Author Archives: blusponge

Dragoman

So after some unfortunate shuffling of the deck chairs in our 7th Sea game, we brought in two new players.  One of them, a very serious and historically minded type comes to me and says, “I want to play this?  I don’t see it as a background though.”  “No problem,” I say.  “Let’s see what we can do.”

The background in question was the Dragoman, an envoy and diplomat in the Ottoman Court.  With the preview of the Crescent Empire book beginning to circulate through the kickstarter channels, I figure this is a timely addition.  Especially since that background isn’t included.  Probably because of the focus on language, one of many things this edition of 7th Sea shuffles into the background.

Actually, creating a new background wasn’t difficult at all.  We took two comparable backgrounds, the Courtier and the Consigliere (Vodacce), and smashed them together.  Then there was some jockeying about what Advantages (besides Linguist) to include.  In the end, we settled on 6 points of Advantages as there is precedence for this.  In the end, the hardest part was coming up with a Quirk!  So I turned to the Facebook fan group for that.  In the end, I think it turned out pretty well, and makes a great background for a Crescent agent adventuring in Théah.

Dragonman

Crescent Empire Background

You are a bridge between cultures; an interpreter, mediator, diplomat, and guide in foreign matters in the court of the Empress.

Quirk: Earn a Hero Point when you solve a problem using knowledge from a culture other than your own.

Advantages: Linguist, Friend at Court, Honest Misunderstanding

Skills: Convince, Empathy, Notice, Scholarship, Tempt

Saint’s Blood, a review

sbloodLast week, I finished Sebastien De Castell’s novel, Saint’s Blood, the third book of the Greatcoats.  Like the previous two, it was a fun (well, okay, mostly fun) rollicking adventure yarn full of wit, humor, and swashbuckling derring do.  As much as I enjoyed the previous two installments, I’ll give Saint’s Blood higher marks in that it keeps the main cast together.  Both Traitor’s Blade and Knight’s Shadow have bogged down when Falcio val Mond (our noble protagonist) has gone off on his own.  Really – for me anyway – it is the banter and interrelationships between Falcio, Kest, and Brasti that really make these books sing.  Take one of them out of the picture and the landscape darkens noticeably.

As fun as it was, there were a couple of issues for me.  Castell’s language has always been colorful, but in this installment things just seemed more…explicit.  It just felt a bit out of character.  And the repeated use of “arsehole” just felt a bit silly.  Likewise, rather than his usual pragmatism, Falcio seems far more pessimistic and defeatist in this adventure.  That might make sense given the natural of the adversary (sorry, no spoilers), but again it feels out of character and inorganic, as though Castell decided he needed to recast Falcio’s personality to fit the story rather than the other way around.  But while these detract slightly from the whole, it doesn’t diminish the story, the characters, or the finale.  And what a finale!  I cheered the finale of Knight’s Shadow – if you’ve read it, you know exactly the part I’m talking about – and Saint’s Blood closed with at least as much joy in this reader’s heart.

tthroneThe most bittersweet part of finishing Saint’s Blood is in knowing that the fourth installment, Tyrant’s Throne, is the final book of the Greatcoats.  It feels funny to say that – I am not a fan of endless series or of authors who ride one series into the dirt in their careers.  Yes, that applies to Terry Prachett and Jim Butcher, as much as I love their work, as it does Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan (the less said about those the better).  And yes, I know Butcher is working on a fantasy series too but c’mon.  24 Dresden novels?  Really?!  When he gets to #22, someone needs to send ole Jim a copy of Stephen King’s Misery just for laughs.

But yes, it is bittersweet to know the Greatcoats is coming to an end.  Not only because I’ll miss the adventures of Falcio, Kest, and Brasti (and Ethalia, Valiana, and Dariana), but because this is the first series of books that I’ve had this much fun reading in a long time.  The swashbuckling adventure genre isn’t awash with options these days.  So while I wait for the Dallas Public Library to get their hands on Tyrant’s Throne, I’m going to be looking for a new voice that brings me the same thrill.  Wish me luck.

A Parting Gift

An excerpt from the novel.  Don’t worry, it won’t spoil anything. Go ahead and read it:

Udriel is what we call in the business a sanguinist: a fencer whose primary strategy is to go for little cuts—wounds that sting and bleed and distract you, until you start to slow down without even realizing it.  Sanguinists take their time, pulling you apart bit by bit, until they can end the fight with a single, brilliant flourish—they usually go for an artery so that you end up bleeding out spectacularly all over the floor.  It can create quite a stunning tableau for the audience.

I hate sanguinists.

The moment I read this passage, I said to myself, “dammit, 7th Sea needs sanguinists!

Throughout the book, Falcio describes a number of duelist archetypes.  I’ve taken the liberty of compiling all of them into a single file so you can add them to your swashbuckling game of choice.  Flashing Blades, Honor+Intrigue, Witch Hunter, All For One, Savage World of Solomon Kane, it doesn’t matter.  All of these games need sanguinists.  And now they can.

Everyone Loves a Bookmark!

A week or so back, Karl Keesler over on Google+ posted this image of his character from a 7th Sea game.

proto-bookmark

The first thing I thought when I saw this was, “sword toothpicks for hero points!  That’s super cute!  Much better looking than my doubloons from Party City.”

My second thought was, “how long until one of the players suffers a REAL Dramatic Wound from one of those things?  Less than one game session in my library game, I’ll bet.”

But then I noticed that mind blowing tidbit in the upper left.  What is that?  A bookmark?  A rules reference bookmark??  How f*%#ing cool is that!  I must have it!

And so Karl and I started a little back and forth about it.  Then the bookmark’s designer, Bert Garcia got involved.  And soon, this lovely play aid was revealed in all it’s glory.

proto02

Of course, by that point, I was neck deep into crafting my own rendition.  And not one to leave good enough alone, I had to use both sides and include twice the detail.  I’m happy with the results, and one of my players has already asked for a Roll20 version.

So please enjoy this wonderful play aid for 7th Sea 2nd edition.  Full credit goes to Bert Garcia for his original design, which you can find here if you want something more minimalist.  If any of you are wondering why I’m not releasing this to the Explorer’s Society, it just seems wrong to do anything like that without a full credit (and a share of any profits) going to Bert.  Besides, I like keeping all my toys right here where I can find them.

Don’t worry.  I have some ideas that will make it into the Society soon enough.

The End of an Era

First, a little musical accompaniment.

On Monday, May 15th, I ran my last game for the Lewisville Public Library.  It’s been a place I’ve visited almost every 1st and 3rd Monday for around 10 years.  I started out with a group of 4 running 50 Fathoms with Savage Worlds once a month.  At its height, probably about 5 years ago, we were averaging 12 players each session and running a game every Monday night.

 

Over the course of the last decade, scores of players have come and gone.  I’ve seen some kids start out in middle school, only to leave for college.  It’s been amazing.

During my tenure, those players have explored the worlds of 50 Fathoms, Castle Ravenloft, Athas (Dark Sun), 17th Century France (twice!), the Weird West of Deadlands, the Sword and Sandals world of Aros, the pirate-infested seas of Théah, a mysterious monster-filled island, an abandoned carnival haunted by evil clowns, Pinebox, Texas and East Texas University, the world of Warhammer 40k, the dungeons beneath Hogwarts, and the forelorn peaks of Moldavia and the Palace of the Vampire Queen.  I may be forgetting a few.  Most of these were played under Savage Worlds, but we also explored Ubiquity, Rogue Trader, Cthulhu Dark,  7th Sea, 4th edition and B/X Dungeons and Dragons for a time.

Since we are right on their doorstep, Reaper Miniatures came out three years in a row to run miniature painting workshops.  Each one was well attended by an enthusiastic bunch of teens who got a look into a different side of the hobby.

It’s not something I’ve done alone.  All along I’ve had the assistance of my close friend and co-GM, Joe, who was given the terrible task of being the unbiased, heartless tactical brains of many of the monstrosities the kids faced.  I’ve also had other GMs take part in the program, running games on my off nights.  Despite what you might think, none of those other GMs ever stuck around.  I don’t know if it was the stress of having to run a large group of relatively green (and sometimes rules-adverse) players or just the drudgery of having to show up.  For whatever reason, they didn’t get it.  If they understood the mission of the program, they never fell in love with it the way Joe and I did.

We outlasted THREE youth librarians who were wonderful ambassadors and understood what we were doing and gave us all the space we needed to do it.  They were always eager to print something up at the last minute, provide some prize support for some crazy contest, or invest in materials for the program.  See, we had a policy: come as you are; no materials or experience necessary.  You could play our games from the time you turned 11 til you graduated high school and never buy your own dice or rulebook.  We had everything covered.  And chances are, after the second year of the program, the Lewisville Public Library was footing the bill.

And they weren’t the only ones!  During our decade-long run, we’ve enjoyed support in the form of encouragement and materials from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Triple Ace Games, Reaper Miniatures, and 12 to Midnight!  Even when I thought they’d be too busy, these people gave up their time and efforts to help us pull off some big project or contest.  These guys and gals are fantastic folks – if you aren’t supporting these companies, you should be!

Another highlight was presenting with Youth Librarian Elizabeth Hanisian at the 2011 Texas Library Association meeting in San Antonio as part of a panel on gaming in the library, then running a Savage Worlds demo for those who attended.  While the attendees were supposed to sample a little bit of everything being demoed, we became a lot of people’s last stop as their valiant musketeers carefully made their way through an old tenement crawling with monstrosities.

But things began to wind down in 2010 with the birth of my daughter.  Then, in 2012, just days before the birth of my son, we moved from Lewisville to Dallas proper, turning my 5 minute commute to a 40+ minute grind through rush out traffic.  In 2014, my co-GM was married and moved west of Fort Worth, making his commute (already an hour and change) all but impossible.  Then my parents’ health took a turn that required more attention.  So when the previous Youth Librarian Liaison told me she was leaving to pursue a teaching career, I knew it was time to call it a night.   After all, if you couldn’t tell from the activity around here, the kindergarten school schedule is brutal!

So Monday was our last game session.  We had a full group: 10 kids and 1 adult (a dad who used to game), and of those we had two whole families playing.  They put an end to an Unseelie unicorn, captured the head of an anarchist cell in Paris, and learned the identity of perhaps the most dangerous sorcerer in France!  And thanks to a convenient Christmas Sale at Triple Ace Games, I was able to put a hardcover copy of All For One: Regime Diabolique into the hands of a very excited 12 year old girl (she won 1st place in our adventure writing contest – and no, I wasn’t one of the judges) and told her the rest of the adventure was in her hands.

I’m not sure how many of these kids will still be rolling dice at the table in six years, but that really isn’t the point.  The point has always been to give a group of teens the kind of gaming experience I wish I had been able to have at their age.  Back when I was futzing around with world building for D&D but had no real idea how to run a game or manage a campaign.  Joe felt the same way, and we led by example.  We always encouraged, always looked for ways for the kids to contribute, and always tried to introduce them to different aspects of the hobby.  We showed them miniature painting, skirmish level wargaming, adventure design and world building.  We rewarded ever step.

Do I think some of these kids will become life long gamers?  I know at least one will.  That at least one person will fall in love with the hobby and build on it because of something we built.  And that makes all the hard work, all the late Monday commutes, all the collaborative sessions, all the investment worth it.

To all of you who helped, contributed, or managed a game for our program, THANK YOU!  To those of you who sat at the table, rolled dice and helped us tell some amazing stories, BRAVO! We hope you enjoyed every minute as much as we did.  To all of you who I’ve spoken with on this subject over the past decade, who was inspired to take a turn at running games for kids at the public library, ROCK ON!  To anyone who is reading this and thinking, damn that sounds like something I should do, DO IT!  It’s a labor of love that pays off if you have patience and drive to nurture it and grow it.

It has been a fantastic and fun 10 years.  But that era must now give way to something new.

riding_off_into_the_sunset

Surprise!

As I’ve worked to wrap my brain around the finer points of the new edition of 7th Sea, squaring the circle of the traditional RPG encounter with this more pseudo-narrative style has been a bit challenging.  And 7th Sea isn’t the only RPG with this issue.  A lot of them, Witch Hunter and Savage Worlds included (IMNSHO) miss the bar on this one.  After all, when surprise is left to an opposed roll…what surprise is left?  No, this is one of the places where D&D excels: these GM procedural rolls.  Fast and easy; roll 2d6 and done.

In a game where players only “fail” when they choose too, “surprise” in the sense of a traditional RPG requires something of GM fiat.  Thankfully, 7th Sea has a mechanic for that: Danger Points.

Since 7th Sea GMs never have too many things to throw Danger Points at, I give you: the Surprise Round:

Where appropriate, at the beginning of an Action Sequence, the GM may spend a Danger Point to initiate a “surprise round.” During this round, all players must spend a hero point or dedicate enough raises to negate all potential Wounds before they may spend any to cause Wounds of their own.

This applies to Duelists and those with the Student of Combat Advantage, though they may use their Parry maneuver.

Example: a group of heroes are engaged by Strength 5 brute squads, one for each player.  The GM spends a Danger Point to initiate a Surprise Round as the Action Sequence begins, putting the heroes at an immediate disadvantage.  Normally, each hero could act normally, attacking, defending or performing stunts as they choose.  But during the surprise round, each player must dedicate 5 raises (Strength 5 brutes = 5 potential wounds) to defense (negating wounds) before they can attack and cause wounds of their own.  The group duelist may perform a Parry maneuver to negate a number of wounds equal to her weaponry (3, in this case), but the remaining 2 wounds must be negated on a 1:1 basis. They may perform defensive stunts normally.  If the player chooses, he or she may spend a Hero Point to act normally.

The language probably needs some tightening up, but I think the idea is sound.  Sure, you could accomplish some of this by spending a Danger Point to increase the difficulty to 15, or applying Pressure when Villains are involved, but neither of those really feels satisfactory to me.  And the cost seems appropriate and in-line with the rest of the game.

Give it a try the next time you want to throw a curve ball at your players.  Let me know how it works out.

 

Inside Baseball: Campaign Prep

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Time to talk prep.  As I write this, I’m prepping to begin two different games: a 7th Sea game for my regular group and an All For One: Regime Diabolique game for my library program.  Now, if you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that I’ve talked about doing things a bit differently this time around.  I’ve been trying to stay true to that experiment.  So I thought I’d give readers a window into my prep process.

7th Sea

This one has by far required the most discipline for me.  Because I want to feature the player’s stories, I didn’t want to prep too much before we had our character creation session. So instead I started by giving the players some choices in the “themes” the game would explore.  Basically, I wanted to get a vague idea of the type of game they were most interested in playing.  I needed this to begin any type of prep at all.  Théah is a big sandbox and 7th Sea is wide open to all sorts of play.They came back with High Seas Adventure and Secret Societies.  That gave me a place to start.

With Witch Hunter, I had an idea for my uber-villain, the ultimate story arch, and where I wanted play to begin (Strasbourg).  I didn’t want to do that this time.  Instead, I started sketching out some rough ideas for NPCs, using a lot of ideas from Johnn Four’s One Sentence NPCs and 3 Line NPCs.  The idea is to design some nebulous NPC concepts that can then be applied to characters the players encounter once play begins.  I scribbled down 2 pages of ideas in my notebook before realizing that very few of the concepts I had created really fit a seafaring environment.  So I took a left turn to brainstorm a collection of Pirate Town archetypes to give me more direction.  I also started drawing up some rough ideas for a handful of villains that I could introduce.

Things took another left turn while surfing GnomeStew and reading Tracey Barnett’s article on NPC Moves.  Now, I’m not big on *World or FATE games, but the idea of taking passive qualities (personality traits, motivations, etc) and turning them into Actions struck me as genius.  Basically, instead of this:

The Old Dame

  • Longs to recapture her youth
  • Loves to throw elaborate parties
  • Is the laughing stock of the local social set

…you instead have this:

The Old Dame

  • Act Younger than I am
  • Name drop and associate to elevate myself
  • Mistake mockery for flattery
  • Add invitees to the next guest list

THAT seems super helpful in portraying NPCs as unique and different and not falling into a lot of the same bad habit characterizations.  It also seems well suited to the Index Card method.  So while its not the easiest shift for me, I’m doing my best present my NPCs in these terms.

The last thing I’m doing is with my villains.  After Witch Hunter, the last thing I want is a shadowy mastermind pulling the strings.  Yes, 7th Sea has these aplenty, but to push myself I’m working to introduce bold, aggressive, in your face adversaries instead of those hiding in the shadows.

But that’s it.  I’ve tried to keep everything else to a line or two at best.  After all, the plan is to improvise a lot more in play.  The exception to this is a handful of ideas I have for a lost Syrneth ruin (DUNGEONCRAWL!  WOOT!).  But I don’t plan to dig in deep there unless my players express interest in going there.

All For One: Regime Diabolique

While I’m hoping to employ a lot of these same practices when it comes to the library game, here I benefit from more structure.  We generally have a table of anywhere from 6 to 12 teens of varying level of experience.  There is already a LOT of improvisation going on, but these kids benefit from a bit of direction…dare I call it railroading.  That is, if you open everything up to them, nothing gets done.  So here I want to have a solid hook for them to bite on.

As such, I’m going to rely on the matrix adventure design that has served me well here in the past.  I’ve plotted out the first session and followed the bread crumbs a bit in different directions.  So I’m prepared.  I don’t want to go too far, though.

Something I’m considering employing this time around are clue cards, or some tangible aid that the players can refer back to.  Maybe even something as heavy handed as Quest Cards.  There is a bit of a mystery planned, though its much less Sherlock Holmes and more 24 in nature.  So anything to help the kids stay on track will be helpful.

Beyond this, I’ll be recycling a lot of the discarded NPC concepts from the 7th Sea game who fit much more snuggly within the walls of Paris than on the open seas.  Same plan: index cards, rough concepts that can be applied when needed, and actions instead of passive qualities.

It occurs to me that having a timeline of events would be helpful here too, and help drive the action without putting the heroes on a southbound train.

Final Words

I’ll revisit all of this after about a month of play and we’ll see how it goes.  As of right now, I’m pretty happy with the results and excited to.  Both games have plenty of room to surprise me, and that’s something I desperately want right now: the flexibility for everything to take a sharp left turn at Albequorque.  Nothing is safe, nothing is too sacred, and no one will be spared.

See you next week!

New Year’s (Gaming) Resolutions, 2017 edition

Looking back at my 2016 Resolutions, I don’t feel very accomplished.  In fact, I’m not sure I managed any of these well or consistently enough to check them off the list.  So this year, I’m attempting a much more modest list of resolutions.

Less tactics, more theater of the mind

I can trace a definite change in my style of play before and after working for the RPGA on the Living Greyhawk campaign and Dungeons and Dragons 3e.  The two games I ran prior to 3e were 7th Sea and Dragonlance 5th Age (SAGA).  Neither of these are heavy on tactics or power-creep.  After a few years of D&D 3/3.5 and nearly a decade of Savage Worlds, I feel like I’ve gotten as far away from that as possible.  Witch Hunter reeled me back in a bit, but playing B/X D&D with the kids at the library really revealed how cumbersome these games really are!  I’d really like to get back to focusing on cool stories at the tabletop instead of worrying about creating adequate challenges for the heroes.  It’s one of the many reasons I’m excited to try out the new edition of 7th Sea for more than just a one-shot.  Will it bring me back to pre-3e fighting form?  I’ll let you know in 6 months.

Prep less, improvise more

I’m not sure I was ever really a “prep-lite” GM, but looking at my session and development notes for Witch Hunter, I can see where things got a bit out of hand here and there.  Last year I would tell you that prepping a historical game can be a lot more work than your typical fantasy RPG, but I’m not entirely sure that isn’t a load of crap.  So this year I am purposefully going to experiment with some “prep-lite” GMing techniques and see what happens.  I’m really hoping I learn a few new tricks that I can take back to my Witch Hunter game so I spend more time being a cool dad and less chasing details online and frantically scribbling away in the notebook.

Villains that do things, not skulk in the shadows

Prepping for 7th Sea, I’ve come to the horrible realization that sooooo many of my villains have been Orcus on his Throne.  That is, they hide in the shadows as the heroes dance around them like tops bobbing about the ripples they create.  There have been one or two instances where a villain was front and center.  These ALWAYS resulted in memorable game sessions.  My Witch Hunter game is no exception, with a dozen minor villains circling a shadowy uber-villain who is never seen and seldom heard from.  No surprise that when the players are planning their next step, the big bad isn’t remotely included in their plans.  So this year, I resolve to put my villains front and center.  Let them act with abandon.  Let the heroes cut them down…if they can.  But let’s give them some screen time, too.

Try new things as a GM

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m planning on trying out new techniques for both our 7th Sea and my Regime Diabolique games, including using Index Cards, the 3x3x3 method, and a handful of other tricks I’ve read about but never employed.

Go to a con…and PLAY

I haven’t actually been a PLAYER in an RPG for a few years, and DFW and Austin has no shortage of good cons.   I’ve been meaning to go to NTRPGCon for years now.  All part of the process of becoming a better GM this year.