Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 3

I’ve posted a couple of times about developing a sandbox setting for D&D 5E (Part 1, Part 2), and this week I’m going to expand on the climates, terrain, and monster selection.

Climates

As my sandbox is an island, and it’s not so large as to be a full continent, there is a limit to the different climates that I can realistically include. I’ve decided that this island sits in the northern waters of the world, and so climate reflects this.

The island itself is slightly larger than the Northwest Territories in Canada—the surface area is approximately 916,249 square miles (1,474,560 square kilometers). So this gives me some room to work with.

Using the Köppen climate classification types to describe the island, the southern and middle portions of the island are subarctic climate, the northern portion of the island is polar tundra, and the higher elevations are dry-summer subarctic.

 

RPG-Hexcrawl-ClimatMap

This has a direct influence on both the terrain types I will use and the monsters I plan to include.

Terrain Types

As mentioned previously, the 5E DMG provides lists of the monsters divided by terrain type. The terrain types listed in the DMG are Arctic, Coastal, Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hills, Mountains, Swamp, Underdark, Underwater, and Urban.

So applying these terrain types to the island based on the climate I’ve chosen, I get the following:

  • Arctic—The mountains in the northeast of the island use the arctic terrain type. This is due to their elevation in addition to their latitude, increasing the sub-arctic climate to arctic as you climb higher into the range.
  • Coastal—As this is an island, the coastal terrain type is definitely applicable.
  • Desert—Even though the mountains provide a rain shadow for the interior of the island, I don’t want it to be too dry. A sandy desert is out, and I don’t feel the island is far enough north to get a dry snow desert. So I’m not going to use this terrain type on the island.
  • Forest—Most of the middle and southern portions of the island are subarctic and therefore forests are very appropriate. The forests are almost exclusively conifers (needles instead of broad leaves) which remain green throughout the cold months. It’s not unknown for the occasional broadleaf forest to be found within a subarctic zone, and so I’ll probably include one in the southern area of the island.
  • Grassland—The northern tundra can be considered a grassland for the purposes of monster selection by terrain type, though the vegetation is very short and is composed mostly of shrubs, mosses, and lichens. The central area of the island is also covered by a grassland.
  • Hills—Each of the three sets of mountain peaks are surrounded by foothills. In addition, one of the sets of hills extends out into the central part of the island (near the grassland noted above).
  • Mountains—As mentioned, there are three distinct sets of mountain peaks. The mountains in the northeast are fairly low and very cold. The mountains in the southeast are essentially a continuation of that same chain, though the ground between them is low enough that they seem as if they are a separate set of peaks. The mountains on the west side are much larger (cover more area) and have a higher elevation.
  • Swamp—The tundra in the north transforms into swampland during the short summers when the temperatures rise enough to thaw the ground frost. The ice melts and creates many bogs and marshes (as well as lakes and streams).
  • Underdark—This is less a “terrain” type than it is a location that can underlie almost any of the other terrains. On this island, the underdark will be mostly found underneath the hills and mountains. As I plan to have this campaign be mostly about exploration of the island itself, I’m not going to make the underdark too extensive.
  • Underwater—Like the underdark, I don’t want to run an extensive underwater campaign. Therefore, I plan to have a large lake with underwater ruins that can be explored if the PCs are interested, but it won’t be a major part of the campaign.
  • Urban—The point of this campaign is a wilderness hexcrawl focused on exploration. So I’m placing a small town that is the PCs starting point, though I don’t plan to put any adventure hooks that lead to purely urban adventures there. I also have ideas for two other small settlements on the island, but they won’t be sizable urban environments. The one possible exception to this is that there are the ruins of a small city on the island that is entirely abandoned by people after some kind of disaster, and only monsters can be found there (as well as some interesting mysteries and cool set pieces).

Monsters

So I have my climate, and this affects the terrain types to include on the island. And now I have to select my monsters.

  • Humanoids—The first choice I need to make is about how many humanoid races I want to include. D&D contains many different options here, such as the goblin races, orcs, drow, bullywugs, derro, duergar, firenewts, gnolls, grimlocks, grungs, kenku, kobolds, kuo-toa, lizardfolk, merfolk, sahuagin, tabaxi, troglodytes, and yuan-ti.

    Obviously, including all of these would be far too much. Some I can eliminate simply by climate and terrain type (such as yuan-ti), and others just don’t really fit into the setting (grungs).

    Still, that leaves me with many options.

    For now, I expect that I’ll include some form of goblinoid race (probably straight goblins and perhaps bugbears, but likely not hobgoblins). I may also include orcs as a tribal race that inhabits the tundra in the north. As far as the bits that take place in the underdark, I will likely include duergar and one other—most likely either grimlocks or troglodytes, whichever I can make the most interesting.

Of the other monster types, these will be selected on a case-by-case basis:

  • Aberrations—I will definitely include a few aberrations with each as the core monster for a larger encounter area. My plan is to create a few new aberrations to provide something new for the PCs to discover.
  • Beasts—Natural animals will certainly populate most of the wilderness areas, and I will also include some of the giant versions and a few of the larger beasts. Dinosaurs will not be found on the island.
  • Celestials—As celestials are native to the Upper Planes, and generally are of the same (or similar) alignments to the PCs, I don’t have plans to include these creatures (unless as a one-off for a particular encounter area).
  • Constructs—I will certainly include a few constructs on the island, mostly as remnants created by those who lived in the ruined city on the island.
  • Dragons—I do have plans to include at least one dragon, as I have a new race of creatures related to dragons that will play a part in the setting.
  • Elementals—These creatures will appear as appropriate to specific encounter locations only.
  • Fey—Some types of fey will certainly inhabit some of the wild places on the island, though they certainly won’t be common.
  • Fiends—Like elementals, these creatures will appear as appropriate to specific encounter locations only. I do have a couple of ideas already, so there will definitely be a few included.
  • Giants—I do plan for there to be a couple of types of giants on the island. I do not intend to use the Ordning or anything similar to constrain the giants into a hierarchy.
  • Monstrosities—I will certainly include some monstrosities in my list of monsters on the island. They will most often be part of specific encounter locations, but some can be found in the random tables.
  • Oozes—These will be included as appropriate to the climate and terrain type.
  • Plants—I do plan for there to be some plant creatures on the island, and I intend to create a few new ones for PCs to discover.
  • Undead—There will certainly be undead on the island, though they will not be a focus of the campaign.

Island Regions

Now I’m in the process of creating specific regions on the island. A region can be as small as one hex, or as large as I need it to be. A particular forest will usually be a single region, and a region could include an entire mountain range or just a single mountain, depending on its relationship to the surrounding terrain.

From the moment the PCs leave the main town, they will move from one region to another as they explore the island. Each region will usually have a noticeable boundary (such as the edge of a forest into a grassland, or crossing a river into a new area), though some may have large transition areas as regions overlap for some miles.

In some cases, the regions may be defined by the monsters themselves. For example, if I choose to include a colony of ettercaps, they may take over part of a larger forest. While the forest itself could be a single region, it would generally make more sense for the spider-infested area to be a single region, with the regular portion of the forest a neighboring region.

For this reason, the development of regions and the placing of monsters basically goes hand-in-hand.

Random Encounters and Set Pieces

And, of course, once the regions are developed, each one will get its own set of random encounter tables, reflecting the creatures that could be found in that particular region.

Each region will also have at one set piece encounter, and probably a few. These are locations that do not change and are not random. For example, a goblin lair where a particular goblin tribe lives would be a set piece encounter, with a map of the lair and description of the tribe and its members.

Not all set piece encounters will necessarily include monsters, of course. When exploring a hex, there will be interesting things to find that won’t always lead to a fight, or even interaction with living (or undead) creatures.

But this the final, and longest, step in developing the sandbox and will take some time to do.

Conclusion

I’ve been picking away at this setting here and there as I work on other projects, so it’s not moving terribly quickly. I hope, though, that my thoughts here provide some insight into the development of such a sandbox setting.

I’ve already started planning out the regions and marking them on the island map, and I’ve created a couple of the hexes in the first region. The next time I update this project here I will include some of the developed regions and a couple of completed hexes so you can see how I will present the information for use when running the game.

7th Sea Villains from Movies

I really like the way villains are created in the second edition of the 7th Sea roleplaying game. The addition of villainous schemes in the Heroes & Villains book adds a great way to present the villain as a dynamic force instead of a passive obstacle waiting for the heroes to arrive.

There are some interesting villains in the aforementioned Heroes & Villains book, but I was thinking about how one might create villains by using other media as inspirations. And the villains don’t even have to be from a swashbuckling genre!

Here are three villains that I’ve created using famous movie villains as inspiration.

Peter Baelish (aka Littlefinger)

Played by Aiden Gillen, Littlefinger is a great villain who manipulates his way through the Game of Thrones show on HBO. As much as he is a terrible person, he’s also compelling, and I’ve looked forward to every scene in which he appears. And his “chaos is a ladder” speech (Warning! Spoilers at that link!) is masterful.

If we were to transplant Littlefinger into Theah, he could probably cause the most trouble in Montaigne. Imagine if Littlefinger were to decide that he wanted the throne of the Sun King for himself! At the beginning of a campaign, Littlefinger would be a member of the petite noblesse due to his wealth and connections. And his first step would be to elevate himself to a Marquis as quickly as possible (though such a thing would be difficult to do in the rigid caste system of Montaigne).

Littlefinger would make an excellent villain in a campaign where the player characters were musketeers, courtiers, or members of the nobility. His scheming and ability to manipulate others would present a threat to those whose lives depended on the stability of the Montaigne throne.

Schemes

(1) Gather three favors from three Dukes.
Littlefinger knows it is nearly impossible to be elevated to the true nobility of Montaigne without the backing of multiple Dukes. And while l’Empereur could do so with a simple declaration, such a thing is nearly impossible to arrange from a distance. So Littlefinger is gathering every bit of information he can find on three Dukes—their passions, their dark secrets, their friends, their enemies, and their goals. Once he has done that, he can gain a favor from each, by bribe, blackmail, or gratitude. He will turn those favors into a petition to l’Empereur to elevate him to a Marquis.

(3) Become an advisor to the throne.
Littlefinger is a master at insinuating himself into the inner circles of those in power by making himself indispensable at some task or area of knowledge. Money is Littlefinger’s area of expertise, and so he will attempt to parlay his Marquis status into an opportunity to “help” l’Empereur with some issue or another regarding the treasury of Montaigne.

(5) Set the Dukes against each other.
Once he is advising l’Empereur directly as part of his inner circle, Littlefinger will begin manipulating the nobility to set his enemies against each other while helping out those who prove to be his allies. He will also attempt to restart the invasion of Castille, as he recognizes that in the chaos of war, anything becomes possible. After all, “chaos is a ladder.”

Strength 3; Influence 10; Rank 13

Advantages: Connection (Montaigne underworld (149), Disarming Smile (149), Indomitable Will (149), Streetwise (150), Rich (152)

Virtue: The Moonless Night
Subtle. Activate your Virtue when you act behind the scenes, from the shadows, or through a proxy. For the next Risk, when you determine Raises, every die counts as a Raise.

Hubris: The Magician
Ambitious. You receive a Danger Point when you chase after power and the deal you’re after is dangerous or causes trouble.

Servants and Underlings
Littlefinger has many servants as well as a host of underlings from the criminal underworld of Montaigne (jennys, beggars, corrupt city watch members, smugglers, etc.). Once he joins the nobility, he will have bannermen and soldiers under his command.

Redemption
Littlefinger could not have the woman he loved, and she would have been his only redemption. But since she never loved him (and may not even be alive anymore in your campaign), there is nothing to redeem him. He will trade lives, manipulate others, and betray anyone to gain power, and will not stop as long as he can draw breath.

Anton Chigurh

Javier Bardem was unbelievably creepy in his portrayal of the cartel hitman Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men. His unrelenting pursuit, his choice of weapons, and his palpable menace brought a power to that movie that elevated it beyond the fairly simple story.

Adding Anton to your 7th Sea campaign can bring a sense of dread to the player characters as they realize that this man is hunting them, and like the original Terminator, he will not stop until they are dead. And he’s not afraid to leave a trail of bodies in his wake while he chases them. Nor will he hesitate to murder their loved ones just to make a point, even after he has what he wants.

In most campaigns, Anton is going to be working for some criminal element as a hitman, and something the PCs do gets him on their trail. In No Country for Old Men, he is trying to recover a bag full of money. In Theah, it would more likely be something special, like papers that identify a bunch of conspirators against the Sun King, or a ring that identifies the wearer as the heir to some family legacy, or even a Syrnrth artifact (though in my opinion, this tends to get overused as a macguffin in 7th Sea adventures).

Schemes

(1) Identify the holder of the [item]
When the item (or money) goes missing from its “proper” possessor (and it falls into the PCs hands), the main villain(s) send Anton to recover it. His first step is to track it back to the PCs. He won’t have something as convenient as a transponder to track the item, so he’ll do it the old-fashioned way—by questioning people who have come into the item’s orbit, and then likely killing them. Once he identifies the PCs as the current possessors, he’ll have this target.

(3) Put the PCs in an untenable situation
Anton will simply attempt to murder the PCs and retrieve the item. This is an opportunity for the GM to inflict collateral damage on nearby NPCs to give the PCs some time to escape their first encounter with Anton. But the hitman won’t just follow them. He’ll cut them off from their allies and isolate them, perhaps by planting evidence that they’ve betrayed their friends, or simply by driving them outside of the places where they can call upon aid.

(5) Execute the PCs one by one
Even if the PCs hand over the item, Anton will need to see them die. He will bring all his skills to bear to take them down, one by one. This should be a dramatic fight, with the PCs very worried about this man who will not stop hunting them, and whether they have a chance to beat him.

Strength 12; Influence 2; Power 14

Advantages: Got It! (149), Handy (149), Indomitable Will (149), Staredown (150), Deadeye (151), Sniper (152), Duelist Academy: Boucher (154), I’m Taking You With Me (154)

Virtue: The Fool
Wily. Activate your Virtue to escape danger from the current Scene. You cannot rescue anyone but yourself.

Hubris: Coins
Relentless. You receive a Danger Point when you refuse to leave well enough alone or quit while you’re ahead, and it gets you into trouble.

Servants and Underlings
Anton does not play well with others, and is just as likely to murder another of the main villains’ “helpers” as he is to kill a witness. He works alone, and nothing will change that.

Redemption
Anton is insane and follows his own code. He is incapable of seeing how what he does is wrong, and cannot be redeemed.

Hannibal Lector

Anthony Hopkins is the iconic actor to play the murderous psychopath Hannibal Lector (starting with the amazing movie The Silence of the Lambs). A brilliant and charismatic doctor, Hannibal lusts for murder, and not only eats choice parts of his victims, but feeds human flesh to his “friends” without their knowledge by disguising it in meals during his dinner parties.

Hannibal Lector is a villain with a narrow focus, and will not be usable in all campaigns. He works best if the PCs are members of some kind of law enforcement or military occupation (such as musketeers), so that they can ask for his help in solving unusual murders that are taking place in the a local area or city.

It is important for the GM to present him as a helpful resource early on, so that the PCs come to trust him and consider him a friend. This will make the revelation of his monstrous deeds have more impact when the PCs eventually figure out he is behind the killings.

If set in Avalon, the depredations of Hannibal Lector might at first resemble those of Jack the Ripper. This can be a red herring for the players, who might use out of character knowledge to try to hunt the killer. Only later, when the victims start becoming more affluent and important, will the tenor of the investigation change.

Schemes

(1) Satiate his cannibalistic urges
Hannibal will kidnap and murder people, and then eat them (or at least the choice parts of them). Then he will dump their remains somewhere in the city to be found by the authorities. He will continue to murder one person per week (or thereabouts) in order to keep himself fed.

(3) Get others to consume human flesh
Once Hannibal has his routine down, he will start feeding human flesh to those guests he hosts at his dinner parties. As a brilliant physician, he will get to know some moderately wealthy and influential people, and he finds it wonderful to watch them engage in cannibalism, even if unknowingly.

(5) Convince those hunting him to willingly join him
Even after he is discovered, he will likely use his incredible intellect to escape and run rings around those hunting him. But once he has established a relationship with the PCs, he will continue to consider them his friends—even if they are hunting him—and will leave them letters or even speak to them directly in situations where they cannot act against him in order to try to convince them to join him in his deranged activities.

Strength 3; Influence 8; Power 11

Advantages: Cast Iron Stomach (148), Linguist (148), Disarming Smile (149), Fascinate (149), Psst, Over Here (150), Lyceum (153), University (154), Spark of Genius (154)

Virtue: The Devil
Astute. Activate your Virtue after a Hero spends Raises for an Action. That Action fails. The Hero still loses the Raises she spent.

Hubris: The Tower
Arrogant. You receive a Danger Point when your Villain shows disdain, contempt, or otherwise looks down on a Hero, or someone who could cause harm to friends.

Servants and Underlings
Hannibal does employ a few servants to help run his manor home, but he keeps the staff small so as to reduce the number of potential witnesses to his dark deeds. He treats his staff kindly and with respect, and they are loyal to him and see him as a very nice man for whom they are lucky to work.

Redemption
Hannibal is beyond redemption, as he is a complete psychopath who does not really understand the difference between right and wrong.

Conclusion

There are countless great villains that one could take from movies and books and adapt them for 7th Sea, and these are just three examples. Changing a few elements here and there will keep them fresh and prevent players from immediately realizing where you found the inspiration.

What other movie or book villains would make good additions to a 7th Sea campaign? Have you adapted any inspirations like the above and used them in your campaign? Tell us about it in the comments.

The 7th Sea 2E Risk System

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how the use of dice in an RPG don’t always cooperate. In some games, this is a feature, not a bug—a D&D campaign where the story emerges through play is one example where each roll of the dice may send the adventure (or the entire) campaign off in a new direction. The dice rolls determine success or failure, and it’s up to the players to determine how they react to those outcomes.

In other games, straight success or failure may not be an appropriate way to determine what happens. If a group is trying to emulate a high-action setting (like Star Wars, for example), then it’s not generally about success or failure. It’s about choices, and position, and advantage.

That’s not to say that characters in Star Wars never fail. Much of Han Solo’s activities in The Empire Strikes Back are his reactions to one failure after another. But those failures are not generally the result of his own attempts at actions. Rather, the failures are baked into the situations, and the story is about how he deals with those failures.

Some Examples

Okay, I know some people will disagree with me on this, so I’m going to unpack it a bit. I’m going to use The Empire Strikes Back—the best Star Wars movie of them all—to demonstrate what I mean.

In an RPG, dice rolls are always decision points of some sort. At its simplest, a decision point could just be “do I hit the goblin with my sword or not?” It’s a straight success/failure determination.

Let’s assume there is a party of D&D characters and they’ve encountered a roving patrol of goblins in a dungeon, and the goblins ambush the characters. During the first surprise round, the goblins have an advantage (they have an opportunity to hurt—or kill—one or more characters, while the characters don’t get to hit back yet). If the dice rolls determine that some goblins do succeed with their attacks, then the advantage swings even more toward their side.

But then, in the next round, dice are rolled to determine Initiative—what someone on RPG.net cleverly called “rolling the dice to see in what order we roll the dice.” Let’s say that the goblins manage to beat the initiative rolls of all the characters. This swings that advantage even further in the goblins’ favor.

However, the goblins don’t have good odds to hit the armored characters at the front of the party, and this time they fail at their attack rolls. The advantage swings a bit back toward the characters.

And as the characters start taking their actions, the fighter succeeds on his attack roll, and inflicts some damage with his damage roll. The wizard makes her ranged attack roll and takes out a goblin entirely with one flaming bolt. The cleric successfully bashes a third goblin over the head, inflicting further damage.

By the end of the round, the advantage has swung right back into the characters’ favor. So the players decide to continue the fight, and soon they are wiping goblin blood off their weapons and ransacking the bodies for copper pieces.

But what if the dice buck the odds and send the battle off in a different direction?

Let’s say that the goblin attacks are all successful, and the character attacks are failures. After the first round, all the characters have taken some real damage, and the players now see that if they continue the fight, they might actually all be killed. With the advantage currently so heavily in the goblins’ court, the players decide to run away, or parlay, or something else.

The success and failure of the dice rolls moves the situation toward one result or another, and the players then make their decisions based on those successes or failures.

As I said, this is a simple example, but it’s a common one and illustrates how such die rolls impact future decisions and thus, the direction of the campaign. Ultimately, the players may decide to have their characters retreat from the dungeon entirely. Perhaps that results in them exploring in a different direction, or grabbing different adventure hook. And that might mean that none of the characters end up with a certain magic item that was sitting in the goblin chief’s treasure hoard.

All of this is how the D&D game is supposed to work. It’s a game about interaction, exploration, and combat (the “three pillars of adventure” as described in the 5E Player’s Handbook). In many campaigns, it’s about “playing to find out what happens” (to use a phrase from many Powered by the Apocalypse games) rather than about authoring a story.

But other games are often about other things. Sometimes, a game is about situations that require more than just a simple pass/fail determination. It might be just adding gradations of success or failure (e.g. partial success or partial failure), or including some kind of metacurrency (e.g. Hero Points) to allow the player to have some influence over the dice to encourage success or failure when it is more dramatically appropriate.

The Fate Core rules, for example, are still concerned mostly with pass/fail. You make a roll to overcome a resistance, to establish an advantage, to inflict harm (stress), or to defend yourself from harm. But the player can also spend fate points to turn a failed roll into a success. On the other hand, to earn fate points, the player must either take penalties on some rolls (thus making failure more likely) or put herself into situations that are not in her favor.

Some games combine pass/fail with additional elements that tell the players what happens. For example, the system used in Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPGs use custom dice that include three types of symbols: success/failure, advantage/disadvantage, and triumph/doom. So a roll to shoot a stormtrooper with a blaster could result in a miss (failure), but an advantage (the blaster bolt hits a control panel, locking a door to prevent more Stormtroopers from joining the fight). Some players love this system, as it provides prompts for the group to come up with interesting elements to add to any conflict. Others find it artificial and difficult to always make up new elements on the spot.

And then there are other games that are not really concerned with pass/fail at all. The best example of this is the second edition of the 7th Sea RPG, by John Wick Presents.

The Risk System

The 7th Sea setting assumes that characters are highly competent right from the beginning. They are the types of characters one sees in movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars. In these movies, things are always happening, often too fast for the characters to fully process them, and so they must act and react, but always take some kind of action to change the situation.

In 7th Sea, a character faced with a situation that presents risks and opportunities assembles a die pool based on their Traits and Skills. This pool of d10s is rolled and the player makes sets of 10 (called Raises). The player then spends these Raises to accomplish things in the scene.

The example used in the rulebook posits the character trapped in a burning building. The GM tells the player that it will take 1 Raise to escape the room though the window. However, avoiding taking any wounds from the flames will cost 3 Raises. Furthermore, the character has spotted what looks like it might be an important paper on a table, and grabbing that paper before the flames consume it will cost 1 additional Raise.

If the player manages to accumulate 5 Raises on his roll, then he can accomplish everything—grab the paper (1), avoid the flames (3), and escape the room (1).

But what if the player only rolled 3 Raises? Grabbing the paper and getting out of the room will take 2 of those Raises, meaning that he only has 1 Raise left to avoid the flames, therefore receiving 2 wounds. Or perhaps he really feels he needs to avoid taking damage. He could spend all 3 Raises avoiding the flames, in the hopes of rolling more Raises on his next turn so that he can escape. Maybe he ignores the paper and gets out of the room, only taking a single wound in the process.

This approach majorly mitigates the success/fail question. If the player spends a single Raise on getting out of the room, then he gets out successfully. He doesn’t need to check if he “succeeds” on crossing the room—it’s assumed that if he spends his attention (Raises) on doing so, he’ll manage to do it.

The same goes for combat. It’s not about whether he hits his opponent with his sword or not. If he’s a swashbuckling hero, then of course he hits his opponent with his sword when he makes the effort (spends a Raise) to do so. However, his opponent will also spend Raises to parry with his own sword, or leap backward up onto a table, or knock a standing candelabra into the sword’s way. But doing so requires effort (Raises), and eventually one of them is going to run out of Raises first.

So What about Han Solo?

To bring this back to The Empire Strikes Back…Han Solo doesn’t generally fail directly. Rather, events happen around him at a breakneck pace, and there are only so many things he can do at once.

Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate what I mean…

The Asteroid Scene

Han is piloting the Millennium Falcon away from Hoth, with a Star Destroyer (and TIE fighters) in hot pursuit. The GM has determined that the hyperdrive is not working, but the player doesn’t know that yet. The failure of the hyperdrive is part of the scene, and is not the result of a failed roll by the player/character. For now, the GM tells the player that it will take 5 Raises to plot the hyperspace course, and that he has to spend 3 Raises each turn to avoid the TIE fighters and Star Destroyer batteries. Assuming the player is managing to roll 4-5 Raises each turn (based on a dice pool of 8-10 dice), it’s going to take at least 3 turns to get ready for the jump to hyperspace.

During this time, two more Star Destroyers arrive, and the GM spends Raises to put them into a position to trap the Falcon. But Han’s player ignores the hyperdrive for a moment and spends enough Raises to get out of the trap. And then he gets that 5th Raise and has his hyperspace route.

“Oh yeah, watch this,” he says.

But the hyperdrive engine doesn’t work. C-3PO (NPC) chimes in with “If I may say so sir, I noticed earlier the hyperdrive motivator has been damaged. It’s impossible to go to lightspeed!”

So now the GM determines how many Raises it will take to determine that the hyperdrive cannot be repaired, as the Falcon doesn’t have the necessary parts. But the end result isn’t known by the player—just that something is wrong with the hyperdrive and that spending Raises will determine what they can do about it.

It’s important to note, though, that the damaged hyperdrive motivator was not an explanation for a failed Pilot roll. Han is a hotshot pilot, and the vagaries of the dice shouldn’t make him look incompetent when he’s at the helm of his ship. Rather, an external event has caused the problem, and now he’s got to deal with it.

(This is, I believe, the core of a great deal of what happens to characters other than Luke in the original Star Wars trilogy.)

The reason I say this is because if the damaged hyperdrive was a result of their attempt to escape, then one must also imagine what would happen if the roll was a success. Boom—they get away cleanly. But we’ve already seen this scene play out in the first movie. It adds nothing for them do it again, and repeating such a scene becomes anticlimactic. If they need to get away again later on, there won’t be much tension—because they always get away once they activate the hyperdrive.

So this situation isn’t just the result of a Pilot check or something similar. It doesn’t just come out of a simple pass/fail roll. This is a set piece that the GM set up—a challenge that forces the players not just to react, but act if they want to get out of this.

(I know some people will say that the GM is being a jerk here by simply declaring the hyperdrive doesn’t work. I would expect that, if this were a real game, the ongoing maintenance issues with the Falcon is a key part of the game and doesn’t come as a terrible surprise. While the characters would hate this situation, I think the players would find it fun to play though, and that’s pretty much my take on quality GMing. You want to set up situations that the character hate, but the players love. It’s a balancing act, but if you can do it, you’ll never lack for people wanting to play in your games.)

But back to the characters. Those TIE fighters and Star Destroyers are still chasing them, and Han goes to take a look at the hyperdrive. The GM has determined that it will take 10 Raises to figure out the problem with the hyperdrive, and they still have to spend 3 Raises each round to avoid damage. Leia’s character takes over the piloting for now, and she’s able to get those 3 Raises while Han and Chewie try to diagnose the hyperdrive.

And then the GM tosses in the final complication…asteroids!

Once the characters are all gathered in the cockpit again, GM says that the players no longer need to spend 3 Raises a round to avoid the TIE fighters, as they are too busy avoiding the asteroids themselves to shoot at the Falcon. But the players do have to spend 3 Raises per round to avoid taking damage from the spinning rocks. And any extra Raises can be spent on inflicting damage on the chasing TIE fighters (represented by putting them in situations where they get hit by asteroids themselves).

After a couple of rounds, Han’s player comes up with the idea of getting closer one of the big asteroids, which move much more slowly. The GM likes this idea, but once they are out of the general mess above, the last two TIE fighters start shooting again. Han’s player manages to roll more than enough Raises, however, to destroy the last two TIEs (by having them follow him into a trench and then crash into the narrow walls).

Deciding that it’s time to let the characters regroup a bit, the GM tells them they spot a cave in the big asteroid, and they fly into it to hide from the Empire’s forces. They no longer have to roll to accumulate enough Raises to figure out exactly what’s wrong with the Falcon’s hyperdrive (and that they don’t have the parts to repair it). Instead, they just spend a bit of time while the Empire searches for them, and then they receive the bad news.

After a bit of downtime, in which a couple of players do some roleplaying of the budding romance between their characters, the GM decides it’s time to turn the heat up again, and introduces the mynocks…

Conclusion

Failure can certainly be interesting, and 7th Sea doesn’t shy away from it by any means. But not all games are the same, and not all settings are appropriate for the random success and failure that one finds in D&D. Personally, I love D&D and it provides one kind of game I really enjoy. The dice determinations in D&D are absolutely appropriate for that game.

However, sometimes I’m looking for a different experience. Just because I love pizza, I don’t want to eat it for dinner every single day. Systems like the one used in 7th See 2E provide a very different take on success and failure, and can be used to play games in which situations are resolved not by straight success or failure, but by seeing how the characters spend their limited resources to choose their course toward success.

It’s a different method, but it’s still about the journey more than the destination. The characters (and players) still make decisions, but those decisions come from a different place than in a traditional pass/fail system like D&D.

I hope looking at The Empire Strikes Back helped to explain what I mean by this. Competent characters can still be challenged, and still look competent, while putting them in situations that take them to their limits. And that’s where the fun truly begins in roleplaying games.

A Great Time for SF Fans

If you’re a fan of science fiction (or speculative fiction, or whatever you want SF to mean), then things are pretty decent right now.

If you’re a SF fan and a gamer, then things really couldn’t be much better.

So I thought I’d touch on some of the things happening in RPGs right now, specifically focused on science fiction.

Dune is Back!

I read Dune many, many years ago—I was thirteen at the time—and it became one of my favorite SF books of all time. I ended up reading the entire series, by which I mean all the books written by Frank Herbert. (The less said about the painfully terrible books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, the better.)

I was not one of those lucky people to get my hands on a copy of the one and only Dune RPG, Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium by Last Unicorn Games. With only 3000 copies ever printed, it has become a collectors’ item that fetches some rather high prices on the rare event that one actually becomes available.

But just ten days ago, Gale Force 9 announced that they had acquired a license to produce official Dune tabletop games. And within that announcement was the amazing news that late 2019 will see an official RPG from Modiphius, the same company that has published the Conan RPG, Star Trek RPG, Tales from the Loop RPG, Mindjammer RPG, Coriolis RPG, and Infinity RPG.

Modiphius Games

Which brings me to some of those SF properties I’ve just mentioned. If you’re a SF gamer, then Modiphius pretty much has you covered, with a bunch of great games (not all developed in-house, but all published by them).

  • Star Trek—while I have not personally played this yet, by all accounts this is a fantastic game that totally captures the feel of the ST universe. Modiphius’ house engine, the 2d20 System, has been heavily modified once again in order to ensure that the rules fully support the kind of games that would be expected by fans of Star Trek.
  • Tales from the Loop—the setting for Tales comes from the very cool narrative art books by Simon Stalenhag, and the RPG expertly captures the same vibe of young people living in a world that has been affected by the construction of a massive particle accelerator that has resulted in some strange events. Consider this a SF version of Stranger Things and you won’t be far off the mark.
  • Infinity—this RPG takes place in the setting developed for the tabletop miniatures wargame, and provides an amazing take on digital and social conflict in addition to the standard guns and powered armor one would expect. Unfortunately, this game is coming out very slowly, as by all accounts getting approvals from the license holder is a painstaking and time-eating process. However, the core book is amazing and one could run any number of great campaigns using just one part of the rich universe developed for the wargame.
  • Mindjammer—written by the very talented Sarah Newton, this game uses the Fate Core engine and takes a very interesting approach in how cultures are affected by one another when people interact. Another very deep setting that provides nearly limitless campaign options, this game is very obviously a labor of love for Ms. Newton.
  • Coriolis—described by the authors as “Arabian Nights in space,” this game drips with flavor and interesting mysteries.

Warhammer 40K

Ulisses Spiele just released their new Wrath & Glory RPG, based in the Warhammer 40,000 setting from Games Workshop. This game is only one week old, but already the book has garnered some great reviews.

This edition of the game breaks with the past system developed by the Black Library and continued by Fantasy Flight Games through their Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Only War, and Black Crusade games. The new edition uses a d6 pool system, and provides a great deal of flexibility for characters of different types to all band together.

Yes, that means you can have an Inquisitor, a Space Marine, an Eldar, and Rogue Trader in the same “party,” though of course you’ll have to come up with your own explanation as to why they’re together.

The other major break from tradition is that this game takes a slightly lighter approach to the Empire, reflecting GW’s relaxing of the relentless grimdarkness that smothered their properties for so long. Hope is an actual thing in the WH40K universe now. It may not be easy, but at least it’s possible to hope for a better future.

I haven’t picked this one up yet, but I can pretty much guarantee I’ll end up buying the PDF fairly soon just to give it a more in-depth look.

Eclipse Phase

The second edition Eclipse Phase, the transhuman horror game—though it can be so much more than just that—has experienced significant delays, but Kickstarter backers have had access to the playtest documents for some time. At last update, this one is going to be released within the calendar year, but there’s no definitive date just yet.

Regardless, Eclipse Phase is an amazing setting, and the sourcebooks are fantastic. This, like Infinity, is a game where one could run multiple, entirely different campaigns within the setting and still not touch on all of the elements that could be used.

I know a great many people are waiting for the second edition to drop, and while I didn’t back the Kickstarter, I will likely pick this up shortly after it’s released.

On a related note, I posted a series of articles on how use the HeroQuest 2E rules with the Eclipse Phase setting (1, 2, 3, 4).

Cyberpunk

The Cyberpunk 2020 game from R. Talsorian Games was one of my favorites back in the early 90’s. I ended up picking up the vast majority of sourcebooks for it, and I always preferred it over FASA’s Shadowrun.

With CD Projekt soon releasing their video game Cyberpunk 2077—and it looks freaking amazing—word is that the RPG will be getting an update as well. Unfortunately, R. Talsorian is not the company it once was, and many of us fans are worried that we’ll get another terrible game like Cyberpunk V3.

If the new Witcher RPG is any indication of what they’re capable of, I’m going to suppress my enthusiasm and excitement in order to avoid the likely disappointment when the product actually comes out.

Then again, as silly as it is to use their Interlock system for The Witcher, at least it was a good enough system for Cyberpunk back in the day, so there’s a chance that they’ll just update the tech and timeline and put out a new version that is at least playable.

The Expanse

I was so excited at first to hear that The Expanse is getting an official RPG. But then it was announced that Green Ronin got the license, and that pretty much ended it for me. They’ve already put out a quickstart, because they’ll just be porting over their AGE system used in the Dragon Age RPG.

This one is a real shame, as the AGE system is a terrible choice to use for running a game like The Expanse. Like R. Talsorian, Green Ronin isn’t the company it once was when it was putting out Mutants & Masterminds first and second edition, and the great Freeport setting materials. For various reasons that I won’t get into here, they are also not a company that I want to support in any way.

But for those who want sourcebooks for The Expanse, this is going to be your chance. Even if the system is totally inappropriate, there will likely be a lot of material consolidated in one place to let you run a game in The Expanse setting even if you use a totally different system.

Other Great Options

Without going into a lot of detail on these other games, I want to mention some standouts that SF gamers might want to check out:

  • Stars Without Number 2E—a great game based on the OSR, Sine Nomine always delivers amazing tools for developing and running campaigns, even if you don’t use an OSR-adjacent set of rules.
  • SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists—this game has been getting a lot of attention lately, and it’s easy to see why. An interesting premise married to what is, from all accounts, a decent system.
  • Alternity—another very recent release, this is a new version of the game published by TSR in 1998. I don’t know much about this one, as I wasn’t a fan of the original Alternity system, but it does have a following and if you have fond memories of the original, it might be worth checking out.
  • Esper Genesis—an alternate Player’s Handbook for D&D 5E, this book provides SF character classes and associated abilities using the 5E rules. A Esper Genesis Dungeon Master’s Guide (to be called the Master Technician’s Guide) is coming.
  • Torg Eternity—some might not consider this SF, but I’m including it here because Torg was a pretty popular and innovative game back in the day. Unfortunately, this edition is marred by some sloppy editing and some truly broken rule bits. Reviews from customers have been uneven, so if you’re a Torg fan, take a look but definitely read up on it before you drop your cash.

Conclusion

Fantasy has dominated the roleplaying game industry throughout its history. But these days there are so many good SF games out there, that a group of players should be able to find something that meets their preferences without a whole lot of difficulty.

Now, I didn’t mention a bunch of other SF games (like Mongoose’s Traveller, for example) because I wanted to highlight some new games or games that do something different. But any game that I left off this list shouldn’t be taken as any kind of sleight—I just need to keep this post to a manageable size.

What is your favorite SF RPG? What do you like most about it and what does it do really well? Tell us about it in the comments.

An Acceptable Level of Risk

This week’s post came out of some pondering I was doing after I wrote about introducing a couple of new people to the hobby last week. Specifically, about how one of the players ended up bouncing off the system a few times as the dice didn’t want to cooperate with his idea of how he wanted the game to go.

It got me thinking about systems, and about how I like different systems to provide different experiences, depending on who my players are and the game setting and assumptions that we’ve chosen for a particular campaign.

I’m not going to get into heavy theory here, and I’m not going to bother with the whole GNS categorization that was a major topic of the Forge back when it was a thing. Instead, I’m going to talk about a few specific games, what they do, and how they do it. Hopefully, this will be of some use to those who are searching for the “right” system for them.

Past Examples

One good example that I’ve already written about on this blog involved my search for the right system to use for an action-espionage campaign. There are many different systems that have been used for various espionage RPGs:

And more, not to mention all the generic systems such as GURPS and Hero System that have published espionage supplements or that are often referenced by players of those systems.

But in my search, I eventually settled on the Feng Shui RPG, because I knew it would provide the kind of play experience I wanted.

Media Settings

It can get more muddied when you want to run a game that takes place in the same setting as a known media property. For example, one might want to attempt to run a game that is essentially the RPG version of the Mission: Impossible movies.

But even that requires further definition. The most common confusion that I tend to see that crops up when people discuss playing in a popular setting is whether or not the game is going for emulation of the property itself.

For example, when people talk about running a game in the setting of Conan the Barbarian (using Robert E. Howard’s original stories), there is usually one group that wants to use the setting as it was in the stories, as if it was a real place. Let’s face it, the Conan setting is dangerous, and people die easily and often. So if you’re focused on the setting itself, you’d probably want a game system that is fairly gritty and where combat can easily be lethal to the characters and NPCs. A player might lose multiple player characters over the course of the game, and it’s only when a PC survives does he or she become the “hero” of the campaign.

The other group wants to play the game like Robert E. Howard’s stories. The fundamental difference here is that, while NPCs are fragile and often die easily, the protagonist of Howard’s stories (i.e. Conan) is fated to survive at least until he becomes the King of Aquilonia. A game taking this focus isn’t about whether or not the characters will survive—of course they’ll survive, because they are the protagonists. The question is what adventures will they have and what interesting things will they experience over the course of the game.

Both of the approaches are totally valid, but they really are at odds with each other. And a game system that is perfect for one approach will almost certainly be wholly unsuitable for the other approach.

Just as an example, the excellent Mythras RPG is great for the first approach. The game system can be very deadly for PCs and NPCs alike, combat is fairly involved and provides opportunities to do interesting things during a fight, and it’s grounded in a certain sense of realism.

On the other hand, HeroQuest 2E, Fate Core or the second edition of 7th Sea is more appropriate for the second type of game. These system assume a good level of competence from the PCs, and it’s easy to frame challenges in a way that highlights the PCs’ role as the protagonists.

When the Dice Don’t Cooperate

John Wick (the RPG designer, not the movie assassin), wrote an interesting blog post back in 2015 about dice and how they are used in RPGs. While I don’t agree with everything he says in that post, I do agree that sometimes I have no interest “in exploring the idea of random failure as a dramatic element in an RPG.”

Now, I do run D&D games, and random failure due to dice is a key element of the rule system for that game. And when I decide to run D&D, I’m accepting those rules and what they bring to the table. For one of the games that I’m running with some of my friends (playing Out of the Abyss), that feel of D&D, where I roll out in the open and let the dice fall where they may is a thing that we enjoy. We know that any of the characters might die at any time through a series of bad dice rolls (though there are ways to mitigate that somewhat). We accept it, because that’s the experience we’re looking for.

But that doesn’t work for every game I run. And that’s why I like the Fate Core rules (as an example). In Fate, it’s not generally about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about what success will cost you. Generally, between skill levels, Aspects, and fate points, a player can usually pull of a success when it really matters to them. But when the player spends those fate points, it means that the character’s negative Aspects are going to have to triggered at some point to get those points back into the player’s pool. You can succeed now, but what will it cost you (and when)?

This is not just a thing in a narrative system like Fate Core. The current Conan RPG by Modiphius has a mechanic by which the player can “buy” additional dice for a roll, but those bought dice provide the GM with “Doom”, a resource the GM can spend to make things more difficult for the characters during a scene.

These kinds of mechanics smooth out the random nature of the dice, and allow the players to direct improved odds when they really need a success.

And going back to John Wick, his second edition of the 7th Sea RPG is great for this. The player rolls a handful of dice (based on ability scores and skill ratings), and then “spends” those dice for actions. In 7th Sea, it’s not about success or failure on any given task. Rather, it’s about how much the character can accomplish in a round. Roll well, and you can achieve your objectives, avoid harm, and potentially take advantage of special opportunities provided by the GM. Roll poorly, and you’ll still succeed at what you’re trying to do—but it will mean you’ll miss out on some opportunities, or take some damage while you accomplish your objectives.

Tying It All Together

And this goes back to the introductory D&D game that I ran for the new players. This was a one-shot adventure, with no expectation that the characters were going to continue in a campaign afterward. The adventure itself—Mad God’s Key—is a bit of a mystery, with a dungeon crawl at the end. And the players played well and reached the final encounter in the dungeon with only one character having been injured.

And then the dice decided not to cooperate.

For the new players, who were coming from books and movies that follow a pretty identifiable narrative arc, it was time for them to succeed and overcome the evil at the end of the story. But D&D’s rules are not set up to support that kind of game. The rules are designed around random failure creating difficulties for the characters (including possible death) because those become branching points in a campaign.

So we ended up with a mismatch between the rules and players’ expectations. Because when the player tried to attack the evil high priest, of course his character shouldn’t start whiffing at that point. That would be entirely anticlimactic. Again, not in an ongoing campaign, but definitely in a one-shot adventure.

As I said, I like D&D and I’m perfectly willing to run it as written and let the dice fall where they may. But after the game, I realized that it’s not a great system for a one-shot with new players. As an introductory game, for people who may or may not end up in a campaign later on, the rules can result in a real disconnect between expectations and reality.

Conclusion

Over the last year or so, I’ve introduced a few new people to roleplaying games, some kids and some adults. D&D worked well for the kids, because we launched right into a campaign, and D&D is designed to support that kind of game.

But the more recent experience was a good reminder to me that another approach is probably better for brand new players who aren’t jumping into a full campaign right at the start. A system like the one in 7th Sea would have provided a more appropriate experience.

And so it’s resulted in me reviewing my various campaigns and taking a hard look at the system used in each one, to make sure the rules are appropriate for what we’re trying to accomplish in each of the games I run.

How do you choose the “right” system for a campaign? Do you just go with the default system attached to a particular setting, or do you tinker and modify, or do you replace the system wholesale with one that you feel is a better fit? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

Creating New Gamers

Recently, I got the chance to introduce two new people to Dungeons & Dragons, and the roleplaying hobby in general. I always love doing this, as this is a hobby that has brought me so much enjoyment over the past 30+ years.

I’ve introduced many people to gaming over that time frame, and had the chance to rekindle the gaming spark for many others who had played at one time but didn’t anymore. I say this not to brag, but to put into context what I want to talk about this week.

My personal experience reflects the phrase “it’s easier to turn friends into gamers than it is to turn gamers into friends.” While I have attended various gaming conventions over the years—such as GenCon—and I’ve participated in games with strangers in various settings, I’ve never ended up making connections with people who ended up becoming part of my circle of friends/gamers through that method.

This is not to say that it’s impossible to do so, and I’m not claiming that phrase is any kind of truism for our hobby. I know of others who have met and found great gaming groups made up of people who became good friends. While that is not my personal experience, I’m fully aware that it is the experience of other people in this hobby.

But I’m going to talk from my own perspective, because it’s the one with which I’m most familiar, of course.

How It Began

In this case, there was no need to convince these two new players to give roleplaying games a try. In fact, they approached me because they knew I ran D&D for some mutual friends/acquaintances and were interested in seeing what it was about.

So I set up a game with those two people and two more experienced players (my wife and another close friend).

The Preparation

I knew time was going to be an issue, because we were only going to have about three hours for the game. And considering that this was probably only going to be a one-shot—at least unless/until they decide they want to play again—I wanted to hit some key highlights for the game to show off various elements.

The first order of business was pre-generated characters. Brand new players need an easy way to jump into the game, and providing a selection of characters they can just grab and play helps that. Asking someone completely unfamiliar to D&D to go through the entire character creation process is usually rather time-consuming because they don’t know the value of the various choices they get asked to make.

I decided the pre-gens were going to represent some classic D&D archetypes, and I created five of them to provide some real choice. The characters were a dwarf fighter, an elf wizard, a human cleric, a halfling rogue, and a half-elf ranger. I knew that one of these character types were not going to get played, and so I also knew I would have to be prepared for one of these archetypes to be missing. Ultimately, no one played the wizard.

The Adventure

The second thing I needed was an appropriate adventure. I ended up considering a bunch of different options.

It would have been easy to just grab a simple dungeon crawl, start the characters at the front entrance, and let them explore. And I was tempted to do just that. There’s a great simplicity to this approach, and it provides a great example of what early D&D campaigns were like when I was a kid.

But I had to consider the fact that the world is not the same as when I was kid, especially when it comes to media. Video games and movies provide all kinds of fantasy touch points and I didn’t want to ignore the kinds of things that happen in those other media properties. Because if someone has watched the Lord of the Rings movies and you say that you’re going to play in a fantasy world that is “similar in style” to LotR, then the players are likely to imagine more than just the exploration of the mines of Moria.

In many other cases, I’ve actually not used D&D to introduce people to the hobby. Instead, I’ve used the original d6 version of the Star Wars RPG published by West End Games back in 1987. It’s a great, simple system coupled with a property that everyone knows fairly well. Players get a chance to have their character do the kinds of things they see characters in the original Star Wars trilogy movies to do, and it works really well as an introduction to the hobby.

But in this case, the players had specifically asked to play to D&D, so I needed a good D&D adventure. I wanted to touch on a few different things:

  • Interaction with NPCs. I also wanted more than just “the mysterious old man approaches you in a tavern and gives you a mission” interaction. I wanted to give the players a chance to initiate the contact with the NPCs because they needed something from them (e.g. information, objects, favors, etc.).
  • An action scene that didn’t involve fighting. While such a scene could lead to a fight, I wanted the opportunity for the characters to have some kind of action that was not focused solely on combat. A chase, a climb up a precarious cliff, an escape from a raging fire, and so forth was what I had in mind.
  • A combat. Let’s face it, an introductory D&D adventure needs at least a fight or two, preferably against some kind of monster. While I’m happy to run a game with little or no combat, I think that a battle is a pretty iconic experience for this game.
  • A dungeon to explore. I mean, not having some kind of dungeon in an introductory Dungeons & Dragons game is some kind of crime.
  • A trap. At some point, the characters have to encounter a trap of some kind, that they can either bypass or which can cause damage or difficulty to the party if they don’t detect and disable it.

I considered a few of the published adventures for D&D 5E, such as Lost Mine of Phandelver, Alarums and Excursions (introductory adventure from Princes of the Apocalypse), and A Great Upheaval (introductory adventure from Storm King’s Thunder). But all of those were too long, and didn’t necessarily have everything I wanted to include within a 3-hour playing window.

Luckily, I have an extensive collection of back issues of Dungeon Magazine, and converting adventures to D&D 5E is a breeze. So I went back to issue #114 and looked over a great little adventure named “Mad God’s Key” by Jason Bulmahn.

It had everything I wanted, a chase across a bunch of boats and barges, questioning locals about what is going on, a dungeon to explore, fights with undead, and a trap.

Of course, this adventure is also too long for a 3-hour game, so I had to streamline it quite a bit. I based it in a small town instead of a large city (the gnome locksmith had travelled there on business for a local noble, and was on his way home again when he was waylaid by Irontusk, who knocked him out and stole his key).

  • So the plan was for the players to encounter the gnome on a trail leading toward the town, and get hired to find the half-orc who stole the key.
  • They would head into town and question the locals, which would send them to the docks.
  • The pursuit of Irontusk across the docks would result in them getting the information about the key and the cult that had hired Irontusk. It would also give them the pendant at this point.
  • I got rid of the Green Dagger Gang entirely—it’s an entire “dungeon” that would take too long to play through.
  • Some history rolls would get them information about the cairns and lead them to the one they needed to explore.
  • A battle at the top of the falls against some zombies would set the stage.
  • A trap partway down the tunnels would provide an opportunity to demonstrate that caution is important.
  • Another fight at the bottom of the falls with the high priest, a couple of acolytes, and some skeletons would be the climax of the adventure.

No Plan Survives First Contact…

Overall, it went pretty close to what I had planned. Some things worked out well—they had fun interacting with the gnome locksmith, and the trap worked perfectly. Others didn’t work at all, like the “chase” across the boats ended up with Irontusk mostly waiting for the PCs to catch up with him and then him attacking until he was knocked out.

Due to timing, I also got rid of the first battle against the zombies in the temple, because we needed to wrap it up and I wanted them to reach to the final battle against the priest.

But overall, the adventure still made sense, the players got to experience most of the key elements I wanted to highlight, and I’m pretty sure all the players had fun.

Two interesting observations from the game:

One of the new players, during the battles, didn’t really like the arbitrary nature of the dice, and simply rolled again if he missed (and again, if necessary, until he rolled a hit).

This is one of the things about the system used for D&D, in that the dice rolls are usually simply pass/fail. And if you fail, then your turn is essentially wasted. Some players have no issue with this, but I could see that this player was more interested in moving forward with the game/story and didn’t want to waste time with failure.

If he’s interested in trying other games, I expect a game like Fate—where it’s not about success or failure, but about what success will cost you—would be a better fit.

The other new player struggled a bit with the NPC interaction portion of the game. So I let the other players coach her a bit on what to say and let things be pretty flexible on that score. It’s not reasonable to expect someone brand new to a game to immediately be familiar with (and comfortable with) all the aspects. Talking in character, coming up with bluffs and questions for NPCs, and so forth are things that come with player experience. But she did a great job anyway, and made the final battle a lot easier by bluffing the high priest in order to get close to him before the fight started.

Conclusion

I hope both of these new players give roleplaying games another shot, and I’m more than willing to host another game for them. It seemed that they enjoyed the experience, and I certainly did.

Introducing new people to our hobby in a way that makes it enjoyable and lets them figure out if it’s something they want to continue to do isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been playing for a long time. Experienced players internalize a lot of elements that are completely foreign to someone brand new to the game.

Providing pre-generated characters is a good way to let the players jump right into the game, and selecting the right adventure is key to providing an iconic experience so the game can be judged on its real merits and flaws.

And as DM, flexibility is vitally important. I could have demanded that each failed roll be counted and moved on to the next player, but what would that have accomplished? Instead, it gave me the opportunity to evaluate the bits that might be important to this player, so that I can steer him to a set of rules that will give him an experience he will enjoy even more.

What adventures—or even games—have you used to introduce new people to the roleplaying hobby? How did it go? Tell us about it in the comments.

HeroQuest RPG Campaign Issues

Recently, one of the readers of this blog made a comment about using the HeroQuest RPG for a game set in Tomino’s Universal Century setting (from Mobile Suit Gundam). He asked about using HQ2 and how to make certain themes the focus of his game:

“For Tomino’s UC, I want to make combat between mechas important, but definitely not the focus of the game: themes like proto-transhumanism implied by the New Type concept; the social and political tensions between the Colonies and the Earth government; the horror and futility of full-scale war; should be at the forefront.”

Personally, I’m completely unfamiliar with Mobile Suit Gundam, so my answers here are going to be fairly generic. Having said that, I think that will have value from the perspective of adapting whatever setting you are interested in playing within.

I also wanted to talk about this as it definitely got my mind churning in regards to this element of HQ2 campaigns. After all, a narrative game like HeroQuest seems like an ideal set of rules to highlight certain campaign issues and bring them to the forefront—to have them be a direct influence on what happens in the game.

The Purely Narrative Outlook

Of course, most campaigns have some kind of focus, even if it’s just “dungeon-crawling for profit.” From a purely narrative outlook, focusing a campaign on a specific set of issues can be as simple as ensuring that NPCs and adventures have those issues as their core elements.

For example, if I want to have “avoid things man was not meant to know” as a core theme of a modern-day investigative campaign, then I’m going to create adventures that are about people searching for secrets and the inherent dangers in finding those secrets out. NPCs will include occult specialists, rare book dealers, cultists, and so forth. An adventure could be about the search for a missing person, only to discover that they unearthed an ancient ritual and summoned something that was hostile to them, and they are now on the run trying to keep one step ahead of that being while it relentlessly hunts them.

This is fairly easy to do from that purely narrative perspective.

Using the example provided in the original comment, this approach means that the adventures and storylines you provide to the players will be focused on those themes. For example, if you want to highlight “the horror and futility of full-scale war” then you could present the players with adventures where they have to accomplish a goal in the aftermath of a large battle, where they experience that aftermath first-hand. Put them in a situation where they are in a position to help the survivors, but have a mission objective that means they cannot spare the time/resources to do so. Have them make the choice between rescuing survivors and obeying orders, and then offer scenes where the choices the PCs made come back to haunt them.

For the social and political tensions between the Colonies and the Earth government, is there a way to have the PCs travel incognito between those two societies? If so, let them see the stereotypes and insults that each group applies to the other, and also show them that those stereotypes are gross exaggerations and (in many cases) completely false or based on a lack of understanding of the other group’s situation.

The Mechanic-Based Outlook

Sometimes, though, it’s nice to have the mechanics reflect the same issues. If done poorly, this can bog down the game with extraneous modifiers or sub-systems that don’t add anything to the play experience. If done well, it adds another layer that reinforces the themes of the game.

Fate Core

The Fate Core RPG, for example, does this with “Campaign Issues.” When setting up a campaign, the group is encouraged to “decide what threats and pressures inherent to the setting will spur the protagonists to action.” These are listed as two issues that become aspects and “will be available to invoke or compel throughout the entirety of the game.”

This is a nice way to reinforce the themes of the game and give it mechanical weight. Using the example above about war, the campaign aspect could be “The horror and futility of full-scale war.” During a mission, when those PCs see the aftermath of a large battle while on a mission, the GM can offer the players a fate point to render aid to the survivors even though that’s outside of their mission parameters.

Further, NPCs can have relevant aspects reflecting their prejudices against the colonies or the Earth government that make it easier or more difficult for the PCs to influence, intimidate, or otherwise interact with them.

HeroQuest 2E doesn’t have aspects, though, and lacks an immediate mechanical “hook” upon which to hang this kind of campaign focus. That doesn’t mean that there are no ways to reflect it in the game with the existing rules, however.

HQ Resistances

The easiest way to do this is to adjust Resistances to reflect the themes of the campaign. Bumping a Resistance by one “level” (e.g. from Moderate to High) when engaging in a contest that directly relates to a campaign theme will definitely reinforce those themes.

For example, if you want to reinforce the tensions between two societies, you could increase the Resistance any time the PCs attempt any kind of social contest with members of the alternate society. Brokering a peace between the two factions is going to be more difficult than normal, and the Resistance should reflect that.

HQ Consequences

Another way to do it to use different methods of determining consequences at the end of contests. For example, if you’re trying to show the horror and futility of full-scale war, whenever the PCs take part in a large battle, you can use the Climactic Scene Consequence Table, which increases the punishment taken by the PCs at the end of a contest. Even if they succeed, they are going to be hurt.

(This works just as well in social interactions when reinforcing the themes tensions between two societies.)

If you really want to the PCs to feel the effects of a battle regardless of the outcome, you can use the Pyrrhic Victory Results Table. In order to make the campaign not come to a screeching halt at the first defeat, however, you may want to treat “Dead” results as “Dying” so that the PCs have a chance to survive long enough to understand the dangers of war.

If you want to be really brutal, you can combine the increase of the Resistance method with the increased consequences of the Climactic Scene or Pyrrhic Victory tables.

But of course I recommend using those methods only when it comes to reinforcing those particular negative themes.

But that’s the stick method. If you’ve got more positive themes that you want to reinforce, then you can do the reverse. A theme of “Friendships are more valuable than gold” can be reflected by a reduction in Resistance when the PCs are acting in the spirit of true friendship, or when they are supported by their friends. You can also lower the consequences from a failed contest when the PCs are acting in the spirit of the campaign themes.

(I know that there is no specific rules for this in HQ2, that provide a reverse version of the Pyrrhic Victory Results Table, for example, but it’s easy to extrapolate or simply bump down the level of consequence from a contest to reflect this.)

Flaws

The final method you can use is Flaws. These reflect very specific elements, though, so they can’t necessarily reflect every campaign theme you might want to incorporate.

But if, for example, you are trying to ensure that the tension between two societies cause difficulties during the campaign, giving every PC a “Prejudice against [society]” Flaw is one way to do it. This way, characters need to overcome their own prejudices in order to accomplish their goals when working with people from that other society. You can even allow the players to spend Hero Points to buy down their Flaws over time to reflect their better understanding of the other society and their changing attitudes toward those people.

Conclusion

HQ2, at first glance, seems to lack specific mechanics for reinforcing campaign themes in the game. However, as with so much in the HeroQuest RPG, the tools are already there—it’s just a matter of applying them to accomplish what you need for your particular game.

I’d love to hear about other people’s efforts with HQ2 and how they adapted the rules to reflect campaign themes or other similar elements to make the game sing for them. Tell us about it here in the comments.