Friday, August 11, 2017

My Axioms of Sandbox Campaigns

My axioms of sandbox campaigns

First off a referee has to be willing to let his players trash his setting. If you are going to get bent about the players taking out the Emperor or the local tavern keeper then a sandbox campaign is not likely going to be enjoyable. Assuming that the players are exhibiting good sportmanship (i.e. good manners while playing a game), what is the worse thing you can imagine the players trying to do? If it occurs can be you remain fair, and will the campaign still be enjoyable for you? If the answer is yes then you will succeed at being a referee of a sandbox campaign.

I loosely sort what I do for my campaigns into several categories, the Initial Context, the Bag of Stuff, and a World in Motion.

The Bag of Stuff
This is where I do world building. For me, the three main items I need are geography, NPCs, and locales. Of the three locales wind up looking like a traditional adventure after it written. I have two broad grouping of the stuff; the specific (for example the City State of the Invincible Overlord), the generic (random castle town of 500 to 1000 people). For NPCs specific (Llewellyn the Blue, wizard of City-State), or generic (Tharian Horselord 6th level fight equivalent to a knight socially).

When I use something generic and it something that the players will continue to interact with then I will make notes , copy and paste the generic writeup and make something specific out of it.

In general I have a lot more generic material than I do specific. In addition I use material from other setting constantly notably Harn and Ars Magica altering to what I need. If players keep interacting with the place I will gradually replace it with something similar that my own original work. Although I usually do this between campaigns not during a campaign.

I wrote a series called How to build a Fantasy Sandbox to help people to jump start their Bag of Stuff. For me what happened is that I started out with the Wilderlands of High Fantasy and keep running campaign after campaign in the setting. Over the years it morphed into it own thing the Majestic Wilderlands. It is my experience that most referee do not stick with any one setting for long. However with the way I developed the Majestic Wilderlands, you can start small with a bare sketch of the larger world and keep adding to it as you run successive campaigns. The "How to make" series start off with making that larger sketch and then narrows down to a specific area with the things you need in order to build a toolkit to handle whatever direction the players opt to pursue.

World in Motion
This is about what you do during the sandbox campaign to bring it to life. For me there are several things I try to do.

First I view the current situation from the PCs perspective, I visualize in my mind what they would be seeing if they actually were standing there. Then I use what I know about their interests, goals, and motivation to filter that into something that hopefully fun and interesting. I also rely heavily on stereotypes and assumptions to cut down on the verbal bandwidth needed.

I have to stress if you want to use stereotypes and assumptions, then you have to make sure they are true MOST of the time. For example a common issue I see that many players won't interact with NPCs because they all got plots and plans that at the very least complicate the PCs lives if not direction hinder what they are trying to do. I make sure that I roleplay most of my NPCs as people just trying to get on with their lives. That by and large they will be somewhat friendly and helpful if there no other reason to dislike the PCs. Especially for merchants. Keep a running count on a notepad if you have trouble with this.

Next the setting has a life of it own and doesn't give two shits about what the players want to do. To handle this I list out goal and motivations of the NPCs most likely to effect the PCs' circumstances. It can range from the King to the local barkeeper. Then I construct a time line of what will happen as if the PCs didn't exist. This timeline is used as a Plan of Battle. A plan of battle is useful because it provided a military force a framework in order to achieve its objective. However history is full of example of generals who lost because they were rigid about executing their plan. A good general will change and adapt as the circumstance of the war changes. So it is with this timeline.

The timeline is a framework which is meant to be changed after and during a session in light of the PCs did or did not do as their characters. In a sandbox campaign this where most of the referee creativity will be focused. When the PCs do something there will be a lot of possible consequences. With one or two being most plausible. You do not have to pick the most plausible outcome. Rather pick the outcome that is both plausible and interesting to you and the players.

Like with the example of the NPCs above, be aware of your bias. At first keep a running count of how you decide things and if you are bias to a particular type of outcome then make a chart to roll on to change things up. Most people can spot consistent patterns especially in social interactions.

Initial Context
Most sandbox campaigns fail. Why? Because of the lack of a good initial context. Many mock character histories and background but if you going to get a sandbox campaign you are going to need a least a half page of specifics for each players and a half page of general information for the group as a whole.

Players who enjoy being plunked down in the middle of a blank map and told "Go forth and explore" are few and far between. About as common as players who enjoy playing GURPS with all the options in play at once. Most players want to feel their choices have meaning. Picking one of the six surrounding blank hexes is not a choice with meaning. So work on the initial situation so that it is interesting and give the players enough information to make some valid decision of what to do.

This is the tip of the iceberg about a topic I been writing about for the past decade, here is a link to all my blog posts on the topic.  The main problem with sandbox campaigns is the initial learning curve and getting comfortable with the free-form nature of how it flows. Once you are comfortable with this type of campaign it gets a lot easier.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Final edit of the Basic Rules Majestic Fantasy RPG

Thanks to the editing help given by Vance Atkins, the final version of the basic rules for the Majestic Fantasy RPG is done!. You can download it from here. If you purchased the Majestic Wilderlands PDF, you will find that this file has been added to the download on RPGNow.

This is my previous post which contains my design notes on why I am doing this. In a nutshell, I am planning to release my take on the classic editions as series of supplements instead of an all in one book. However in the process of setting this up I realized I will need some type of basic summary so people can understand how it fits with the overall system.

So enjoy and hope you find something useful.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A RPG Potpurri, Using Roll20 VTT, ICv2 News, and Adventures in Middle Earth

In the fall of 2016, life circumstance shifted and for the first time in years I had an extended period where I wasn't involved in a regular campaign as a player or referee. Since then things picked up and now I am refereeing two campaigns, and playing in a third. Along with refereeing at a local games once every other month or so.

The key for me is using Virtual Tabletops like Fantasy Grounds or Roll20. With the different work schedules and driving distances involved it hard together with my friends and other folks to game face to face. It started back in the early 2000s as a way for +Dwayne Gillingham+Tim Shorts, and I to continue to game together despite Dwayne moving from post to post while he was in the military.

Since then I met several good friends on-line like +Ken H, and +Chris C. who became regulars, Since they are scattered across the northeast of the United States the only way for all of us to game on a regular basis is by using a VTT.

Unlike MMORPGs, VTT or Virtual Tabletop compliments face to face tabletop roleplaying. By using Voice over Internet, text chat, built-in RPG utilities, and a whiteboard that anybody can draw on, the software successfully allows people play tabletop roleplaying using the internet. It does have issues but they are the same issues that accompany any use of the internet for group collaboration,  familiar to anybody who had to sit through a phone or internet conference at work.  But it does brings some advantages especially if you use miniatures like I do. The easiest to use is Fog of War where a map displayed and the referee can selectively reveal different sections. The key thing to remember is that VTTs work alongside face to face gaming. You can easily run a campaign that regularly uses Roll20 and then once in a while get together for a face to face session. You are using the same material, the same techniques, and for the most part the same prep for both.

Since I been using VTTs so long, I assembled a set of tools that help me during a session. First off I have a bit of an unusual setup for my computer where I have three monitors. The central one is oriented normally, while the outer two are in portrait modes. I do this primarily for writing where I can see an entire page at once on the right monitor. An entire page at one on the left, And have some other program running in the middle. Here what my setup looks like during a session of Roll20. This one is a slice of the Barrowmaze which the party stumbled on during my OD&D/Majestic Wilderlands campaign on Thursday.

I have a old D&D 3.X utility called DM Genie on the left because it time keeping utility is still very useful. I have NBos' the Keep on the right to keep notes on and keep things organized. And in the middle is the web browser on the Roll20 site. We are using a VoIP program called Discord which is my current goto app for this stuff.  You can see the fog of war in action in the area that look a darker gray compared to the rest of the map. Those areas are unrevealed and look black to the players.

Adventures in Middle Earth
While my Thursday campaign is using my Majestic Fantasy rules (based on Swords and Wizardry), Wednesday using Adventures in Middle Earth which is based on DnD 5th edition. It is perhaps the best 5th edition third party supplement out there and it been outstanding to play. Overall it is low fantasy take on the 5th edition rules and has a very different feel despite most of the mechanics being the same.

Periodically the ICv2 gaming news site does a survey and releases the top 5 rankings for retail stores. And lo and behold Adventures in Middle Earth popped in this spring at #4. Congrats to Cubicle 7 for their success.

The only downside is that the rules have the minimum for open content and uses "everything derived from the SRD is open content everything else is product identity" without clearly marking anything. But it does get the creatives juices going about the possibility of low fantasy gaming with classic editions of DnD and 5th edition.

For those interested Enworld keeps a  history of ICv2 rankings. All we need to get one of the many excellent OSR RPGs to pop up in there. Cubicle 7 has been giving AiME a lot of support as well as you can see from here. Also note that The One Ring sourcebooks have been proving useful as well. Although keep an eye on the AiME release schedule as the AiME book duplicate a lot of the ToR setting information. To Cubicle's credit the AiME version it not just the ToR version with 5e stat blocks but obviously a refined and often better organized than the original ToR verison.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

More Majestic Wilderlands maps.

I seem to be doing a lot of them recently. This is a result of me getting close to finishing the map of the Main Campaign Area. The players are establishing themselves as merchant and managed to buy a ship. So I made a map centered on the Trident Gulf to use to plan for voyage and to act as a reference. For good measure I also started a political map.

The Main map

 The Political Map

This is for my campaign circa 4475 BCCC. The Majestic Wilderlands supplement reference how things were in 4436 BCCC. Those with the book can see there been several changes. Mainly the Council of Viridstan and the Dragon Empire.  Both entities came into being as a result of PCs doing their thing during their respective campaigns. The Council of Viridstan originated from the Fantasy Hero campaign I ran in college during the late 80s. While the Dragon Empire resulted from a GURPS campaign I ran in the early 90s.

The odd extension of the Dragon Empire around the Tiethoir River was one of the last things we did in that campaign. I took GURPS 3rd edition Mass Combat rules and combined with a little bit of Harn for the logistics and cost. The last couple of sessions saw +Tim Shorts and +Dwayne Gillingham play William the Conqueror and the Normans. The whole thing was to allow Duke Draco-lindus (Tim's Character) and his allies to gain a power base outside of the thumb of the Invincible Overlord of City-State.

Proved useful when Duke Draco broke away from City-State and reestablished the Dragon Empire.

As an experiment I mapped the progression of the last phase of the war. I experimented using colored transparent fills instead of just using borders like I did with previous historical maps I made,

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Don't buy the Scourge of the Demon Wolf! (Issue Resolved)

At least not from Noble Knight Games. Now some authors would be all up in arms about somebody obviously price gouging their own products. Especially when it still available for sale at it original price of $15 at Lulu and RPGNow.  I am enough of a libertarian that I support the right for Noble Knights to do this. But I will take advantage of my right to mock them for trying to rip off an unsuspecting buyer.

Poking around their site I find they are selling the Majestic Wilderlands for $30 ($12 from Lulu or RPGNow)

Looking at some of +James Raggi stuff is not passing the smell test in my opinion.

Again it Nobles Knight right to sell the material they have for whatever the market will bear and it our right to mock them for it when it get ridiculous. Especially when they have a shaky reputation due to the fact they don't post actual pictures of the high dollar collectibles they are selling.

UPDATE: After reading various comments, I want to stress rarely in life anybody is complete villain. Noble Knights has been in business a long time with a good reputation for service.  I placed several orders with them over the years with no issues except for one minor one where I got the wrong cover. But since it was the only one they had and I wanted the content as well, I was fine with it.

However for long time there been complaints about their refusal to post actual pictures and there been incidents with high dollar items that would have been adverted if they had. You can search the Acaeum forum to read about other collectors experiences.But for the most part they do verbally report the accurate condition of the product.  Then there is there pricing which always been on the high side. Although bargains are not hard to find over time.

However marking various readily available OSR product up at 100%? There no excuse for that. It is a decision that warrants mocking and criticism until it is addressed.

Finally I want to thank +Erik Tenkar for getting the word out about this on his blog.

FURTHER UPDATE: I had a nice exchange with Naomi from Noble Knights Sales. So the prices has been updated which you can see here. It is slightly higher but that in line from what I know about how vendor like Noble Knights operate. I don't know how much they paid for it but given their history of service I will take their word that what they need for a proper profit. So kudos to Naomi and Noble Knight Gams for responding promptly. Still need to use actual picture tho.

As for the rest of the OSR people need to make sure they are on their toes. If you have pertinent information or an OSR author of one the products list then contact Noble Knights at  Be polite!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Thoughts on Tabletop Roleplaying, Complicating Sandbox Adventures

Last post I mentioned how I decided to complicate the Scourge of the Demon Wolf adventure. To do this, I decided to introduce a red herring,  some bandits who were faking wolf attacks. To tie them into the situation, I added the body of a local tinker that they robbed and killed. Then the bandits made it to look like a wolf attack.

Then I asked myself would there be anybody else involved with the bandits?  Having one of the Beggars clans in the area fencing the bandit's goods would be a good addition. To further tie this group in I decided that the Beggar Clan chief's son was killed by the Demon Wolf. Plus they have more information about the the mage's conclave than what the villagers know. From stuff I established in previous campaigns I also  noted that the villagers would not be on friendly terms with the Beggar Clan adding another complication to the situation. That where I stopped, I learned that once you get up to four or five distinct aspects to a situation the players get confused.

Now I was ready to plant rumors about wolf attacks. The day of the game arrived and sure enough the players went down the road. They stopped at a crossroads inn and heard about the attacks and decided to investigate. It wasn't the only rumor they heard but it was the one closest in geography.

When faced with multiple interesting choices players are more apt to pick something that closer than further away. It not an absolute however. They could and will opt to pursue something further away if think that would be better for their immediate goal.

I don't remember much about that first adventure other than the fact they encountered every group involved.  That they went from the summoning site to the conclave, talked to the mage at which point the final series of events started happening.

The thing to remember I did not write this in any amount of detail. I had two pages of note which you can download from here. And some paper character sheets with the NPCs and the Demon Wolf written up.

What filled in the details was my conception of what life in a medieval village was like, life in a bandit camp, etc, etc. This is part of what I call my bag of stuff. Nothing in there is as detailed as you find in a published work but I internalized it so I can pull stuff out of my memory and combine it with other stuff to create interesting situations for my players. Finally it has the virtue of being able to be done on the fly.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A new area of the Majestic Wilderlands mapped

Though out the history of the tabletop roleplaying the myth and legends of Japan has fascinated many hobbyists. For many there was a strong desire to player Samauri, and Ninjas. Have one's character wield a katana or throwing shurikens. Especially when I stated out in the late 70s and early 80s, I had numerous players wanting to play these types of character in my Majestic Wilderlands. So I carved a section called it the Karian Islands.

Flash forward 30 years, my friend +Dwayne Gillingham is running a campaign playtesting his RPG called the Crit System. He using his own take on the Majestic Wilderlands as the setting. As it so happens the campaign has taken a detour to the Karian Islands. So I thought to myself, I better make a map for it. Many characters were from there but I never had a campaign where the PCs visited it. So I looked at my notes and overview maps and started drawing.

First some background.

Karian Isles
Comprised of two archipelagos; the Silver Skein Islands to the south and the Isles of Dawn to the north. These islands were originally occupied by the Karians, humans with a culture similar to the early Japanese. They were contacted and incorporated into the Ghinorian Empire early in its expansion.

When the Empire collapsed one of the last pretenders to the title of the Imperial Prince of Ghinor fled to the islands to regroup. He married a local princess to win the loyalty of the Karian nobles. He left and was killed while trying to reclaim the throne. The princess was pregnant and gave birth to a son who was proclaimed as the new Imperial Prince.

Legends grew of the last pretender and some claimed he was the divine son of Mitra. His Karian successors adopted the legend as their own and assumed not only political leadership of the islands but religous leadership as well. Over the past thousand years their culture has grown more inward. They have developed an elaborate code of honor and social system.

Finally the main map itself. Remember each hex is 5 leagues with a league taking 1 hour to walk. A ship with average winds can make about 10 leagues (2 hexes) every four hours. Or 60 leagues (12 hexes) a day. Those of you with the Judges Guild will notices a lot of differences some due to the increased map size and other due to the different background I use.