Friday, October 24, 2014

WANDERING HEROES OF OGRE GATE: GOLDEN DRAGONS CAMPAIGN II

This is the report for our first new campaign of Ogre Gate. This was also a two character session, which provided some more insight into managing an adventure with just two PCs. 

Characters Present:
Pan Hu
Yao Min

Min and Hu had just returned to the Golden Dragon outpost in Rong Yao after killing Mr. Red Claw and fleeing from the town of Bei. Their Sifu instructed them to return to Bei to remove the rest of Red Claw's men. They asked if they could take additional forces with them and the Sifu said he could send 10 junior sect members to help. 

Before they left the party went to a tailor and purchased merchant-style clothing for themselves and the 10 junior sect members, hoping to return to Bei without attracting too much attention. They made their way through the forest following the river and arrived at Bei uneventfully. 

When they entered Bei, Hu and Min decided to go to the House of Sima, a large three story inn and tavern. They sent their men in in staggered groups of 2 to cloud their true numbers. Once their men were in the inn and had rooms, they took a seat at the lower level to observe things. On the second floor dining area, they saw the other Firelance twin drinking with four men. They watched as the group drank through the night growing more rowdy each hour. When the Firelance Brother grabbed a waiter and tied him to the wall so he and his men could place bets on who could throw a spear through his belly first, the party intervened. Hu tried to talk with the Firelance Brother, while Min sent in their men to form a wall between him and the henchmen at the table. This tactic worked, cowering the four henchmen and keeping them from the melee while Min, Hu and the Firelance Brother fought. The Firelance Brother spear swiped three of their men, knocking them out, but Hu followed with a lucky strike of his own slamming the thug against the wall. Within moments they had him incapacitated and bound. 

Hu and Min dismissed the Firelance Brother's men and brought him to their chamber to interrogate. They learned that Strange Phoenix (who they first met as Gentlemen Yu), had taken over Red Claw's organization. For several hours they tried to talk him into divulging Strange Phoenix's weakness. When he felt his life was on the line, he revealed that she was a gambler easily coaxed into betting on just about anything if the stakes were high enough. During the interrogation, a present arrived from Strange Phoenix: the winning cricket form the match at the Duck House from the night they first met her. 

At first the party thought of using her weakness against her, but they decided on another path. In the town they found an actor named Hui and asked him to help Hu look like the Firelance Brother with makeup. The actor was particularly skilled at disguise and created an uncanny resemblance. They then dressed their men as Red Claw's thugs and placed shackles on Min so it would seem she was their captive. 

Before setting out they learned more about the pagoda compound and then went for an audience with Strange Phoenix. While Hu looked just like the Firelance Brother, he had to make a Deception Roll to pull of the voice and failed. Strange Phoenix asked what was wrong and Min chimed "I punched him in the throat!" This seemed to alleviate any suspicion and Strange Phoenix told Hu to unbind the prisoner. She then thanked Min for helping her gain her new position and gave her 100 Taels. 

In conversation Min learned that Strange Phoenix was trying to improve Red Claw's operation, bringing culture to the community and generating more good will. Yes some of their members were still violent and unpredictable (like the Firelance Twin) but she was hoping to grow the community, to bring in scholars, learning, music and to turn the mines into something that benefited her as well as the town of Bei. Min said she would take this news to the Golden Dragons and see what they said, but would first need to inspect her claims. Strange Phoenix gave her free reign to explore the town and she was able to confirm improvements had been made. For example they had started construction of a school. They sent their men to convey what they found to their Sifu. A messenger returned days later saying they would wait and watch to see what Strange Phoenix did over the coming months. They also asked the party to return to the outpost as quickly as possible. 

This is where the session was ended. 

MORE OCTOBER SAVINGS

We have more big savings for the remainder of the month now that the RPGnow Halloween Sale is on. 

Sertorius, normally $9.99 is only $3.34: SERTORIUS PDF


Terror Network, normally $4.99 is only $3.34: TERROR NETWORK PDF




Arrows of Indra, normally $9.99 is only 3.34: ARROWS OF INDRA PDF

This prices are good until Halloween then normal rates resume. 


Thursday, October 23, 2014

THE SCRIPTORIA OF CAEL

This is part of an ongoing series of entries for the Gamandrian setting of the Sertorius RPG

The capital of Republic of Caelum is Cael. This is the heart of a powerful Orc state that stretches from the Varian Sea to the Caeloru Sea. While one won't find any inns in Cael for reasons particular to the region, there are a number of businesses adventurers may have reason to frequent. Among these are scriptoria, shops that produce copies of books on papyrus scrolls (codices are a rarity in Gamandria). Caelum is well known for its handbooks on engineering and written communication is important for the management of the government, so there are many Scriptoria to choose from with wide ranges in price. Here are examples of two extremes, one is the finest Scriptorium in the capital, the other is the most affordable Scriptorium in the capital. 

The Scriptorium of Carvilius
The Scriptorium of Carvilius is a shop in the city of Cael that scribes and copies books for a fee and is so reputable that the Senate uses it to produce its daily notices to the population (and more than a few senators rely upon it for their personal works on history and philosophy). 

The Scriptorium is located in the Fortuna District of Cael and operated by the Carvilius family. Presently Carvilius Cassius and his wife Gaia oversee the day to day operations of the Scriptorium. They have 45 scribes and charge much more than the standard rates: 60 Silver for 200 lines of text. However they reduce the fee by half if one orders an entire roll or more. Though their scribes cost more than other Scriptoria, the Carvilius family stands by its work and maintains strict measures of quality. Mistakes are rare and when they happen they are corrected with apologies a refund of half the initial cost. 

Scribing also takes time at the Scriptorium of Carvilius. He can produce about fifteen rolls in two months for each client. Cassius purchases his papyrus from reputable merchants from the Bay of Goa who understand the craft and know where to find the best produced sheets for rolls. A book scroll from The Scriptorium of Carvilius is sure to last. 

The Lorgo Scriptorium
The Lorgo Scriptorium is named after the patron god of the Republic and on more than one occasion the Senate has considered forcing the shop to change its name (but in each case they ultimately feared Lorgo would take offense at the alteration). The business is run by a Kobold named Helvatani Agrippa, a highly personable citizen of Cael who knows how to cut costs and make friends. His Scribes are less than fully trained but work for good rates. This allows him to charge far less than the standard fee. His rates start at 5 Silver for 400 lines of text. This drops to 2 Silver for regular customers. 

While his rates are quite affordable, the results are somewhat mixed. When a character orders sheets or rolls of text from The Lorgo Scriptorium, roll on the following table to determine the results:

Roll 1d10      Result
1-2                A single copy has minor errors
3-4                A single copy has a major error that greatly alters the text's meaning
5                   All copies have the same minor errors
6                   All copies have the same major error that greatly alters the text's meaning                
7-10              No Errors

The Lorgo Scriptorium is expedient, managing up to 20 rolls in a month for each individual client. 

Another way Agrippa reduces his costs is papyrus. He relies on the cheapest traders possible, and while the raw materials certainly come from the Bay of Goa, they are not properly pressed, so the horizontal and vertical strips of papyrus, which form the basis of a sheet, can lose their adherence over time. One can expect a scroll from Agrippa's Scriptorium to degrade on the following time scale:

Roll 1d10      Result
1                   1d10 days
2                   3d10 days
3                   1d10 months
4-7                1d10 years
8                    2d10 Years
9                    2d10 decades
10                  3d10 decades


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

ABODES AND AMBULATION

When I first started playing games like Dungeons and Dragons the places we explored were rather static. Monsters tended to linger in specific rooms, NPCs would wait around all day in their studies or bedchambers just waiting for a PC or two to show up. Of course we didn't really notice this at all at the time. I first became aware of the issue of the static NPC when I read the module Feast of Goblyns, which advocated treating NPCs as living characters who move of their own volition and can adapt to events as the adventure unfolds. This idea was around well before FoB (I know it appears in the original Ravenloft module for example, but I read that years after encountering Feast of Goblyns). Ultimately such advice is about breathing life into locales and adventures so the players feel like they are dealing with something real. 


From that moment on, I loved the living NPC, to the point that I often ignored approaches for creating the sense of life in a place. Away from a particular structure or building, the living NPC works great. I find however it starts to be less great when you are dealing with a specific place like a dungeon or keep. It can work if you have a clear idea of where the NPC would be at any given time. But people are not predictable and do weird things with their spare time (just think of how you move around the house in your daily life). For that I like tables. 

One easy approach is location encounter tables that function on turn increments or other periods of time suited to local exploration. These are great and I do employ them, but more and more I have shifted away from this approach in favor of a room by room table. This gives me greater ability to customize each area. It also glosses over time keeping a bit. Rather than worry about whether ten minutes or an hour has passed, I just roll on the table for each room when the players enter them. So if they go into the library, I have a table for the library and roll to see what is present. 

This also allows me to do other things like include not just who is there,but what they are doing. It also allows me to mix and match. For instance let's say I have a tower and am fleshing out the bedchamber of the lord's two sons, Rom and Reugar. I might put together the following table using a simple d10 roll (adding 2 to the roll after sunset) or a 2d10 roll depending on what I need: 

Roll     Result
1-3:        Room is empty
4-6:        Rom is present
7-9:        Ruegar is present
10          Both Rom and Ruegar are here

This works and it gives me a clear idea of who is in the room or not. But I can also use it to determine what my NPCs are doing, and cover other characters present on the grounds and who might logically be in this area: 

Roll     Result 
1:         Empty
2:         Brothers not here, but Lord Goff-Tan is puzzling over Nong Sai tablets on the table
3:         A Gru guard has come in here to sip some of Ruegar’s wine
4:         Rom is present and examining a number of Nong Sai tablets on his table, taking notes
5:         Rom is present and resting
6:         Brother's not present, Ria, their sister is snooping around 
7:         Ruegar is present and drinking wine as he reads a scroll from the Book of Ramos
8:         Ruegar is present and resting
9:         The brothers are here drinking, throwing dice and talking about their trip to Tongtel
10:       The brothers are both present and joined by Pa-Sai, an ogre who serves their father as a military adviser 

Or if I want to have even more fun I could do 2d10 or even a d100 and give myself more options. A d10 or d6 is quick and dirty, but it does constrain your options a little. With d10, 1d20 or a d100 this table could include more details about who is here, who isn't and where they might have gone to. It could also include more off-the-wall results. 

I don't use these tables religiously, just to help shake my habits up a bit. Often times you just instinctively know who is in a room and what they are doing. In those instances go with your gut. Also be careful with table results. A table can't account for all the variables of live play (time of day, prior events, etc). So they do need to be used with caution and you need to be able to overrule them when results make no sense (for instance an NPC being in two rooms at the same time. 

Not ever room needs this many results. Typically when I construct a location I include a general encounter table and provide specific tables like the above for certain chambers (for instance the library, sleeping quarters, the audience hall, etc). But I also include information that is far from random. People do tend to live structured lives so if there is an audience hall it may be used for receiving people in the morning or perhaps just the first day of the month. That kind of information comes in handy because players who ask around before going somewhere can learn these details and use them to their advantage. 


Monday, October 20, 2014

WANDERING HEROES OF OGRE GATE: GOLDEN DRAGON CAMPAIGN I

This is the report for our first new campaign of Ogre Gate. This was also a two character session, which provided some more insight into managing an adventure with just two PCs. The villain in the adventure (Mr. Red Claw) was inspired by Black Demon from Lady Hermit, and the number two, Strange Phoenix, was an evil meld of the characters Golden Swallow and Lady Hermit (in the films both these characters are good). 

Characters Present:
Pan Hu
Yao Min

Both Min and Hu are members of Golden Dragon sect and were instructed by their Sifu to investigate the town of Bei and find their contact Li Chaosun, who has been silent for four months. The only information they had was that Chaosun owned the Duck House, a notorious restaurant and gambling hall. 

They set out for Bei but got lost along the way (a product of some bad Survival Rolls). While lost they were attacked by bandits, but managed to deter them by handing over 20 taels. After the encounter with the bandits, they made it to the small village of Lin where they found the price of rice exceedingly high. There they stayed with an elderly couple and lost more money gambling with the old man. The next morning they set out for Bei and made it without incident. 

In Bei they secured rooms at an inn and went immediately to the Duck House. There they witnessed cricket fights and a bare-chested man who was winning huge sums. They spoke with the meek proprietor of the establishment and asked about Chaosun. At first he seemed to know something but when he went over to speak with the bare-chested man about the matter, he received a severe beating and returned to the party saying he knew nothing about Mr. Chaosun and was sorry for any confusion he created. The players let this slide but continued watching. They learned that the bare-chested man worked for a Mr. Red Claw and was one of two siblings known as the Firelance Brothers. 

Later a scholarly swordsman came and found a seat in the back of The Duck House. Yao Min noticed him observing everyone so went over to speak. During the course of the conversation she discerned that the scholar was a woman, dressed as a man and called herself Mr. Yu. As Mr. Yu she placed a large bet against the FIrelance Brother's cricket and seemed open to conversation provided Min bet against her. Not wanting to lose more money, Min suggested they bet on something else. Mr. Yu proposed a bet of servitude with the loser serving the other for a week. Min disliked this idea so suggested a bet for information. If Min lost she promised to tell Mr. Yu why she was there, and if Mr. Yu lost, then Min could ask anything she wanted. Mr. Yu agreed. 

The whole thing was rigged of course and Mr. Yu won, so Min told her they were there as members of Golden Dragon Sect looking into the disappearance of Chaosun, owner of the Duck House. Mr. Yu wished her luck in her search and left. That night, after Min and Hu went to their inn room, they were attacked by men with sleeping smoke powder. They failed both their Detect rolls for the smoke powder and it overcame their Hardiness scores, causing them to sleep very deeply. In the morning they awoke suspended upside down over a pit of scorpions with one of the Firelance Brothers commanding a nearby crank and demanding information. 

They managed to convince the Firelance Brother they were willing to talk if someone higher up was willing to hear them. He left and they worked their escape by cutting the rope. They managed to get to the edge of the pit at the bottom of a great pagoda just as the Firelance Brother returned with Mr. Red Claw. 

Combat ensued. This was a tough battle for the party. The first three rounds Mr. Red Claw spent channeling his Red Claw technique (a power that enhances his arms and enables him to do tremendous damage) while the Firelance Brother dealt with the two prisoners. The three combatants traded blows and finally Mr. Red Claw waded in. Firelance Brother was thrown into the pit of Scorpions by one of Hu's spear techniques and they eventually managed to knock out Mr. Red Claw (but only after sustaining serious injury themselves). They still had to escape so took Red Claw as a hostage and fled from the pagoda. On the surface they encountered Mr. Yu, no longer dressed as a man and revealing herself to be Strange Phoenix, a well known swordsman widely feared in the south. She chased the PCs but they managed to force her to keep distance by threatening to kill Mr. Red Claw. When they achieved enough space between themselves and their enemies, they killed him and ran to Rong Yao to find the nearest Golden Dragon outpost. 

This is where the session ended. 

BRIAN BLESSED IS MY DEFAULT CASTLE LORD

Very busy working on two campaigns and Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, but I just want to talk briefly about one thing: Brian Blessed and Castle Lords. 

Ever since I first saw The Black Adder (series one of the Blackadder with Rowan Atkinson), I've been a fan of Brian Blessed's bombastic voice. And in my campaigns every castle lord who hasn't been fleshed out before hand, somehow becomes Brian Blessed. I suppose his King Richard IV had such loud appeal it branded my mind with his image. This is certainly a bad habit and something I work to correct by delineating minor NPCs in advance, but it arises from a habit that I regard as useful for GMing. 

I remember when I was in high school reading a Dragon Magazine article (this was so long ago it is possible it was another RPG periodical and I am remembering incorrectly) that suggested GMs should draw on TV and movie characters to develop the personalities of their NPCs. For me this proved to be particularly effective for minor NPCs (where you need something stark to wrap your head around right away). So it kind of became a habit, and I was so bad at impressions that no one ever suspected my tavern keeper was really Ralph Furley or that my corrupt and crude Bishop was Biff Tannen. 

Generally it worked great except in the case of dukes, barons and kings, which were either always Brian Blessed or, occasionally, the first Black Adder (and frankly he is a lot less funny and entertaining than the second, third or fourth Blackadders).
I just like really loud, confident and gregarious kings with no sense of propriety or personal space. So now, unless I want all my castle lords to be that guy, I have to detail all but one of them in any campaign I run (because I still want at least one Brian Blessed in the game). 

Still I do recommend drawing on television and movie characters as needed if you find it helpful. It can even be useful to blend them together and see if the outcome makes sense in your mind. I find that even though I start with a character or possibly an actor, by the time I start speaking enough has changed that it isn't at all connected to the source (that is just the base to start with). 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE CONFLICT BETWEEN ROLLS AND INTERACTION

I've commented in the past about my unease with Social Skill rolls in roleplaying games. When I do this isn't a slam against their use or people who like them, it is more about a personal difficulty I have in gaming, particularly as a GM when it comes to drawing a line between skill rolls and interactions. Anyone who has played any of the games I've helped develop knows I use Social Skills and other mechanics that get into this territory; I recognize their utility, I just find some of the trade-offs inherent a bit irksome. 


Let me start with an example to illustrate what I mean. Let me also say that I understand this is just my own personal experience, I am sure a more clever GM than myself could find a way to resolve or imagine this without running into the issues I do. Suppose you have a character named Aedra who walks into a mysterious tower on rocky hill near a small village. Perhaps Aedra is there to investigate the recent disappearance of a wagon of gold ingots that had passed by the area and never reached its destination. After speaking with locals she is convinced the ingots are in the tower. She sneaks inside in the middle of the night through a window on the second floor and eventually works way down to a chamber below on the ground floor. There is a secret passage in one of the walls with a shaft leading deep into a series of tunnels below the tower. Aedra does not know this but suspects such things may exist in the structure. 

At this point Aedra's player says one of a few possible things. She may simply declare that she searches the room and want to roll a Detect Skill (or equivalent depending on the system). She may describe what she does, explaining how she conducts her search, then make a Detect Skill roll (possibly the GM would give modifiers based on her description). Or finally she might go into excruciating detail and say exactly what her character does in very specific terms (i.e. I nudge the fourth brick from the right). 

This is all fine. Where it creates problems for me is when the character does something rather specific that should work based on what I have written down, but botches the roll. In this case there is too much disparity between the result the mechanic yields and the facts of the interaction. How I have come to deal with these circumstances is to always give the players a chance to specify and resolve things first without a roll. For example if Aedra's player correctly deduced that the fourth brick from the right was the means of opening the secret door I would let her find the door without having to roll. If the player was vague, I might ask for some more details just to get a sense of what she is trying to do (assigning modifiers as needed) then ask for a roll.

Obviously in this case, it isn't quite that big an issue. The example is oddly specific about the brick with no relevant clues to point anyone in that direction (though Aedra could have encountered something earlier in the adventure to make her think this brick was the right one, or arrived there by asking a series of questions about the room). 

I should also say it is mainly in these investigative/exploratory moments that I find I encounter such issues. Perhaps more than secret doors and hidden chambers, the problem for me rests more with NPC interactions. In those instances, I find something like a Persuade Roll (or Diplomacy or whatever the skill happens to be named in the system you are using) really creates this mental hiccup for me when I run games. After the fact I can usually think of the best way to implement it smoothly with my style, but while I am running the thing, I tend to trip up just a little over skills like this, primarily because I like to focus on in-character dialogue and I like what is said in character to have weight and impact. 

With Social Skill rolls I tend to apply the same principle as above. My concern with social skills is two-fold: one I don't want that disparity that sometimes occurs between in game events and the roll result (a situation where Aedra clearly said things that should yield the information she is after but the dice say 'no'), two I don't want the Social Skill roll to replace the interaction itself (particularly in an investigation). While Social Skills don't necessarily do this in all cases, my experience with them has been they can. I noticed this especially when I ran a game without any such skills after years of playing with them. The difference in play was enormous. I am not saying this will be true for everyone or even most people, just that for my group and for me as a GM it was. 

Like I said at the start of this post, I don't dislike these kinds of skills and mechanics. I use them in pretty much all of my games and they are standard features of the games we publish (though we do try to pair them with GM advice concerning some of the issues I've raised). This is something I simply keep coming back to.