it the tweaks and such needed, the setup of some motivation at character creation and such and run through it, but I'm also fine just looting it's carcass for the good ideas sprinkled amongst the chaotic labyrinth of this book.
  • Lessons Learned - When a game feels like a chore, end it earlier. I spent two months trying to fix OotA and in the end, it was just easier to play something else.
  • PC motivation matters. Between the stalled plot of Shattered World and this, I'm of the opinion that it makes a game much smoother and easier to run if the players know up front what their PCs want, even if it's something simple like "kill goblins and get their loot". The difficulty of OotA was the easy PC goal was "get the fuck out of the Underdark" but the campaign wanted the PCs to take the long way and explore and develop enough interest in all the subplots and hints to say "yes" when they got asked to go back down in.
Viking World (Ran)
  • I thought this might be an ongoing pick-up game, but there was no player outcry for more games and I didn't want to take up all the scheduling on myself. It was almost 5e D&D but then I found Viking World, which was fun for the night, but hasn't drawn me back in.
  • Lessons Learned - As I wrote in my original post on this game, this was the game that taught me that assumptions really, really matter and since then, I've been much clearer on what the games entail.
Adventures on Dungeon Planet (Ran)
  • This one was a lot of fun to run and was more explicitly a one-shot, though I have the sheets and left it open to run again. The 50's pulp space opera was a nice change of pace from all the (pseudo)medieval fantasy I'd been running.
  • Lessons Learned - I don't think I covered this in my original post, but I had 8 players, which was too much, man. I think I did alright cutting between scenes but I think my limit for group size really is 7 and that's partly because I have a Wednesday group where multiple players travel for work, so I have a party that ranges more from 5-7 and it gives me a bit of wiggle room when scheduling conflicts arise...but... as I get ready to start that game, I'll be keeping this octo-party in mind.

Shadow of the Demon Lord (ran)
  • Here is a game that I keep meaning to write up a review of, so I think I'll save that for a separate post next week and update this post with it. Suffice to say, I ran three sessions of it and I'd really like to run more. I can especially recommend their adventure scenarios which are incredibly well put together and simple to run (the only thing that bugs me is that they have dark backgrounds so when you print a copy from your PDF to notate as you run it's not ideal). In fact, I'm trying to figure out how to use it to run a pick up game and swap in Vornheim (or something Vornheim inspired) for the setting. 
  • Lessons Learned - Here was another game where I learned to be up front about setting expectations. There was a bit of shell-shock for my players the first time I ran at how deadly it was and the grittiness of the setting where the scared villagers turned on each other leaving the PCs to step up as heroes (which they decided they didn't want to do). So, I learned that I needed help the party agree on a general goal, style whatever, as the first party they rolled up was mildly curious strangers to a village but not committed to being selfless heroes and between the lack of ties to the setting of the scenario and their disinterest in generic heroism they fled the village leaving it to be over-run by a witch and her small army of beastmen, though in their defense, it was a jerk-ass village.
Planescape: SOUP! 5e Planescape Hack (ran)
  • This was a one-shot I ran in early August and I should have posted about here. Mostly I wanted to run a game where I made a low-stakes plot feel high-stakes. Looking back at my notes, they are fantastically brief, so I'm just going to copy and paste them below.
    • Gunda, an aged female Bariaur, has a soup cart. Each PC has a tie to Gunda. When the stuffed squirrel warrior is taken and fenced by a local drunk, a craven Githzerai named Ferzar. Stuffed Squirrel is named Wolfgang.
    • Ferzar fenced the stuffed squirrel to a smoke mephit fence named Roxanalako (Rocks-on-a-lack-oh) who sold it to a Half-Ogre named Sim.
    • The stuffed squirrel is a key to a portal to a leek patch on Ysgard, the secret to Gunda's delicious soup. It’s also wanted by Chef High Fury, an arrogant Hezrou restauranteur who has hired a group of doomsguard thugs to take it back led by Oltenia a hobgoblin and Jangles, a tiefling cleric. High Fury operate’s High’s Abyssal Kitchen and Bar in the Lower Ward.
      • Encounters:
        • Roxanalako  – Smoke Mephit, he’s got a soot covered Yeti bodyguard, Tok, and if he’s in a bad way he breaks a bottle that holds a giant octopus and tries to run.
        • Doomguard Thugs – 5 tribal warriors, Oltenia (Hobgoblin Captain) and Jangles (Tiefling Cleric) 
        • Chief High Fury (Hezrou), 4 manes
        • Urchin horde (this one wasn't used in game but was a back up.)
    • I made six PCs for my players to choose from, making a Powered by the Apocalypse style playbook for each, for the player to choose their look and alignment (mostly stealing from Dungeon World and its hacks). You can find the playbook style write ups here (edited to remove all or at least most of the mechanics I stole from various books and 5e Planescape hacks). Below are the PCs I rocked out in Faction-Race-Class-Subclass order.
      • Athar Gray Dwarf (Duergar) 5th level Cleric Domain of the Unknown
      • Cipher (Transcendent Order) Minotaur 5th level Wizard Flame Mage (from Elemental Magic of Zakhara)
      • Indep (Free League) Planar Human 5th Level Fighter Champion
      • Godsmen (Believers of the Source) Planar Human 3rd Level Monk Way of the Immortals 2nd Level Fighter (Way of the Immortals from this 5e Planescape hack)
      • Sensate (Society of Sensation) Male Bariaur 3rd Level Bard College of Valor 2nd Level Barbarian
    • Lessons Learned - PbtA Playbook style questions, like I did for Look and Alignment work great to give players a sense of "owning" their PCs for a one-shot or mini-campaign. Also that you can make a low-stakes plot feel every bit as important as an epic one by setting it up at the start and getting the players to buy in.
    • Here is the pitch I gave my players for this mini-campaign, inspired by the supplement The Octopi of the Ninth World and utilizing the first two adventure locales of Into the Deep
      • The Octopus Prince, Alloor’roo, has disappeared in the Sea of Secrets, and the group of you has been assembled to find him and bring him back to the Coral Cathedral and his mother, the Queen of All Octopuses. This will be a mini-campaign that should take less than 10 sessions to play through, including one session of shared character creation.
    • It ended up running for six sessions, including character creation. It was fun, but like other games of Numenera that I've run, the mechanics of the rules just never quite clicked with everyone. I'm still not quite sold on the Cypher system as the economy of adjusting task difficulty by applying Effort and/or spending XP and such all seems like it's just a little too complicated to be simple and easy to integrate. Even during the last of five full play sessions I felt like I was still guiding players through how to lower their difficulty numbers. I'm also not entirely sure I have figured out a great way to handle Speed or Intellect challenges.
    • Lessons Learned - Numenera and the Cypher system remain elusive. I want to like them, intellectually they are great, but when I try and run them they just never shine. I might just have to sit down with a few of their fully fleshed out adventures and run one to see how they handle Speed and Intellect to finally grock that part and figure out a better way to explain the complicated challenge rating adjustment because that just does not come easy to most of my players from my experience. All of which is slightly a shame, because if I knew how to make the Cypher system a little easier I'd be so tempted to run a game of the Strange inspired heavily by Stranger Things and Papergirls.
    Planescape: The Eternal Boundary 5e D&D (Ran)
    • Using 5e hacks, I'm running this classic 2nd Edition Planescape adventure, The Eternal Boundary (spoiler warning for this adventure description). I've covered elsewhere how I created PCs for the players with their limited input. I had hoped that a third session in December would finish this scenario to get my Sunday group ready for a new game in a new year, but alas, weather and illness derailed that.
    • Lessons Learned - The adventure centers around an investigation, but first the PCs are sent to investigate a red herring by a quest giver. Unfortunately, looking back, there were several times where I should have made the real mystery/secret/or what have you a bit more obvious. As it is, the players missed more subtle hints and managed to get ambushed by the antagonists, at first I figured the PCs would roll them and interrogate them and then things started going poorly, very poorly for the PCs due to die rolls. Since the adventure is designed to go on even if the PCs are captured, I started leaning that way and then the PCs rallied and nearly overcame the NPCs. I'm a little disappointed that the PCs are going to discover the central mystery because they got captured but it's my own fault for not making things more obvious. 
    • This post is getting way, way longer than I intended (surprise, surprise), so I'll let my series of posts on it speak for themselves. Though this is the one game I intend to continue on through 2017, at least for a while. I'm really interested in seeing how Apocalypse World handles at the 10th or 12th session.
    • Lessons Learned - Sometimes playing a pure version of a game is fun and you don't need to tempt fate by trying to mix it up with a bunch of other games. Which is a lesson I'm going to try and keep in mind for at least one of my planned 2017 campaigns.
    • This one was a blast to dream up and run, and it pretty much set my mind on running a 13th Age campaign in 2017. Again, I'll let the post speak for itself on this one, but one of the players in my Sunday group adapted this for D&D 5e and ran it and now I have a reputation in his home group as having an evil imagination.
    • Lessons Learned - Unlike 5e D&D, I can run a session of 13th Age without feeling like I need to fix a bunch of things and unlike Numenera I can run a session of 13th Age for people who have only played D&D without needing to re-explain the rules a ton. Here's hoping that for my 13th Age campaign, this feeling sticks with me. Another lesson learned is that I love ghouls and should use them more.
    • I continue to play in and thoroughly enjoy Thomas' 2nd Edition D&D al-Qadim campaign that he runs over roll20 most Sunday mornings (US time at least). Thema is up to 7th level and feels incredibly powerful, with multiple 4th level spell slots to toss around. The party ended up on the Great Dismal Delve tricking Dao and battling a Ghul (a powerful undead genie) and while there were some tense moments, it never seemed to be at the TPK level of threats. I've started looking at an end-game for Thema once she reaches 8th level and can start a temple of her own, but maybe I'll play her long enough for us to go after Shadow Tor and it's army of magically enhanced skeletons again. Though it could be fun to retire Thema and start a new character, hoping to survive long enough with the party to level up quickly for a while.
    • Lessons Learned - Bumping up against an end-point for Thema, where I feel like it would be a satisfying arc for her to end up a powerful priestess with potent allies, magical treasures and a hidden jungle temple of her own to strike out at her enemies without needing to continue "adventuring" from reminds me that I should encourage my own players to consider their PC goals as arcs like that.
    • Here's another game Thomas was kind enough to run for me and you can peep the partial recap here
    • Lessons Learned - Apparently I enjoy tracking critical failures, which does make me kinda sad that this year's Extra Life didn't have enough players for Deathgrind D&D. Also, it's more fun than you think to fight the same foe three times in two different locations.
    Dave's Birthday (5e) D&D (Played)
    • Dave was gracious enough to run a session of 5e D&D and make ribs for his birthday and to invite Christy and I. So I decided to take a pre-made Necromancer and turn him into a Diviner and tried to take as many non-damaging spells as I could. So I made good use of Sleep and Grease and other spells like that.
    • Lessons Learned - There is a surprising dearth of combat spells that you can draw on effectively. I kinda wish I had written something up about this closer to the game.
    Extra Life 5e D&D (Played)
    • We got to the Ginger Giant's to discover that my backup Shadow of the Demon Lord game I'd prepped after it because it was clear I wasn't going to have the 8-10 to make Deathgrind D&D really shine but more like 4-5 was instead going to have 2-3 players due to some last minute illness. So I jumped into the D&D 5e session that Ben was running instead, Christy borrowed a 12th level PC from someone, but I had 10 minutes to make a 12th level 5th edition D&D PC, so I opted for the easiest choice, a Circle of the Moon druid. Why not a fighter? Well then I would have to figure out equipment and magic items and all that nonsense and this way I could be a ridiculous animal in beast form for most of the game. Thus was born Stampy, hopefully it wasn't too obnoxious.
    • A video posted by Zack Schwartz (@thatwordyguy) on
      A photo posted by Zack Schwartz (@thatwordyguy) on
      A photo posted by Zack Schwartz (@thatwordyguy) on
      This last one isn't Stampy but it's from the same session.

    • Lessons Learned - 5e D&D Circle of the Moon druids are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay broken. Like hands down, full stop broken powerful. I half-assed a 13th level character in 10 minutes and gave him a single magic item (iirc) and still it felt hella fucking broken. I cannot imagine what a moderately optimized 12th level moon druid with a few good magic items and a better strategy than "Be a Mother Fucking Elephant" would be like. Also, afterwards I was trying to figure out how many times I'd played 5e D&D, that is, as a player and not a DM, and I thought it was less than 5, but after thinking it over, I think this is the full list.
      • 5 sessions of Against the Cult of the Reptile God - Thomas ran this back when D&D 5e was still the D&D Next playtest, so I wasn't 100% on counting it. They were also short sessions, 2-3 hours for 5 nights, so not like 4-6 or even 8 hour sessions.
      • Githzerai Planescape one-shot. For Holi-D&D 2014, another Thomas joint.
      • Extra Life 2015, where I played in two sessions that the Ginger Giant ran.
      • Dortherdoreft Dwarf Section, 2015's Holi-D&D, where Thomas ran the Dwarves and then I ran the Drow through the same dungeon a few days later.
      • Viking Manlorette - See above.
      • Dave's Birthday D&D - See above.
    • So, if you don't count the D&D Next sessions of AtCofRG, then yep, I've played a figurative handful of D&D 5e sessions as a player. Though you could split Viking Manlorette into two and then that would be the only two D&D 5e games where I have played the same PC. Counting the 5 D&D Next sessions of AtCofRG and Viking Manlorette as two sessions, then I have played a grand total of 11 sessions of D&D 5e since 2013 and I'm almost certain that I played at least 11 sessions of D&D 2nd edition in just 2016... So... I have a ton of D&D 5e DM experience and almost no D&D 5e player experience.
    Tune in next time for my gaming resolutions and plans for 2017...

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