Category: Inspiration/Ideas

Life in Athas: Wages

As I ran my Savage Worlds Dark Sun game for a while, I really wanted to flesh out the world some. I opted to tinker with a lot of stuff including the notion of days, weeks, and months in a year. So I ended up changing quite a bit to fit what I wanted Athas to be.

One particular idea I enjoyed was that metal was rare and ceramic coins were used exclusively in city states. However if anyone follows my blog, they’ll realize I dumped keeping track of coins and stuck with abstract tallies of wealth being shares of treasure instead. It’s worked well for me, but I still needed some general yardstick of the value of currency for players.

If they found a haul of coins, how much would hirelings cost? If they needed to hire caravan guards or craftsmen to build something, what would be a fair price? So I decided to whip up some background information on typical wages in Athas.

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Wages in Dark Sun

Wages in Athas are loosely based on the piece standard (or silver standard for free folk outside the city states). For a 10 day week’s labor, a wage of one piece or one silver is earned. Most of that wage will go towards housing, meals, and water, allowing a laborer to have 2 or 3 bits (2-3 copper) pocket money for additional goods. While not earning a wage, slaves also would cost their owners approximately one piece per week.

Free citizens and craftsmen earn 2 to 10 pieces a week. Even though most laborers have wages twice that of a lowly slave, they still need to live somewhat frugally. Nonetheless they can eventually acquire some extra pieces each month, allowing for some luxuries. Most bodyguards and thugs will also take a wage of 5 pieces a week, while professional soldiers commonly get wages of 8 to 10 pieces per week. Although it might be expected these are low wages for such dangerous work, life is brutal and hard in Athas. Most able bodied warriors are willing to take a low wage if it avoids the alternative of toiling away as a day laborer (or even worse as a slave).

The more upper echelons of society ‘earn’ wages of 20 to 50 pieces weekly. This varies from wealthier merchants and low ranking nobles, up to more powerful merchant house leaders and highborn nobles. At this income, it is expected that even the most modest noble houses will have have at least 2 to 3 servants. However, commonly most of the upper society requires an income of roughly 15 pieces a week to keep up with household expenses. While they live quite comfortably, they likely do not have an exceedingly opulent lifestyle. The truly extravagant nobles would spend three to four times that amount weekly and be typical of a great lord or high ranking Templar.

Although Athas generally accepts a wage of one piece per week, this is commonly used as a yardstick for determining a fair wage for free citizens. Labor is cheap in Athas and most foremen will strive a hard bargain for that uncommon laborer being paid wages. Instead they will be offered 7 to 8 bits a week, as much as it would cost to have a slave to do the work instead.

In Tyr, this disparity in views on what is a fair wage has been coming to a head. As Tyr has thrown off the mantle of slavery, many of the newly freed citizens are calling for a two piece wage. This 2 pieces movement is exceedingly popular among the poor and low status populace. They feel this is a wage enjoyed by free citizens in the past and should be applied to all.

Many trade leaders and crafts guild leaders are countering with making one piece a true wage standard in Tyr, ensuring that all laborers and unskilled workers get this wage each week. The more shrewd merchants and nobles hope that this is popular enough among the third of Athas laborers now getting 7 or 8 bits per week, that they will agree with this compromise. Currently the 2 piece movement leaders and various head merchants and nobles are in fierce negotiations on what the wage standard in Tyr should be. Eventually, the rebellion King Tithian will have to make some official decree on the matter.

Netrunner Counter Trackers

A while back I made some simple credit and click trackers for Netrunner. They weren’t going to win over anyone with how they looked but the cards were functional. I seem able to stretch my collection and get a few people playing but couldn’t say the same with tokens from one core set. I also wanted something a little more portable than lugging a bunch of cardboard counters around all the time.

One thing about netrunner is it uses a lot of tokens. I like keeping track of information using counters, but you can get an explosion of markers and tokens on the table with some decks. Because of this I wanted to expand the card trackers I made to try and also handle other card conditions.

I ended up making a universal counter tracker. You could use it for virus counters, tags, even advance tokens if needed. It is limited to being only able to track 12 counters however. Another smaller tracker I made was for recurring credits. Just a small card to slip under another indicating between 0 and 2 credits, helping keep track of what is spent during a turn.

The look and design are clunky, likely enough to make any serious graphic designer gag. However they are functional. You can find them in the downloads section. Hope folks get something out of them for their games.

Thinking up a campaign for Gates of Antares

3_round_campaignGates of Antares is my sci-fi skirmish game of choice as of late. One particular aspect I enjoy about GoA is that it has embraces more narrative scenarios over just having your typical tourney smash em up. However, one thing the rules lack though is a set of campaign rules.

I’ve been thinking of some ideas to get a framework of rules together for campaigns. Digging around I fell in love with some stuff over on another wargaming blog, Steve’s Balagan. They worked up a branching campaign system which is concise, builds on previous battles, and doesn’t get mired down in a lot of rules. I love it. I still want to putter around with some ideas for dealing with casualties and resupply. I might dig into Star Army: 5150 for that, as they have some nifty rules for running a campaign game.

While I might consider working on some static campaign maps, I wanted to possibly consider using a random mission system for battles. There is some great stuff out there which looks nice. I may use the idea of a static defender and attacker to shake up the mission objectives some, but the rules I’ve looked at are pretty robust. I also enjoy that each side has some more hidden objectives to add to the flavor of a particular engagement. Certainly a bunch of great stuff out there to tinker with.

Terrene – a Savage Worlds fantasy setting

For a long time I had Expeditions of Amazing Adventure going which was a series of posts on some manner of a location or culture that could serve as a springboard for an adventure. Primarily my inspiration was a picture and I’d whip up some fantasy locale and occasionally throw in some adventure hooks. It was all very general and my original focus was for 4E D&D.

That series of posts grew and eventually I had a ton of posts. So much so I compiled them into their own section. But it sort of lingered in my brain to do something more with it. I rolled around the idea of maybe compiling them together in a campaign setting.

For my 4E game I ended up making my own setting thrown onto a map from Warhammer. Mixing in the points of light setting along with tweaks I made (using the map as fodder for names), I ended up with Terrene. For well over a year, it was home to my players for our 4E campaign.

I stopped playing 4E and drifted over to Savage Worlds, but the thought of revisiting Terrene was still there. So I looked over at my expeditions blog posts and decided to write them up as part of a generic fantasy setting for the world of Terrene. Adding a sparse bit of rules and some twists to the SW Fantasy Companion, I ended up with a pretty open setting with a few key points:

Few new rules and edges – There are a smattering of new things in the setting. I pretty much wanted to keep it a vanilla setting easily sticking with the SWD and Fantasy Companion books. I have a new race, a new humanoid monster type, and sprinkled in a default skill choice for all of the races.

Portal gates – One quick means of getting around would be through portal gates that allowed instantaneous transportation, but at the same time it is unreliable. Maybe players will land at their intended destination, or maybe not. I think this helps facilitate grand adventures. If the players want to take off to the frigid north or steaming jungles, they have the means to do so and not get mired down in spending weeks or months on the road.

However the travel comes at a cost. Maybe you’ll end up where you want and maybe you’ll end up stuck deep underground in the middle of some lost city. I dig that and it can make for some fun adventures. The portal gates open doors for adventure, not close them off.

No one major power – The Empire exists but there are lots of other kingdoms. The Empire is not necessarily a force of good either. Many leaders, nobles, and lords have selfish interests. This allows for players to be heroes in the world, or be able to serve as mercenaries to the highest bidder if they wish.

There is also some room to play off other powers, be in wars, or take part in espionage if players want. Competing regions means there’s some room for players to have some fun working for different kingdoms, or potentially carve out their own fiefdom.

Long history and fallen cultures – The Pomdarians that are somewhat of a mystery. They are this ancient race of lizard folk that had an immense empire and then overnight they disappeared. What happened to them? There was the entire continent of Alondarra that sank to the bottom of the ocean. What became of them? Over thousands of years many races reached epochs and declined, leaving a wake of ruins and treasure to be found. That makes for some interesting stuff to base adventures on.

So you can find Terrene and a basic map in the downloads section. Admittedly a lot of the the location names are awful. I hobbled myself originally sticking with some goofy alliteration for the expedition posts, but they are serviceable (and certain folks will be changing them). However I hope folks find some useful stuff here for their games.Willingham-Centaur

 

Random Sci-fi adventure generator

TravellerArtASo my sci-fi Savage Worlds game is chugging along. Generally it’s a big sandbox game. The players are flying around in the Scalawag and seeing what trouble they can get into. I employ a sci-fi version of a job board. Each system they jump into they have a few options on employment opportunities. For my game I scooped up the idea of Traveller’s FTL travel. You jump so many parsecs and it takes about a week in this alternate space, regardless of the actual distance traveled. In effect is this age of sail feel for the game, allowing players to potentially run from the law or bounty hunters (and making pursuits after baddies all that more aggravating).

I also fell in love with an idea from Traveller Patrons books. Essentially when the PCs get a patron, after making the initial meet and accepting a job, the GM rolls a d6. While the typical results mean that opposition or the expected situation is what the patron described, there is a chance things could be far more difficult, or that the entire situation is not what it initially seems. I loved this concept as I’m certain I tend to telegraph any secret intentions from NPCs. Not to mention this sort of mirrors events in real life. Sometimes things are a lot easier than expected and sometimes well… sh%t happens and everything goes pear shaped.

A fan made supplement I’ve long gushed over, Savage Space, has a great adventure generator. But I wanted to tweak it some. I expanded the potential outcomes and settled on a series of 8 x 8 tables. As a GM you roll two different colored d8 to represent the rows and columns of the tables. In general an adventure framework is:

Players must [Do][Something] at [Location] against [Opposition].

So I have a series of tables for the Do, Opposition, Something, etc. As a twist, sometimes the players might have to go through some hoops to complete an adventure. Success or failure from previous adventures might impact future tasks, so I created another chart to mimic that. This would also potentially throw in complications to the adventure. To add some structure, certain types of adventures would utilize particular types of side missions, and additional charts I whipped up reflect that.

The end result you can find in my downloads section. This adventure generator isn’t perfect and sometimes you get some wacky combinations that need to be reworked some. However I’ve been surprised how flexible it is. It really has become a great way to spark adventure ideas and a helpful tool for creating a foundation for a potential mission. Hope folks find some use for it in their games.

Tinkering with Call of Cthulhu: The Auction – Part 2

As I mentioned before I like the Auction from The Asylum and other Tales. It’s got some clunky parts though, notably how the auction plays out. The other is somewhat the greater mystery that presents itself later. For new fans of CoC, it’s a great adventure and one I highly recommend. If you’ve got interest in playing it, go shoo and let the rest of this grumbling be for just the keepers and GMs. Spoilers ahead.

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What trips up the scenario for me is you have this excellent set up with somewhat of a mystery. However you have 8 suspects that aren’t really suspects. It’s clear to the players some kind of creature took the Brass Head. And even after all the investigation the PCs do, it’ll rely on Ausperg stating three of the participants tried to buy it from him before the auction. That’s sort of a waste of session time.

I don’t have a complete fix for this. Even with my changes it’ll railroad the story some. But at the end of the auction night, at least players will have 2-3 suspects that they can track down based on clues they found themselves (allowing Ausperg’s information available as a backup if players miss out on key points). So there are two main aspects I changed. One was how the dumbwaiter operated. The other was how the auction progressed in the evening.

I had the dumbwaiter have call buttons on at the top floor, while in the basement there was only a button to close the door. The critical point was that for the dumbwaiter to reach the upper floor someone had to push the lift button calling it up. The second part was allowing a 6-8 minute break in the auction. At that time four of the participants would leave the room one at a time. PCs could ignore half of the auction guests and focus only on the ones that left during the break.

So the auction played out with about half of the items being bid on. Then a break was taken in the bidding where most of the guests stayed in the auction room. Some would leave and remaining guests would try and engage with as many of the players as possible in idle conversation. Everyone would return for the second round, with one of the lot items in tow. After bidding for the item, Ausberg would ring for the Brass Head. Time passes. Eventually one of his staff investigates and finds bloody remains and the item missing, just as the scenario describes. Now onto the clues for the investigators.

The Dumbwaiter As mentioned it only has call buttons on the second floor. The second floor has 3 buttons. One to close the door, one to send it down to the cellar, and one to call it back up. The basement only has a button to close the door. So the waiter could only have been called up from the basement from the second floor. The dumbwaiter will also only move between floors if the door is closed. However the door can be closed and opened from the inside by manually doing so (or being quick enough to push the button and draw back their hand inside the dumbwaiter). There is blood and gore in the dumbwaiter. It takes about 2 minutes for the waiter to move up or down to the cellar.

The Auction Prep-room The door to the room does not appear to have been forced open (it was never locked as a servant is supposed to be inside at all times). There is gore and blood everywhere, including in the dumbwaiter. One of the surviving prep-room servants will state when they retrieved the lot for the second round of bids, everything was in order. They will admit sheepishly they had stepped out for a smoke when they were supposed to be in the vault during the break. The other servant had slipped downstairs for a cup of coffee. The servant will state that his fellow servant was in the room when he returned from a smoke. He cannot recall if the dumbwaiter was in use then. So there was a time when the prep-room was unlocked and possibly no one was inside during the break. The dumbwaiter could have been activated during that time when no one was in the room.

Auction Break Only 4 people left during the break. They did so in a specific order with about 20-30 seconds in between each person leaving:

– Lesek Czernin was the first person to leave during the break.
– Klaus Hunderprest (the ‘murderer’) was the second person to leave the room.
– Margaret Jameson left the room third during the break.
– Sir Martin Murray was the last person to have left the room.

The important bit is that Hunderprest was the 2nd person to leave, openly claiming to needed to use the toilet. Sir Martin Murray was the last to leave during the break quietly planning on doing the same. Yet Sir Murray entered an empty bathroom, and saw Hunderprest enter when he left the toilet. This is a small clue that there was some lost time in the events described by Hunderprest (Hunderprest left first claiming the need to use the restroom. Sir Martin Murray enters an empty bathroom only to see Hunderprest enter as he was leaving it).

As players make their rounds of investigation of the four, some additional information is gleaned from each one.

– Lesek Czernin will be secretive on what he did during the break. He appeared agitated and tense once the break in bidding was called. Lesek actually leaves the house to approach a car parked outside. If tailed and observed by a PC, Lesek will have a conversation with a man in the back of the car (there are two others in the car, a driver and another person in the front seat). The car will drive off leaving Lesek to return to the house. If PCs are relying on statements from the house staff, a servant will only state that the Lesek was directed outside of the house and they saw them leave and return (but not see what they did outside). Lesek is a red herring. He was simply conversing with his patron on the status of the auction.

– Margaret Jameson (3rd person to leave the room during the break) will have claimed she needed to speak on the phone. Margaret went downstairs to make a call. When she returns, she will be rather agitated. If not observed by a PC, a servant will state she went inside a downstairs room. If players investigate further, sure enough in Ausperg’s office the telephone will have shifted from its proper place on the desk as if someone had used it. She will not initially freely speak of whom she was calling and be rather deflecting if pressed. In reality it was to her father to beg for more money for the auction and she was refused.

– Sir Martin Murray (the last person to leave during the auction break) will also claim they need to use the washroom. He will be rather defensive if asked what he did during the break, simply stating that he was answering nature’s call and be rather standoffish about any details. The truth was that the food during dinner was rather rich, he had a horrible bout of the runs and was exceedingly embarrassed to mention it. After some intensive questioning he will grudgingly admit he may have heard some footsteps in the hall while in the toilet but was unsure. After washing and stepping out of the toilet, he noticed Klaus Hunderprest entering the same bathroom.

– Klaus Hunderprest (the second person to leave during the break) will have announced to other guests as he leaves he need to visit the washroom. During the break, he will slip into the empty auction prep-room and activated the dumbwaiter. After calling up the dumbwaiter, Klaus will enter the bathroom and see Sir Martin Murray leaving. In the cellar, a ghoul will have broken in and be waiting inside the dumbwaiter. The ghoul will go up the waiter and wait for the commotion of people outside to go to a lull. It will stealthily exit the waiter, kill an assistant, take the Brass Head, and then take the dumbwaiter down to the cellar (pushing the buttons and closing the door while inside it).

Through conversation, Klaus Hunderprest’s story should not add up. If cornered in questioning, he will finally claim that he will no longer take part in any further investigation. He’ll stand by the notion that he surely did not rend the poor servant limb from limb and steal away the Brass Head. The incompetence of the police will back up this statement from Klaus. It’s a bit of railroading but at the end of the night, Hunderprest will be free to go. However players should have him as suspect number one in being involved with the murder.

If things fall short with the investigation, Ausperg can drop a hint that Margaret Jameson, Lesek Czernin, and Klaus Hunderprest were all people that approached him to buy the Brass Head. If another nudge is needed to guide players to Hunderprest, a confession from one of the house servants selling the floorplans of Ausperghaus and the staff assignments to Klaus can also be utilized.

At the same time, Klaus will likely know the players are suspicious of him. This can allow for Hunderprest to be more proactive hiring thugs to tackle with the PCs. This situation can then help kick more adventure into the investigation if needed (and interrogation of the thugs leading back to Hunderprest is also another clue if needed).

These changes in events really helped tighten up the entire murder investigation some. It’s apparent that something got into the house and stole off with the Brass Head, but the players will have a much more solid notion that Hunderprest was somehow involved. It also makes the follow up investigation to find him a more direct affair. Additionally by framing the events more as a murder mystery, it also allowed my group to work out their detective chops and stretch their investigative legs some.

Verdantia – an alternate setting for Frostgrave

I enjoy Frostgrave. Yet I’m not too keen on collecting a bunch of terrain and rebasing models to fit in the ice and snow setting of the game. One plus I found was that the background for Frostgrave was paper thin. As long as it was in decaying city ruins, you could plop that down anywhere. I embraced this and decided to create a different place. Another sprawling labyrinth of decaying city ruins… Verdantia.

Long ago were the Dragonborne, a reptilian race of people that were infused with the arcane powers of dragons. Their empire flourished in the hot lands of lush jungles and scorching deserts, with only tepid cities built skirting much of the colder lands to the north. It is said their reign was for 5,000 years and then overnight, their kind disappeared. Thousands of years since their demise many of their mysterious monuments still litter the landscape.

Some legends say that they fell into warring factions, wielding powerful magics that resulted in the destruction of their race. Other legends speak of a great religious movement which rebelled against their affinity of the arcane, choosing instead to worship primal gods. The winning faction of this war were the followers of primitive nature, resulting in the savage lizardmen seen in the world today. No one can claim the true reason for the fall of the Dragonborne. What cannot be refuted is that this grand civilization reached an epoch, and in the matter of years slid into obscurity, utterly wiped from existence.

However now many state that it was the great network of portals, created by the Dragonborne, which lead to their downfall. These portals weakened the normal boundaries of the physical world. They allowed primal, chaotic aberrations to slip in, and brought destruction to their great civilization. A statement which is supported in grave hindsight to the terrible fate that had befallen Verdantia.

Twelve standing portal gates scattered among the lands were remains of the Dragonborne and their enigmatic past. These portals were widely distributed not only among different regions in the southern lands, but also a few sparse regions to the north, as well as the western coast that lay beyond the great mountains. The portals themselves were made of thick stone etched with arcane script and large enough for a cart of oxen to pass through. Once one entering the glowing stone arch a traveler would instantly appear from another paired portal gate, safe but unable to enter another portal for a full day.
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All 12 portals congregated in one location, a sprawling set ruins within a steaming jungle. The gates were arranged in a circle on a great stone platform within the center of a crumbling city. Even stranger, a 13th portal structure was at the center of these gates. This 13th portal appeared as a standing, empty stone ring yet much larger than the other portal gates. This last grand portal appeared to be non-functional however, either never completed or its paired portal location destroyed somehow.

This far off region soon became a nexus of trade. A small community sprung up as brave merchants were willing to travel through the portal gates, spend a day within the hazardous jungle and decaying city, only to travel through another shimmering stone arch and reach far off cities. Soon the community grew and adopted the name Verdantia, taken from the lush jungle surroundings. It was in the year 400 of the Imperial Calendar that Octavius VI endeavored to make Verdantia part of the grand human empire.

Octavius entered Verdantia with his great army and cleansed the decaying ruins of all manner of creatures that remained there. He oversaw the reconstruction of the city, and in many cases simply built anew over the carcass of the old foundations. The college of Imperial Wizards relocated to the recovering city, its members eager to scour the ancient ruins for long lost arcane knowledge. Coin flourished in Verdantia and it became the hub of world trade. Warehouses sprung up as brokers for staple and speculative goods haggled among the crowded streets of local merchants. Money lenders and currency changers of different regions also congregated within Verdantia. Yet despite the successful efforts to rebuild the city, Verdantia was far from peaceful. It was ever under threat from the surrounding jungle which held many horrible creatures, cunning goblin clans, and savage lizardmen tribes.

In Y700 IC, rumors were spread far and wide of an ancient chamber discovered within the labyrinth of catacombs that ran under Verdantia. Within this chamber was a tome of necrotic spells that held secrets of the undead. A treasure of knowledge for those seeking greater understanding of the dark arts. This tome became the unrelenting focus of the terrible lich, Ulaam the undying.

His great undead army sacked Nordia, the western coastal city of frigid waters, and using the portal gate located there Ulaam poured his legions of skeletal and ghoul warriors into Verdantia. For over a month humans and undead creatures openly fought within the city streets. Imperial wizards flung spells at undead lichs and other necromancers that had joined under Ulaam’s dark banner. While the city was in chaos, the palisades were no longer manned and goblins, gnolls, and lizardmen warbands struck deep within Verdantia, further inflaming this chaotic war.

In ensuing battles as the human forces were buffeted by these other newly arrived factions, Ulaam was finally able to make a decisive strike. He spearheaded an attack into the Imperial Wizard library and was able to capture the necrotic spell book he so prized. Within days, he was able to decipher a great spell that would turn the tide of the battle towards his favor. It is rumored he emerged from a tower, his gaunt form encircled with a clinging dark yellow mist that appeared to be billowing from his mouth which was constantly muttering an incantation.

This yellow mist flowed over the city seeping into the lower recesses of Verdantia. Living creatures within this poisonous cloud choked and died. To the horror of living creatures that managed to stay above this yellow haze perched atop buildings, comrades and creatures slain by the sorcerous fog shambled to life and began to shuffle towards any living being, eager to tear them apart or drag them down into the suffocating poison mist. Legends from survivors speak of the horrible visage of Ulaam cackling on the steps of the ring of portals, leering down at the undead havoc he had wrought. But this victory was fleeting. The doom that visited the Dragonborne empire so long ago came to Verdantia then.

The sky became dark and the sun was blotted out from an eclipse. The 13th portal, this dormant gate that was silent for millennia shimmered and forms became to pour forth. All manners of demons and elemental creatures spilled into the city. Chittering demons of chaos fluttered above, and huge lumbering golems and elementals ran amok unfazed by the poisonous fog. They tore into living and undead forces alike, imbued with primal magic. It was said the footsteps of some elementals appeared as roots seeping into the cobbled stone roads, breaking them apart, and leaving footprints of lush green plants.

As the darkness faded from above and the sun slowly seeped out, the central portal stone frame cracked, and exploded into a shower of fragments. Each gate in turn shattered and exploded, as if the elemental energy within the air was finally able to dispel the arcane power which enchanted the portal gates. Verdantia was lost, secluded from the world, and again a crumbling city deep within a foreboding jungle.

The decaying ruins are now home to all manners of venomous creatures and savage beasts. Cunning goblins, gnolls, and fierce lizardmen are rumored to reside there. Ulaam’s necrotic presence still taints it, as undead continue to shamble among the ruined streets (darker tales say that Ulaam still lives in undeath, hidden away within the bowels of the city). Along with these creatures are far greater threats of demons and great elementals which still can be seen lurking within Verdantia.

But the faded seclusion of fallen Verdantia was not to last. There are too many riches deep within those crumbling ruins. Too many magical treasures and arcane texts to ignore. Wizards which covet such great power gather soldiers and fledgling apprentices under their wing to undergo perilous expeditions into Verdantia. It is a lost city, but one with wealth and great arcane power for those steely enough to take it.

Drawing villains from PC back stories

So you are sketching out a new campaign and drafting up a list of villains, trying to figure out their motivations and what drives them. Sometimes you will blank out on new ideas or potentially start recycling villains. To get around this consider looking over your character’s backgrounds and see if there is any synergy to incorporate their past with NPC villains you are making up.

For my weird west game I had a few general ideas of the villainous movers and shakers in the alternate 1870’s world I was crafting, including some evil organizations. As a first adventure, I set about the players being asked to deliver a holy artifact after being betrayed by a trail guide. However, I only had the barest of ideas though and needed to solidify a few main villains for the game. Tasked with this I scoured over the backgrounds of my players to get a few ideas for evil NPCs.

I fell in love with the 6th Gun comic and really dug the idea of a relentless group of undead soldiers. One of my players was a former soldier so I prodded him for a few more details. He saw himself from a long line of farmers that bred horses. His family and farm got wrapped up in the Civil War and he found himself fighting for more out of defending his home than for political reasons. At the conclusion of the war as it ground to a stalemate and eventual truce, he lost his family and land when it became territory for the other side. Losing everything he became a despondent snake oil salesman out west, more keen on drinking laudanum than selling his wares.

Sixth-Gun-concept-art02Getting that background, I asked for more from him. Of course he was a former cavalry officer, so I asked for more details on his commanding officer during the war. The only bit of solid information I requested would be that officer was someone the PC despised and thought sadistic. The result from him was Major Clancy ‘Buck’ Futter. A gross glutton with an enormous gut that nearly buckled any horse he rode. Joking aside with the nickname, this got my mind running with ideas.

I latched onto that key characteristic of a fat glutton and the idea of someone with a ravenous hunger surfaced. I envisioned the unit near the end of the war getting caught up in a siege. Cut off, surrounded by an enemy army with winter set in, Major Clancy Futter ordered the horses to be eaten. Starving still for weeks, some rumors in the fort fell about that wounded soldiers were quietly disappearing. When the enemy finally stormed the fort, the player had escaped believing his commanding officer was killed in the battle. All of this back information the player knew about.

What my player didn’t know was that Major Clancy Futter survived. Aching with hunger and fearful of starving to death, he was enticed into invoking a ritual of dark magic with some of his men following suit. Culminating this foul ritual by eating human flesh, he would transform and be undying. It was successful but he was cursed with the wendigo. Forever alive, he would be driven with a ravenous hunger that could only be sated for a short time by consuming human flesh. His cadre of men around him were also cursed with this affliction.

That villain stuck out for the campaign. One of the first clashes the group was at a church, the group inside surrounded by men on horseback. Unable to enter the hallowed ground they called for the PCs to throw out a holy artifact they wanted. My snake oil salesman player quipped something back. I then described some of the men parting and a gaunt fellow riding slowly forward. Despite its emaciated frame covered with a tattered uniform and cavalry officer hat adorning its head, it still had a grotesque paunch of a gut. The villain called out the PC by name, ‘Cyrus McClintock! That you in there? So you made it out of Fort Bean alive.‘ Trust me, jaws dropped at the table as players realized someone in the group had dealings with this creature before.

A small idea from a player back story cemented into a foundation of being a major villain for the game. It became a driving, relentless evil force, ever pursuing the PCs. Additionally it was taken from a player’s past and was a way of drawing that PC into the world, as they had a shared history with the villain. Instead of me having to fill in the story, that player could step up around the table at that moment describing how they knew the NPC, and its likely intent.

So I encourage looking over your players’ back stories and try to mine it for adventure ideas. People and events of note in their past can easily become the villains for a campaign. Asking details from players on a name, description, and mannerisms all can help give the NPCs a life of their own. Best of all the players become part of the world building process for the campaign and become greater invested in the setting. So don’t try and force yourself to think up everything, allow the players to help carry that creative load.

Using a deck of cards for Dread

bloody_playing_cardsDread is a horror rpg from Impossible Dream Publishing. It’s a game with bare bones rules designed for one shot sessions. At the centerpiece of Dread is a tower of wooden blocks (Jenga) where players attempt to pull blocks and place them back on top of the tower for task resolution. If they can complete this manual exercise, the task in the game is successful. Knock over the tower and your player suffers some horrible fate, being removed from the game (they die, go mad, slip into a coma, etc.).

I love the idea, however I can see it getting a little clunky later in the game. Block pulls can take more time near the end as the tower gets more unstable. While that added tension is part of the charm for Dread, it can add some dissonance as you are switching from narrative tension to one revolving around a physical task. Lastly once a tower does fall, you’ve got this break in the game where the tower has to be assembled for the remaining players, further deflating the tension at the table.

Also as pacing goes you can get those crazy flubs of a pull (or the accidental table bump) which send the tower crashing. Everyone can always shrug this off and keep going, but it means additional downtime as the tower is reassembled.

Playing cards can be used as an alternate to the tower with a joker randomly placed in the deck (check in the downloads section). I wanted to give the game some more structure though. Dread is based on a normal assumption that a tower would fall between 35 and 55 pulls. Placing the joker randomly in the last 20 cards of a deck ensures there are some safe draws for about half of the deck.

Tension is in the game though, as players will see their safe options dwindle. Each draw of the card continually makes the deck smaller and smaller. With that joker card ever moving to the top draw of the deck. However this is a still a little too structured though as players can figure out exactly how many draws are needed before something bad could happen.

One way to work around this is having some suits and cards force additional pulls. I opted to have some require another draw from the deck, yet other cards would allow for an option. For those, players may choose to fail instead of making another draw from the deck. Both of these speed up the number of cards being drawn, pushing that joker to the top of the deck faster.

Another tweak was allowing aces for certain suits to be set aside and saved. They could be used instead of pulling from the deck, or offered to other players. The one exception would be for the last 10 cards of the deck. At that point players would be required to draw from the deck as the story scales tipped to the point of being out of control.

What I whipped up here certainly has my mind racing for applications in other games. I’m digging the idea of suits and ranks of cards trumping others allowing players for some options with altering task outcomes. I particularly see this being a means to remove a GM from the game, or potentially move it into being a shared activity. I think that is a big stumbling block for some RPGs. While a GM allows for amazing games they also are an entry barrier, and RPGs that could be played without the need for one likely might expand the hobby more. Hope folks get some use out of this Dread option at their game table.

Using different initiative systems for D&D

VirtualDnDPostI have a love-hate relationship with classic initiative in D&D. One plus is at least for the first turn, things are chaotic. You can get a player rolling high and step into the action immediately, and you can have a player instead be a little flat-footed by rolling low. It’s fun. However on the following turns it slips into a set order and the humdrum of a predictable routine for turns becomes the norm. Alternately, it’s a little jarring breaking up the narrative to jump into wargame mode for a combat by telling players to roll for initiative.

Newbie Dm has been pondering this last point some, with thoughts of dropping it completely. I can agree that calling out initiative is like announcing RP needs to jump in the backseat as butt-kicking time is taking over the story steering wheel. I don’t quite have an answer for that. There is a certain disconnect with D&D when it comes to roleplaying and the actual mechanics of combat resolution. You can certainly pepper RP into a melee, but there will still be those mechanisms in the background of rolling to hit and damage, with initiative order lumped into that too.

However, I wouldn’t kick initiative to the curb. I realize it can break up the narrative in some cases, but having a completely open order for combats can also allow players to slip into taking over the action completely. I like the idea of combats being deadly and unpredictable. In that aspect, classic rolling for initiative sort of captures that. The problem I have is it slips into a set order, with no surprises after the first turn.

Look at wargames – The idea of unit activation is something that’s been tackled quite a bit through a variety of means in miniature wargames. A lot of designers try to model friction in command and unit activation, and uncertain turn order helps mimic that some. Taking a look at how other games handle unit activation (or initiative), especially wargames, can offer some good ideas for porting them over to D&D. Mind you, what I’ll talk about here is by no means an exhaustive list for systems used in miniature wargames but they are some common themes.

IGOUGO – This is a common turn order system. A player chooses all the units they wish to activate and resolve their actions, then their opponent does the same. This can be shaken up some requiring command checks to see if a unit can be activated.

I’m not a fan of IGOUGO. Even with command checks, you have a degree of certainty how your turn will play out. This isn’t to say it’s not a popular system though. Warhammer 40K and Flames of War use IGOUGO and are probably some of the biggest systems around for wargames. For D&D, you could just have all the players go, and then all the monsters. It can work but not my cup of tea.

Alternate activation – This is a popular stepping stone between IGOUGO and random activation. Players pick one unit to activate and play out the turn, their opponent then does the same, going back and forth until all the units are activated. For D&D, you can have players and the monsters go back and forth, or break it up with the PCs having 2-3 characters act, then a few creatures. It’s serviceable. The kicker is usually figuring out who which side starts at the top of the turn. Commonly a lot of wargames decide that by rolling a die (sometimes with modifiers to represent better command and/or morale). Deciding by the highest dexterity scores D&D might work for D&D.

Random Activation – For me this has become my favorite system in wargames, as it can provide you with utter, random chaos. Granted D&D has this right off the bat with rolling initiative too, however the order becomes static. I’m a fan of keeping things completely random throughout the entire combat for each turn. There are two ways to handle this. One could be that each player/monster is assigned a specific card and they are randomly drawn from a shuffled deck.

Another more flexible system would be splitting a deck of cards up by color, with one side activating when their color is drawn. This could also be done using dice of two sets of uniform colors. To keep ensure everyone gets a turn, you could make a special deck (or pool of dice) where each individual unit is represented by a card of their respective color. One my favorite games, Bolt Action uses this system with colored dice. It’s easy and flexible enough that you can choose what unit to activate (provided you get lucky enough to draw the right colored die).

Savage Worlds also employs a random initiative system going by numerical/suit order using a standard deck of cards. I love it. It makes each turn hectic as you can’t predict exactly when you’ll act from turn to turn. While you could mimic the same thing in D&D just re-rolling initiative for each turn, mechanically drawing from a deck of cards is easier after a good shuffle.

Point allocation – Another system commonly used in wargames is point allocation. Each side has a limited number of command points which can be spent to activate units. Likely not all units on a side will be activated during a given turn and typically a unit can only be activated once. Even using IGOUGO, this can add an element of friction in command and control. SAGA uses something like this and I find it immensely enjoyable.

If you were trying to embrace a more narrative approach to initiative in D&D, point allocation would be something I’d use. When I’ve run Dungeon World, I used a point allocation system. It worked wonders.

The problem with combats for me in Dungeon World was that they were too open. If you had a player or two that were more proactive around the table, they could hoard the action for the group. I needed to break that up and it was a little rough just putting a hard stop to a player’s turn and pushing others to act instead during combat.

So I gave each player 2 markers. When they did something they threw it into the center. If they had no markers, they had to wait. Once everyone spent their markers, they all took 2 markers and the process would repeat. For modelling simultaneous actions in a short time frame, this worked well.

To embrace the open narrative of Dungeon World, I would allow a player to voluntarily give a marker to another player if they wanted. That way if a PC was on a roll doing some cool stuff, another player could allow them to hog the spotlight a bit longer. It added some structure to combats but was still flexible enough for Dungeon World. Going for a more free-form initiative in D&D, I would do something similar.

Handling high (or low) dexterity – This is something that can put a kink into different initiative systems. Players with high dex usually get an initiative bonus acting before others. I’d whip up a house rule allowing PCs to redraw a card, pull another die, or possibly get an additional activation token. There is nothing wrong with giving high dex players some advantage with determining turn order. Regardless, I’d always adopt a house rule to allow players to go first in the case of ties. It’s just a little nod to the players and encouraging them to be heroes over the monsters.

These are a few ideas you might want to port over to your D&D game. If anything, I encourage folks to play other games. I especially think DMs should experience different games aside from RPGs. You really get exposed to interesting game mechanisms playing other types of games, and may be surprised how many things you can pick up to make your own D&D game better.