Monday, August 30, 2010

The Frustration of Map-Making (Or Established Settings vs. Homebrew)

I'm really hit or miss when it comes to making maps. My method can basically be condensed into "Start drawing and see where it takes you." If I don't like the way something looks, I erase and redraw and generally, that's worked out for me. But with the deadlines for beginning both of my D&D campaigns (Library 4th Ed and college friends S&W), I have become incredibly frustrated at my inconsistency.

I've been working on my campaign worlds for both of these games: the aforementioned Discworldian darkly humorous fantasy world and a more console RPG-inspired one for the 4th Edition game. Progress has been slow going on the library game. I've drawn a handful of maps that have yet to fit my specifications and with my first week in library school starting today, I've been looking more and more at the published campaign setting of Eberron. I'm a huge fan of Eberron and its pulpy, high adventure feel. I like the appeal of an established campaign setting as a ready hook for adventures and inspiration, not to mention that I appreciate that Eberron is a world definitely inspired by the kind of games that these kids have already experienced. But I'm afraid that it will be an overwhelming prospect, with dozens of character options and the framework of an entire world to lay out in broad strokes.

Right now, I'm kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. I'm overwhelmed by the prospect of an established campaign world, but my attempts to jumpstart my own setting have been lackluster at best. I just feel that if I can get one good continent map out, the whole Library D&D world will fall into place. But right now, I'm just not sure if I have the time.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Come slay a fucking dragon at your local library!

Here's the poster that I put together for recruitment purposes. Hopefully, we can post them at other library branches around the city where other kids can see them. At this point, I'm going to cap recruitment at 8 players, just for time purposes (we've only got about 3 hours and I'd like to do something cool every week)

Anyone with graphic design experience like to offer some constructive criticism? I'm still not quite sure about that address at the bottom of the first box.

Art by the indomitable Wayne Reynolds.
Logo by Wizards of the Coast.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

And here goes the ball...

Cross posting from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Teensburg blog:

My name is Jamie Albrecht; I work at the Homewood Branch of the Carnegie Library, and I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was twelve years old.

I don’t know what it was that first got me interested in roleplaying. Growing up, I had always enjoyed reading fantasy novels, from JRR Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander to Brian Jacques and the Lone Wolf series of Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks. I loved the worlds they created: full of danger and wonder, monsters and magic. I even tried to write some myself, which turned out about how you’d expect. The first time I played D&D, I thought, “This is amazing. I created this character (a human paladin named Sir James, naturally), fought goblins and wererats and returned the stolen magic orb to the elven village! I feel like I’m in Middle Earth!”

Thus began a love affair with roleplaying games that still persists over ten years and dozens of systems. Through playing and running games, I’ve created fantastic worlds, made wonderful friends and done amazing things. I learned how to think critically, cooperate with other players and invent creative solutions to problems, not to mention a ton of mental math (quick, what’s 16 plus 8?) And now, I’m bringing all that adventure and excitement to a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game for teens at the Carnegie Library. This isn’t the first campaign to be run at the library. I fondly remember playing in a D&D summer program at the Main Branch before I went off to college (Hi Scott! Hi Joseph!) But it’s the library’s first ongoing campaign, with adventures every Wednesday afternoon at the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library. We’ll be using the recent 4th Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rule set and NO PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE IS REQUIRED! The library will be providing the materials, including rulebooks, dice, character sheets and token miniatures.

The program starts on September 8th and will run every Wednesday from 3:30p to 6:45p.

So there's the first barrage of program advertisements away. Now all I have to do is finish the poster, create 8 or so pregens and write the first adventure.

No pressure. :)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Homebrew for me and you

Right now, I'm balancing the prep work of two games: my library 4th edition game for new teen gamers and a potential old-school sandbox game for my college friends back in Ohio. None of us have ever played anything older than AD&D 2nd Edition, so this is going to be a learning experience for everyone involved.

The campaign world that I've been working on over the past few weeks is very much inspired by Jeff Rients' Cinder, Terry Pratchett's Discworld, Indiana Jones, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and other similarly pulpy adventure stories that don't take themselves too seriously. It's a little divergent from typical fantasy canon, but I'd like to think that it still has that 'D&D feel' to it. Just a little rougher. :)


I'm kind of using a Basic Fantasy-esque approach to races. Basically, "the Dwarf here represents a dwarven fighter-type. If you want to be a dwarven thief or a dwarven cleric, let me know and I'll whip something up for you."

Humans: As per usual. The populous movers and shakers of the world. Can be any class (Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, Thief)

Dwarves: Kind of like the Amish, really. Hard-working, closely knit communities, whether in the fields or in the cities. Encourage their young sons and daughters to experience the world before settling down, usually in the form of adventuring. Even if they don't return with riches and glory, returning alive is what matters most. Can be fighters, clerics and thieves.

Half-Elves: The elves of my setting are capricious and alien, heavily inspired by the 'Lords and Ladies' of the titular Discworld book. As a result, half-elves are often the product of a cruel sense of humor. Born to seduced or coerced parents, they retain the strange, magical nature and the fey features of their elven side. But almost everyone has heard stories of elves kidnapping children to serve as royal handmaidens or trapping hardworking people in Faustian bargains. Many of the older generation had friends and relatives in the kingdom of Bastian, before it was swallowed up by the woods one fateful day and claimed by the elves. Half-elves have to rely on their wits to survive, from the alleys of Shrapnel to the court intrigue of the City of Games. Half-elves use the same stats as standard S&W elves; they can choose between being a combination of fighter/magic-user, thief/magic-user or just a plain magic-user. Half-elves cannot choose to be non-magical. It's in their blood.

Goblins: There are, of course, two types of goblins. Your country goblins are the stereotypical 'let's kidnap all the village's livestock!' type. They're dangerous, unpredictable and often mindnumbingly stupid. But your city goblins are clever, efficient, blue-collar type guys who've gotten a lot of undue shit over the years. Occasionally, they can be really sneaky, mostly in shady cities like Shrapnel, where they've slowly but surely taken control of the city's underground utilities and many of its essential services. Country goblins can be clerics, fighters and thieves; city goblins can be fighters, magic-users (generally with a bent towards alchemy) and thieves.

Ogres: Just like people, some ogres are nice and some ogres want to destroy your village, set it ablaze and take everything of value back to their cave where they eat whatever didn't run away screaming. Most of society tends to judge the former by the latter's behavior. Which is a shame, as many ogres are actually quite affable, if a little thick. Most people tend not to point this out when you're 8 feet tall and have hands the size of hamhocks. Ogres can be fighters. Maybe clerics if you have a reeeally good backstory.

Dopplegangers: Inspired both appearance-wise and thematically by Eberron's Changelings and the 4th Edition version, as opposed to the Grey-looking earlier versions. Dopplegangers are natural spies and sneaks. Hell, if you can change your face to suit any occasion, you would be too. But oftentimes, the business of being other people will weigh heavy on the heart. Many dopplegangers in the big cities remain in their natural, pale-white and alien form, comfortable in the knowledge that even if people fear and mistrust them, they have an identity of their own. I haven't quite worked out the class restrictions on dopplegangers, but I know that I'll have to write up new experience tables regardless. Change Shape at-will is a doozy.

More to come...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Catalog of Clockwork Creations: Cinder Spiders


Cinder Spiders

Beneath the streets and sewers of the city of Shrapnel lies the Furnace, the red-hot heart of the city's industry. The Furnace houses all of the machinery that powers the city's infrastructure, as well as the forges and engines that enable Shrapnel's massive industrial production. The Furnace is gigantic, and requires near-constant maintenance. That's where the Cinder Spiders come in.

Created by one of Shrapnel's countless journeyman artificers, cinder spiders are single-minded clockwork creations whose primary concern is the stoking of the fires and upkeep of the Furnace's mechanisms. Their carapaces are treated with a fire-resistant resin to withstand the heat of the Furnace and their 'thorax' contains a canister of flammable fluid attached to a mouth spout that the spider uses to fire forges and boilers, or in worst case scenarios defend itself by spraying a gout of fire at anyone who would dare sabotage the Furnace.

Cinder Spider: HD 1d6; AC 4 [15]; Atk 1 flame spout (1d6); Move 9; Save 17; CL/XP 1/15; Special: Immune to Fire, Sleep, Charm, Hold Person

Friday, August 20, 2010

We will never escape it

Yesterday, I met with the mother of one of my potential players for the library Dungeons and Dragons game. She had sent me an email a week or so ago saying that she did not want her son playing in the campaign for somewhat cryptic reasons (having to do with 'leveling up (?)' and 'not their kind of game').

After clarification, she told me that it was for religious reasons. What she and her husband knew of Dungeons and Dragons was that it was a gateway drug into unsavory, non-christian activity and that kids who played couldn't distinguish fantasy and reality. Thus, it was something that she wanted to keep her kids away from.

I can't say that I'm not disappointed. As much as we would hate to admit it, Dungeons and Dragons still carries a stigma among most people that it will never get away from. If anything, the game's disappearance from the public eye has ingrained these assumptions among mainstream America. So far, since I've started asking kids who visit the library if they'd be interested, I've heard about its age, its nerdy nature and now its unchristian associations. In order to break these assumptions, you've just got to be as honest and open as possible. I told the kid's mother that role-playing games have been a really positive, creative influence on my life in the 10 or so years that I've been reading and playing them. I may not agree with her decision, but I respect it and I hope that she'll at least think about it more positively in the future.

In closing, I'd like to post the Dungeons and Dragons controversies page from Wikipedia, which is what I showed my boss after we talked with our concerned mother. We may think of stuff like Dark Dungeons and Mazes and Monsters as ridiculous, but we must always, always remember that for some, this is all that they know about D&D.

It is up to us to challenge that perception.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What post-apocalypse means to me

Zak S's totally fucking sweet recaps of his TMNT/Mutant Future game are the kind of games that I wish I was running. Not only because his players are totally rad, but because we seem to like our post-apocalypse the same way. Two of the most formative games of my high school years were Jared Sorensen's Inspectres and octaNe. Inspectres has been bar none the best money for enjoyment that I've ever gotten out of a roleplaying game and octaNe... octaNe was a kick in the junk.

The years of 14 to 18 were full of a lot of weird fucking movies. My parents had given me the ability to rent R-rated movies on their account at Heads Together Video, a cult video store in Pittsburgh that's sadly no longer in business. They had a phenomenal selection of Hong Kong action, independent strangeness and B-movies galore and I spent most of my money renting movies like Six String Samurai, Big Trouble in Little China, Repo Man, Versus and Shaolin Soccer. They were bizarre, entertaining and utterly over the top, which was totally cool to the adolescent mind. Combined with a burgeoning interest in ska, punk and hardcore and my existing nerdy qualities, it meant that on the whole, people had no idea what I was talking about most of the time. octaNe somehow synthesized all of my interests at the time into a neat little package, which also included one very cool rule:

The Rule of Rock n’ Roll
Before we even get started, I need to make one thing perfectly clear: the Rule of Rock n’ Roll states that when playing octaNe, you MUST be playing rock n’ roll music* of some kind. Consider it The Law, and disregard it at your own peril.

You heard. A game soundtrack is fucking mandatory. This is probably the reason that I ever thought about game soundtracks and as a result, I've had wonderful ideas for game settings come from songs as diverse as Fugazi's 'Full Disclosure' (kind of Burn Notice meets the Invisibles, filtered through the corporate superheroics of WildCATS 3.0) and Slim Cessna's Auto Club's 'This Land Is Our Land Redux' (Desperado as an actual Western, complete with man portable Gatling guns)

This is what my post-apocalypse sounds like:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Gaming White Whale

Have you ever created a character, city or setting that inspires you so specifically that any attempt at actually playing the damn thing never turns out like it did in your mind?

Mine's called Stray Dogs.

I think that the whole thing got started on vacation, like a lot of my good ideas. My family tends to vacation in distant locations where all you can really do is read, hike, canoe and watch the Nero Wolfe mysteries or Jeeves and Wooster on a (usually) available TV. It was the summer before I left for college back in 2005, before mp3 players were as ubiquitous as they are now (and before I owned one). I had brought my customary CD wallet with me, with the new addition of Flogging Molly's Within A Mile of Home. I'd been a fan of Flogging Molly since I'd heard 'Salty Dog' on college radio five years previously, though with each further release, it seemed like the band was rapidly becoming less Celtic and more pirate. When I popped in Within A Mile of Home, my suspicion was basically confirmed. When I listened to these songs, it conjured the image of a crew of punk rock pirates recklessly sailing the deadly seas of a post-apocalyptic world and I liked it.

I don't know when I started thinking about the idea as a concept for a campaign setting, but along the way, I had gotten a hold of Against Me's Searching For A Former Clarity and, most importantly, Tom Waits' Rain Dogs. Against Me's Even At Our Worst, We're Still Better Than Most is still the unofficial title track of the setting, but if there's a single record that has influenced this whole endeavor the most, it's Rain Dogs. Songs like Clap Hands and Jockey Full of Bourbon sounded post-apocalyptic, full of improvised percussion, eclectic instrumentation and the fantastic guitar work of Marc Ribot. They conjured images of small boats paddled like gondolas through the sunken streets of New York and rickety bars lit by bare hanging light bulbs, a single harsh electric guitar playing guttural blues in the background. And so the game began to coalesce: some sort of disaster (nuclear bombs, global warming, meteor impact, etc...) has caused the oceans to rise and flooded the coasts of countries. The mainland is irradiated and many of its inhabitants have moved to the coasts, where settlements are created in the ruins of cities and on the new coastlines that the disaster has created. Cue jury-rigged sailing ships, junk cannons and searching for ancient ruins in the drowned cities of the Eastern Coast.

As the setting progressed, punk and ska music not only encompassed a thematic soundtrack for the post-apocalyptic future, it became part of the world. Most of this influence has come since I met my girlfriend, former teenaged veteran of the early 2000's New Jersey punk scene, and her stories about shows that demolished roofs, running from the cops and the fourth major musical influence on Stray Dogs, the World/Inferno Friendship Society. World/Inferno's Red Eyed Soul is up there with Rain Dogs as far as single album influence goes and is chock full of wonderful music. Alongside general survival and treasure acquisition, characters in Stray Dogs needed to navigate the alliances of pirate crews on the Eastern Coast. Some survive through piracy, others scavenge from unwilling donors, others protect a community for tribute.

The setting seems pretty wonderfully realized, yes? But every time I've tried to play it, it's never turned out the way I've wanted. Most of my attempts have used Savage Worlds, my go-to cinematic system and probably the one that fits the game the most. The first game was pretty much doomed to fail. I had 8 players, half of whom had never played any tabletop games before and not much prep time. The result was a 4-hour game session that rapidly lost steam as it continued and ended with us stopping the game before it really got anywhere. Disappointingly, this was where I left it until I began running a Play-by-Post game on the RPGnet forums in the setting. However, PbP games are notoriously slow to get going and combined with player drop-off and the beginning school year, it died a pretty noble death (I'm still kind of surprised at my Black Lagoon PbP game, which is still going after 55 pages and a period of lacking inspiration).

My most recent experiment with the setting game came with my final semester in school, working on my own system as a senior project that was heavily inspired by indie games like Spirit of the Century, Wushu and Lady Blackbird. As fulfilling as it was to conceptually work out a game with my adviser (what I wanted it to play like, how different mechanics influenced gaming, etc...) it still didn't capture what I really wanted from it: a low-tech, high adventure cinematically-influenced game with enough fiddly bits to make ship combat and chases interesting. But as much as I've hemmed and hawed over what system to use (note: I think it'll be Savage Worlds), the setting is really what defies understanding.

When designing a campaign setting, it's tempting to try and map everything out beforehand: cities, power groups, where the treasure is. It's especially tempting when you really want to give your players a cool-ass map of the setting, done redrawn road-map style and let them go crazy. Unfortunately, I think that Stray Dogs has really defied description for me. I can't map it out beforehand: I know that New York has to remain in some form, and I'm pretty sure about Jersey coastal cities like Asbury Park, but where to start making your own shit up in a post-apocalyptic setting has always been really hard for me. If I ever work this out, I think I'm going to have to create all the towns of the Eastern Coast from scratch, no real-world equivalents at all to make me worry about accuracy in trade goods and attitudes and that kind of bullshit.

As a final treat, I'd like to post some pictures by Becky Cloonan, who seemed to have had the same idea as me in 2005. The only difference is that she actually wrote and illustrated a cool graphic novel called East Coast Rising, which never got a second volume but has nevertheless been incredibly influential to Stray Dogs.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Catalog of Clockwork Creations: Dwarven Tomb Guardian

Like James M, I have returned from the beach bearing gifts! Most of these bits I've been working on will be put up tomorrow, as driving 9 hours with a vicious sunburn on your back does little to encourage anything but unconsciousness, but here's a little taste before bedtime.

Dwarven Tomb Guardian

As a culture, dwarves have an unhealthy obsession with death. Not the concept, mind you, but the preparation. When a dwarf dies, the funeral preparation can take anywhere from a month to several years, depending on age, importance, success and piety. The greatest dwarves of a generation are entombed in massive mausoleums that resemble castles more than coffins, a symbol of their accomplishments and a guarantee of that consuming dwarven desire: to be remembered.

Usually, these tombs contain a fair share of the inhabitant's accumulated wealth and possessions. To ensure that they remain in their master's house, dwarven mausoleums are often booby-trapped in ingenious ways: swinging hammers, collapsing floors and the like. For those who hold particular reverence to dwarven culture, a magical guardian is carved of the same stone and iron from which the tomb was made. At the center of each newly created tomb guardian is a piece of its master, usually a fingerbone or tooth, but on some ocassions, an entire hand or skull could be embedded into the guardian. This relic attunes the golem-like creature to its duty; the larger the piece, the more stoic and cunning the construct becomes.

Dwarven tomb guardian: HD 6; AC 1 [18]; Atk 1 Fist (1d12); Move 6; Save 11; CL/XP 7/600; Special: Immune to non-magical weapons

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Catalog of Clockwork Creations: The Arbalester


The arbalester is a magically animated siege weapon, designed to attack, reload and maneuver all without the aid of human operators. Originally conceived by Dwarven siege-priests and enchanted through ritual construction, arbalesters were used as mobile artillery in mass combat as well as ever-vigilant guardians for important locations and perimeters. Like all good ideas, it soon had its imitators, mainly from the alchemists of Shrapnel. Their boiler-driven facsimiles were never as sturdy or reliable as their magically-constructed counterparts, but made up for that seeming lack of durability with a faster firing mechanism and the tendency to explode when jostled

Dwarven arbalester: HD 5; AC 5 [14]; Atk 1 ballista bolt (1d10); Move 9; Save 12; CL/XP 5/240; Special: immune to Sleep, Charm, Hold and non-magical piercing weapons
Shrapnel arbalester: HD 4; AC 6 [13]; Atk 2 crossbow bolts (1d6+1); Move 9; Save 13; CL/XP 5/240; Special:
immune to Sleep, Charm, Hold and non-magical piercing weapons, explodes when destroyed (1d8 damage, 15 ft. radius, save takes half)

Inspired by the Arbalester from Monster Manual 2. Picture by Wayne England.

Library D&D Update!

Just finished our last Teen program today at the library and I have 5 kids potentially interested in the Dungeons and Dragons game for next semester! Looks like it's probably going to be run Wednesday afternoons. I am super pumped for this whole thing!

The question is now: how do I start? I've been thinking about what kind of adventure will represent (?) what a typical session of D&D is. My idea is that the PCs are a group of treasure hunters and adventurers who are currently employed by Morgrave University,the artifact-focused magical university of dubious quality in the Eberron campaign. With a framework like that, I can get them involved in everything from wilderness survival to political intrigue, all connected back to looted antiquities or the discovery of long-buried magic and mystery.

Regardless, I can't wait!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My return to civilization, scenery included

Back to sweet home Pittsburgh after a week in the Adirondacks on vacation with my family, armed with a handful of Discworld books, a bunch of New York Times crosswords and the 1st and 4th edition Dungeon Master's Guides and Monster Manuals.

It'd been about 6 years since I last read any Terry Pratchett, but the City Watch books that I brought sparked a series of wonderful ideas in my head about a potential B/X-type D&D campaign, which percolated alongside Jeff Rients' Cinder campaign and the fantastic Sharn: City of Towers for Eberron and fired out something kind of remarkable. I have no idea what it's going to be called, but I really like where it's going. Tidbits include:
  • Playable goblin, ogre and potentially doppleganger races.
  • Losing halflings, gnomes (maybe) and orcs
  • My first entries in a Rientsian Deck of Stuff, including a Dwarven Battle Stein.
  • Shrapnel, where the guilds think they rule the city, the rich think they own the guilds and everybody else knows better.
  • The City of the Cathedral, a walled city built around a massive cyclopean cathedral whose ancient origins remain unknown, even to its many occupants.
  • A Catalog of Clockwork Creations, showcasing everything from alchemically-powered goblin robots to dwarven tomb guardians with intricately carved metal beards.
Once again, more to come...