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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.

 

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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.

High Seas Holidays

The votes are in, and my group of players have almost unanimously elected to go with a high seas adventure game with strong involvement of secret societies.  And with that, prep for our 7th Sea game can really begin in earnest.  Not that I haven’t been brainstorming and scribbling down ideas for awhile now, but this gives me a definite direction with which to steer the ship, so to speak.

With the holidays upon us, I am sneaking in whatever time I can manage to do a bit of prep for the forthcoming 7th Sea campaign.  It’s coming along nicely.  I feel I have quite a few resources collected that will make my work easier when we dive in around mid-January.  And since it’s the holidays, I want to share some of the fruits of my labor with you.

So first up, a 7th Sea Ship Name resource.  Along with a reformatted version of Finn’s Companion #3 (any of you old hands remember that one?), I’ve included a list of authentic ship names from the 17th Century British and Dutch navies, along with pirate vessels of ill repute.  So you can either grab a name from antiquity or mix and match something new for your players to grapple with.  This should be of help to anyone running a historical (or semi-historical) nautical game.  I’m going to add this resource on the Downloads page as well.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Ch-ch-ch-changes

“So we wake up in a barn…with Isaac Newton.”
— Heather

That’s the quote that wrapped up last Friday’s Witch Hunter game.  It marked the end of a pretty tense adventure that found our heroes on the losing side of a blossoming Hell Point in northern France and the forces of a Duke Unchained who had been summoned there.  Things probably would have been more tense had we not played in nearly two months, what with conflicting schedules.  Still, in the end, it felt like a satisfactory “season finale.”

And that’s what its going to be.  The last Witch Hunter game until at least July.

Maybe it’s the two month hiatus, the kids’ schedules, or the fact that we’ve been at this campaign for three years.  But my Witch Hunter take is feeling a bit dried up.  It’s been coming.  I felt it back in the early part of the year.  There are still plenty of stories to tell, and I really want to see how they shake out.  But I feel like, as a GM, I’m at the line between phoning it in and running an inspired game.  And my players deserve the latter.

So a month ago I proposed a finite break from Witch Hunter to try out one of a couple of new games sitting on the shelf.  By a very thin margin, we settled on the new 7th Sea.

I’m excited about the change for a whole host of reasons.  For one, as I’ve stated here and elsewhere, I really feel parts of the new 7th Sea are outside of my comfort zone as a GM: the way the core mechanic is structured, the removal of roadblocks, and just the sheer level of improvisation the game really steers towards.  And while I’m very familiar with the world of Théah, I feel like the game is going to be a real challenge to run.

It also makes a great opportunity to shake some old habits.  After all, what’s the point of taking a break from an old game if you are going to do everything the same way you did before?  I’m looking to push myself in new directions and new challenges as much as recharge my creative batteries.

The biggest change I’m making is with prep!  Since my D&D 3e days, my prep has become steadily more heavy.  If you look at my adventure notes, they can get quite elaborate sometimes.  I look back at my games pre-3e and see that most of my session plans took maybe a page or two.  Post-3e, I average about 4-5 pages of prep for 2 sessions worth of play (mostly due to over prepping).

Because of the game’s emphasis on improvisation, I’m going to try something new: the Index Card method.  I’ve shied away from this method in the past because putting 5 pages of historical detail on index cards just doesn’t seem very practical.  In fact, the Index Card approach is almost the polar opposite of how I prep.  What fun!  Let’s give it a whirl!

Another technique I’m hoping to try out is Floyd Wesel’s 3x3x3 method.  In short, rather than request a detailed character background from the players, or have them fill out a questionnaire, I’m going to ask them to provide a number of contacts, allies, and rivals for their heroes.  Nothing too taxing: a name and a sentence or two should do.  Coupled with 7th Sea’s Story mechanic, these should provide plenty of grist for the mill.

So there you have it.  The next couple of months are going to be full of experimentation.  Hopefully, I can bring some of it back to our Witch Hunter game when we resume later in the year.  Hopefully I’ll learn some tricks to improve the game experience and make myself a better GM.  And you can bet I’ll be discussing all of it here.

In other news, for those of you who haven’t wandered through the downloads section lately, advanced prep work for 7th Sea is already well underway.  You’ll find an updated version of the Ship Manifest (with a corrected “death spiral”) and a Villain character sheet (both a simple and advanced version).  I’m working on a few more cheat sheets and references for the game which I hope to have in place before we launch in January.

So hey, that’s what I’ve got.  How about you?  Have you ever done a total audit of your GMing and prep style?  What did you learn about yourself?  What did you keep and what did you pitch?  Share your story in the comments section, please.

Villain Archetypes for 7th Sea

 

This is something I started working on as a shorthand method for creating interesting villains on the fly.  The idea was based somewhat on D&D 3/3.5’s monster templates.  Find the archetype that fits your concept of the villain, and you now have a handful of related Advantages you can apply as desired.  Not every villain who fits an archetype will have all the recommended Advantages, nor are they limited to just those Advantages.  But now the GM has a condensed list of “go-to” abilities for creating villains on the fly, or just as an idea generator.

These archetypes don’t address Arcana or Stats, as those will need to be personalized to the villain.

I hope you find them useful.

Villainous Archetypes

Villainous Archetypes are meant to be broad pictures of a villainous character. They are tools meant to speed up the design of a villain. Find the one that best fits your concept of the villain and then apply the recommended Advantages.

Archetype Recommended Advantages
The Betrayer Come Hither (2), Disarming Smile (2), Opportunist (3), We’re Not So Different (5)
The Bureaucrat Friend at Court (2), Indomitable Will (2), Lyceum (4), Opportunist (3), University
The Fallen Hero Connection (2), Fencer, Perfect Balance (2), Quick Reflexes (3), Reputation (2)
The Fanatic Fascinate (2), Indomitable Will (2), Leadership (2), Quick Reflexes (3), Together We Are Strong (5), Trusted Companion (4)
The Fop Connection (2), Friend at Court (2), Inspire Generosity (2), Leadership (2), Reputation (2), Specialist (4)
The Mad Scientist Specialist (4), Spark of Genius (5), Tenure (3), University (4)
The Mastermind Connection (2), Duelist Academy (5), Friend at Court (2), Hard to Kill (4), Indomitable Will (2), Leadership (2), Quick Reflexes (3), Staredown (2), The Devil’s Own Luck (5), Time Sense (1)
The Pirate Bar Fighter (3), Direction Sense (1), Fencer (3), I’m Taking You With Me (5), Perfect Balance (2), Sea Legs (1), Slip Free (2)
The Priest Fascinate (2), Indomitable Will (2), Leadership (2), Lyceum (4), Ordained (3), Tenure (3), University (4)
The Weakling Dead Eye (3), Disarming Smile (2), Psst! Over Here (2), Reputation (Contradictory) (2), Small (1), Sniper (3), We’re Not So Different (5)
The Zealot I’m Taking You With Me (5), Indomitable Will (2), Quick Reflexes (3), Reputation (2), Specialist (4), Staredown (2), Trusted Companion (4), We’re Not So Different (5)

7th Sea: Expanding NPCs

Two weeks ago, the preview copies of the Heroes and Villains decks went out to backers of the 7th Sea 2nd edition kickstarter.  It gave us our first real look at how the JWP is planning to handle NPCs in the game.  I’ll save my thoughts on the decks themselves until their final release.  But lets talk about NPCs.

Under the 7th Sea core rules, there are really only one class of NPCs: Villains.  Villains have two stats: Strength and Influence, which combine to form their Villainy Rank.  The Hero deck proposes that NPC heroes have only one stat: Strength.  Ok, fair enough.  But for me that seems awfully limited in scope.  After all, different NPCs serve different roles to the players.  I think it makes sense to expand things a bit without going crazy.

Here’s what I’m proposing — for my games, anyway:

There are Five CLASSES of NPCs.  Each class defines the role of the character to the Heroes (the PCs).  It isn’t about what role the NPC serves in the world, but how they relate to the player characters that matters.  Each has a different array of stats depending on the needs of the NPC Class.  But ultimately, there are only three stats:

  • Strength: The character’s personal ability, intellect, charm, skill with a sword, ability to use magic, etc.
  • Influence: The character’s money, resources, minions, political power, allies, etc.
  • Favor: the faith the character has in you and the resources you can draw from. (Yup, just like secret societies).

The Classes of NPCs are as follows:

Villains
Just as explained in the Core rules, Villains have a Strength and Influence score that forms their Villainy Rank.

Patrons
Patrons are influential NPCs who can provide the heroes with means, wealth, and additional influence.  Patrons have two traits: Influence and Favor.

Allies
Allies are other noteworthy NPCs the heroes can call upon for aid or assistance from time to time.  Allies have two traits: Strength and Favor.

Extras
Extras are NPCs that have a neutral relationship with the Heroes.  In most instances, there is no need to give these characters any statistical detail.  But when you do, they have only one trait: Strength.

Brutes
Brutes aren’t proper NPCs.  They are generally underlings, goons, faceless mercenaries, and other threats that they wield against the heroes.  Brutes have one trait: Strength, determined by the number of individuals in the Squad.

I expect you can already figure out how this works.

Patrons are measured in their influence, because unless they are villains the players shouldn’t expect to come to blows against them.  How much and how often a Patron will exert this Influence on behalf of the heroes is measured by their Favor trait, which is handled just as one would with a Secret Society.  Favor is a resource.  Doing things for the Patron builds it up.  Calling in favors depletes it.  Simple as that.

Allies work almost the same way.  Except rather than bringing their Influence to bear for the Heroes, they exert their strength.  How often they willingly do this is measure by Favor.  Abuse an ally too much, and they won’t be so inclined to help you out in the future.

Now, I’m sure this all seems pretty elementary, so why bother?  Because this information is worthwhile when it comes to the players and how they interact with the world.  Not all Patrons are created equal.  Earning the patronage of a cardinal of the Vaticine church should have more potential ramifications than that of the Duchess of Charsouse.  But what point does Strength serve either character?  Likewise, its helpful to know how much Captain Berek of the Sea Dogs is in debt to the heroes, favor-wise, and how much muscle he can lend on your behalf.  But beyond a few key contacts, no one expects Captain Berek to have wide reaching influence.  (Actually, Berek is a bad example.  He could potentially be an Ally OR a Patron.)

This also suggests that Patrons could have schemes.  And why not?  This gives one more story hook for GMs to dress up for the players.

Consider the following guidelines when it comes to Patrons and Favor (modeled after Secret Societies, of course):

Earning Favor

  • Selling Information that is of interest a Patron is worth 2 Favor. Information of this type is not commonly known but not a closely guarded secret, such as a merchant’s previous failed businesses or the name of a privateer’s wife.
  • Aiding or acting as an agent of the Patron in a scheme that comes to fruition is worth 4 Favor. Acting as part of an unsuccessful scheme that does not fail do to your involvement is worth 2 Favor.
  • Selling a Secret that is of interest to the Patron is worth 6 Favor. Information of this type is a closely guarded secret, such as the secret bastard son of the Count or the identity of an Inquisition assassin.

Spending Favor

  • You can call upon your Patron to spend Wealth on your behalf, at a cost of 1 Favor for each point of Wealth spent. The Patron can spend up to half of his or her Influence in Wealth in this manner. Patrons will not spend beyond that unless there are special circumstances.
  • Buying Information that the Patron possesses costs 1 Favor. Information of this type is not commonly known but not a closely guarded secret, such as a merchant’s previous failed businesses or the name of a privateer’s wife.
  • Requesting an Agent of your Patron to save you from danger or help you accomplish a mission costs 3 Favor. Agents dispatched in this capacity are typically Strength 4.
  • Patrons will not typically dispense in Secrets unless the information is relevant to an assignment the Heroes are undertaking for that Patron.
  • Betraying the trust and confidence of a Patron has a cost in favor as well.  Typically the cost in Favor will be either 2 (minor breech), 4 (moderate breech), or 6 (major breech).  On minor breech of trust, the Patron may be willing to extend a second chance to the hero, depending on their relationship.  A moderate and major trust will usually result in refusal of any further involvement by the Patron.  Furthermore, if the loss in Favor results in reducing the Hero’s standing favor to 0 or less, the Patron may become an Adversary, actively working against the hero.  This could jeopardize the heroes’ relationship with other Patrons as well.

Of course, you can expand on this list.  Just as each Secret Society has two or more unique was to earn and spend favor, so should Patrons.  The Courtly Intrigue rules in the old Montaigne book would be a great place to draw inspiration.

And none of this additional definition adds weight to the game.  It simply uses the things that were already there.  So if you feel NPCs in 7th Sea are a bit on the threadbare side, try this out and see if it suits your needs better.

The Service Industry

Caveat: I’ve never been a big fan of “crafting” in MMOs and the like.  The idea of spending hours on a computer game collecting different artifacts to put together something for sale just doesn’t do it for me.  That’s why I have a job.  That’s why I have hobbies.  I don’t want to spend my leisure time “crafting” virtual products for sale.  If you are the kind of person who does, you will probably disagree with the assessment in this article.

Recently, over on Google+, I shared a few thoughts with Brian Fitzpatrick on a prospective Alchemist class for old-school D&D.  Now first, let me say that Brian is in good company.  I’m not sure how many versions of an Alchemist class have been developed for D&D, between retro-clones, heartbreakers, Dragon Magazine, Pathfinder, and unattributed home brews, but I’m sure its up there in the Top 10.  He’s not breaking new ground, but he’s not trying to get blood from a stone either.

Once upon a time, I loved the idea of NPC classes.  Because more is better, right?  In a class-based system, the only way to achieve these expressions of diversity is through new classes.  It’s not like a skill or advantage-based system where I can spend a few points and BOOM!  I’m an alchemist, bitches!

The trouble is, those sorts of classes don’t really work in an adventure/exploration heavy game like D&D.  A character class focused solely on a support role just isn’t going to be fun to play over the long haul by the majority of players.  Because they never really get a chance to step into the spotlight when it counts.    Sure, I’m sure there are a handful of games that sort of class will fit like a glove, but the traditional “let’s explore” D&D game, not so much.

Besides, the rules already provide guidelines for the creation of potions and alchemical devices by clerics, magic-users and elves (even the other character types too, if the GM is flexible and willing to be extrapolate a bit).  This makes perfect sense.  After all, if we look at the life and career of Isaac Newton, its reasonable that in a quasi-historical fantasy setting all of these skills would have gone together.  A “wizard” would of course be able to cook up alchemical concoctions.  That would be assumed in the background and training.  So you already have the framework for your adventuring alchemist.  You can make it as simple or robust as you need it to be.

So my response to Brian was, rather than a class, why not just come up with a more detailed alchemy service?  Because that’s what it really comes down to: service and cost.  The party hires an alchemist to keep them afloat in healing potions, greek fire, and (in the case of Brian’s class) keep their magic items charged.  That stuff really isn’t the bread and butter of adventuring PCs, so lets mitigate it to a support role.  Brian disagrees with me on the merits of the class.  Which is fine.  As I’ve said, he’s in good company and I’m hardly the final word in game design.  His argument is as follows:

…I think the party alchemist, especially in a longer campaign with more spellcasters, could be extremely useful. Perhaps not all the time, but more often than not… Here are a few possibilities.

  • Imagine having the ability for both a Cleric and an Alchemist to temporarily enchant or improve weapons for the battle at hand
  • Or recharging an expended magic item at a critical juncture
  • Or creating a scroll, potion or powder from an unused spell at the end of the day “just in case” the party needs it at a future time

If we make the alchemist at lower levels (1-5) more useful for those three tasks, as well as give them a few additional abilities or spells, I think that would be enough to make this a useful player class.

Sure.  Or you could simply tweak the magic item research and fabrication rules as they are and achieve almost the same effect without having to wedge a player into a largely supportive role.

Consider:

  • Clerics and magic users can already temporarily enhance weapons for the battle at hand without the extra step of alchemy.
  • Recharging expended magic item sounds great, but removes the necessity of further exploration to replace expended resources.  Plus, most magic items replicate spell effects, allowing you to put your other limited resources elsewhere.
  • The rules already allow this to some degree.  Building a class around it is unnecessary.

And that’s really what’s at issue here.  Unless alchemy is going to be a big feature of your game (and it could be!), building a class doesn’t really add value to the game.  Instead, it provides a character that isn’t as capable as a magic-user or cleric that is focused on downtime activities and with more equipment and resource requirements.  See, a magic-user is just as capable whether or not he can find a steady supply of mandrake root to create this or that potion.  An alchemist would need to have that same, if not more, utility and versatility.

I’m not saying an adventuring alchemist isn’t a cool idea.  But I do think it needs to have a bigger niche than, “you want me to recharge that for ya?”

But I didn’t write this whole thing to shoot down Brian’s hopes and dreams.  No, see I want to redirect him a little.  Because what I DO NEED, as a DM AND as a player, is a reason to travel 300 miles over land and sea to seek out a MASTER alchemist as opposed to hiring that guy in the base town.  And I need a justification as to why that dude charges x10 as much for his services, other than that his calling card reads “Master Alchemist.”

If you look at B/X and AD&D, you’ll see roughly the same thing:

B/X D&D (Expert Rulebook)
Alchemist (1000 gp/month): If given the formula or a sample, an alchemist may make a potion at half the normal time and cost. They may also conduct research into different types of potions at twice the cost and time required for a magic-user.

AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide
Alchemist (300 gp/month):
This profession handles the compounding of magical substances, and the advantages of employing an alchemist are detailed under the section FABRICATION OF MAGIC ITEMS, Potions. Alchemists will only be found in cities unless you specifically locate one elsewhere. It will require an offer of 10 to 100 gold pieces bonus money, plus a well-stocked laboratory, plus the assurance of not less than a full year of employment, to attract one to service.

There really isn’t anything there that sets one apart from the other.  So there is just as much benefit to tracking down the famed Isaac Newton at University in England as dropping into Ted’s Apothecary and Lubricants for all of your alchemical needs.  What I’m proposing would serve the game well would be to grade hirelings by degrees of skill (I’d recommend three tiers to avoid getting too granular and keep the book keeping manageable), with different rates and some different capabilities attached.  Ted’s A & L might be a great place to go for low level potions.  But for the real heavy hitters (like recharging your wand of fireballs or a potion of super heroism), you have to seek out a Master.  And I think it would be worthwhile to do this across the board.  There should be a difference between hiring the Black Company and Wallace’s Band of Ne’er-do-Wells.  And there really is no guidance on how to do it right now.

I’m going to come back to this eventually on my own, but I suspect someone just as smart and twice as dedicated has already beaten me to the punch on this one.  And if not, someone needs to.  In the meantime, don’t give up hope on your Alchemist class, Brian.  I hear the one in the Arcanum is a fantastic starting point!