Monday, May 28, 2012

Old School Hack: first session

    Okay, so I'm currently running a campaign (based on Paizo's Shackled City adventure path) and playing in another (homebrew by my buddy Steve).  The set of people involved almost totally overlaps, eight in one game and nine in the other.  The problem is that aligning the schedules of 8-9 adults with full lives is like getting the planets to align.  So, unfortunately, each game only runs every 2-4 months.  That is just not enough gaming!  So, my buddy Kaiser has started a bi-weekly Wednesday game with a couple of us us from the main group (hi, Kirk and Bill!), another gamer from the area (hi Mike!), and another gamer totally new to tabletop style RPGs (hello Keeton!).  We resolved that this group will not be another attempt at a full-scale campaign.  Rather we will aim for convention style scenarios, playtests of various games and rule sets, and other one-off events.  If some of the short scenarios feature the same characters and loosely relate then that's fine, so long as it's understood that we're not attempting a full-blown campaign.

     Our first session was a game of Old School Hack (OSH) which I ran for Kaiser, Mike, Keeton, and Bill.  When I first came across OSH I was immediately taken by the simple, fun design and the creative manner in which it blended elements from early D&D and 4th Edition.  So, I was quite keen to try it out in actual play.  However, I decided that for these "off-night" games I would deliberately avoid doing any deep prep.  I had recently discovered the excellent blog Dyson's Dodecahedron ( and it's many excellent maps drawn in an engaging style.  I grabbed the "Oathbreaker's Hall" ( map to use as a dungeon.  For the larger world setting I grabbed the excellent "Map of Nevermore" by SozokuReed posted at  For the starting castle-town I grabbed the flavorful "dungeons_and_dragons_map" by firstedition, also from  I grabbed some monsters from the game, made up an orc shaman, and invented several mind-bending traps.  In town, the local priest character provided the PCs with the plot hook to travel to the dungeon and also a lore-poem (which contained clues to the four main traps).

     The game went very well, with all the players fully getting into the spirit of OSH and the don't-take-it-seriously attitude of a one-off game.  The newbie, Keeton, easily got right into the full spirit of roleplay at the table.  One thing which was a major takeaway for me was that I was suddenly able to grokk what people have been saying about the roll-playing of skill vs. old school style role-playing skills.  OSH dispenses with skill rules.  Instead you use attribute rolls (six attributes, but very different than those of D&D) supplemented by the player's noggin.  It really brought out more creativity in approaching various challenges than the D&D 3E/4E style skills usually do.  Thus I was not only entertained, but enlightened as well.

The Lure of History

     The road which led me to RPGs began with my love of history.  For me "history" fully included culture, religion, mythology, architecture, and many other related spheres of knowledge.  Today, some 40 years later, I'm still a huge history buff even if nobody else in the family shares that passion (although my daughter finds bits of it interesting).  So, when I start thinking about new game or campaign ideas I constantly feel the pull of history--it's like an intellectual form of gravity constantly drawing me back down to solid ground.  This intellectual grounding is immensely helpful in building game worlds of my own and in making them feel more real during play.  However it can also sometimes inhibit my creativity because certain concepts feel too "unrealistic".

     A couple years ago when I started getting into the Pathfinder rules by Paizo, I immediately noticed the parallels between their Golarion game world and our own.  I see the Golarion world as broadly similar in some ways to the Hyborian Age world used by Robert E. Howard for his Conan stories.  And then I wondered how many people reading the Golarion world materials and perusing the maps would fail to notice those same parallels, given the often poor quality of education in many of America's schools and Americans' general lack of interest in history.  Many parts of Golarion borrow shamelessly from world history and culture.  The Lands of the Linnorm Kings up north is basically just a bunch of vikings, Galt is a direct port of the French Revolution, right down to the red, white, and blue color scheme and guillotine, and Osirion is pure ancient Egypt.  There are a couple other examples, but you get the idea.  Check out their Inner Sea World Guide and the Pathfinder wiki for details.

     While I'm fine with games drawing on real-world history and culture, I was very disappointed with these direct "plagiarisms" by Paizo.  I expected better of them.  I have purchased quite a few of their Pathfinder/Golarion products and found them to be of high quality.  In particular, I enjoy their Adventure Paths.  Clearly, Paizo has a lot of talented creative people working for them.  So why the cheap, cut-and-paste jobs?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Righteous Cloud Temple - A Campaign Idea

     Okay, so I was looking at some of those martial-arts fighting games (which I never actually play) and thought that actually there was some good campaign material hidden in there.  I am DMing mostly with Pathfinder right now and not long before that I had been reading some posts on the Paizo message boards about gestalt characters.  For those of you new to the concept of a gestalt character (as I was until recently), it's where you multi-class, but get all the benefits of all classes at every level.  Thus instead of being 10th level with, say, 5 levels of ranger and 5 of druid, you're 10th level with 10 levels of ranger AND 10 levels of druid--simultaneously.  Obviously this makes for very powerful characters even with just two classes.

     For my fighting game campaign I figured all players (and probably most of their opponents) would start with the monk class.  Then, to model the flashy magical powers in these games, PCs would also have the sorcerer class.  The different bloodlines of sorcerer are also perfect for differentiating the various big temples which dominate the fighting world.  Each temple thus has a supernatural background which imbues power to the monks who live and train there.  This immediately provides cool ideas for each temple in terms of their symbols, magical guardian beasts, temple statues, etc.

     As per these games (and martial arts movies in general) I assume that the monks are not religious in the sense of following the "ordinary" gods which the common people do.  But temples can also have gestalt clerics, oracles, or witches (each combined with the temple's sorcerer type).  These "holy ones" can be PC-playable or as useful support NPCs "back at base", depending on whether the DM wants to keep more to a pure fighting game ethos.

    For each of the main temples, I pictured large, sprawling complexes with Chinese/Japanese architecture.  Most are located, in classic Chinese fashion, on the tops of holy mountains.  Some could be deep in bamboo forests or swamps (Serpentine bloodline, for instance) or whatever.  The "ordinary world", which will be an oriental type culture, is far below.  In addition to the huge mother temple complex, each temple faction will have other lesser temple/monastery sites here and there--including some ruined/abandoned ones, each with it's own story to tell.  These lesser temples are handy places for the heroes to rest up, get healed, resupply, gather information, etc.  Lesser temples can also each have side quests available, interesting NPCs to fall in love with, etc.

     To further the oriental culture theme, one option is to group the temples into clan groups based on the Five Directions (east, south, west, north, and center).  Each clan group is united against outsiders but has plenty of intra-clan intrigue and rivalry.  Clan groupings makes it easy to add a political dimension and also to have big martial arts tournaments, both intra-clan and inter-clan; individual temples will, of course, have contests/duels between competing members.

     The next step was to review the bloodlines available in Pathfinder to see which would fit this campaign concept.  I finally decided on these 20 (not because I wanted 20, it just ended up that way):
  1. Aberrant
  2. Abyssal
  3. Boreal
  4. Celestial
  5. Deep Earth
  6. Destined
  7. Draconic
  8. Dreamspun
  9. Elemental
  10. Infernal
  11. Oni
  12. Pestilence
  13. Protean
  14. Rakshasa
  15. Serpentine
  16. Shadow
  17. Starsoul
  18. Stormborn
  19. Undead
  20. Verdant
     Having twenty makes it possible to divide them up into four per Clan, or you could have varying numbers of three to five per clan to allow more flavor.  Some of these bloodlines are more "evil" (undead, oni, infernal, etc.) and so you could declare them NPC-only if desired.  For my campaign I figured on breaking the main list into ten "good guy" temples and ten "bad guy" ones.  (Not that the "good guys" won't spend plenty of time facing off in duels and tournaments to put fist to face, but not usually to the death.)  The "good guy" bloodlines available to the players would be this list, which allows for plenty of variety:
  1. Boreal
  2. Celestial
  3. Deep Earth
  4. Destined
  5. Draconic
  6. Dreamspun
  7. Elemental
  8. Starsoul
  9. Stormborn
  10. Verdant
      This creates a decision point for the DM: must all players decide on one common bloodline/temple or will each come from a different temple?  I figured that it would be more fun for players to each pick their own temple.  Few things suck more as a player than being stuck playing something you don't want to play. Then, for the campaign, you can posit that the players' temples have recently suffered a series of setbacks (assassinations, ambushes, suspicious tournament defeats, mysterious plagues, etc.), thus forcing them to put aside petty differences and band together for survival.  The players' group is assembled by their temples as a symbol of the new alliance.  Each player thus has the heavy burden of upholding his/her temple's honor before the representatives of the other temples (and so an honor point system would be very useful here).  Another option is for each of the home temples to have hidden agendas, with players given various secret missions for the head abbot--naturally these will result in conflicts and give players secrets which they must guard.

     The players will initially head out on missions, given perhaps by a guiding council which has a representative from each of the alliance temples.  Later, as they move up in level, they will begin to follow up on plot lines and leads on their own.  Naturally, there will be a big meta plot that one of the "evil" temples/clans is behind the recent spate of attacks on their home temples as a plan for world domination.  The main plot line will of course be punctuated with frequent duels and tournaments, including player-vs-player bouts if desired.  A possible plot twist is to later have their home temples wiped out, the survivors scattered, leaving the group to carry on alone to avenge and perhaps rebuild.

     Interaction with the mundane world would be optional, the monks of the temples being so powerful that their concerns transcend those of ordinary mortals.  However, the political leaders of the mundane world will naturally approach the powerful temples for assistance with various problems and thus perhaps ensnare the group in worldly politics.  Interaction with normal people is also useful for character development, forcing moral choices, introducing forbidden romance, etc.

     As monks they would have no need of money and any magic items encountered will be appropriate to the campaign (no magical plate armor, etc.).  One could assume that they get free room, board, and other facilities at their temples and are typically treated as honored guests wherever they travel in the ordinary world--based on the honorable reputation of the PCs and their home temples.

   So, anyway, I think that's a pretty cool campaign concept.  I'm hoping Paizo will come out with more Oriental Adventures, err, Dragon Empires material for just such an oriental-themed campaign.  Actually, they basically have enough oriental stuff already to run it (although I might need the Bestiary 3 for the oriental-themed critters).

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dorky or Dynamite: Real World Pantheons

     Okay, so I'm still working on my brand new RPG campaign world, tentatively called Meraisse.  My old campaign world was just a half-baked sketch from my very early days of gaming.  I later tried to pimp it up with a lot of stuff from the Final Fantasy series of games (particularly the Tactics games) and some elements based on asian cosmology.  After reading through some of the background books for the Exalted game, however, it was clear to me that I really did need to tear it all down and start afresh.  I love the world background and cosmology of the Exalted campaign universe.

     One of the things my new campaign world features is that there are five major world-wide nature deities who are worshipped everywhere, such as the earth goddess.  However in a more recent epoch (well, "recent" as epochs go) two alliances of supernatural beings came to the world and battled long and hard.  They were generally called the Angels and the Demons.  Eventually the two sides were worn down in numbers and exhausted by the constant struggle.  A truce left elements of both sides in possession of different parts of the world.  These elements, usually groups but occasionally a lone individual, are now the everyday deities of the world.  Thus some areas have Holy pantheons composed of the former Angels or Fel pantheons composed of the former Demons.  These pantheons are particularly strong in the geographic areas where the "live", but are also accessible by worshippers anywhere in the world.  They are powerful gods and goddesses, divine immortal beings of great power, but they inhabit Meraisse, not some other plane of existance.

     This will add some cool elements, especially with entire kingdoms/empires under the reign of Demon pantheons.  However, that means coming up with several pantheons, since I'd like to have about three or four each of the Holy and the Fel; in addition I'll have some lone deities here and there in isolated places.  So that's a lot of design work.  I was thinking that an easy out would be to grab historical mythological pantheons, such as those in the old Deities & Demigods or Lore of the Gods by Bastion Press.  It's very easy for me and will be fairly easy for the players to get a handle on.  I would mostly grab the sets of domains/portfolios for each as a jumping off point.  I would then add appropriate alignments for the type of pantheon (Angel/Demon)--although both types of pantheon will have a sprinkling of neutral deities to keep things interesting.  I might or might not keep the names.  If I keep the names (minimal rework) then I have to cobble together an explanation of how they came to be here.  But that would be awkward, what with the rest of the campaign world being built from scratch.  I would prefer to build my own pantheons, but I'm dreading all the detailed work that will entail--plus I'm an ancient Egypt fanboy from way back and I'd love to use the Egyptian pantheon.

     Now, I have played in a game where a historical pantheon was used.  In college I had a character in a campaign which used the ancient Greek pantheon.  My character followed Tyche, goddess of luck. The DM included proper historical worship rituals (pouring of wine on altars, etc.) and it worked okay.  However, it may have worked because the religious background did not actually appear in the story much.  So we weren't constantly bumping into temples of Aphrodite, paladins of Ares, etc. in a manner which would have created a strange clash of D&D vs. ancient Greece.

     So, what do you think about importing real world pantheons into RPG worlds (either the one I'm building or elsewhere)?  Have you used this in one of your games or played in such a game?  Is this whole idea dorky or dynamite?