Zeroing in on Session Zero

With our Fantasy AGE game wrapped up. It was time for our group to choose a new game and a new story. The votes were close, but when the smoke cleared, the majority had spoken.

Goin’ Back to Théah

We were returning to Terra, the world of the 7th Sea. This time to the Atabean Sea, where a new jolly band of pirates will set sail on the Corwith Cramer to swash, buckle, and plunder their way to fame!

I’m personally thrilled about this. 7th Sea remains one of my favorite all time settings. And the rules system, despite its brevity and lack of crunch, is one of the more challenging systems to play well. Since our last 7th Sea game ended, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the game, how it works, and what makes it shine. So I’m really eager to put those thoughts into practice with a new crew (only 2 of my regular players were part of the old campaign) and new collection of stories.

Hopefully my GMing skills will be up to the task.

And so, last month we held a session zero to get things kicked off. We needed to make characters, discuss thematics, and just figure out what the players wanted to do.

Does Anyone Else See a Problem Here

This is my third session zero to be held online. And it just feels…off.

Don’t misunderstand, character creation went down just fine. I’ve got a great group of players and, as I expected, they gave me PLENTY to work with. No, I’m talking about a sort of vague disconnect with the medium. I feel like Discord and Roll20 just don’t really offer tools to help facilitate a Session Zero.

For a session zero, in addition to character creation, I generally like to prompt the players for additional information:

  • Character entanglements (relationship links and bonds between their characters; I use a list of options built off of the one on Sly Flourish)
  • A Personal Contact and a Rival (a condensed version of the Serenity RPG 3x3x3 pdf)
  • A Favorite Location in the Base Town (in this case, Aragosta)

But other than flooding the chat field, neither of these programs really have a good way of recording that information, for collecting it, or organizing it.

Part of the problem here should be obvious. The average group might run a single session zero every 6 to 12 months. So there just isn’t a lot of reason to invest resources building tools for a function that would get minimal use.

As I currently work in education, I wonder if a lot of the online tools teachers use to increase participation and student engagement couldn’t be used to make our Session Zeroes more engaging for players and more helpful for GMs too!

  • Padlet seems like a no brainer for this one. It’s basically a big bulletin board of sticky notes that users can leave notes on and organize in a variety of ways. The GM could host a session zero, then return to the site later and collect the information there as needed.
  • Flippity and Kahoot! both allow you to create mini-games that could easily be repurposed into some of the random elements of character creation.
  • And, of course, there’s Google Forms.

Or some combination of these tools. As it is, I think using a virtual presentation (google slides, maybe) that as a hub to string together these online tools in a meaningful way that could make virtual session zeroes a bit more fun and easier to collect information from.

Our 7th Sea game should last through next summer (at least). In the meantime, I may experiment with a few of these to find out what works.

But what about you? What tools do you use (if any) when you host a session zero online? Do you find they enhance the experience, or just drag down the flow? Please report your experiences in the comments section.

Adversaries: Hobgoblin

Hobgoblins are a primarily nocturnal and commonly subterranean malicious fey creatures. They average height of three and a half feet with a rotund body and a dark crimson cast to their skin. Their long and sharp nose and wide toothy mouth are framed by large pointed ears.  Although they cannot transport themselves as do some of their smaller kin, hobgoblins can become invisible, and in such state they are able to harass and confuse foes.

Hobgoblins enjoy nothing more than harmful pranks, coarse humor, and cruel jokes. They are concerned mostly with ease, revelry, and devilment of hapless victims; they shun labor assiduously – much to their detriment at times, for they are often caught unprepared by wily foes. 

Elite Hobgoblins

A Hobgoblin Troubler is a sort of group leader, and one will always be present in any group of 6 or more hobgoblins, and in large arrays of them, one in 10 will be of this sort.  Add 1 pt to Constitution, Fighting, and Strength.  Add the Communication (Leadership) and Strength (Mighty) Focuses. Health is increased to 34 (17).

In each hobgoblin community, there will be two to four hobgoblin Shamans in each community, and at least one with any force of 30 or more Hobgoblins.  Add 1 pt to Accuracy, Communication, and Willpower.  Add the Accuracy (Arcane Blast) and Willpower (Courage) Focuses.  Typical Arcana include Fate, Illusion, and Shadow. Health is increased to 32.

A Hobgoblin Chief (Heroic), one to two per community or one leading a large force of 50 or more Hobgoblins will also appear.  Chief’s have the Mighty Quality (below).  Add 2 pt to Fighting and Strength, and 1 point to Accuracy, Constitution, Communication, and Willpower.  Add the Communication (Leadership), Strength (Intimidation), Intelligence (Evaluation), and Willpower (Morale) Focuses.  Health is increased to 44.

HOBGOBLIN

Minor Threat

No. Appearing: Gang (4-9), mob (10-24, plus 1 troubler), band (10-100 plus 100% non-combatants plus 1 Troubler per 10 adults, and 1 Shaman), or tribe (100-400 plus 100% noncombatants plus 1 Troubler per 10 adults, 2-4 shamans, and 1 chief)

Weapon Groups: Axe, Bow, Light Blades, Spear

 


Accuracy: 3 (Bow, Light Blades, Spear)

Communication: 0 (Deception)

Constitution: 1

Dexterity: 3 (Stealth)

Fighting: 1 (Axe)

Intelligence: 0

Perception: 1 (Hearing, Seeing)

Strength: 1

Willpower: 1


SPD HEALTH DEF AR
12 27 14* 4

*Spiked Buckler and Heavy Leather Armor

WEAPON ATK DMG
Dagger +5 1d6+5
Throwing Axe +3 1d6+2
Short Bow +3 1d6+2
Throwing Spear +5 1d6+5

SPECIAL QUALITIES
Favored Stunts: Knock Prone, Set-Up, Skirmish, Taunt
  • Darkvision
  • Invisibility:  Hobgoblins can become invisible as a Minor Action, and in such state they are able to harass and confuse foes, but not cast spells or employ weapons to do deadly Harm. Any attack by an invisible Hobgoblin with a weapon automatically destroys the non-visible state.  As noted, they are invisible, but not immaterial, although they cannot be seen or otherwise sensed by normal means other than touch when invisible.
  • Pack Tactics
Chief Hobgoblin Qualities
  • Mighty

FAGE Oaf Ancestry

Artist: Timothy Truman

A second race that I’ve pulled from Gygax’s Lejendary Adventure frpg is the oaf.  I suspect oafs grew out of Gygax’s use of half-ogres in his original Greyhawk campaign (Dragon #29).  Roger Moore did a more expanded write up of the race in issue #73 of Dragon magazine that was later reprinted in Best of Dragon #3.  Half-ogres are the epitome of the big dumb fighter and share all the questionable hallmarks of the half-orc.

Oafs distill things down to a single fey race.  (LA doesn’t have half-races.)  They are tougher, but not as bright as orcs, but can be equally cunning.  Basically, they are big fey brutes, great for mercenary shock troops.  In FAGE terms, that means a race tougher and stronger than orcs, but not as versatile.  I didn’t expect lots of folks to want to play them.  Back in the day, my good friend played an oaf character he later adapted into his Living Greyhawk half-orc character, Tog.  He had a blast with the character: a sort of Forrest Gump meets Andre the Giant.  Tog’s favorite downtime activity was challenging others to a rousing game of Catch the Spear.  So for anyone reading this and thinking, “why?”, you can thank Tog.

Oaf

Oafs are tall, heavy, strong, but usually dull-witted Humanoids native to the feywild.  They are a savage, uncivilized race, aggressive and avaricious. Oafs live and travel in large, tribal bands.  Despite these racial tendencies, oafs are quite adaptable will conform to the norms of any adopted society.  To those who earn their respect and treat them well, oafs can be quiet loyal and devoted.

Oafs tower over the other fey races, standing between 7 to 8 feet tall.  Their features include a pronounced jaw, large sloped ears, beetling brow, etc.  Shoulders slope to long arms terminating in large hands with short, thick and powerful fingers. Being somewhat dull-witted does not preclude either cunning or trickiness on their part.

Oaf Characteristics: Competitive, cunning, driven, impulsive, powerful, reliable, short-tempered, tough, tribal, trusting.

Playing an Oaf

If you choose to play an oaf, modify your character as follows:

  • Add 2 to your Constitution and Strength abilities. Then subtract 1 from your Intelligence and Perception abilities.
  • Begin with the following Ability focuses: Accuracy (Brawling), Constitution (Stamina), and Strength (Might).   You may not begin play with any Ability focuses in Communication or Intelligence.
  • You have Dark Sight, which allows you see up to 20 yards in darkness without a light source.
  • Your Speed is equal to 10 + Dexterity (minus armor penalty if applicable).
  • You can speak (but not read) Goblin and the Common Tongue (or equivalent regional dialect).
  • Roll twice on the Oaf Benefits table for additional benefits. Roll 2d6 and add the dice together. If you get the same result twice, re-roll until you get something different.
2d6 Benefit
2 +1 Perception
3-4 Focus: Perception (Smelling)
5 Focus: Strength (Intimidation)
6 Weapon Group: Bludgeons
7–8 +1 Fighting
9 Weapon Group: Heavy Blades
10–11 Focus: Perception (Empathy)
12 +1 Willpower

FAGE Kobold Ancestry

When I decided to use the Lejendary Earth setting from Gary Gygax’s Lejendary Adventure RPG (LA) as the milieu basis for my Fantasy AGE campaign, I played around with adapting some of the races that game made available for player characters to the new system.  Ultimately, I decided against adapting all of them—veshoges and trollkin never seemed like very popular options in my circles.  Fantasy AGE already covers the rest of the core races nicely.  That ultimately leaves kobolds and oafs.

I’ve always liked the niche kobolds were meant to fill: the fey trickster race.  It’s not an archetype that is represented in every FRPG.  In LA, the criticism was always that they were a sort of power gamer’s wet dream.  They can turn invisible, they get a strength bonus, they start with a handful of magical spells, and they have the highest initiative bonus in the game.  Reworking them for Fantasy AGE let me iron a bit of that out, but still keep the flavor of the race.

I also like kobolds (and lots of the other malicious fey Gygax offered in LA) because they ditch so many of the tropes players have come to associate with them in D&D and instead lean into a more faerie tale quality.  In LA, kobolds fill a social niche somewhere between brownies and hobgoblins/boggarts.  In D&D/Pathfinder terms, they fall closest to D&D 4e’s Gnomes (Players Handbook 2) and PF’s Goblins.

Included here are the racial entry for players, as well as an Adversary block for GMs.  Enjoy!

Kobold

Kobolds are a diminutive people native to the Feywild, with a well-deserved reputation for mischief.  They stand around three feet in height. Kobolds have a fiendish appearance, with greenish skin, large and slightly slanted eyes, sharp features, and a wide mouth.  Their slight build belies their strength and agility.  They are related to hobgoblins and brownies, and their attitudes fall somewhere in between.  Like their cousins, kobolds have the ability to become invisible.  Weary of this, many merchants and storekeepers invest in magical talismans to prevent these fey folk from sneaking about.

Kobolds’ love of pranks and course humor often put them at odds with humans and other, more esteemed and serious fey (particularly dwarves). Still, they enjoy the company of those who provide merriment and good drink and are friendly with those to whom they take a liking. 

Kobold Characteristics: Abrasive, affable, clever, crafty, curious, funny, rude, secretive, sly, tricky.

Playing a Kobold

If you choose to play a kobold, modify your character as follows:

  • Add 1 to your Dexterity ability.
  • Invisibility: As a minor action, you have the power to become Invisible.  You remain invisible for a number of rounds equal to your Willpower, or until you take an attack or Cast action, whereupon you immediately become visible.  You cannot become Invisible again until the beginning of your next turn.
  • Pick one of the following ability focuses: Dexterity (Legerdemain) or Constitution (Stamina).
  • You have Dark Sight, which allows you see up to 20 yards in darkness without a light source.
  • Your Speed is equal to 12 + Dexterity (minus armor penalty if applicable).
  • You can speak and read Fey and the Common Tongue (or equivilant regional dialect).
  • Roll twice on the Kobold Benefits table for additional benefits. Roll 2d6 and add the dice together. If you get the same result twice, re-roll until you get something different.

KOBOLD BENEFITS TABLE

2d6Benefit
2+1 Constitution
3–4Focus: Intelligence (Evaluation)
5Focus: Dexterity (Initiative)
6Focus: Perception (Touching)
7–8+1 Perception
9Weapon Groups: Light Blades
10–11Focus: Communication (Deception)

FANTASY AGE: Retrospective and Review

After two years of regular play, here’s my assessment of Green Ronin’s Fantasy AGE RPG and how it performed for us at the table.

Oftentimes, I’ll read a review of an RPG and it feels either speculative (“I haven’t played it, but it reads well.”) or its been lightly used (“I ran a one shot for my group.”).  This is not that kind of review.  We played the game regularly, ever other week, for nearly two years. 

TLDR: Fantasy AGE is a fun to play with plenty of options for both players and GMs.  There is enough material for the game to be a real alternative to D&D at your tabletop, while also giving you a different play experience.  My group will definitely be returning to this game system again.

A not so secret secret: I am not a fan of modern Dungeons & Dragons.  Oh, there’s a perpetual 11 year old in my brain that thinks D&D should be my favorite game EVAR!  But then I play, and I come to my senses.  I started falling out of love with D&D with 2nd edition and, other than a fling with 3rd edition (shout out to all the Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms players who stumble across these parts!), that intense adolescent love affair has just never rekindled.  I like a lot the changes and updates the designers made to the Fifth Edition of the game, but as a whole it still falls flat to me.  

ASIDE: I LOVE B/X flavored D&D.  That game is laser focused on exploration and plays like an entirely different game.  And my hardcover copy of Necrotic Gnome’s Old School Essentials makes my inner 11 year old very happy.  But that is the subject for a different post.

Since my falling out with 2nd edition AD&D, I’ve bounced from Heartbreaker to Heartbreaker.  The last two strictly fantasy RPGs I enjoyed were Dragonlance Fifth Age (SAGA System) and Gary Gygax’s Lejendary Adventure.  But both of those are long out of print, far from perfect, and need far too much work for me to even think about using these days.  Savage Worlds is a great system, but after a decade of play its safe to say I was in the market for a new FRPG.

My friend gifted me a copy of the Fantasy AGE (FAGE) basic rules shortly after they were released.  A HUGE Acheron’s Call fan from back in the day, he really wanted to see if FAGE was solid enough to use that world setting as a backdrop.  

My initial response was that the game had a lot to recommend it, but it was lacking in some key features that I just demand from rpgs these days. The spell selection was to small and thematically narrow, there were no mook/minon/brute rules to speak of, and there was precious little guidance in creating new content (specializations, talents, npcs, adversaries, you name it!).  The release of the FAGE Companion solved almost all of those issues for me.  After reading through that, and taking both together as a whole, I was excited to try the system out.

When we started out, the plan was to put the game through its paces as much as possible.  I didn’t want to add much in the way our house rules, wanting the system to fly or fail on its own merits.  In the end, we did add two rules that weren’t covered in the Basic or Companion rulebooks that added to our enjoyment of the system.  More on that in a bit.

The GOOD

  • The core mechanic for FAGE is fast and easy to grasp.  It doesn’t get too bogged down in the math.  Nor does it feel like a coin-toss mechanic, where everything really boils down to a 50/50 chance.  In fact, the mechanic feels a bit more weighted in favor of success than failure, with stunts being the standout for special successes.  Those happen a lot more often than critical successes in D&D or d100, but still give dice rolls a nice upbeat tick when they happen.
  • The Stunt Tables are a nice addition to play, with enough variety to make play exciting but not enough to bog down play (too much, anyway).
  • With the Companion, FAGE has a great span of character options for traditional fantasy worlds.  Reskinning and redressing isn’t terribly hard.  The three classes are broad enough to cover most of your character concepts, especially once you start pairing them with Specializations.
  • Advancement is spread out evenly enough that there is almost always something to look forward to from a level up.  Plus, the way they are staggered gives players a chance to learn the basics before they start stacking up powers that require more nuanced rules knowledge.
  • On the GM end of things, the system feels blessedly light.  I could manage most game sessions with just my screen and no rulebook flipping.

The BAD

  • Stunting when you fail a roll stinks!  But the whiff factor is no where near that of Witch Hunter, which made us happy.
  • While FAGE is a something of a toolkit, it lacks a lot of guidance on how to build new things.  The Companion adds some scales for creating NPCs and Adversaries, but there is very little on creating new races, talents, or specializations, even when you factor in the Campaign Builder’s Guide.
  • Fourth level is a long wait for your first Specialization.
  • Because of Requirements for Specializations, you often have to plan your character out a few levels in advance.  This is great if you are a character builder, but not very fun if you are not.  I’m generally flexible about such things in my game.  In the future, I’m considering dropping ALL requirements from Specializations to make character building less of a thing and advancement more spontaneous.
  • While the stunt tables are great, there are plenty of times when none of the choices really applied to a situation, or needed to be adapted or mangled to fit.
  • Treasure is clearly not a priority in this game.
  • Exploration could use more love in this game.  There isn’t much there beyond the stunts available to build from.
  • A personal gripe (and aren’t they all personal gripes?): While I understand that AGE is an evolving game system, it bugs me that there are frameworks and subsystems (Incursions/Challenge Tests from Modern Age/The Expanse, Hazard Traits from Modern AGE, etc.)  that are standard in other flavors of AGE that are not made available for FAGE players without throwing down $30+ for another rulebook.  None of these are essential to play, but add a LOT to the GM’s toolkit.  I wish Green Ronin would take a page from Pinnacle and offer these extras as PDF, even for a buck or two for GMs who aren’t really interested in investing deeply into the AGE product line.
  • Adversary stat blocks feel unnecessarily long and fiddly.  This is certainly more a personal gripe as they aren’t really any more cumbersome as Savage Worlds.  But 7th Sea and B/X D&D play have spoiled me for short stat blocks.  Creating a spreadsheet to help with adversary creation has helped immensely, but the fact that I need one for what is otherwise a rules light-ish game system irritates me.
  • There really isn’t much support, out of the box, for anything more than the bog standard pseudo-European faux-Medieval fantasy setting.  If you want to run a different flavor of fantasy, be prepared to reskin, repurpose, and revise.  On the one hand, this offers a great opportunity for product support.  On the other, it would be nice if there were more tools available for the GM to create their own content.

THE HOUSE RULED

  • The first thing I added, even before we’d played our first game, were the Reaction and Morale rolls from B/X D&D.  For one thing, I really like the dynamic changes they instantly create in an encounter.  Also, morale rules give you a real basis to end combat early, which eases the threat posed by extensive combat scenes.
  • Extensive combat scenes, you ask?  One of the biggest complaints I hear about the AGE system is Health bloat.  At higher levels, characters have so many health points, they are practically invulnerable.  Likewise, adversaries have high health pools, which means combat drags on forever.  Our game took the heroes to 7th level.  During that time, I never felt like they were invulnerable, and there were certainly some situations where they too a hard hit that stung.  But I never killed a character either.  As for monsters, I usually reduced health by roughly 1/2 and used Morale rules based on B/X D&D.  Even then, combats ran a bit long for my tastes.
    • In the future, I’d probably use the “pulpy” health rules from Modern Age (the heroes add their CON bonus to Health each level, no dice roll bonus) and continue to keep normal monster health at half listed value (except when I need a strong solo!).  We did use the Minion rules from the Companion for one fight and those were pitch perfect for a fun romp.
  • As I mentioned before, rolling doubles when you fail your roll stinks!  So I brought in the Failure Stunts from Kobold Press.  These are a fantastic addition and, while I think they could use a bit more development, they really take the sting out of those lucky/unlucky rolls and makes failing forward very easy.  I also considered letting stunting on a failed roll indicate a “partial success”, ala Talislanta or Apocalypse World, but the Failure Stunts feel more thematically appropriate to FAGE and more fun for the players.
  • The worst kept secret in gaming is that Green Ronin is working on a revised, updated core rulebook for FAGE.  They crowd sourced a beta-playtest, which included a number of new features and rules tweaks.  Among these were some changes to the way spell failure worked.  To sum up the change, if you cast a spell and fail your roll, the effort only costs you half the listed magic points.  In addition, you can spend extra magic points, on a 1:1 basis, to goose your roll upwards across the success threshold.  I LOVE this change and kept it in our game even after we finished with the playtest. I don’t know if this rule change will make it into the final version of the new core rulebook, but I’ll be keeping it anyway.

The FINAL VERDICT

I really like the way FAGE plays.  The players had a great time.  They were excited about character advancement and I never felt the game system got in the way of the story we were creating.  The stunts were an added shot of adrenaline on the player end, but otherwise the rules got out of the way.  After this experience, its safe to say that FAGE will continue to be my fantasy RPG of choice for a while.  It’s easy enough to create material for (though it could be easier) and feels different enough in play (from D&D) to keep the play experience fresh and give the GM plenty of room for growth.

WE DID IT!

The soul gem has been captured.  The Ghost Tower is stilled.  Potential planar apocalypse averted.  Please allow me an my group a victory lap of sorts.  We actually finished something resembling a coherent storyline!  After two years of play, our Fantasy AGE game has drawn to a close.

While this isn’t a big deal for plenty of GMs, it is for me personally.  After all, I’m notorious among my players for my “one shots” that take four shots to complete.  I can count that campaigns I’ve run that my group “finished” on one hand.  Most of them sort of peter out, usually because I’ve become distracted by some new shiny thing or the group dynamic makes a seismic shift.  And since I suspect there are a lot of GMs out there like myself, whose love the idea of an ending but also like to build their worlds into a spiraling mass of adventure, I figured an actual ending was worth a post.

Fantasy AGE, published by Green Ronin

When we started our Fantasy Age, I was planning for a coherent, contained plot arc rather than a sprawling open ended sandbox.  But rather than focus on a single ending, I had three potential endings in mind.  These endings were each sort of epic and scope, and connected by the same thread (the slaugh of the Feywild looking to exert their power and control over both the fey and mortal worlds).  The players’ choices would eventually lead to one of these three potential endings.  I made sure to lightly flesh out (lightly) each ending, with plans to develop it further if the players moved in that direction.

Starting at the End

This decision had some benefits.  It fits nicely into the matrix campaign model. It also makes the campaign very flexible, since not every clue leads to the same destination.  This makes the world feel bigger and leaves places to be explored.  

C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness, by Allen Hammack

The Ghost Tower of Inverness was always one of these end points.  It’s a classic D&D tournament module that has a very weird, funhouse vibe.  I’ve never run it, and it would be a very weird fit in any regular game (most tournament mods feel this way to me).  But with the background plan I had, it suddenly felt like a great choice.  A bit of shaking and seasoning, and suddenly the Ghost Tower goes from a weird funhouse dungeon to an insidious junction of planar power driven by a magical battery of extreme magnitude (the soul gem) that the slaugh can exploit to create a convergence of all the inner planes under the right circumstances.  

Ghost Tower by Sam Burley

[insert fiendish GM laughter here]

But again, this was simply one of three potential endings I thought would be epic and fun.  It also happens to be the direction the players took. 

Even with three potential endings, it was still a challenge (for me) to stay on target over the two years of the campaign.  That was plenty of time for my gamer ADD to set in and build wildly divergent plot threads that could easily have derailed the whole thing.  It also takes a certain discipline to say “this is the climax of the game”.  For those of us of a certain generation, who grew up with tales of sprawling sandbox campaigns that span decade, there is a gut instinct to just keep going.  Do not fade to black.  Damn the credit scroll.  There is yet another horizon to explore.  This proved to be an issue with both the 7th Sea and Witch Hunter campaigns.  Where it would have been more dramatic to close the book on a high note, I pushed to start a new chapter only to have it fade out mid story.

Trust me when I say, drawing the curtain on a solid ending is FAR more satisfying.

Work to be Done

But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops.  Time for some self reflection.  What could use improvement?

When we started our Fantasy AGE game, one of the things we really wanted to focus on with this campaign was exploration.  I’m not sure I nailed that one.  I mean, I feel I did a good job of making the world seem big and alive.  It was clear to the players that there was plenty going on in the world: more than they could hope to ever solve.  There were plenty of loose ends, but that’s different than giving them a Skyrim scale world they could explore.  While I don’t think it effected anyone’s enjoyment of the game (none of the players have said anything anyway, bless ‘em), it does give me something to strive for next time.

I also feel that it wasn’t until near the end, as the players approached the Ghost Tower, that the real threat the magic of the place posed came into focus.  Now, some of this is necessarily due to the multiple ending model I built.  If you create a world shattering story centered on a specific location, its really hard to justify a conclusion that is half a world away.  But if I back up a little, I could have made the slaugh threat a lot more sinister a lot earlier.  Would that have effected people’s choices?  Maybe.

As to the ending itself, not all the players were able to make it.  This itself made the climax a bit more anticlimactic.  But sometimes that can’t be helped.  If you have to choose between keeping things on schedule vs everyone being able to attend, I’d go with the former every time.  But it would have been nice if everyone could have made it.  That would have been truly epic.

Last of all, if I had it to do over again, I would have budgeted a full game session for resolution. This time, I did not, and things felt rushed which added to the feeling of fizzle.  So, GMs, I think its worthwhile as your campaign approaches its logical end point, spend an afternoon prepping a resolution session (or dénouement, if you prefer).  In fact, much like polling your players about a “death scene” for their characters, I would probably ask them for aid here.  What is something each player would like to see something resolved in terms of their own character’s story.  Let them suggest a scene that you can build from.  You shouldn’t really broach this until your campaign enters its final act, and should be precursored with something like, “if you survive…”.  It might even be cool to take a page out of Savage World’s interludes.  Begin a scene where all the players present their “if we survive” wishes.  Then, once the finale has been reached, you can play out those dénouement scenes.  If a character dies during the finale, you can still play those out, with the player taking the part of a surviving family member, apprentice, attache, or other hanger on.  Consider a bar full of rugby fans raising a glass to a fallen athlete.  THAT could make for some seriously funny, intense, even emotional roleplaying.

Wait, you’ve been playing Fantasy AGE?

Yes.  Don’t mistake my silence for inactivity.  And next time, I’m going to give my thoughts on Green Ronin’s flagship game engine after two years of play.

But what about you?

GM’s, what cool tricks do you employ for ending a story arc on an epic high?  What sort of pitfalls do you find yourself overcoming and how do you overcome them.  Players, what’s the coolest campaign ending you’ve ever attended?  How?  Why?  Please leave your responses in the comments.

Best. Dragon Ad. Ever.

The big house cleaning of 2021 had its casualties, even amongst its forgotten treasures. This was one of them: an ad for the Paranoia roleplaying game that graced the inside back cover of Dragon Magazine back in the 80s. But even though this page is no more, the internet is forever and so, now is this ad.

I’m not sure what issue of Dragon this was from. Definitely somewhere in the 60s. I remember as a kid reading this aloud to myself and just laughing. It’s great ad copy. I’m not sure why this ad never sold me on Paranoia. Probably because I was 13 and didn’t know any better.

The internet is happy. Don’t doubt the internet. This internet will help you become happy. This will drive you crazy.

Thinkin’ ’bout City Maps

John Wick and Chaosium recently dropped another update and crowdsource draft from the forthcoming Cities of Faith and Wonder book, this time featuring a deep dive into Iskandar, the capital of the Crescent Empire. The preview was mainly to show off the updated layout and to show proof of concept that the project was coming along. But among the commentariat, it reawakened the same controversy that the previous preview of Vaticine City stoked. You see, this book about the great cities of Terra (not just Theah) will not feature…maps.

Yes. You heard that right. No city maps.

Look, I get it. When the Vaticine City preview hit, it was right at the doorstep of the financial forecast that led to Chaosium acquiring the 7th Sea property. So the decision could easily have started out to keep that art budget slim and trim. Or, perhaps, there was more to their thinking than that.

It might even be moot.

But I don’t want to debate the issue. (Because that’s silly. I have no say in this matter other than as a consumer. And after the last three years, is this really the hill any of us want to die on?)

No, I want to talk about city maps. Because what this debate DOES make me think about is how to use urban maps at the table. Whether it be with traditional RPGs or more narrative leaning, scene driven RPGs. It’s another chance to re-examine what I know, what I’ve been doing, and (maybe) how to improve my craft.

Let’s be honest. Most maps you see in RPG products fall into one of two categories:

  • Beautiful, artist rendered maps with lots of detail; sometimes even printed as a poster (and largely useless in play).
  • Ugly eyesores that don’t convey anything worthwhile and exist for no other reason than to break up the text (also useless).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE a good city map. Because they are really hard (for me) to make, My city maps are rough and ugly. Their city maps are beautiful. I want to make city maps like they do. I’ve spent hours obsessing over them. And in the end, I find, they just. don’t. matter.

But they should, right? Because otherwise, why bother?

I’ve never had the good fortune to PLAY in a long-term (hell, even a short-term) urban based RPG, so how I handle them has been mostly through trial and error. Dungeons & Dragons (1st and 2nd edition, anyway) were really sparse on details on running urban adventures, usually focusing on minutiae that really didn’t matter but made you think it mattered because that’s what was covered.

The Alexandrian already devoted a metric-ton of virtual ink to the concept of the “urbancrawl“—framing the urban adventure in terms of dungeon/wilderness adventures. It’s a cool concept, and could work really well for certain types of games. Exploring a massive, byzantine city hex by hex sounds both fascinating and tedious as all hell. It would be great for scavenger hunt style or hidden world scenarios, but it could also easily overstay its welcome or become pointless form-over-function. But I can see the appeal as it takes the format that everyone already knows and applies it territory that has gone largely underserved.

But that’s certainly not how I run my city adventures.

I let my players jump from location to location with only the barest narrative sinew between them to frame things. I like to try and sneak in random encounters/incidents/scenes, but I don’t have any sort of hard procedure in doing so. PCs have a lot of freedom of movement. Unless they don’t, which presents them with an obstacle, not an impediment.

Honestly, at this point in my gaming hobby, this is generally what my city maps look like:

Greyhawk City map, from City of Hawks by Gary Gygax.

A map like this gives me a sense of spatial awareness of the city, of the major arteries and the major districts (or zone), which I can then fill. I don’t really need to know where a location is within a zone unless there is some greater significance to it (like if it overlooks a cliff, park, the coast, or is in some famous square or similar landmark within the city. I can also give this map to my players to use in play. It’s not as pretty as some professional maps, but it gets the job done.

But is that even necessary in a scene-driven game, where you are doing your best to cut as close to the action as possible? I’m not so sure it does. Unless the city itself is an obstacle (or a hazard) and has resources to interrupt the flow of the action. Or maybe a progress clock with a hard limit. In this way, the city itself (its geography, its planning, its cultures) become a puzzle. That sounds potentially fun, but it would have to be framed in such a way to force the players to choose a path that felt meaningful and unforced. But anything else feels like it would be a barrier for the GM as much as the players: an artificial limiter on what is possible and dramatic. The RPG version of a speed governor.

That said, just because it slows you down doesn’t mean you can’t have fun in the meantime.

So that’s where I’m at. Once again, pondering my GMing practices and weighing their efficiency against an audience of one: myself.

So please, tell me. How do you incorporate city maps in play? Not in prep, or planning, but on the table. In the moment. What’s the magic trick you’ve mastered that incorporates them? How do you make them relevant in scene-driven gaming? How am I wrong? What am I missing?

I cede the floor to the comments section.

Shining a Light on Stories

Tonight: Season Two of the "The Writers' Room" Dives into "Scandal" Los  Angeles Magazine

Hey everyone. I know it’s been awhile (something I really hope to remedy at some point) but I wanted to drop in to highlight a little gem for 7th Sea players and GMs.

Now, if you’ve been anywhere near the 7th Sea social media channels (FB, Discord, etc.) then you’ve heard about the Writer’s Room podcast. If you haven’t, you have some catching up to do. I’ll put it up there with the Essential NPC’s 7th Sea series as ESSENTIAL LISTENING to anyone who is currently playing or interested in playing this game.

Earlier this month, the Writer’s Room dropped a new “Notes with the Narrator” episode. These are deep dives with the Hostess and GM of the AP about various mechanics and approaches in to running the game. Just like Essentials “Words with the GM”, these provide marvelous little windows into how to run the game that are worth a listen regardless of your experience with the game. This particular episode was about the Story System, 7th Sea’s wildly wonky Advancement system.

My own experience with the Story System was a mixed bag. In concept, as a GM, I LOVE IT! In play…well…as with so many things it really depends on how your players wrangle with it. In reflection, I feel it was one of the less understood and ignored aspect of the game when it came to my players. And even I had a hard time using it as a guidepost in play. I want it to work so badly, though. Because it’s a really cool spin on milestone Advancement.

All of this is what makes this particular deep dive by two people who not only grok the story system, but have actual play experience in where the pitfalls are and how to avoid them. This 40+ minute conversation really highlights what makes the story system both interesting and frustrating. It also breaks everything down in ways to really make the system work in ways the core rules scarcely touch on (dead horse to Chaosium: a 7th Sea GM’s Companion would be a great addition to the line!).

When my band of players get ready to jump aboard this game again (soon, I’m hoping), this is going to be required listening for them. As I think it really clarifies how the system works and how the players are expected to use it in play. I encourage everyone else to do the same. Especially if, like me, you fell in love with the Story System at first blush but didn’t really feel like it ever loved you back.

So do you have any tricks of the trade to make stories sing at your table? Any player aids you use? Feel free to drop some wisdom in the comments!

An Unholy Union?

What’s that you say?  You’re intrigued by the world of 7th Sea, but balk at the game system?  It’s too handwavy?  Too diceless?  Too narrative?  Too Wick?  Besides, your players’ eyes glaze over anytime someone mentions a game that doesn’t have “Dungeons and Dragons” on the cover.  Let’s just cut to the quick: you want to run a D&D game, but you want to use the 7th Sea setting. 

Sacrilege?!?  Heresy?!?  Maybe, but it could also be a lot of fun.  Hell, I’d play!  I’ve even devoted some brainpower to it.  I’ve long been considering a blog post on this topic but a post on reddit forced my hand.

Dungeons & Dragons: 7th Sea

Let me say this upfront: if you are looking to run a 7th Sea game using the 5e rules, this post is not going to be very helpful.  In fact, I think you are just setting yourself up for a lot of work without much of a payoff.  But if you want to run a Dungeons and Dragons game set in the world of 7th Sea, well there I can help you.  There is a difference.  And it’s easy.  So easy, in fact, you could be playing tomorrow night!

The trick is in finding a compromise between the 7th Sea setting (a vast pastiche of 17th century earth) and the implied setting of D&D.  If you are okay with that, then here is my very simple (but untested) recipe for doing so:

  • Ditch the 7th Sea national sorceries. Instead, use the D&D magic system. Each nation specializes in one or two schools of magic. (ie, Montaigne, Conjuration (which includes Teleportation); Vodacce, Divination; etc.). Likewise, certain magical classes fit those styles of magic better (Montaigne and Vodacce magic users are Sorcerers, since their magic is inherent to bloodlines. Avalon, Ussura, and the Commonwealth would all be Warlocks. Castille, Eisen, and Vestenmanavenjar would all be wizards.).  Here is the list I sketched out some time ago in my handy GM Notebook:

Nationality Class School
Avalon, et al. Warlock Enchantment, Illusion
Montaigne Sorcerer Conjuration
Castille Wizard (Alchemist) Transmutation
Eisen Wizard (Alchemist) Necromancy
Sarmatia Warlock Conjuration, Evocation
Ussura Warlock Abjuration
Vestenmennavenjar Wizard Evocation, Transmutation
Vodacce Sorcerer Divination
  • You’ll need to make a decision about the priest class. The priest class doesn’t really make sense in 7th Sea, but has an important role in D&D. You can ditch the class by moving some of its “turn undead” capabilities to the wizard’s necromancy school for Hexenwerk. But it would be easier (and less abrasive to players) to just keep it as is.
  • No non-human races.  If you are feeling ambitious, you can use the National Trait bonuses from the 7th Sea rules to create similar National Attribute bonuses, or you can just ignore that and just use the standard human racial template easily enough.
  • Use the Firearms and Explosives rules from the DMG (pg. 267-268).

  • Use the Hero Point option from the DMG (pg. 264).
  • You’ll want to disassociate armor worn from Armor Class. While there isn’t an option in the DMG, I believe there are house ruled variants available.  Some easy options would be to allow classes to add their Proficiency bonus to AC, and/or perhaps double to Dex bonus as it applies to AC.

  • If you have the 4th edition, you could do worse than adapt the Minion rules (for brute squads). This is a nice option to keep in your toolbox, but easily ignored.
  • Magical weapons and armor are Dracheneisen, Zahmeireen, or even Nacht, (if you want to bring those back into play). Potions are alchemy or hexenwerk (Castille, Eisen).  Anything that doesn’t fit these concepts should be reskinned as syrneth artifacts or something else entirely (fey or devai crafted items?  Gifts from the Jok, Bonsam, or a living god?).

  • A copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh will be a must for the naval combat rules!  Alternatively, you can grab a copy of the playtest rules or your favorite variant of the DM’s Guild.

And there you have it. Your conversion work is done. You’ll probably need to fine tune a few things (add Backgrounds, Feats, maybe adapt some subclasses), but you can start playing tomorrow!  And if you do—or if you see something obvious that I missed—be sure to drop a message in the comments!

Quick update: Reading some of the initial responses over on the Explorers of Théah facebook group, I feel the need to clarify the objective here.  This is not a blueprint for running 7th Sea with 5e rules.  It isn’t about shoehorning all the conventions of 7th Sea into 5e mechanical terms — the duelist academies, the sorceries, etc.  What I’m proposing is that you can use the themes in 7th Sea to alter the trappings of your 5e game. It’s going to feel like playing D&D. It’s going to look like playing D&D. You WILL be playing D&D. But that dungeon you are about to explore is in Montaigne, and the Fate Witch in your party is a creepy, veiled divination sorceress from Vodacce.

Got it?

Or maybe you just need more rum!

Or maybe I do.