Saturday, April 18, 2015

And Now for Something Completely Different

Recently I was re-introduced to a great game called Magic the Gathering.

Magic the Gathering (or MTG for short) is a collectible card game in which you assemble a deck of cards and battle against an opponent and his deck. Each card represents a magical spell or a creature which you cast to knock your opponent from 20 life to zero.


I dabbled with Magic when I was younger, but very few of my friends played the game, and since it required buying rather expensive cards on a regular basis I ditched it and focused on the pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons instead.

I recently learned that several co-workers were into the game, and so we dusted off our old decks and started playing on a semi-regular basis.

So what makes Magic such a fun game to play?

  1. First and foremost, it's heavily fantasy-flavored. Vampires, wizards, dragons, goblins and other 'D&D-like' creatures and spells are all over the place (and the art on some of these cards is simply stunning)
  2. It's a war-game with simple rules, but some of the cards can break the rules in certain ways, allowing for a wide variety of tactics and strategies to be employed. In a sense it's like playing Chess. The basic rules are simple, but winning the game requires more than just moving the pieces according to the rules...
  3. Deck building is a big part of the game. Each player needs to construct a 60-card deck, but there are virtually thousands of cards out there, and new cards are released throughout the year (every year since 1993!). There is no 'best deck', as each deck has ups and downs, and the luck of the draw still plays a part in deciding a game.
So how is the game played? Well, simply put (and omitting a lot for the sake of simplicity), you got two types of cards in your deck. Lands, and Spells.

Lands come in colors: Black, White, Red, Green and Blue. Here is an example of a Blue Land card:

Spells also come in colors. Here is a red spell card for example:

In a nutshell, players 'cast spells' (play spell cards) by using 'mana' (land cards), with the goal of reducing the opponent from 20 life to 0 and win the game.

Here is an example of a Magic game 'battlefield' layout in the midst of a game.  


I won't go into the details of the rules any further - I urge you to browse the official 'how to' section at Wizards site if you want to get the hang of the game, and if you want to enjoy my future posts about Magic the Gathering!

While I still plan to write D&D related posts (got an interesting retrospect on 4th edition coming up), I will also delve into MTG gameplay every once in a while. Nothing to worry about - D&D is still in my heart, but if I want a fantasy-flavoured casual play to fill up half an hour - MTG is definitely the way to go!

Here's a (rather nerdy) introduction to MTG (by Wizards of the Coast).


Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Pattern

I really like the Eberron Campaign Setting.

(Image: wikipedia)
Quoting Wizards of the Coast: 
[Eberron] combines pulp adventure and intrigue in a world where magic-driven technology has produced airships, trains, and similar advancements comparable to early 20th-century Europe.
It's a rather low-level D&D setting, with very few NPCs topping level 10. If the DM emphasizes the setting's grit and intrigue elements over the techno-magical ones, the campaign can express the mindset and tone of movies like Brotherhood of the Wolves, From Hell, The Name of the Rose, Pirates of the Caribbeans and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Taken into the techno-magical grey-zone, scenes from movies like Blade or even League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can be depicted.

This versatility - along with the relatively low power level - is what attracts me the most to this setting. I can cater to a lot of tastes, grabbing ideas from various books, movies and TV shows while stilling feeling I'm playing D&D.

Want a vampire slaying session, with the PCs armed by a shady governmental agency dedicated to undead-slaying supplying them with Batman-like gadgets? Check!

A James Bond scene in which the PCs try to hijack a gnomish submarine in order to bring it for inspection by the authorities? Check!

An out-of-the-blue Startrek session with the PCs serving onboard the Enterprism - a House Lyrindar Airship sent to explore strange, new lands?


And the list goes on and on…

One of the most interesting aspects of Eberron is the 'shades of grey' approach to everything related to Alignment. Unlike most D&D settings, Good and Evil in Eberron are in the eyes of the beholder. A nation that employs undead as troops in the Forgotten Realms setting (think Thay) is an evil force to be reckoned with. No good-aligned ruler will even consider such a horrendous idea. But in Eberron, the nation of Karrnath have used undead as troops for years now, but it is a proud human nation with a strong military tradition. Evil? some will say so, but most of its citizens shrug and continue with their daily lives, dismissing their undead guardians as a necessity in a harsh world.

DM'ing a session in Eberron is actually a lot of work, especially for me, as I really like an intrigue heavy plot with lots of NPCs and 'powers behind thrones'. It means I need to be prepared with various agendas, goals and secrets each NPC have, in order to easily improvise when the players interact with them.

Again Eberron's way of 'doing things' works the way I like it - as Eberron encourages plenty of slow-paced investigation scenes broken by a few fierce combat scenes. It's never a 'room after a room' with Goblins (or other monsters) guarding chests of treasure and a boss fight in the end. In Eberron, the dungeon is most likely deserted, with the only real danger being the double-agent guide the PCs hired..

Because Eberron's tone is different from the baseline 'Heroic Fantasy' assumed by the D&D rules, the simple 'kick-in-the-door' style of play (played with one-line background PCs) will never life up to the full potential of the setting. If you want a successful Eberron campaign, you should consider to add the following ingredients:

  1. A patron to kick-start the first few 'quests'. It can be an agent of an shady organization, a noble with aspirations, or a merchant 'who knows too much'. Someone the PCs can trust (at least to a point) with the ability to point them in the right direction if they are lost.
  2. PCs with goals, agendas and secrets, with some ties to the patron. Goals, agendas and secrets are a must if you want rounded PCs that will be able to pick the story up and drive it themselves. Ties to the patron are needed for the first few sessions, until the PCs find another anchor to build their story around.
  3. Slowly expanding 'fog-of-war' circles. In an intrigue heavy campaign, the PCs spend most of their time in the dark. But that darkness needs to recede if you want them engaged. It also need to recede slowly enough to allow you some room to maneuver, since intrigue scenarios are really susceptible to unexpected PC actions. Your plot should be two or three steps ahead of the PCs 'sphere of influence'. Too close, and you risk them 'blowing your cover' and killing your campaign too soon. Too far, and you risk a very loose coupling between the story and the PCs actions.    

You'll also want to discuss the world with your players. Knowledge of the world's history is not a must, but some familiarity and 'openness' to the setting's quirks can a boon.

Here's a good finisher to exemplify the special tone of this setting:


Care to guess which is which?


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Post Mortem

Writers write.

“Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.”
—Ralph Keyes
As an aspiring Dungeon Master, I made it a routine to sit down once every month or so and outline a campaign: writing a handout, a campaign bible, and a first adventure. I discovered that it's the best way for me to hone my writing skills, and keep the 'juices flowing'.

I also try to do some retrospect, think about the last adventure / campaign I ran, focusing on what went well and what fell apart.

So here's a snapshot from a recent campaign I ran: The heroes - low level characters - are walking through large city at dusk when a demonic portal opens and belches out a demon. A fight erupts, and the heroes kill the creature, but the portal is still open. After investigating the portal, one of the players suggests to 'hand off' this issue to a 'high level NPC', as clearly 'someone else' should handle it.

Now, I just want to be clear: the portal was not a 'random encounter'. The heroes were dancing around the issue of a demonic manifestation in the city for several sessions, so the portal was not a big surprise, and actually a story element.

But - to be completely honest (and hence the post-morterm), I never even considered the players would go and search for 'somebody else' to fix this portal issue for them.

Big mistake.

I mean - what was I thinking? A demonic portal, a large city, and a group of low level characters? I should have planned for them to go and seek someone to figure this out…

So here are some points to consider, analyzing myself as a DM:

  1. I see the PCs as the 'main event' of the campaign. I therefore tend to downgrade NPCs to a point of making them weaklings. Authorities, local rulers, high-level wizards, all have 'reasons' why the PCs should handle things, or 'excuses' why they can't do it themselves. It's wrong, and it breaks the suspension of disbelief. The PCs are the stars of the movie, but in order for the movie to succeed the stands and the rest of the cast should come into life when needed, make an impact, and dissolve into the background right after their scene is done
  2. Running a D&D session as the Dungeon Master is the Art of Moving Forward. If something doesn't go as planned, the DM's job is to smooth the corners and keep the story moving. I did recognize the players' valid reasoning as they expressed the need for a higher-level official to handle a demonic portal in the middle of a bustling city, but I got stuck on making excuses instead of saying yes and moving forward. The art here is to identify you're in a "no" mode, and quickly move into a "yes, but…" mode.
  3. I wrongly assume that the players see the story from the same perspective as I do. That's simply a bad way to look at things. The DM's screen should be a good reminder that the players might perceive and experience the game in a very different way than the DM. Building on the movie metaphor - they are like actors who don't see the whole picture, don't have access to the complete script, and get to act in front of a green screen. The DM's job is to make sure the players know what's going on, feed them with bite-size story chunks, and challenge them appropriately. 

So what did I learn from this, as I write my new campaign outline?

  1. If I want the players to try and overcome a challenge, it should be within their abilities to overcome. It might be difficult or dangerous, but within their limits. Placing the bar too high might drive them away - which is good if that's the purpose of the challenge. But if you want engagement, the problem at hand should be within their capabilities to solve.
  2. The keyword in the above bullet is "try". The players should have choices to make, and walking away from an encounter is a valid choice. As long as the story moves forward, and the players are now presented with the consequences of their choices, all is good. The trick is to present meaningful choices, and for that, the players might need to know the consequences up ahead. Easier said than done, though.
  3. The story should always be present. As a shadow, or as an aura, but always there. The story should develop slowly, but consistently. Slowly, to allow the players to digest, and to allow you to diverge if the players don't show an interest. Consistently, because the players don't see the whole picture, and consistency over time helps them understand something is going on, grasp its importance, and make good decisions up the road.

And for the name of my new campaign: The Ancient of Days, set in the Forgotten Realms, in the small town of Port Llast, where rumors of a Seer amassing power in the northern city of Luskan makes the locals nervous….