Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Thirst for Expansion

    So we celebrated my fiance's birthday yesterday. We invited a few good friends and coworkers over and busted out the board, card, and dice games. We played our usual favorites; Munchkin, Liar's Dice, Boss Monster, et cetera, but a friend of ours came over with a new game for us to play as a birthday gift. It was called Forbidden Desert. We up it over to the table and he began to explain to us how it worked and all the fun he'd had playing it at home.

    He explained to me that essentially, you play as a group of steampunk-esque explorers in search of a lost city hidden by the sands of a desert. A storm picks up and your airship crash lands amidst the dunes, at which point you must survive the storm as you excavate the city in search for ancient technology while you repair your ship and escape. Needless to say, I was instantly intrigued. I love cooperative games like X-Com or Pandemic, and the steampunk aesthetic is just gravy on the cake. So, we cracked the box open, read the rules, and set the game up at the table.

    Sitting down, we were each randomly doled out a sort of class card. I was the miner. Being the only character capable of climbing over tiles that had been buried in sand, I was responsible for bringing my friends through the most treacherous areas that the storm had hit. We began excavating, collecting equipment from the city ruins under the sand. Our archaeologist dug up jet packs, desert-clearing duneblasters, and solar shields as our meteorologist tried his best to keep the sandstorm at bay. 
    But try as we might, the sun beat down on us harder and harder as our cantines grew drier and drier. As we treaded towards our final hope; an oasis, brimming with fresh water. We clambered towards this little paradise in the desert as the storm picked up but it faded away; a mirage in the desert. We were tiles and tiles away from the next closest water source as the sun beat down on us once more. It was over.

     So we died in the desert, but the table didn't erupt with frustrated groans and disappointment. Rather, we cheered at how far we'd gotten on our first go and we were raring to start the next round. The game was challenging, even on the lowest possible difficulty, and challenged you to really strategize as a team (as all good cooperative board games should). For only $20 (depending on where you buy), Forbidden Desert is pretty affordable.

     Of course, as is oft the case with board games the balance of the game is not perfect (is it ever, though?). Even after my first few rounds I could see factors that have the potential to throw off the games balance, but I would argue that it is a negligible level. My only real complaint about this game is that there isn't more of it. I'm thirsty for content that adds new flavor to the game.

    In conclusion, I'm not very good at closing reviews like this, so I'm just sort of going to leave it hanging in the air.
    See you next week!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Masterwork Theatre: A Tale From the Coast, Part I

Art by Abigail Larson
 Good evening, and welcome to Masterwork Theatre. Today, we bring you a tale from Avinter; a land of crooked courtiers and ethnic estrangements, in a country called Balthir. As the story begins, we find two very good friends who have lived a long life of sojourning: Jim Crosby, a rough-edged but easygoing fellow, and Faldun, a Dwarf from the land of Mord┼źn to the East who took to the seas to sate his aspirations of adventure. After a lifetime of wanderlust, this unflappable duo has hung up their bootstraps, retiring to the exotic Aibrel Island of the coast of the province of Avinter where they opened their own tavern, christening it the Vrock Lobster.
 Since it's opening, their surf & turf beach bar became a popular hot spot for tourists and travelers along the coast and brought bountiful trade to the natives of the island. Bards performed every night with music, comedy, and shows of prestidigitation. Gambling tournaments of all kinds were held on weekends, and the food and drink was exquisite. They even hosted great Luau ceremonies every full moon for the natives.

 Unfortunately, the Vrock Lobster's reputation tended to rein in unwanted attention just as easily. As months passed, a nasty lot of unruly thugs calling themselves the Jawbreakers started sending goons down the the bar, demanding a cut from their profits.
 Jim and Fulvar took many actions in attempt to end the harassment, but Avinter officials paid little mind to Aibrel Island and its inhabitants. To top it all off, weeks worth of their supplies had disappeared. With no news from their supplier, the owners and proprietors of the Vrock Lobster were given no other option but to investigate the problem lest the bar sink into debt.

 Leaving the Lobster in the care of their trustred friend and employee, a native Darfellan by the name of Ooo!ha'poulapi!hoo Ha'olani!ohuu (Whom they simply called Ooo!ha for short; neither of them really did get the hold of properly pronouncing the dolphin-like language of the Darfellan),  Jim and Faldun took a charter ship to the city of Port Maverick to look for supplies and answers.


 "Okay, so we're at sea on the charter ship?" Guillermo reached for a handful of chips as he looked over his character sheet. "Not quite. We begin in the harbour of the city of Port Maverick." I realized at this moment that I probably could have opened the scene better, but a game master deals with these things when he's on a roll. "As the charter boat traverses the dockyard's still waters, you -" Derby looked up from the arena he had been making around his figurine with his dice, "What's the name of the charter ship?" Whoops. "Ships aren't boats, yo."
 "Oh, uh-" My mind began to catalog a list of ship names as I decided which one I felt inclined to use. "Can it be called the Prowl?" Derby asked, raising an eyebrow. "Why the Prowl" I asked, expecting the worst. "So we can be on the prowl for ladies, amirite?" He and Guillermo high-fived, half out of commitment to the joke, and half because Derby was very proud of his pun. He always had a supernatural ability to make puns, consciously or otherwise.

 "Alright, deal," I conceded, "aboard the Prowl, you feel less than a warm welcome from Port Maverick. Few vessels can be seen entering or exiting the harbor and what's worse; now that the ship has anchored, the port authorities have begun lining up and patting down the crew and its passengers, confiscating weapons and magical implements." I began to draw out a layout of the dock on the dry-erase grid. Knowing my players, spontaneous combat was not out of the question. "Nothing to worry about," Guillermo boasted, "Jim's whole body is a weapon. They can't confiscate fists!"
 "Your holy symbol may be of concern, the port officials have even been taking the holy symbols of priests and clerics that get off the ship." Guillermo glowered, "This is one of the reasons I retired to a tropical island." As I finished the details of the board, I asked them what their plan was, "You only have about five minutes. Going to turn over your effects, or do you have something else in mind?"

 "Well, let me ask you this, how are the ship's crewmen responding to this shakedown?" Smart thinking from the Monk of Melora. "Looking around, it's clear the crew are pretty sour towards the port authorities." Guillermo's face was a visage of mischief. "I think I have a fun idea."


 "How's the inspection treating you, pal?" Jim Crosby leaned against the ship's taffrail, smiling wryly at an angry looking deckhand who was stacking crates onto a pallet. The crewman spat on the deck in the direction of the authorities. "An't hardly a port na'more," his accent was thick with the roughness of the Halsten province dialect, "Afewer an' fewer ships is passin' in by a week. Afore ye knows it, all'n shippers'll be out fer hangin'. S'a tragedy fer me an' mine. None mentionin' the trade comp'nies."
 Jim furrowed his brow, trying to understand what the man had said. Fortunately, Fulvar was accustomed to the ugly speech of Halsteners. "Aye, we're not short of trouble ourselves," he leaned towards Jim and reiterated the crewman's plight more coherently, "it would seem the shipping companies are just as unhappy as these guys are."
 "Well my friend, I think I have an idea that might help us both out." Jim wrapped his knuckles on one of the crates. "That is of course, if you're interested." Fulvar eyed Jim apprehensively. If Jim thinks I'm stuffing myself in one of those crates he's going to be disappointed, he thought to himself.

 The crewman letup from his work and turned to look at Jim with his one good eye. "Wha's 'is ye be blatherin' up, mate? Ye workin' fer angle'n gettin' me cargo pas'thru them harbor bulls?"
 Jim exchanged looks with Fulvar, who relayed the crewman's message. "Ah," Jim unfastened a leather strap he had wrapped about his shoulder and loosed an ornate scabbard he had slung over his back; an ornate shell with three swirling patterns etched into the face of it hung by a small chain from the empty sheath. "You see," Jim said, "My friend and I are monks of Melora, Matron of the Sea as I'm sure you well know and-" Fulvar firmly tapped the hammer slung over his back "Runepriest, Jim. You're the monk."
 "Nuance," he shot back, "Regardless, these trinkets, and Faldun's hammer I suppose, are important to us and we don't want to lose them. It's very likely, being the man that I am, that when the inspection comes to me a good deal of ruckus will occur." He looked over the crewman's shoulder; the line of passengers exiting the ship was beginning to dwindle. "If you were to, say, keep some of our things with your cargo, the problems I'll be causing for the authorities will give you a good chance of getting your cargo off the ship unabated."

 The crewman eyed the odd duo carefully, "I an't gon' be smugglin' any black bis'nes fer ya. One sting'n at's me head in'r stockades." Haldun stepped forward, showing the man his holy symbol, "It's just a seashell, see? Nothing illegal. We just don't want the hassle of dealing with all that bureaucratic nonsense to get our stuff back just to make a short trip into town."
 The crewman thought the prospect over, "Well, yeh, awright. S'pose t'aint doin' no harm no which way. An' if'n yer given'r harbor bulls a tough one, Tha's jus' a treat fer the crew'n me." The crewman accepted their holy symbols, weapons, and gear, storing them in one of the crates. Jim grinned a grin that would make Olidammara himself; the lord of mischief, start worrying what shenanigans Jim had going through his mind as he and Fulvar stepped in line.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Something Special

Good day, ladies and gentlemen. Many of you may have noticed my absence last Wednesday. Don't worry, I haven't died. Nor have I forgotten about you guys. Instead, I've been taken the time to work on a new project; something very special in fact. Now, I don't want to show my hand too soon, but I have a little teaser for you. Just to let you know I'm not slacking off. We'll return to our regularly scheduled programming today and I will have a normal article for you to enjoy.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Kicking Off a Campaign Right

Prelude (or 'Living Life Makes It Hard to Write a Blog Sometimes')

 So, a long Wednesday is behind me and a long Wednesday night lies ahead. Today I picked up a neat little book called Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt; a history of Dungeons & Dragons combined with memoirs of the writer. It looks like a good read and a great subject for an article. I'll be reading it over the next week or so and let you all know how it goes.

 However, tonight I find myself in a position I've found myself in many times before. Before me lies a campaign in its new beginnings. A few friends of mine and I have started a Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 game in which we are incorporating/reworking the Spelljammer rules from 2nd Edition AD&D which, if you are unfamiliar with the setting, is essentially fantasy-equivalent space travel. My players and I had devised a theme and direction for our campaign, but it was left to me as the game master to devise the opening to the game; how the characters meet and how they end up on this adventure.
 Creating a fluid and immersive beginning to a campaign is a daunting task, especially to beginning GM's. You have to create a scenario in which all the players (and their characters) are invested and immersed, create connections between the characters and to the world they're in, and establish the mood, themes, and concept.

 The easiest, and most commonly used method to address this challenge is 'handwaving'. There's a reason "You all start in a tavern..." is one of the biggest tropes in tabletop gaming. It's lame and cheesy and overused, but it's a quick, simple way to force your way through the awkward introductions phase and push into the adventure.
 Being a man who is obsessive about detail, I try very hard to avoid using 'handwavy' methods. The story, the characters, and how they all connect matter to me, even if they don't matter to my players (whether this is a flaw or a boon is up for debate). Anyway, I'd like to share some insight I've gotten from players, forums, brainstorming, etc. on how to start a campaign and how to do it in interesting ways.

Where to Begin With Your Beginning

 Logically, the first step to take when starting a new campaign is to assess what the goals are in creating a first session. To speak generally, your first session should...
    • Establish your role as a GM; how you arbitrate your game and interact with your players
    • Introduce the setting, mood, and themes of the game you're running
    • Sell the game's concept to the players and immerse them in it
    • Make those players feel like their characters belong in the world
    • Bring those characters together as a group
 Ideally, a gaming group would do well to go into a new campaign in unity, building characters together with the setting and mood in mind to avoid awkward beginnings, stubborn 'lone wolf' situations, and the immersion disconnect of automatically trusting the fighter at the tavern with a badge that reads 'Player Character'.
 Give your players an idea of what the campaign is going to be like; the themes, the mood, the setting, and encourage them to build their characters with these things in mind. Often times, many problems can be solved by designing the group's characters to be tied to each others' backstory in some way. This is a great way to build cohesion before the game even starts and avoid the awkward introductions of why a lawful good paladin might be hanging out with a chaotic neutral rogue.
 Now, this option may not always be available to you. Sometimes players want to try something new (and sometime you have very stubborn players) and that's not always a bad thing. But as long as you have at least some cohesion in your group and players who want to be immersed, you can still bring a cast of characters together without that disconnect of immersion. Sell the world to your players; give their characters shared conflicts and motivations that align with each other.

 This isn't to say that you must work so hard and spend hours of prep time on your first session to make everything painstakingly perfect (it never will be). Starting in a tavern and handwaving the characters' connections and relationships is totally fine if those aren't things your gaming group care about. And more importantly, this isn't to say that if you have a problem player who actively combats group cohesion that you should stumble hand over foot to pull everything around this person's character. Problem players should be addressed outside the game-table with understanding and a willingness to address their desires, but also a firmness and an authority as the game master and as a person.

A Couple Crazy Ideas

As a game master who has started a lot of games (far more than I have finished, I'm afraid), I've gotten more daring in my approach to a campaign's first session. Here are a few ideas to make your opening sessions a little more interesting.
  • The First Level Funnel: A fun and scary way of diversifying your characters. Each player creates three or four characters to play in your game. In turn, these characters are put through a traumatic and terrifying experience (way above their relative difficulty level) and whichever characters end up surviving become the party; brought together by a harrowing experience.
  • The 'Tarantino': When your players come to the first session, start the game off hot by dropping them directly into an intense situation (high octane combat, a big battle, a dramatic social encounter, etc.) After (or perhaps during) the encounter, describe a flashback to the players; the details of a mission briefing prior to the encounter they had been dropped into, or a tense situation that went sour. While this method is borderline railroadie, it allows the players to jump into the action and become engaged immediately and saves the group the worry of bringing their characters together.
  • The Prologue: Sit one or two players down at a time and create a short vignette-style sidebar for each character; how they came to be where they are now, how they're involved with the adventure hook, and how they know the other characters. This not only provides a set of defined circumstances in which to incorporate the characters into a party, it also helps the players loosen up a little and gives them time to get into character.

And so concludes another week's worth of Casting Lots. How do you start your campaigns with a bang? If you have any tips that I don't know share them!