Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Slice of Life Elements in RPGs

Cover of Golden Sky Stories

A lot of times, RPGs have a strong focus on exploration and combat. Relationships and conflict which develop out of these tend to be a secondary element derived from the events which occur naturally from player character choices. Golden Sky Stories is one such RPG predicated on this, and Beyond the Wall's character generation and Hearth Fantasy-focused structure lend itself better towards strong bonds and characters your players will care about than yet another strange place with monsters and loot.

As time went on, I found myself to be more of a thespian Game Master. I still love dungeon-crawling and action-adventure and prefer combat-free sessions to be rare at best, but I found that some of the best campaigns I ran and participated in were the ones which were character-centric. Where I played with the PCs' backstories and peppered in moments of drama between the action scenes; ones with a large cast of recurring characters the PCs could develop a rapport with and play off of; ones set in a centralized location such as a city where locations became familiar features to visit and thus more incentive to fight for the home they grew to know and love.

The City-based Campaign

The Settlement of Cauldron from the Shackled City Adventure Path

I talked about this a bit in my previous blog post, but in addition to being an iconic element, cities are happening places full of thousands of individual stories and the people who live them. Entire neighborhoods with their own feel allow for a diversity of adventures, from crime-ridden slums to crowded bazaars. Another major feature of cities is that in addition for a place where adventurers retire and sell their hard-won treasure, it can plausibly hold all manner of entertainment. And most importantly, it allows the PCs to better connect with a realm and its people; having a favorite tavern or wizard's academy as a regular feature that carries from session to session instills a sense of familiarity with players.

When a dragon or invading army attacks, they will not be fighting on the mountaintops of some distant peak they never knew about until recently in the adventure. Nor will they be fighting in a featureless stretch of woodland whose flora and fauna is like to many others. It will be at the common crossing to that magic item shop whose owner's name and face is well-worn into the gaming table's minds. It will be in the residential wards of Old Kervara, where that sweet old lady lives who once helped out the PCs during that haunted house quest several sessions ago.

Lessens to be Learned: What this adds to slice of life moments in gaming is immense: the players are much more likely to care about the place, for it is in many ways their homes even if their PCs originated from far-flung lands. Everything, from local festivals to recurring faces, will take on a more personal touch when the streets, the faces in the crowd, and the local shops are familiar things with strong mental images in the player's minds and not just yet another new foreign location.

Festivals and Games

Millennial Fair from Chrono Trigger

From holidays to arena tournaments, fun and games are culturally universal. They have an in-built competitive spirit with a goal contestants strive for, and the promise of prizes and recognition can be an attractive quality.

Many video game RPGs have mini-games as a fun aside for variety beyond dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying. Some of the most well-known ones are collectible card games, such as Final Fantasy 8's Triple Triad or Witcher 3's Gwent. The joy of winning and collecting rare and powerful cards provides a sense of progression and accomplishment, keeping the game fresh as you visit new areas with new players. The Millennial Fair at the beginning of Chrono Trigger let you collect Silver Points for every game you won, trading them in for useful items.

There are so many different kind of competitive games that translating their rules into D&D format would be a blog post all its own. But I can recommend a certain sourcebook invaluable for this. ENWorld's Book of Tournaments, Fairs, and Taverns is filled to the brim with rules for everything from martial arts and magical competitions to the classics such as races (the competitive kind), card, dice, and drinking games. All of which are Open Game Content, for any of you self-publishers out there!

Example: Final Fantasy IX

It's not a table-top RPG, but there's a certain video near and dear to my heart which really shown me the benefits of slice of life elements. Although not as popular as 7 and 10, the ninth installment in the series is known for having some of the best writing and character development. At the beginning of Disc 3, the party headed back to the kingdom of Alexandria after a major battle at the Iifa Tree. Princess Garnet, one of the party members, is now queen after the passing of her mother in the conflict, and the main character Zidane feels depressed as he worries that this marks the end of their time together since she'll be too busy attending to matters of state.

The game's perspective changes to Vivi, a child mage, on the streets of Alexandria. While controlling him you can restock on new equipment and meet up with old friends to find out what's been happening since your departure for the Iifa Tree. The small events and scenarios around Alexandria also play important roles by having new party members such as Eiko and Amarant meet the ones who were left behind, such as Steiner and Freya, before the next big adventure. Even so, it's not all just dialogue and exposition; there are sidequests and minigames for one to do, such as a major card tournament in Treno which Zidane wishes to visit.

After the climax of the last Disc, Final Fantasy takes time to build back up, and after the Treno card tournament things go right back into the action when the dragon Bahamut attacks Alexandria. It does not linger too long on the slice of life aspects, and there's still a sense of player participation than just watching the plot flow.

As you can see, it packaged the above elements quite nicely: visiting familiar city locations along with a host of diversions and competitive games and tying character development into things. And when it comes time to pick things up, the good old-fashioned "dragon attacking the city" instills a sense of immediate danger to get back to the heroic action.

In Conclusion

I hope this blog post served a useful purpose to you, dear reader. Whether they be recurring elements or a fun one-off element, I hope that I gave folks both the interest in trying out slice of life tropes, as well as a useful springboard to how to best accomplish this.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A List of City-Based Sourcebooks for D&D and Pathfinder

Ptolus: City by the Spire

My first Dungeons & Dragons campaign was a series of adventures contained in Dungeon Magazine which collectively came to be known as the Shackled City. It was a page-opener for me in many ways; in addition to being the first campaign dubbed an "adventure path" (Dragonlance preceded it by 18 years in concept), it was also the first one I ran to completion and the first stable group of gamers who stuck with me through high school and well into college. Over a decade's worth of fun memories.

As for the Shackled City itself, it centered around the aptly-named settlement of Cauldron, built within the inner ring of a dormant volcano home to a large central lake in the middle of a jungle. A foul cult dwelling within the halls of power and darkest depths alike sought to bring the city to ruin, and many of the adventures were connected in the growing awareness and eventual stopping of their plot.

Using a central area for a whole campaign was a clever one, as it allowed the GM to reuse familiar locations and NPCs to give a better connection to the area. While most adventure paths sought to replicate this feel, the often nomadic nature of most campaigns meant that players would venture from location to location to complete a task, only to pack up and head off to the next place. Dragonlance tried to tie in themes with recurring NPCs and a sense of history, but overall I found in my years of play that setting a campaign around a city leant itself to some of my best gaming sessions.

For that reason, I decided to compile a list of city-centric sourcebooks for the Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder role-playing games. I'm only including sourcebooks which focus largely on livable locations; megadungeons of ruined cities do not count, nor do adventures which take place in said cities but are more or less restricted to the confines of a single plot. If any of my fine readers have suggestions, or if I happened to miss a particular interesting metropolis, please let me know!

City-Based Sourcebooks

Lesserton & Mor (no longer on OneBookShelf)

Ptolus, Monte Cook's City by the Spire

Shackled City Adventure Path

Sharn, City of Towers

Shelzar, City of Sins

Sheoloth, City of the Drow

City of Stormreach

Vornheim, the Complete City Kit

City of Splendors, Waterdeep

World's Largest City

Zobeck Gazetteer

Friday, November 4, 2016

Dragons of Renewal DL3: Dragons of Hope

Skullcap from the 3rd Edition Dragonlance Campaign Setting

This portion of the Autumn Twilight segment of the Dragonlance Chronicles is an overland wilderness trek with a dungeon crawl at the end. The PCs having freed the prisoners of Pax Tharkas must trek south to safer lands, for the realms north are occupied by the Red Dragonarmy and the Qualinesti elves are evacuating their nation. There are several routes and locations for the PCs to visit, not all of which are linear or required. However, the dungeon of Skullcap is a necessity, for it contains a dwarven artifact which will earn the PCs safe passage into the kingdom of Thorbadin.

Refugee Micromanagement

There are about 800 refugees, 10% of which are capable in a fight if the Dragonarmies catch up to the group. Both the AD&D and 3rd Edition versions of the adventure provides rules for attrition rates, to see how well the refugees fare during their travels and how many are alive by the end. There are also Food Units representing supplies, which can be gained via random encounters or via the proper spells and skills depending on Edition.

Additionally, the refugees are divided into 5 broad factions: Abanasinian townsfolk who are not Seekers, the Seeker faithful of Haven and outlying lands, the indigenous Plainsfolk, a small number of converts to the true gods, and a few dozen unaffiliated folk ranging from merchants to sellswords not part of the Dragonarmies. Each faction has their own leader who all get together in a Council to determine major decisions by vote. The PCs are advisors and cannot vote, but can sway leaders in their favor or fail to via faux pas and poor decision-making.

The truth of the matter is that I found both rules to be rather cumbersome, especially the attrition rate rules which would be rolled and determined for every single night. Instead I boiled down major points to PC Background checks (as I ran this campaign in 13th Age) and choice encounters. I suggest doing the same, or picking up the mini-games which will be of most use to your particular play-style. Have PCs who enjoy making it through the skin of their teeth and define themselves with actions and not words? Consider using your favorite mass combat rules. Do the players seem eager to unite the disparate factions together with the inspiring words of Mishakal and the True Gods? Have them participate more in the council voting process.

Major Encounters

Going East: In both versions of the adventure, a fair amount of major encounters are on the western side of the map, if the PCs lead the refugees down the road to the east. For this reason it might be best to shift some of the encounters about so that the players don't miss a huge portion of the adventure's potential. I recommend keeping an even array; you still want the choice to matter. Perhaps the hill dwarf village is only on the western side, but Fizban's snow fort is on the eastern road. Both encounters provide their own advantages distinct enough to provide different benefits.

Finding Thorbadin: There are two areas which can alert the PCs to Thorbadin's existence and location. The first is the Neidar (Hill Dwarf) village (area 7) where their leader Zirkan can tell them of the nearest safe haven. The other is the Eye of Elar (area 25), a set of high-powered lens which point to a dwarven manuscript revealing the way to the dwarven kingdom's secret passage.

If the PCs end up missing both encounter locations or are likely to, it is recommend to provide other ways of slipping in the information. Perhaps an NPC such as Fizban or one of the faction leaders mentions an old dwarven tale of Skullcap and how it contains a relic which can act as a "key to Thorbadin," or perhaps a captured draconian spy mentions of finding worn trails seemingly leading underground.

Finding Food: Again, this is another micromangaged aspect. Each day without adequate food can really ramp things up (20% cumulative chance, 1d10 refugees die every time). It may sound odd, but the book says that it mostly effects the weak and ill among the populace anyways. There's enough food to feed the refugees for 4 days before they need to forage and hunt. Again this is not something I kept track of among all the other stuff to plan for during the game. Generally I'd recommend boiling things down to a couple appropriate rolls and checks, and provide bonuses and decreased losses if the PCs have competent backgrounds (military officer, druid, etc). Additionally, certain safe havens (Neidar village, Fizban's snow fort, the Hopeful Vale, etc) should be used to provide additional survival supplies as a sort of safe buffer.

Skullcap and the Route to Thorbadin

Scene from Percy Jackson Movies

As final Chapter of the Autumn saga revolves around the kingdom of Thorbadin and a race against time to gain the refugees a safe haven, it is imperative that the PCs learn of Thorbadin. Even more so, the nation infamously closed its doors even to their hill dwarf kinsmen, so unless the PCs have a very good offer such an attempt is a fool's errand. Which is how the Helm of Grallen comes into play. This legendary artifact contains the souls of famed dwarven leaders of times long past, stolen by the human wizard Fistandantilus during the Dwarfgate Wars. This, combined with his treachery against his former hill dwarf allies fighting for entry into the kingdom, provides an in-universe example of the traditional dwarven distrust of arcane spellcasters.

As a dungeon itself, there is not much to say. It is full of undead creatures such as wights and spectres, as well as a climactic battle against an iron fire-breathing hydra construct. Some minor variations include the altar room, which has a +3 vorpal longsword in AD&D, but a +1 ghost touch longsword in 3rd Edition. I prefer the latter option regardless of edition, for it can be a boon for the party fighter when going up against spectres and ghostly undead who cannot be touched otherwise. For those not in the know, a ghost touch weapon property allows said weapon to damage insubstantial enemies such as spectres as though they had material form.

I'll talk about the more eventful NPCs and encounters below:

Blaize: In keeping with each adventure featuring one of the signature breeds of dragon, Blaize is a brass dragon from the Dwarfgate Wars who's been trapped in a time-frozen bubble. He can be a source of good infromation on ancient history, but knows little if anything of why the metallic dragons did not get involved now that the chromatics are working with an invading army. He is willing to accompany the PCs, but abandons them shortly because a dragon tag-along would be rather powerful. In AD&D he accompanies the PCs until the shadow dragon fights, or Verminaard and Ember attack the refugees, or this Chapter ends. In the first two examples the enemies are occupied and flee, or chase Blaize down, effectively taking him out of the fray. In 3rd Edition he does not follow the PCs down the pit in Skullcap, being scared.

In both the book series and game supplements, Blaize's eventual fate is not expanded upon. It's implied that he lives among the refugees in human form, but being time-frozen he would be out of the loop of the metallic's non-aggression pact with the Dragonarmies. I have a more interesting element: Blaize being unaware of this, is quickly detected by the Dragon Empire's scryers on the lookout for interfering good dragons, and is ambushed sometime after he parts ways with the PCs. He is taken as a prisoner in the city of Sanction, where he can be later encountered during the final adventure of the Winter arc.

Whisper: The other dragon the PCs can meet in Skullcap is a shadow dragon, a unique breed who specializes in illusion and darkness-based magic. In the books he assumed that Raistlin was Fistandantilus returned, and in the 3rd Edition adventure he assumes the same for a PC with the Sage archetype or one who fits a magic-user role and will give some limited advice about the tomb to the PCs but otherwise not aid them directly. In AD&D he ambushes the PCs when/if they try to take the treasure in his lair.

In the AD&D game Whisper is rather powerful, but not harder than the other top-tier enemies in the adventure and weaker than Ember. However, in 3rd Edition he is extremely strong and will most likely result in a Total Party Kill barring some optimized builds or exploits.

Pyrohydra Construct: This was the most memorable part of the adventure. In addition to the unique status of an artificial beast who can breathe fire out of several heads, the encounter acts as a sort of "platformer boss" where a multi-layered section of invisible crystal provides both cover and an obstacle mobility. There are two hydras, one in the western section, one in the eastern section at a sort of fork in the road where whatever path the PCs take will encounter a hydra construct.

For my own game, I figured that an invisible maze would be hard to keep track of on the battlemat, so I had a visible yet still exciting set of catwalks and walkways the hydra was under and its breath and bites can destroy in weak sections. It allowed for a fun bit of tactical movement, as the players not only had to deal with the monster itself and taking cover but also adapting to cut-off routes and sudden drops to lower levels.

I also figure that such an encounter can lose a bit of its magic if players fight an identical hydra should they go back up through the other end of the dungeon. They will also have the advantage of awareness, which will take away some of the initial charm of the first battle. I'd personally have only one fire-breathing hydra construct in Skullcap, but it will show up in the route the PCs take.

In Conclusion

A survival-focused wilderness trek with a dungeon of unliving creatures to top things off, Dragons of Hope has a bit of variety going for it in comparison to the previous entries. The major things to watch out for are how keen your group would be on micromanagement and making sure that the PCs become aware of the Helm's necessity.

I realize it's been a while between posts, but hopefully I'll get up the next post to complete Dragonlance's Autumn saga!