RPG Thoughts

Why Every Campaign Should Plan for an End

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In my opinion, no campaign should begin without an end in mind. This may sound somewhat strange to gamers who are accustomed to playing games that continue on and on. But I think that without a planned ending, the campaign itself becomes weaker.

Prevent Jumping the Shark and GM Burnout

Fonzie literally jumps the shark

Fonzie literally jumps the shark

The party of heroes has just saved the world from the evil sorcerer! What’s next? Well, his apprentice, who is also his girlfriend, vows revenge on the player characters and has a plan just as sinister. And after she’s defeated, it turns out they had a son who wants revenge too. And he had an uncle who wants to destroy the entire universe once and for all. But as a consolation, he decided to resurrect the original big bad. And the resurrected big bad…uh…tries going back in time to prevent all of the heroes accomplishments from happening in the first place.

At some point, an extended campaign is going to either:

  • Jump the shark, in which elevating the stakes of the campaign takes a turn for the underwhelming
  • Lead to GM burnout where the GM has run out of interesting ideas and is no longer sure how to make the game interesting

Comparing to TV shows, Heroes had a phenomenal first season. And then a poor second season and a worse third season, then it got better in the fourth and fifth, but by that point, people had long given up. Imagine if Heroes had been a miniseries ending at the first season? The result would have been a much stronger, and much better remembered, show. Or to use a movie example, wouldn’t The Matrix have been a lot better if they’d just stuck to one movie?

Having an ending in mind prevents these fates from happening. The GM isn’t struggling to up the ante and in danger of running out of new ideas.

Players May Not Keep the Same Schedule

People have changing lives. They may be available on Wednesday nights for a while, but once they graduate from college, get a new job, or have a baby, they may no longer be able to maintain their typical roleplaying game time. And if people need to drop out because of life commitments, your campaign might fall apart. It’s hard to recruit players into an extended campaign that they weren’t around for at the beginning.

By saying up front that a campaign will last for so many months or take about so many sessions, you’re making it easier for players to commit to a game. They can decide for themselves if they’ll be available for the time. If things are getting hectic, they may decide to hang out for another few weeks if they know that the ending is drawing near. This also means that, worst case, if your friend is running a campaign that turns out to be terrible, at least you can push forward to the end that’s coming instead of having to slog through for an indefinite time or drop out.

Avoid the Firefly Phenomenon

Sci-fi fans around the world have shed many tears over the fact that Joss Whedon’s Firefly was canceled after 14 episodes, despite being an original and promising show. This has led to what I call the Firefly Phenomenon where fans of the series lament the fact that the show ended far too soon due to external circumstances and left a lot of great stories on the table. There’s been a number of excellent shows that have suffered a similar fate (my personal favorite being Awake), which could have been so much more, but were canceled early for any number of reasons.

You may have a fantastic campaign in mind, but if your “viewers” (i.e. the players) aren’t able to follow through for whatever reason (which might happen, as explained above), your massive, multi-year campaign will fall apart, possibly resulting in the Firefly Phenomenon. Your players, or you yourself, may have been really excited in the campaign, but if external circumstances might prevent the campaign from lasting so long, planning it to be shorter will be better down the road. And in my experience, it’s really hard to restart a campaign that has ended too early.

Create More Satisfying Arcs

Babylon 5 was a sci-fi television series planned from the start to last 5 seasons. There were planned arcs throughout and events that happened early resulted in a payoff much later. Contrast that to Lost or the revived Battlestar Galactica where things just kept going on and on and people were wondering if the writers really had an end in mind (did the Cylons really have a plan?). If you have an ending in mind at the start, you can have a definite beginning, middle, and end and wind up creating a more satisfying series overall. Not a “what direction are the writers taking us next” situation.

Allow for New Ideas

Contrary to what some D&D/Pathfinder players believe, there are a lot more roleplaying games out there than just Fantasy. If a campaign has an ending, it means that the group can move on to one of those other ideas and try something different for variety. After being supers, you change to spies and after spies you change to space marines. With an indefinite end, you’re playing the same type of character, well, indefinitely. With a definite end, there’s the option of trying something new.

I’ve had great results overall with campaigns with a definite end in mind and I think others would too if they tried it. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Coming next week: The Journeyman GM’s 100th blog post!

Thoughts on “Goblin Dice”

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I recently read a fascinating blog entry at Ponderings on Games called Goblin Dice. He sums up the term pretty well:

D&D’s d20 is a prime example of what I’ve taken to calling a “goblin die”. You roll high, a goblin dies. You roll low, a goblin lives. No one doubts the eventual fate of the poor goblin. It doesn’t matter if it’s killed this round or the next. But it’s still fun to roll those dice, just as it is fun to fight the scrambling goblins. Hence, goblin dice: good for determining the fate of goblins. Not so good for determining the fate of heroes, or worlds. They are terrible for anything important.

The author goes on to point out that, because of this binary pass/fail mechanic, a number of problems with this ambiguity occur. This was even parodied here in the web comic DM of the Rings where whether or not Frodo managed to destroy the One Ring came down to a single d20 roll and the DM rolled…a 10. Well, did Frodo destroy the Ring or not?

Part of the problem when interpreted this way is that a d20 roll is often seen as a result on a continuum. A 1 is an absolute failure, a 20 is an absolute success, and everything else is in the middle. I suppose one thing that I like about “cinematic” systems like Savage Worlds and the good ol’ d6 System is that they avoid this problem by having open-ended die mechanics. You can’t judge your dice result of 1 to infinity as a continuum, so you compare the result to the target number and it’s pretty obvious by how close you were how much you succeeded or failed by. Roll 10 under, you definitely failed. Roll 1 under, you barely failed. Roll 20 over, you definitely succeeded and probably won a medal for it. Granted, this can still result in Goblin Dice if you’re not careful, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space avoids this problem by having different levels of success. Just hit the target number? You get a “Yes, but…” result, meaning you got what you wanted, but it didn’t work as well as you hoped. Get it by a moderate amount? You get a “Yes” result, meaning it happened just as you wanted. Get it by an extreme amount? You get “Yes, and…” meaning it turned out better than you’d hoped. The inverse happens with failure as well.

I encourage gamers to read the whole article at Ponderings on Games, it’s a really a good read. And feel free to share your thoughts, here or on the original article.

Gaming Tips from Lego The Lord of the Rings

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Lego Lord of the Rings Cover ArtWhile at the public library I’m spending my AmeriCorps service year at, I ran into the Lego Lord of the Rings video game. I’d played the first two Lego Star Wars games with my brother years ago and, after getting a chance to play it for just a little bit, decided it was so much fun that I would get the game myself! I destroyed the Ring, got all the mithril bricks, rounded up all the characters, and proudly achieved 100% completion. I’d say it was well worth it!

But that doesn’t explain the offbeat title of this blog post. Can a video game like Lego Lord of the Rings really teach us tips about how to play roleplaying games? Absolutely!

Have Some Fun on a Serious Quest

The Lego series by TT Games is noted for their humorous spin on the movies they represent. Lego Lord of the Rings continues this tradition by throwing in some humor. Sure, part of it is to entertain little kids, but part of it is just to make the game more fun to play.

One of my favorite things is the running gag with Eowyn wanting to fight, but not being allowed to. For instance, when the Wargs attack, Eowyn excitedly pulls out a sword and…

Theoden: You must lead the people to Helm's Deep.

Theoden: You must lead the people to Helm’s Deep. And make haste!

Lego Eowyn Angry

Eowyn: Awww! [Throws down her sword]

Sound like any players you know? A battle comes up, but they don’t get to fight and they get mad.

There was also some outright absurdity. While Boromir is trying to steal the Ring from Frodo at Amon Hen, Frodo builds a catapult in order to fire off a stone and distract him. Eomer’s horsemen do kind of a synchronized dance as they circle around Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Lurtz keeps firing arrows at Boromir, but when he runs out and he’s still not dead, he switches to some unorthodox ammo like brooms, bananas, and chickens.

Lego Lurtz and Boromir

I say embrace it. Let these things be fun. Sure, the quest can be serious and the stakes be the fate of the world, but ultimately roleplaying games are about having fun. Sure you don’t have to actually let them fire off bananas, but at least let them entertain the idea!

And for added fun, throw in a Mithril Disco Phial!

Non-Combat Diversions are Good

There are some interesting diversions in Lego Lord of the Rings. For instance, the Pass of Caradhras involves causing avalanches in order to clear rocks that block the way. Freeing Theoden from Saruman’s hold requires building traps to catch Grima Wormtongue so he won’t disrupt Gandalf. Camping on Weathertop leads to finding firewood and gathering food so that the Hobbits can cook up something to eat. I’ve actually had some games where what they’re making for dinner (complete with a Cooking roll for the quality) is actually a really fun moment in the session. Let this happen and enjoy it!

Sometimes Not Fighting is Just as Interesting

The second level (after the Prologue level involving Isildur defeating Sauron) features the four Hobbits spending most of the level avoiding the Black Rider on their way to Brandybuck Ferry. This means tossing rocks at branches, stirring up bees, and even lighting a bridge on fire. I found this to be pretty interesting overall. This was an enemy that couldn’t be defeated, so clever methods had to be devised in order to avoid it.

I think we need more of that in roleplaying games. Sometimes I think we get stuck in the D&D mentality of kicking down the door and killing everything inside (while also expecting it to be level-appropriate enemies). But interesting scenarios can happen when you are up against even just one enemy that is way out of your league and you need to think of some creative means of avoiding it.

It’s Okay to Split the Party to Pursue Different Objectvies

After Amon Hen, there are two groups of characters traveling simultaneously: Frodo & Sam and Aragorn, Gimli, & Legolas. You can swap between the two at will and continue with their stories and sometimes this is necessary. Personally, I think that there is no problem at all with separating the party like this if they are working towards a common goal. Indeed, this is most obvious at the end where Aragorn leads an attack on the Black Gate solely for the purpose of aiding Frodo and Sam.

I plan to write about this more at some point in the future (perhaps more officially than in a blog), but I think it would be really interesting to have a campaign where your party splits and then occasionally you swap back and forth between two sets of characters each working towards their own goals. Splitting the party to pursue different objectives can be a very interesting way to have a campaign become a saga.

Large Parties are Lots of Fun!

I think one of my favorite parts of the game was right after Rivendell when you had a grand total of nine in your party. And Lego Lord of the Rings didn’t skimp on that, no you have eight people following the lead character around on the overworld! It was a lot of fun walking around Middle Earth and switching between characters to use their special abilities and grab the goodies scattered all around. And levels like the Mines of Moria were really epic having a group just as large working together to fight off Orcs.

I definitely like having large parties because it makes things seem more epic. Granted, you probably need a system that can support it. I’ve found that Savage Worlds scales pretty well with larger groups, especially if many of the extras are, well, Extras. Dungeons & Dragons is usually okay if you just add one or two (under the players’ control, it’s no fun if the DM is rolling the dice!) but can still be somewhat cumbersome. Still, if you can pull it off, it can make things much more interesting.

Explore!

The final lesson is to allow for lots of exploration! Unlike previous Lego games where you have a central “hub” (such as the Mos Eisley Cantina), Lego Lord of the Rings takes place all over Middle Earth. You start in Hobbiton and throughout the course of the game you travel all the way to Mordor (of course, one does not simply walk into Mordor!). Getting from here to there over a perilous journey can be one of the more interesting parts of a roleplaying game. In fact it’s one thing that I think The One Ring does especially well (as described in my previous review).

So there you have it, several lessons in roleplaying games that a video game taught us. Isn’t that cool?

Lego Lord of the Rings Characters
And yes, I’m fully aware that the title is actually Lego The Lord of the Rings, but I think that the initial “the” sounds redundant and breaks the flow so I drop it.

Three Settings I’d Love to See

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So we’ve all got our favorite settings. Frequent readers know that I’m particularly fond of Deadlands and Urban Arcana. But there is always room for more settings, so here’s three that I’d love to see, along with working titles:

Odysseys

Odysseyeus Blinds PolyphemusBasically, it’s the world of Homer’s The Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid as well as other legends like Jason and the Argonauts where mortals must survive perilous journeys. Along the way, they encounter life-threatening hazards, battle fearsome monsters, and deal with the whims of the gods. Rather than having a single hero as these stories, groups with a common goal set out on a ship to reach their destination, and have an incredibly difficult time getting there.

The benefit of this setting is that it’s set up perfectly for episodic game sessions. You arrive an an island of lotus eaters one week and fight Scylla the next. Given the frequent detours, long term planning isn’t necessary and so the GM can easily adjust the scenario given the events of the campaign.

Ancient Greek and Roman history hasn’t seen too much love in roleplaying games, which I find odd given that a number of recent movies have been made in this era and have been very successful (e.g. Troy, Gladiator, Clash of the Titans). The closest roleplaying game I know is Hellas, which presents a space-faring Ancient Greek society. It’s pretty cool to yell out “This! Is! Sparta!!!!” as you kick your enemy off your trireme starship, but I think I’d be more interested in something a little more traditional and less over the top.

Holy Land, Unholy War

The Crusades are a fascinating era in human history. It is true that there was a great deal of bloodshed and misuse of religion in order to gain political power, but it was also an era of heroes from both sides and some incredible moments in military history, as well as some truly surprising moments. There was the surprise upset of the First Crusade, the stupid decisions of the Second Crusade, the glorious military campaigns of the Third Crusade, and the complete bizarreness of the Fourth Crusade (the Platinum Warlock once told me he’d like to write a comedy musical on the Fourth Crusade. Yeah, it’s that bizarre!).

I imagine the best time period for a crusades setting would be the Third Crusade simply because it’s the one that is most recognizable (this is the one in which Richard the Lionheart and Saladin fought) and there were some really great military campaigns. The biggest hurdle in creating such as setting is that it’s not very politically correct to be Christian crusaders fighting Muslim warriors or vice versa, especially given recent conflicts in the Middle East. Personally, I think that the conflict between the two religions, and the often non-religious motivations of many leaders, is an important aspect of the setting, but I think it’s best to have a truly evil faction.

For that, I’d propose adding some fantastic elements to the campaign. Let’s imagine that both factions had splinter groups who were using some dark arts to try and sway their side of the war. It’d probably be the Knights Templar on the Christian side (although in reality they aren’t nearly as mysterious as they’ve been made out to be in fiction) and evl sorcerers reminiscent of Arabian Nights on the Muslim side. Clearly, both of these groups are not aligned with their religious ideals and, especially if they’re summoning creatures of darkness or creating plagues or something, they’d be a group that Christians and Muslims can unite against in order to unite against. Or if the GM wants to blur the lines, perhaps sometimes they might present situations where it’s not clear what the side of righteousness is.

Years ago, Pinnacle Entertainment Group announced that they were working on Weird War: Crusades to join their Weird War II and the upcoming Weird War: Rome. Although it’s on indefinite hiatus and details are scarce, it seems to be exactly the sort of setting that I’d love to see. I hope that Pinnacle does make it some day because I’d love to play it!

Yankee Camelot

Twain's drawing of Lancelot sweeping in upon his bicycle.

Mark Twain’s drawing of Lancelot sweeping in upon his bicycle.

When I take long drives, I like to listen to audio books and have grabbed several free ones from LibriVox.org. This past summer as I was moving to St. Paul, I listened to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and my mind was spinning with possibilities. For those who aren’t familiar, this is a novel about Hank Morgan, a modern man in the 1880s who suddenly finds himself in the medieval era of King Arthur. His knowledge of science, especially electricity and gunpowder, is mistaken for wizardry and he uses his influence and learning to transform that backwards time into a much more modern era.

As I was listening to that book, I was fascinated by the merging of two time periods. I think my favorite part was where Hank and King Arthur are rescued by Lancelot and other knights charging into battle on bicycles! Just that image sticks in my mind as something that makes me want to game in that setting!

I imagine that the setting would occur after Hank has been put into a delirious sleep and apparently returns to the modern era. There would be less emphasis on combat and more on social interaction and being able to effectively use and manage new technology in the medieval world. Player characters would be either other individuals who have arrived in the medieval era from the 1880s (or perhaps slightly before) or native medieval folk who were under the tutelage of Hank or one of his institutions (the novel for instance describes how a “West Point” had been founded as a military academy as well as a patent office: “the cornerstone of any civilized society.”) Antagonists would be those who are ignorant or fearful of the advances, especially the Catholic church as it was in the original novel, but I imagine a new faction could emerge who sees the power of inventions like Gatling guns and wishes to use it to overthrow the feudal structure.

All in all, this is a setting I would absolutely love to see. Perhaps someday I’ll actually write it!

Linear Wizards, Quadratic Warriors

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Nope, the title is not a typo. I’m talking about the problem of linear wizards versus quadratic warriors. Sure, the other way around gets a lot of publicity, especially with Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and Pathfinder. And indeed, it is a problem when high levels warriors stab an enemy and only dealing a quarter damage while wizards conjure a firey malestrom that outright kills all the enemies.

But that pales in comparison to the travesty of linear wizards and quadratic warriors! I mean, what good is it to spend years with your nose in a book studying cantrips if your warrior counterparts are slaying gods? These problems do crop up occasionally in roleplaying games, but they are much more prevalent in other forms of media.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the BarbarianConan the Barbarian for instance has warrior classes being severely overpowered compared to magic users. They have to spend days of preparation and ritual in order to pull of magic (although it can be impressive at times). But in combat, they’re just normal people in a robe that Conan can kill without them so much as get off a magic missile! Apparently in some of the later books, magic is said to be declining due to Conan setting up a kingdom based on logic and reason (or something). So Conan’s power grows while wizards’ power actually shrinks!

Lord of the Rings codifies the problem pretty well. Let’s face it; Gandalf did diddly squat with his magic throughout the series. He starts off by telekinetically shoving Saruman off his feet and using a Light cantrip in Moria. As he levels up in the series, he gains the ability to shine a magic flashlight against the Ringwraith to scare them off. You could blame this on the XP tax of getting resurrected, and in all fairness, he did manage to pull off exorcising Saruman from Theoden who seems considerably more powerful, but even still, Gandalf’s feats of magic are pretty weak.

Compare this to the warriors in the series. Gimli and Legolas start off killing just a few orcs in Moria, then advance to swathing through dozens and dozens of orcs on the battlefield, not to mention taking down an entire oliphaunt. Aragorn levels up to the point where he can take advantage of the Followers provided by AD&D 2nd Edition rules and gains an entire army of soldiers as well as an undead army, not to mention gains a fair amount of prowess in battle on his own. Even Merry managed to level up enough to be able to kill the Witch-King himself (which is even more ironic considering that a scene from the Extended Edition shows that the Witch-King handed it to Gandalf earlier in the film).

In fact, the only way that Gandalf is able to do anything remotely effective is to switch to his sword and become more like a warrior. He fights in battle this way and even kills the Balrog not by using his magic, but by stabbing it repeatedly. Clearly, Lord of the Rings has a problem with Gandalf advancing linearly (or flatlining) and everybody else quadratically outpacing him.

Gandalf decides that the only way to stay competitive is to take the sword and take the Longsword Proficiency feat.

Gandalf decides that the only way to stay competitive is to keep the sword he found as loot and take the Longsword Proficiency feat.

I’m really surprised that this glaring issue hasn’t received more attention. The various Lord of the Rings RPGs figured that nobody would want to play a wizard so they just make everyone the overpowered warriors. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire makes bounty hunters and smugglers pretty effective so I have to as: will they overshadow Jedi? Superheroes games like Mutants & Masterminds or even the Platinum Warlock’s own Cold Steel Wardens falls into this trap with Batman-type martial superheroes being on par with, if not superior to the X-Men?

We as gamers need to fight back! If you’re against linear warriors and quadratic wizards, then be concerned that the pendulum doesn’t swing to far and we wind up with linear wizards and quadratic warriors!

And yes, this is all a parody.

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