Campaign Updates

It’s been a while since I wrote about the campaigns I was running, and I’m at a point where some of them are undergoing some big changes, so I thought I’d jot it all down to help me process. Here are the 4ish games I’m currently DMing, all of which are fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.

The Chained Worlds: Above & Below

An indirect sequel to our long-running Wall campaign, this one’s been going on since May 2016. It’s actually two campaigns…or maybe it’s one campaign with two adventuring parties? When Wall finished, I had a group of 12 players interested in continuing to play, and while the weekly drop-in method of Wall worked for a while, as story details accrued, people started feeling like they’d missed too much important stuff to continue dropping in. So what could I do?

X-Factor #70 - Fourteen X-Men

From X-Factor (v1) #70, by Peter David, Kirk Jarvinen, et al.

Based almost entirely on scheduling needs, I broke the players into two groups. They were both from the same hometown and working for the same organization, but they were charged with exploring different parallel worlds: one went “up” the chain to a fae-filled world of imagination (actually the same world as the Wall campaign but a couple centuries later) while the other went “down” the chain to a gray and feudal realm of dying kingdoms and encroaching glaciers.

The first group became known as Date Team because, well, that’s most of what they do. They’ve dated a slug-eyed sewer secretary, a marquis, a ghost of books, a mouse king, a sailor’s daughter/swanmay, and more. They’ve destroyed dates, gotten revenge for jilted lovers, and caroused at every bar in town.

The second group is Boy Team. If they see a door, they go through. If they see a mountain, they climb it. If they see baddies, they rough them up.

Every few months, the two groups would get together for an all-day session where they’d celebrate a holiday, tackle an opponent too big for a single party, or do team-building exercises.

Now, after two years and 85 total sessions, things are nearing an end. They’ve discovered that the chain of worlds is actually a cage that’s keeping an apocalyptic entity, The Maw, from consuming everything. Boy Team is traveling across every world in the chain Sliders-style, trying to find allies against The Maw and uncover its history. Date Team is looking for the missing godhead of their world, the First Titan, under orders of the faerie queen Titania.

With people having left and joined each group, they’re currently on track to join into a single 8-person party for the remainder of the campaign. This big act will probably be done by the end of the year. And then?

Then I’m thinking of keeping them as one group but having them run through three separate campaigns at the same time. Each week, they can vote on which characters they want to play: their Chained World characters, a post-apocalyptic Bronze Age community-building game, or a post-post-apocalyptic Romantic/Victorian/Western game (see below).

Patchwork World: The Hex Crawl

This one’s only nine sessions in, but it’s set in a world I developed for a series of one-shots I ran for people learning D&D. It’s predicated on a few big points.

  1. “Fantasy” does not only mean “magic.” It also means “a way people wish things could be.” A fantasy RPG should represent the latter by way of the former. Middle Earth was Tolkien’s fantasy of a rural paradise where evil outsiders are kept at bay. Lankhmar was Fritz Leiber’s urbane, adventurous boys’ utopia. Conan was Robert E. Howard’s libertarian and feudal dream. But we don’t have to do things that way. Our fantasies can be places gender is exploded, where brown people aren’t attacked or discriminated against, where basic needs are met and adventure is a way to build bridges and spread abundance without also bringing colonialism. Which leads to…
  2. D&D doesn’t have to be Medieval. Given the rules-as-written and the possibilities implied in magic, extraplanar cosmology, and the various species and creatures, D&D can exist anywhere on the historical spectrum or, as I prefer, entirely outside of it. We can deal with historical ills if they’re of interest to us, but we can also use D&D to make a place where those things never happened or where they were happened and punished according to our desires. Slavery can be universally regarded as evil. Money can track an exchange of favors without the burden of capitalism. People can communicate across vast distances in the blink of an eye, ride trains, have light-up shoes, be teenagers. There’s no such thing as “that’s not how it happened in the real world.”

Given those two interwoven points, the Patchwork World is a post-post-apocalyptic planet made of chunks of other planets. There are radiation-blasted deserts, rural utopias, steampunk cities, and hells and heavens of varying degrees. The difficulty isn’t in creating a utopia; it’s in reconciling everyone’s different utopias.

This is complicated by an additional wrinkle: the players asked for this campaign to be a sort of overworld exploration game. They want to see all the weird things the world holds. To this end, I’m running my first hex-crawl:

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The map as it stood a couple months ago.

We started with only a few known locations, including their base of operations and each character’s hometown. Through exploring and talking, they’re slowly filling in the Patchwork World, walking across it in the giant ostrich robot they got for bringing a deadbeat god dad to justice. As they visit new hexes, the contents are mostly randomly generated by a spreadsheet I made giving me either a large area (with its occupants, technology level, and mood) or a seeded point of interest pulled from other sources.

This world is, potentially, a far-future version of the Chained Worlds campaign. I dunno. Maybe I’ll join the groups at some point? Or let them guest star in each other’s games?

The Lost Isle of St. Christine

This is the newest campaign; we’ve only made characters and played enough to introduce the main conceit of the game. The history of this setting is as follows:

  1. I made a “Peasants & Plowshares” hack of fourth edition D&D to teach people the game. It was set in a witch-hunty walled city.
  2. I brought the P&P players back to that city as more powerful (1st level) PCs to let them run roughshod over their peasants. The city was revealed to be on a lost island.
  3. I quit D&D and sold all my stuff.
  4. I got obsessed with “real life” lost islands like St Brendan’s Island.
  5. I started (but never finished) a “non-interactive fiction game” called Copper Falls.
  6. Got back into D&D and wanted to run a full campaign in a small, dense area.

So here’s the island so far:

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And here’s the original pitch I made the players:

400 years ago, members of a religious schism were said to have found an untouched island on which to practice their faith. They were never heard from again until today. You’re passengers on the first ship to the Isle of St Christine, accompanying traders, priests, and explorers. What does the island hold? How have the pilgrims changed? And was the island truly untouched?

Tags: exploration, mapmaking, religion, cults, dogs, dense

Audio inspiration: “Masked Ball” by Jocelyn Pook

Visual inspiration: St Brendan’s Isle

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D&D Emergent Strategies: Animal Friendship

Do you know Kira Magrann? She’s a smart and cool game writer; you can find her here on Twitter and Patreon. She tweeted this:

It caught my eye because, in the 5ish campaigns I’m currently running, this is actually really common. Kira noted that D&D mechanics don’t explicitly support this type of play, and it got me thinking about why my players do it and what I might be doing to push them in that direction (or at least not pull them away from it).

First, while there aren’t any big rules expressly pointing players toward helping animals, there are at least a number of features that might act as signposts in that direction. A few of them off the top of my head:

  • the speak with animals spell, available to rangers, druids, Oath of the Ancients paladins, Nature clerics, Path of the Totem Warrior barbarians, and potentially bards and warlocks depending on their build (and the forest gnome’s ability to speak with small animals)
  • the ability to turn into animals, especially the druid’s wildshape, but also via spells like polymorph
  • animal companions, such as from the urchin background or Beast Master ranger build
  • other animal-centric spells like awaken and animal messenger

So Kira’s definitely right; there’s no “help animals to advance your characters” or similar rule in D&D. But with all those options, if the group has the right make-up, there’s a lot of animal business in there. However, that could easily get squashed under the D&D stereotype of “kill monsters and get loot.” So why isn’t that the case in my game?

A big part is because I give XP/levels just for showing up.

I don’t track monster or encounter XP, I don’t give XP for quest milestones—everyone gets a fraction of a level after every session.

Originally, I did this because I ran a pure drop-in game where anyone from a group of 14ish players was invited over every week. They ranged from the ages of 25 to almost 50. It was a miracle that any of us could find a free night. I didn’t want to penalize anyone if they happened to come play when the game was more focused around travel, carousing, or other interactions not typically considered XP-worthy.

And it may not have been conscious, but once the players realized they didn’t have to quest for XP, they started doing all sorts of strange things: getting drunk and rambling around town, uncovering reticent NPC’s backgrounds, going on dates, and, well, talking to animals.

The party I was thinking about when I said that my D&D experience has been animal-centric has a druid, a ranger, a Totem Warrior barbarian, an urchin sorcerer, and a rogue who bought a goat. Once they realized they could do animal things, it became a primary way of scouting locations, interacting with NPC friends, and traveling. They save “dungeon monsters” from the intelligent baddies that imprisoned them. They ask me every session how their animal companions are and what they do with their downtime. They once all turned into mice and saved a mouse kingdom from a fungal invasion; the ranger almost excepted the mouse king’s proposal to rule beside him, which would have led to her retiring that character and making a new one.

It makes me wonder what other emergent themes might be hiding out in D&D.

(Shoutout to Greg the Mouse, Ricky the Goat, Rations the Pig, the swanmays, and all the other animals in my current campaign. And shoutout to adrienne maree brown, whose book title I stole for this blog post but whose work is otherwise unrelated to mine. Or is it?! Regardless, get the book. And of course, go follow Kira Magrann.)

Session Planning in the Shower

I turned my spur-of-the-moment session-planning methods (often done in the shower) into a full-blown game (meant to be played in the shower). Apologies to the great Dr. Bronner. Full text below.

ENJOY ONLY 2 PASTIMES, cleanliness and preparation for ‘Role Playing Games’ which prepare your body-mind-soul-spirit for unsullied life. For a flexible and holistic gaming session, combine a shower with your planning as ‘Game Master.’ ALL-ONE!

For use with games of all type and especially when feeling that singular & human stress that comes from not having prepared for a night in which you will act as ‘Game Master’ for friends & loved ones.

Soap up your hands and arms and laugh wickedly to embrace tradition dating back to ‘sardonic laugh’ of 1784 when Fanny Burney wrote in ‘Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay.’ If the sound you make pleases you, your session will be masterminded by a singular and villainous ‘Non Player Character.’ Has your struggle through life left your hands & arms marked with wounds? If so, the villain has true and good reason for how they act. If your hands are smooth as well as clean, the villain is inexplicably bad and proud of their sin, descended as they are from sinful sinners throughout history. However, if the sound you make is cacophonous or displeases you, the action of the evening’s session come from misunderstanding, as we are simple & corrupt beings all. Count the scars that decorate you from shoulders down to fingertips. This is the number of beings involved in the night’s misunderstandings. Name them and their grievances! Scars on your knuckles signify those who are stubborn & uncompromising. Scars on your forearms translate to scared and forthcoming ‘Non Player Characters.’ Remember that they are All-One! They interact as we all do and we are one!

Wash your back with loving massage. How much of it can you reach? Using ancient mathematics, name the %! Let that be the amount of the night’s plot that the ‘Player Characters’ can learn without heavy investigation, heavy fighting, or heavy exploring. Let the dirt you can’t reach become dirty secrets kept from your players. Dirty secrets unite all humankind.

Cleanse your face. If your eyes are invaded by stinging cleansing, tragedy befalls a ‘Non Player Character.’ What happens & what triggers it? Remember the ancient wisdom that declares that all triggers descend naturally from ‘Player Characters.’ Carefully wash your hair. What-cunning-and-numberless-products. How many did you use for hair & face combined (ALL-ONE!)? Each is a treasure to place lovingly into your session. What treasure? Why are they coveted, for all things are coveted in a sinful world? Who holds them, and how are they protected? Scrolls: $10 for 10, $3 for 1, help unite all!

Let suds and bubbles cascade down your front & all down to your thighs. Does it feel good, as all of us on this world are deserving of pleasure? If you think of ‘Sex Things,’ a ‘Non Player Character’ desires a ‘Player Character.’ Why & for how long & are their intentions good? If your mind is clear & clean of sex, give a ‘Non Player Character’ a vulnerability or weakness. Is it a curse, as sin is our curse in the human world? Or an everyday vice? How is it telegraphed to the ‘Player Characters,’ as all weaknesses must be signaled and shown as though a great & traditional ‘Boss Battle’?

Wash your butt. ALL OF IT AS ALL BUTT MUST BE CLEANED. Would it please you if your butt was bigger? Consider consequences or rumors that might reach those who wield power over the ‘Player Characters.’ If you wish it was smaller, plan a way for common people to interact, as the will of the people will always make itself known. If you’re content with or don’t care about your butt, consider this: a foil-double-echo of a ‘Player Character’ who appears as a ‘Non Player Character.’ Similarities are everywhere as all are one!

When you wash your legs, is it easy & painless as you are blessed with flexibility of body-thought-shower? Then a scenario solution can be discovered without great sacrifice as others have sacrificed themselves before us. But if you, as most, suffer from pain or awkwardness, then it shall be reflected in the scenario when someone will have to lose something important to solve everything. ALL IS ONE! CLUES ABOVE SOLVE PROBLEMS BELOW, AND THE INVERSE IS TRUE TO ONE AND ALL!

Let your feet inspire the landscape of the scenario as you wash them with loving care. Where did the dirt on your feet come from, for all dirt is unique and speaks to someone’s home as draculas have always known? How do they feel? What is smooth and what is textured? Even if your ‘Player Characters’ don’t travel because their home is where their heart is, your own unique feet can inspire & invoke emotional landscapes instead of physical.

A question echos through the ages: ARE YOU SHAVING? Let the where and the why of it guide side paths & future consequences because what you shave away might grow back tomorrow.

As you carefully dab away the consequences of your cleaning, give your main new ‘Non Player Characters’ distinct clothing styles, for as English playwright Shakespeare 1599 wrote in ‘HAMLET,’ clothes make the man. But not all are man nor are all woman, and variety is the spice of life. Let them dress a degree better or worse than those around them. Jaunty or bizarre accessory: $3 Who made their clothes, for they do not come from nowhere and ALL ARE ONE.

Put on your own clothes. (Who made them?) It must be done in a certain order. For each item you don, pick a piece of the scenario you’ve dreamt and decide how it’s introduced to your ‘Player Characters.’ When you put garments over other garments, think on how two components of your scenario overlap, co-occur, and change each other. ALL ARE ONE! How does the order of introduction shade and escalate feelings & deadlines? NO COMPONENT STANDS ALONE! Exceptions? None!

As bodily cleanliness is important, so too is the order and cleanliness of your space! Return your soap to its proper home. Place dice, pencils, and other materials within easy reach. Consider your players and build in your mind a place of love and trust for them. WE ALL ARE ONE, and as has been said since the oldest times, you and your players are more important than your plans. If anyone seems uncomfortable or plays an ‘X CARD,’ move your plans from the public arena to a quiet and secure place in your deepest mind. They can be cleaned and salvaged for another time, and it will be much easier than cleaning and salvaging comfort and friendship. ALL ARE ONE AND SHOULD HAVE FUN!

Patchwork World: The Playbooks

I’ve been slowly putting together a collage/remix game powered by the apocalypse. It’s meant to be an entire collage of a game: characters mutate and gain pieces from other playbooks, the rules are put together from other PbtA games, and the setting itself is a collection of chunks torn from other worlds.

A big(ish) part of the game is randomly rolling your character’s looks, starting moves, and advancement. This is a major part of many games, especially OSR-style games. It hasn’t made it into many “story” games, though, and I understand why; complete stories or powerful moods rely on controlled input, and randomness can be a threat to that.

However, I wanted to create a place where randomness is an expected and vital part of the game. Part of that is because I’m thrown off by unexpected things in real life; I hate it when plans change, and I have trouble adapting to unexpected things. I thought (probably a little romantically) that this game could serve as a place where I could “immunize” myself against the unexpected.

Here are the (1d)6 playbook descriptions and their accompanying collages (plus a bonus playbook requested by a friend.)

Fighting Folk
You might believe that violence is inevitable, or you might practice the infliction of violence as a form of self-discipline, or you might just think it’s fun.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: well-muscled, scarred, attractive
2. Elfin: lithe, compound eyes, bald
3. Dwarfish: hairy, pale, tattooed
4. Gith: sharp-toothed, lanky, limping
5. Monstrous: furry, scowling, one-eyed
6. Discarded: scratched steel, immobile face, bulky

fightingfolk

Diplomat
Whether you work for the Heartless Princess or a someone else, you’re searching the Patchwork World for political alliances, potential enemies, and useful information.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: well-dressed, alert, antsy
2. Elfin: sumptuously dressed, made-up, antennae
3. Dwarfish: flawless posture, gold-dusted eyes, dirty fingernails
4. Gith: long-limbed, sharp-toothed, crowned
5. Monstrous: scaled, lilting voice, luscious hair
6. Discarded: decorated porcelain, wrapped in scarves, posing

diplomat2

Doomster
You’ve made a pact with a powerful extradimensional being: god, demon, fae, spirit, or directed energy. It’s bound by the old ways; it might be trapped by the Heartless Princess. You are its servant out in the Patchwork World. It might ask you to perform a specific duty or merely spread its word. In return, you have worlds of your own. It’s all based on promises.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: concealing robe, strict hair, mirror-like eyes
2. Elfin: dusty exhalations, tiny mandibles, imposing hat
3. Dwarfish: protective beard-plate, tattoos, hint of smile
4. Gith: wrapped ankles and wrists, minimal clothing, vestigial tail
5. Monstrous: ritual scarring, horns + halo, six small wings
6. Discarded: rough wooden form, studded with nails, crown of iron

Die Serben an der Adria. Ihre Typen und Trachten. [By Louis Salv

Goodwalker
Four nights a year, the demons come. Like hateful locusts, they attack the fields and livelihoods of mortals. The goodwalkers ride out on stalks of fennel to stop them. Born of caul and witchcraft, they fight against the Pall in defense of the common folk.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: peasant-ish clothes, blocky face, strange amulet
2. Elfin: leather straps, crusty body paint, pincer hand
3. Dwarfish: large feet, angular face, loincloth
4. Gith: immaculate & complicated hair, broom-sized paintbrush, stone-faced jewelry
5. Monstrous: hump or lump or cyst, oversized broom, ragged clothes
6. Discarded: spiky straw hair, dessicated leather form, cat eyes

goodwalker

Chimera
While many rightfully fear the Pall and its Hex, some choose to embrace it and even manipulate it. You collect the strange curses and mutations of the Patchwork World, incorporating them into yourself.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: pointed ears, vitiligo, piercings
2. Elfin: chitinous forearms & shins, green or blue skin, petrichor scent
3. Dwarfish: gem-spiked joints, granite-colored skin, secret gender
4. Gith: smoky exhalations, leathery skin, extra fingers
5. Monstrous: tail, spots or stripes, animal head
6. Discarded: mismatched limbs, hollow torso, eyes that cry milk, wine, or honey

chimera2

Pythian
The Pall can be entered, it can be explored, and it can be bound. Pythians (named after an ancient summoner) use the Pall to see past human barriers and bring strange things to them.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: strained skin, frumpy toga, white eyes
2. Elfin: spider silk clothes, sooty flesh, long fingers
3. Dwarfish: chemical humours, facial piercings, wooden jewelry
4. Gith: widow’s peak, claw-like fingernails, purple clothing
5. Monstrous: striped fur, long pipe, reverse hands
6. Discarded: twisted sticks, burning head, iron teeth

pythian

Dracula Cowboy
Drive the herds at night to better protect them from their predators. Sleep in covered wagons during the day. Drink the blood of strong oxen and bulls.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: pale skin, leather boots, sharp canines
2. Elfin: unfurling straw tongue, all-red eyes, silk handkerchief
3. Dwarfish: ten-gallon hat, topless head full of sloshing blood, cold and shining skin
4. Gith: dry gray skin, intricate headdress, hemp piping
5. Monstrous: lamprey face, rubbery skin, minimal clothing
6. Discarded: needle fingers, permanent spurs, straw-stuffed body

vampirecowboy

At this point, the first drafts of the playbooks are entirely done, and so are the mechanics and most of the text. I still have layout to do, and I want to add vehicles (?!). I’d love to get it done by the summer.

Theo Ellsworth

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

On the surface, Ellsworth’s comics are surreal fantasy, full of monsters and machines like some sort of woodcut Richard Scarry. But they’re more: they’re intensely personal self-help books and vehicles for interdimensional, inner-brain travel. Ellsworth visualizes his anxieties and his dreams and uses his comics to transmute and make peace with the bad things in his brain. And the reader is invited to watch and learn and, in the end, use the same magic on their own problems.

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From Birthday.

Nick Bertozzi

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Cartoonist and educator Bertozzi does all sorts of work: surreal ecology, fantastical histories, historical biography, and more. His figure work is clear and fluid, his lettering is impeccable, and despite pushing some formal boundaries, his books are always easy to read; it’s obvious that puts a lot of thought into each page. I’m always surprised that more people aren’t talking about his work. Maybe it’s because of the breadth of genres in his work?

It also seems like a lot of his work is unfairly branded as young adult. Which is not to say that YA is bad or any way lesser; I just feel that people who might be looking for the kind of books Bertozzi makes might not look in the YA section.

Take Lewis & Clark, for instance. It’s a well-researched look at the famed explorers, but more than that, it’s a sympathetic and stark look at bipolar disorder: how it can drive people to amazing heights, how it drops them off the edge, and how people from other places and times define and struggle with mental illness.

Young adults can and should read books like this, but that’s not because it’s a young adult topic; it’s because young adults deal with the same things adults do.

Lewis-Clark_Page30

HERBIE POPNECKER

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Most of these entries are about a single cartoonist; some are about formats or publishers. This is the only one that’s about a character. That’s because he’s the greatest character of the comic book genre, Herbie Popnecker.

He’s a “little fat nothing” who attracts lovers without even trying; however, his only care is lollipops. His speech pattern inspired Watchmen‘s Rorschach, and he spends time hanging out with Dracula and Fidel Castro. And his short comic existence owes itself to two people, Richard Hughes and Ogden Whitney. Hughes supplied the scripts—terse, non-sequiteur, madcap—while Whitney played the “straight man,” rendering everything in a plain, almost bland style. Did they work together on the plots? Or was this just another job for Whitney? Whatever the case, it’s the perfect comic for today’s meme culture.

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