Thursday, May 17, 2018

The State of Conan Gaming

I feel a bit bad for saying this. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I generally don't write negative reviews of product, as I find them unhelpful and only harmful to the product sales. However, this one in particular has been grating on me for quite some time and I need to get it off my chest.

Thus, I'm going to say this up front: Do not fail to give this game a look based on what I say here. a LOT of people are enjoying it and by all reports it's doing well. The guys I've spoken to at Modiphius are nice guys and should be supported. I congratulate them on doing well. The following is my opinion only, and I have reason to believe I'm in the minority on it.

Okay, so here goes.

The more I read the Modiphius Conan RPG, the more I try to get into it...the less I like it. I love Conan more than any other fantasy property except Star Wars, and when this game was announced and I heard the dream team behind it, I was so excited. Then the playtest previews came out and my heart sank. I stuck with it, bid at a higher pledge level in the Kickstarter, hoping it would improve on final release.

It didn't.

I've tried for well over a year now to try and get into the game. I've delved deeply into it, ran simulations with the system, tried my hardest to sift through the arcane mechanics. At some point I have to accept that my beloved Conan has been taken away from me by a company more interested in foisting their pet house system on the world than they were in doing justice to the character and world through the rules presented.

The Rules System

The system just grates on me with its overly complicated, molasses-slow, "leave the dice on the table," "wait for everyone to figure out what they want to do with their momentum" method slowing the play to a crawl. The system itself is clunky and suffers from a dependence on several different and wildly disparate core design concepts--dice pools, success levels, sliding difficulty numbers, the generation of momentum points to drive the story (which should be driven by role play)--all cobbled together to form a largely incoherent whole.

First, you have to determine the target number for your check, which is a roll-under target based on your abilities and skills. Then, you have to determine your dice pool for the check, which is a base of 2d20 plus other situational factors, and any momentum you want to spend that you were smart enough to think to save from prior dice rolls, plus if you want to give Doom to the GM, who can then spend that like momentum for his guys, and you then need to obtain a number of successes based on the difficulty at hand, with each d20 rolling under your target number as a success.

Any leftover successes are that coveted momentum, and you'll need that because that's the only way you can do special things in the game, like disarm opponents or win social contests. In any contest, the winner isn't the person who better succeeds on their roll, it's the one who generates the most momentum, which is really splitting hairs because when you think about it, the person who succeeds better is probably going to generate more momentum anyway.

The magic system, for all the insistence that it's deliberately vague to be in line with Howard, just reeks of lazy design. The books call it "flexible." I call it indecipherable. No sorcerer character in this game will ever feel the kind of power or temptation to gain more power that a sorcerer should feel in a Conan game. In fact, the most they're likely to feel is frustration as they have to continually dwindle the very resource they rely upon to use their magic. It reminds me of the old d20 Star Wars games where Jedi had to hurt themselves to use the Force.

At what time in any Howard story did a necromancer seem weak-willed? And yet, you have to sacrifice Resolve to learn any spell, sometimes in huge quantities. Learning new spells absolutely requires a patron or teacher, and there are no spells...just vaguely defined styles of magic that you can just make up whatever you want with them. It's even less codified than the old Mage the Awakening game, and that's my all-time least favorite magic system. 

In short, there's no reason for a sorcerer in this version of the Hyborian Age to seek out the mythical Scrolls of Skelos or the notes of Xaltotun...because ancient texts are all but worthless without some demon to call forth and feed your Resolve to...and if you can call up that demon, you don't need the books you've just sacrificed everything to obtain. Sorcery, in this game, is not about arcane knowledge and the secrets of Acheron. It's thinly-disguised Satanic soul-selling, and nothing more. 

The system, as it sits, is a shining example of a rules set that tries really hard to be "innovative," "clever," "different" and "unique," at the expense of basic functionality, while also utterly failing at any level of innovation or cleverness. It's overly complex, slow to a crawl, and utterly fails to capture the excitement and pace of Howard's yarns, because it's all about figuring out how many dice you can roll, then how many get under a sliding target number, then how much momentum you've got left over, then how exactly you want to spend that momentum. Then it moves onto the next person.

In short, it's the nu-skool indie darling approach that everyone has latched onto instead of a simple system that gets the hell out of the way and lets you focus on telling a story. Nobody liked it in Mutant Chronicles, but they figured with the Conan license they'd force it on everyone and people would love it because it was Conan and they'd convince themselves that because it was Conan it had to be a great system...and that's exactly what happened. Then they snatched up Star Trek and John Carter, and well, now it's just ramrodded into everything.

I enjoyed the way the lifepath system worked, except that we had seven players create characters, and every last one of them ended up (via random rolls) with the ability to create minor magical/alchemical items, which itself goes entirely against the constant assertions that magic is mysterious, otherwordly and rare.  The movement system is exceptionally clever, I'll give them that, as it's designed to work seamlessly with the miniatures and game boards from the Monolith board game. That's a nice touch.

Sadly, I feel like the board game does a better job of delivering the feel of a Conan story than the 2d20 RPG ever could, and my issues with Monolith and the way they do business, flipping the bird at retail and then complaining that retail won't support them, and then eschewing all sales but single-print-run Kickstarters at premium prices, refusing even to set up their own online retail store--are not a secret. That's all a shame because the Conan board game is top-notch and if they'd taken a more retail-friendly approach I think it'd be wildly popular. I certainly have no desire to sell mine, despite not supporting their future efforts. 

The Fluff and Physical Design

The books look pretty. The fluff is solid, as it should be since it's written by notable Howard scholars...but even there I find myself just turning back to my complete set of Mongoose d20 books for world information. I didn't use the Mongoose system, either, as it, too, was too clunky and slow for the breakneck pace of Howard's prose, suffering as it did from d20 3.x reliance upon tactical combat...but at least they were enjoyable to read, and were stuffed full of good information that was easily translatable to other systems. 

The 2d20 version reads like a scholarly text (and indeed is in fact presented as such by a fictional scholar writing about the Hyborian Age) and it traps you firmly in their system--conversion takes a Master's Degree in studying that rules set to have a prayer of making it work elsewhere.

Incidentally, the actual reason that the text reads like it was written by a scholar because, in fact, it was--a whole group of scholars, in fact. All too often it's dry, formal and reads like a textbook instead of evoking the mystery and wonder of Howard's world. Instead, it just tells you every few pages that the Hyborian Age is full of mystery.


The current state of Conan tabletop gaming depresses me, and video games do nothing for me. At least I've still got my Age of Conan OD&D campaign for my home group. I've been running that for years, and it's gone fantastic. It would be nice, just once, to have an official game I could really throw my support and love to, though. Cubicle 7 gave me that with Doctor Who. I briefly had it with the Star Wars Saga edition from WotC, and those books are still my group's go-to for Star Wars gaming.

Currently, however, the Conan and Star Wars RPG licenses are in the hands of companies whose systems have ruined the gaming experience for me insofar as these worlds are concerned.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sugar-Free, Homemade Peanut Butter

Here we go again, gamer friends. It's time for another easy recipe you can make at home and share at the gaming table, which is far more healthy than what you get in the store.

Today we're going to talk peanut butter. Peanut butter is a great protein-filled snack which is filling, delicious, and is great to share around the gaming table. You can dip pretzels in it (or better, whole-grain crackers filled with fiber), it goes great on apples, on sugar-free dark chocolate, or even just by the spoonful!

Unfortunately, while you may not have noticed this (many haven't), almost all the peanut butter you buy in the store has added sugar in it. Sometimes it doesn't seem like much--what's an extra 6 grams of carbs, after all? But for those with sugar sensitivity, that can be more than enough to cause problems.

Added Sugar is Bad

Added sugar is the demon of our diets. We don't need it, and it's in everything. I'm not even talking the demon of high fructose corn syrup. Just added sugar. And by the way, folks: sugar is sugar is sugar. There is no sugar that is better than other sugars, if it is added after the fact. Added sucrose, added fructose, added honey, it's all sugar.

Some sugars (honey, for example) may have other benefits, but that doesn't make them better as a sugar. Honey is still sugar, despite its antibacterial properties. It's best if we just eliminate all added sugar from our diets entirely.

This particular blog won't get into the issue of artificial sweeteners, because there's a ridiculous crusade against them right now and I don't want to wade into that.

Okay, down off the soap box.

No-Sugar Peanut Butter

So: peanut butter. The majority of the stuff you find in the store has added sugar, and while you can get all-natural that doesn't have added sugar, they charge you an arm and a leg for it. It can cost anywhere from $3.50 to $5.00 for all-natural, no-sugar peanut butter. And here's the kicker: No sugar peanut butter costs less to make and is easier. It's just another case of them making a buck off of people trying to eat healthy.

So what can you do? Work around it.

No-sugar, all-natural peanut butter has one or two ingredients, maximum. Mine has two. Here's the "recipe" (such as it is):

  1. 16 oz. jar of dry-roasted, salted peanuts. You can go lightly or unsalted if you wish. I prefer salted. 
  2. 2 tbsp coconut oil. You can actually use any kind of cooking oil you like. 

Dump a jar of peanuts into your food processor. Chop them finely. Put the coconut oil in the microwave for about 1 minute to melt it (it's usually in a hardened form). Pour the melted coconut oil over the chopped peanuts. Process the mixture until it turns into butter.

That's it! You're done, and it cost you about $2.66 to make 16 oz. of peanuts: $2.50 for the jar of peanuts, and about $0.16 for the coconut oil (you can get it by the gallon for around $20 on Amazon). Even better, the process takes less than 5 minutes, total.

Why Coconut Oil?

I use coconut oil because, put simply, it's something of a power food, and it also is outstanding for helping with diabetes. It helps to regulate blood sugar levels, improves glucose tolerance, and helps to fight insulin resistance. It's also delicious and isn't as heavy as other oils. It also has a wealth of other evidence-based health benefits

Of course, like anything else that's good for diabetics, there are those out there who are dead-set on a crusade to prove that it's horrible for you. Ignore the crusaders and look at the wealth of evidence. "A recent study," is almost never conclusive, though that phrase is used constantly by people who want to take things away from you. 

Note, also, that I'm not a doctor or a healthcare professional, so take my advice with a grain of salt, too. Do your own research, and decide for yourself. Again,  you can use just about any oil, and you may not need any oil at all--it's likely that if you process them enough, the peanuts will butter just fine without oil. 

What do you think about this recipe? Try it yourself and let me know below!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Social Media Engagement and Unprofessional Rage

A discussion recently went up on Facebook wherein a certain industry pro very insultingly slagged off a certain kind of gaming. This particular individual (who shall go nameless, as is the rule here) has demonstrated themselves over the past few years to be caustic, judgmental, arrogant and generally hateful to begin with, which led me to unfollow them, because I enjoy their game and was very much getting to the point where I was going to sell off all the stuff and not support them anymore.

Which brings me to the dual point of this post: first, don't generalize an entire genre in a negative light, especially if you yourself are creating a game that falls within that overarching umbrella. Second, if you're a game industry professional, leave the bullshit at the door. The first should be just common sense, though apparently it's not.

Leave the Bullshit at the Door

Look, I don't care if you're in acting, video games, board games, tabletop RPGs, card games, music, a D.J. or whatever: your job is to entertain people. It's not to spout off at the mouth about your political opinions, especially if you're passing judgment on anyone and everyone who disagrees with you. 

Nobody's saying you don't have a right to your opinions, but there's a time and place, and as an industry professional, your social media account shouldn't be a socio-political pulpit--at least, not the same one you use for your professional posts. Telling someone who has purchased and uses your product, "you don't understand my game," when they talk about playing it a certain way is, quite frankly, shitty. 

We live in this angry, rage-filled world where people are obsessed with their right to stand up behind the podium and announce how everyone else is an asshole, a tiny mind who isn't up to their level of intellect, and frankly, it's sickening. 

The poster in question has a history of doing this sort of things, and has gone so far as to tell actual fans of his work to f*** off; they don't need that kind of business, for disagreeing with something they said. They regularly slag off other designers and games, in a niche industry where (a) there's plenty of room for everyone, and (b) we can't afford that kind of in-fighting. They caustically spout off their angry political opinions--and slag off the entire nation--and they have a small group of hangers-on and yes-men, who stroke their ego and validate them every time they do so. 

If you can't see that making enemies online isn't helpful, I don't know what to tell you. 

Hurting Your Numbers

The game for which they write is moderately successful, though it's something of a niche within a niche, but I'm here to tell you, it's their partner who makes it thus--said partner is jovial, personable, and enthusiastic, posting engaging material germane to the game. Truth be told, if it weren't for this individual, I'd have walked a long time ago.

Again, everyone's entitled to their opinion, but here's the thing: keep your professional profile amicable and neutral. Don't get sucked into social media negativity, and don't spew off about politics, religion and social issues. Even if you're in line with the general trend of social media groupthink, there's thousands of people out there who are going to hate what you have to say, and their money is every bit as good as those who agree with you. 

Most of them aren't even going to bother arguing with you or taking you to task over your caustic and toxic approach to engagement--they'll just not buy your product. While ROI on social media is hard to measure, a single negative interaction on Facebook--just one--can lose you up to 30 customers.  And this is someone who is routinely negative, to the point of flooding feeds with their angry, hateful, judgmental, caustic spittle. 

If you don't want the business of someone on the other side of the aisle, well, I say you don't deserve to succeed. Someone who doesn't want the business of someone because they're a conservative, liberal, Christian, or whatever, you're no better than the baker who didn't want to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. You're just the other side of the coin.

I Do This for a Living

I guarantee there's someone else out there wondering who I am to spout off about what is and is right for a professional to do on their own social media account. Well, in addition to being a professional game designer myself, as my day job I do web content writing and social media marketing for hundreds of companies from small startups to car dealerships, health and nutrition websites, medical websites, entertainment companies and more. The company for which I work also does reputation management. I've seen the effects this kind of thing has on businesses. So yes, I've got the creds and expertise to back it up--over ten years of experience, in fact. 

What are your thoughts as gamers and fans? Should industry pros stand on the socio-political pulpit, or should they stick to what their games have to offer? Comment below. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Record of Lodoss War and Toxic Fan Entitlement

I've talked a great deal on social media about just how toxic fandom has become. Negativity has poisoned everything we love, from Star Wars to Dungeons & Dragons to Marvel, cosplay and beyond. What's worse is that this negativity is accompanied by a frankly disgusting sense of entitlement that has come with the easy access of information the Internet provides. People think that somehow they deserve the very best in everything, and they not only have the right, but somehow a responsibility to make it known that they hate....well, everything.

I once had someone online, when I called them out on their bullshit, say to me, "Why does your right to celebrate something outweigh my right to criticize it? What makes you god?"

I can actually answer that question, and it's a very simple answer: celebrating things is positive. It makes people feel good. It brings joy into the world. Criticism--at least the kind of criticism levied constantly in fandom--is negativity which brings misery, unhappiness and makes the whole world a darker place.

I had someone claim that it's our responsibility to complain so media producers hear it and do better in the future. Not only is this frankly a bullshit intellectualization of your desire to spread hate, it's astoundingly (and, I suspect, deliberately) naive as well. Take Star Wars, for example. A very vocal minority have thrown a temper tantrum about the latest film, going so far as to review bomb and hack Rotten Tomatoes, and create petitions on (one of the most stupidly hilarious tactics I've yet seen, incidentally), because they think it'll somehow force Disney to change their approach.

Folks, the Last Jedi has so far pulled in $1.322 BILLION worldwide and is still in theaters. Disney doesn't care that you didn't like it.

Image source:

Record of Lodoss War

My most recent encounter with toxic fandom has come in the form of Record of Lodoss War. Recently (well, apparently about 6 months ago, but I just found out about it), a brand new Blu-Ray/DVD combo set was released by Funimation. It features the entire OVA in Blu Ray and DVD formats, and the Chronicles of the Heroic Knight in DVD-only format (though for ease of packaging, both series are in Blu Ray boxes). Both are packaged in a basic cardboard sleeve, and there are minimal special features--previews, TV spots, text-less opening and closing sequences, and trailers. It's priced at $79.99 on Amazon (I do my purchasing at brick-and-mortar stores deliberately so I paid about $85 at FYE). 

Of course, the Intarwebz are awash with fan outrage, largely focused on the following three complaints: 

1. The box is just cardboard! HOW DARE THEY?
2. There are no special features, like documentaries! HOW DARE THEY? 
4. I can't believe they're charging so much for this bare-bones package! They should've dumped the DVD versions of the OVA and knocked 20 bucks off of it. Why do I need DVD and Blu Ray, anyway?

Addressing the Complaints

Anyone who reads these closely will discover a couple things. First, most of these complaints are coming from completists who already own the show and are pissed that they're somehow being FORCED to buy the same thing they already own. Like Funimation came to their house and put a gun to their head. 

Second? The whiners are, in fact, lazy as well as self-entitled. It took me an actual 20 minutes of research online to discover that there are no HD masters of the television series in existence, thus making a Blu Ray release of it physically impossible. 

Your complaint about this, thus, is completely invalid. Yes, your opinion on this is wrong. Sometimes, just sometimes, an opinion can, in fact, be wrong when it's based on incomplete information that you didn't bother to research. 

The whiners are also complaining that Funimation should've been clear that the Heroic Knight is DVD only. Well, folks, if you'd get up off your ass and go to a store once in awhile, you'd realize that they did. On the package itself, it clearly states, "40 episodes on 6 DVDs and 13 episodes on 2 Blu-Ray discs." 

But that's what happens when you're too lazy to go to a store, and you buy everything sight-unseen online. 

Next, and this one really gets me: the complaints that boil down to, "I, personally, didn't want this, and Funimation should consider that." Look, YOU may not want both Blu Ray and DVD in one package, but guess what? There's a lot of people out there who go out of their way to buy these combo packages. Your personal preference? It doesn't count next to the legions of people who hold the opposite preference. 

All you're doing is shitting all over other people's ability to enjoy this, and worst of all? You're doing it on purpose because you don't think they have the right to enjoy it.

Regarding the price: let's be fair, $80 is not an unrealistic price for an 8-disc set. That you don't like that things are more costly these days doesn't offset the fact that it's just what the market is right now. You don't get to complain about the cost after you buy it. If you don't like the price, vote with your wallet. Period. 

Dislike vs. Negativity

Nobody's saying you have to love everything. But there's a difference between saying, "I didn't like it," and attempting to intellectualize your disdain in such a long and detailed way as to present yourself as trying to convince other people that their enjoyment is wrong. Nobody is forcing you to buy into something you don't like--and if you buy a product that isn't what you wanted, 99% of retailers will take it back. 

Ranting and trying to convince other people to walk away as well, however? That doesn't force companies to change their ways. What it can do, however, is force them to just stop. It can put companies out of business. It can convince them not to try anymore or that such efforts aren't financially viable. 

Then you'll complain because nobody's putting out sci-fi and fantasy products anymore. But whose fault is that? Not yours, naturally. You'd never admit to that. You deserved better and they didn't deliver. They shouldn't have just quit. They should've called you up, personally, and asked how to do it right, and gone bankrupt trying to live up to your personal expectations and demands. 

The Bottom Line

The new Record of Lodoss War Blu-Ray DVD set is making a seminal and classic series that many say is the single best Dungeons & Dragons adaptation ever, available for the first time in something like two decades, it having been out of print for many years. It's making it available for a whole new generation of people to watch and appreciate, but the entitled collector's market thinks they deserve more. 

It's the same entitled toxic crap that leads people to complain about Marvel being "sellouts" for producing a multi-billion-dollar franchise of wildly entertaining and well-written movies based on comics, but appealing to a broad audience instead of a tiny minority of people who have been into comics since the 1960s and consider themselves unappreciated scholars. 

Not only is this attitude's stupid. There is not a media company in the entire world that says, "You know what? I want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a property to appeal to a small minority of viewers who aren't enough to make the money back, let alone turn a profit." 

Quit crying. Be happy that geek culture has gone mainstream. If you'd have told 10-year-old me in 1984 that some day I'd have the X-Men and the Avengers on the big screen looking staggeringly good with a wild ride that's totally in the spirit of the comics, or that some day there would be ten Star Wars films, with at least eight more on the way, I would've thought you were nuts. 

Get over yourselves, folks. It's a golden age for us, and it's largely because of people who are new to embracing these properties. Shut up and enjoy the ride. There's a reason why your mom taught you that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. 

Incidentally, Record of Lodoss War, which began as an adaptation of an actual D&D game, was later turned into its own RPG, Sword World. It's never been released outside of Japan, but an intrepid group of translators have done a stellar job of making it available to all

What are your thoughts on the current toxic environment among fandom? Comment below!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Conversion Is (Not Really) So Much Work!!!

It's one of the most common complaints I hear from people--they wish there was more support for whatever their favorite game line is, and they can't possibly convert from other games because it's just too much work; they might as well just write their own scenarios.

While there's something to be said for writing your own scenarios, certainly it's true that not everyone has the time to do it. Still, there's a secret to running games that you need to embrace: converting an adventure from another game is not work, and it can be done on the fly from any game system to any other. 

Whether you're looking for new fantasy adentures for your favorite fantasy game or you're converting from a different genre altogether (pulp games, for example, are notorious for a dearth of adventures, but you can convert just about any fantasy adventure into a pulp one with a few quick changes).

Here's the thing: the vast majority of every adventure module is text without a system. It's a story--a sequence of events taking you from point A to B to C. There's no conversion necessary, obviously, for this aspect. But what about the rules themselves? Let's start with the creatures.

Converting Monsters

Presumably if you're running a game, you have the monster stats for the game you're running. All you need to do is substitute the appopriate statistics from your game, for the ones in the existing module. On its simplest face, consider the ubiquitous orc in fantasy gaming. Converting an orc in D&D to an orc in Savage Worlds is as simple as using the Savage Worlds orc stats.

What if there isn't an exact match? Hopefully you know your game and setting enough to subsitute something close. Just drop in something similiar. You know, for example, that a band of five orcs in D&D is a roughly equal challenge for a group of first level characters. Use a monster, then, that's an equivalent challenge for your characters from your game. Nobody says it has to be the same monster.

Consider, for example, changing your fantasy adventure to a pulp one. You probably don't want orcs in your lost underground city. But degenerate cave pygmies might be perfect. Use the orc stats, and just describe them as degenerate, de-evolved humans, and run with it.

So what if you want it to be the same monster? Again, you're the GM for your group, which presumably means you know your game and you know how monsters work. Another secret to running a game: most monsters only need 2 or 3 stats to run a combat. Drop in their combat values, a weapon damage code, and run with it.

This even works for rules-heavy games like Pathfinder. You know the general combat efficacy of the creature you're using--you really don't need to know every single feat and skill they possess. Just fudge some damage, attack and defense values that create a rough approximation of the creature you need, and roll with it.

Skills and Challenges

So that's monsters. Now, what about skill or challenge checks? Again, super easy. Just substitute the check in the module for one in your game. Usually this also can be done on the fly. You may have no idea what a DC 15 check means in D&D; that really doesn't matter at all. You know how tough the check needs to be, and what skill or ability should be checked for your game to work. Set it and go.

Don't Sweat the Details

For years I have been converting Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness scenarios for use in the WitchCraft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer games. It's a snap, and it works. I've done it for widely diverse fantasy games as well. You just have to not sweat the details. 

This is a big problem that far too many gamers face. I'm not sure whether it's a factor of the type of mind that RPGs tend to attract, or the way we as designers present the rules, but gamers tend to be really, really hung up on the statistics and math. 

Statistics and math are only the start of game design. The process is as much art s it is science, and the majority of games that are designed solely on a statistical basis, fall apart in actual play. Just because the dice should consistently fall a certain way doesn't mean they will. Again, it might make you feel more secure to have every single stat, but it's a waste of time and effort, and nobody else will know if you fudge a stat here and there to make the game work. 

Indeed, you might find that not having every single number and bonus there frees you up to adapt and adjust in ways you never before considered. There's two approaches to game design. The first is, if it's not on your character sheet, you can't do it. The second is, if it's not expressly forbidden on your character sheet, you can (and should) try it. 

Adopting the second method leads to a far more exciting, open and fun game with much less stress for the GM. 

Remember, there's absolutely nothing wrong with taking the "quick and dirty" approach. The only real work it takes to convert any adventure to any game is the work you're going to put in anyway, and that's reading it in advance. Hell, I know some (really good) GMs who don't even do that much prep work. So the next time you need a fresh adventure, give it a go. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Return of the King: Lord of the Rings and Campaign Building, Part Three

View Part One

View Part Two


So here we are in part three of our epic fantasy campaign based on Lord of the Rings. When we last left our heroes, the Fellowship had fractured, with our hobbits Sam and Frodo in desperate peril, Sam following the captured and incapacitated Frodo into Cirith Ungol, and the rest of the crew, including new character Faramir, split between marshalling the forces of Rohan and riding to warn Minas Tirith of a coming attack. 

Our intrepid GM now faces a further challenge; not only have his gaming groups split in twain, his Saturday group is now facing a potentially long-term party split. He briefly considers branching off into a third gaming group but decides even for him, that's untenable, and besides, the Saturday group are all still pursuing the same goal. He'll deal with the split party by switching back and forth at dramatic moments. He's also got a grand plan, if he can pull it off, for the end battle. 

And so we begin. 

Source: Wikipedia

Group One: The War of the Ring

Now begins the most intensive and complex part of the GM's campaign. He again takes a bit of time to plan out what's got to happen, and make notes on how he's going to handle the struggles that are set to follow. When the group comes back together, he's ready to go. 

He informs the players that due to their decision to split the party, he's going to have to bounce back and forth between the groups, and he hopes they'll bear with him as he does so. He'll try not to focus on any one group for too long, so people don't have to twiddle their thumbs. The group is fine with that; they understand they've made the decision to split the party, and they're actually looking forward to seeing the role playing between the groups. 

In addition, for those who wish, the GM is willing to offer up a few minor NPCs they can portray while they're not focused on their main characters. A few players take him up on this offer and are assigned various Gondor guards and Rohirrim. 

He begins with a brief section wherein Pippin arrives at Minas Tirith, introduces Denethor, and informs everyone that Faramir hasn't returned yet. He then moves to the balance of the party, in Rohan. Aragorn confronts Sauron through the Palantir. The Grey Company appears, and he learns about the Army of the Dead. He opts to set out to retrieve them to aid in the cause. Despite Eowyn's attempts to keep him around, he cannot be dissuaded. The party splits again, with Merry and Eowyn remaining behind. 

At this point, the GM has an idea and pulls Eowyn's player aside, explaining his surprise and asking her to keep it secret from the other players. She agrees, and it is revealed that Eowyn is forbidden from traveling to Rohan, and her player will be portraying a new character, a Rohirrim warrior riding with the host. Her new character Dernhelm resolves to secretly carry Merry along when the king also decrees he should be left behind due to his limited battle experience.

Back in Gondor, Farmir returns and informs everyone what happened with Frodo and Sam. This is the first the Saturday group have heard of their exploits, and they are intrigued. Denethor is outraged at Farmir's failure to return the Ring. He orders Faramir to ride with a force to Osgiliath and defend it against the vangard of Sauron's forces, an impossible task. The battle fails, and Faramir is grievously wounded, though he does manage to stabilize. The GM uses this as an opportunity to portray Denethor's descent into madness as the forces of Mordor close in. 

Meanwhile, Aragon manages to secure the army of ghostly oathbreakers to his side; again, eager to keep this a surprise, the GM pulls Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli aside and quickly runs their capture of the Corsairs with the help of the Army of the Dead, asking them to keep silent about what happened to the rest of the table.

At this time, the GM reveals that the forces of Theoden have arrived, and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields has begun. Once again, the GM uses a combination of miniatures mass battle rules with the individual heroic actions of the PCs for maximum drama. 

During the battle, several important plot points occur: first, the Black Corsairs arrive and are revealed to be the Grey Company under the command of Aragorn; second, Dernhelm is revealed to have been Eowyn all along, when she and Merry slay the Witch King of Angmar; and third, Denethor's immolation and passing. As his character is currently grievously wounded (and cure light wounds isn't a thing in Middle Earth), Faramir's woefully unlucky player is given control of Eomer for the duration of the battle and jokingly told not to kill this one. For his part, Faramir is transported to the Houses of Healing, where Pippin is set to guard the new Steward. 

The combined forces of the Grey Company, the Rohirrim and the Gondorians are successful in defending Minas Tirith and driving Sauron's forces back to Mordor. Aragorn removes his regalia of kingship, having refused to accept that mantle until the war is won, and slips into the Houses of Healing, where he uses special abilities granted by the GM to heal Faramir, Eowyn, Merry and others. The GM then reveals a number of prophecies that are being fulfilled. 

A council is held, wherein it is decided that their best bet is to press their momentum and lay siege to the Black Gate itself, hopefully granting Frodo and Sam the distraction they'll need to get to Mount Doom. The GM temporarily calls a brief hiatus at this point.

Group Two: The Ring Goes to Mordor

Meanwhile, in the Monday group, Sam tracks Frodo to Cirith Ungol and rescues him after defeating Shelob. He dons the ring and, invisible, tracks the orcs to their home base, where he discovers that the majority of the orcs have fallen into chaos and actually murdered each other. He confronts and drives off an orcish captain, who unfortunately gets away with Frodo's mithril shirt, elvish cloak and barrow-sword. He then manages to slay an orc about to harm Frodo and rescues his master, who madly demands the ring back, having failed several saving throws against its corruption. 

The two disguise themselves as orcs and make their way to Mordor, where they blend in and approach Mount Doom. A number of adventures involving evading orcish attention ensue. Suddenly, they see that Mordor is emptying, all the orcs headed for the Black Gate, and note the Eye of Sauron itself fixed on the West. The GM temporarily calls a brief hiatus at this point. 

The Groups Reunited: The End of the Third Age

The GM calls everyone together and asks when everyone might be available at the same time to finish the campaign. He anticipates the need for only a session or two, to bring it together. Everyone is able to make the time to get together, with Sam and Frodo's players returning to the Saturday group for a few weeks, their schedules having opened back up.

At this point the GM runs back and forth between the battle at the gates of Mordor, which he once again runs using miniaturs battle rules combined with role playing elements, the interaction of Eowyn and Faramir in Gondor, and the two hobbits in Mordor. At various times, Eowyn and Faramir's players are given the ability to run NPCs to keep them involved in the main action, while still being given a chance to shine in their proper roles. 

As Sam and Frodo approach Mount Doom, Frodo fails his final saving throw and is overcome by the ring. He refuses to submit, and puts it on. Sauron's eye is drawn instantly to the mountain, and Sam despairs. At this point, the GM hands a character sheet to Farmir's player. "You're there," he says. 

The sheet is Gollum's, and a battle takes place, which results in the events of the ring's destruction. Sam manages to save Frodo and get him out, as the forces outside the gate are victorious. Sauron is defeated. 

As an epilogue, the GM runs the series of good-byes, and Aragorn's coronation. He intends the game to end with the hobbits heading home. 


The Scouring of the Shire

The hobbits aren't quite ready to quit, yet. They'd like to adventure together some more, since that's where the game began in the first place. The GM realizes that he never properly ended the story of Saruman and Grima, and devises the Scouring of the Shire as a fitting end for the hobbit characters. This section of the game ends with the departure of Frodo and Bilbo to the West, and Sam returning home to his wife.

Note that in the movie version of these events, the scouring is skipped and the campaign does end with the coronation of Aragorn, the return home of the hobbits, and the departure to the West.

How It All Comes Together

In this final section, we see a number of complications arise, which almost every GM faces when they're running a very long-term, epic campaign. Specifically, such a huge story doesn't always have room to easily incorporate everyone, and what happens when the game is moving forward full-bore and a hero falls to wounds or death?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having your players switch characters mid-campaign when a party is split, when their main player is wounded, or when they are otherwise of necessity removed from the main action. Done properly it can actually add drama and excitement to a game, while keeping everyone involved. As a GM, I once had a player portray a secondary character for literally months of play, so much so that she became somewhat attached to this second character almost as much as her original. Through that particular campaign there were a number of instances where main characters were temporarily removed from the story and players took on new roles.

Losing Characters at the End Game

In this one, we see the problem with Faramir and Eowyn being removed very close to the end of the game. I've structured it so that the events match those of the books, but really, in a home campaign there is absolutely no reason why after Aragorn heals them, Faramir and Eowyn couldn't participate in the battle at the Black Gates as well. I'm just using the books and films here as a model of how an epic campaign could be run, and to demonstrate that Lord of the Rings can, in fact, work as a fantasy RPG campaign, despite common statements to the contrary.

Split Parties

As things progress, the GM does a good job jumping quickly back and forth between the three groups in the Saturday game, while keeping Frodo and Sam in line with where they are. He then brings everyone together for a grand finale. Having to deal with a split party is something that will happen to every GM at some point during their game. It's a skill you must master, the ability to jump back and forth while keeping everyone engaged. Again, keeping things moving fast is the key, as well as having the flexibility to allow players to take on NPCs as needed in longer sections.

When you do this as a GM, you may find even that while you run one party, the others are plenty well engaged with scheming and planning about how they're going to proceed when you get back to them. If this happens, you're doing something right.

Preparation is Key

Through all three parts of this series, we've seen one key to the success of the campaign. It's all about preparation. Preparation, preparation, preparation. The key, however, is not to be so prepared as to create a railroad that robs your players of choice and agency. We see here that our GM doesn't even have the results of the battles planned out--he runs them using mass combat rules. He's got world notes. He knows Sauron's plan. He has fleshed-out major NPCs. This together enables him to react to the players' decisions, while still moving the story forward.

He's fairly certain the heroes are going to win in the end, but he's also resolved that in many ways, all bets are off and they can fail. This is evident when Frodo fails a save; the GM throws the players a bone when he gives Gollum back to Faramir's player for the destruction of the ring.

Bringing Everyone Back

Regarding bringing the two gaming groups back together, some people, again, may consider this to be stretching believability. To these I can only say that I've done it myself--had two groups split off in the same campaign world, but then worked with everyone to find a time when they can come back together months or even years later for a specific story element. Consider that by this point in the campaign, months have probably passed. Schedules change, availability opens up (or closes off) and a revisit can produce surprising results.

An Epilogue

The Scouring of the Shire is a great example of what happens with the, "Awww, that's it?" factor that often comes with the end of a campaign. Some of the players are inevitably not ready to quit, and in this case, the GM does have a dangling thread he can resolve in a suitably epic fashion to serve as an epilogue and a cap on the game.

There you have it! I hope you've enjoyed this series on how Lord of the Rings not only works as a fantasy game, but can actually be seen as a master class in how to build and rune your magnum opus game. It's a good look at the difficulties of such a game, and how they can be handled by a skilled game master. It's also a look at the kinds of preparation, adaptability, and quick thinking that are required by experienced GMs.

There are undoubtedly those who will still be dismissive of this, claiming nobody has the time to put this kind of energy into their game, or accusing me of saying if you don't, you're a bad GM. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because you can't run this kind of campaign, that doesn't mean you are a bad GM, or that you can't run an epic game of your own design. This is just a solid look at one way it can be done, and a look at the old-school commitment to the hobby that gamers once had. That doesn't mean if you don't have this level of time investment you're doing it wrong; it's an academic look, and that's all.

Again, I hope you enjoyed the breakdown. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Two Towers: Lord of the Rings and Campaign Building, Part Two

Note: Before reading this post, you should check out part one.


Welcome to part two of our look at how Lord of the Rings offers us a master class in creating and running an epic campaign in the old-school style for your home game. In part one we looked at how the campaign starts simple and grows through side adventures and the addition of new players, and how it deals with divergent character levels by allowing for foes of different abilities and giving all players a chance to shine despite their relative level of power. It also deals with what happens when people's schedules change and the game needs to divide. 

It also touched upon the commitment that a GM puts into their campaign, how there's a ton of planning and time put into it, and admittedly it faces issues that some people have difficulty facing: those of simple time. You may not have the time to deal with the issues that come up in your life as they appear in this series, and if that's the case, there's nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has the kind of time to create new gaming groups and play several times a week. 

This blog doesn't offer solutions to that issue, as it would be impossible to address everyone's individual lifestyle. All it seeks to do is present an hypothetical situation towards how a story like The Lord of the Rings could be run, and work very well, all other things considered equal. 

In this blog we'll move on to part 2: The Two Towers. The theme here is running variant groups of gamers in the same campaign world, roughly simultaneously in time, and how one group's actions could affect the others. 

Finally, it's worth mentioning that yes, I realize in the novels Boromir's death comes at the beginning of The Two Towers, but I have chosen to move it to where it occurs in the films because it creates a solid symmetry in terms of the RPG campaign structure. 

The Two Towers: Setting up the Next Stage

When we last left our heroes, the Fellowship had fractured, largely due to life and scheduling reasons. Merry and Pippin's players had to drop out of weekly play, but agreed to keep in touch in hopes they could jump back in eventually. Frodo and Sam's players had moved to Monday, and had left alone with the Ring, heading for Mount Doom. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli's players had sworn to track down Merry and Pippin, and run interference for Sam and Frodo in the process by making some noise to draw the attention of the Enemy. Boromir had died. 

What had begun as a straightforward quest has now, of necessity, turned into a very nuanced game with multiple storylines and multiple adventuring parties. No longer is the GM planning a straight quest to Mordor; now he's dealing with two major story paths. 

His first step is to sit down with Boromir's player and decide what comes next. Boromir's player already has an idea. What if, he says, he plays Boromir's brother Faramir, who in many ways is even nobler than Boromir, but is something of a black sheep of the family. 

The GM thinks this a great idea, and says, in reward for the way he played Boromir, this new character will have an uncommon resistance to the temptation of the Ring. He'll also be the leader of an elite group of warriors from Minas Tirith. Both the player and the GM that these will be rangers. the GM has an idea, though, and wonders if it's possible for this new character to debut on Mondays and potentially move to Saturdays down the road? The player is, fortunately, flexible in his schedule and agrees. 

It may be awhile, the GM cautions, before Faramir can debut, so he asks the player if he would be willing to portray some rotating NPCs in the meanwhile. The player is amicable to this arrangement. He's even available to show up to both groups if need be, to act as a bridge where necessary. 

A Note about Player Flexibility: some readers might find the flexibility of Boromir/Faramir's player to be stretching things a bit. To them I reply, I've had plenty of gaming groups where multiple players were involved in different groups throughout the week, and attended all. Different people have different levels of flexibility. In addition, once again in the old days RPGs were a more time-consuming and all-encompassing hobby (something that played a role in people's concern about it in the early 80s). 

However, for those who find this unrelatable, it's equally possible that the GM finds people who are new gamers eager to try it out for a bit, or who can't always be counted on to make it, so they're given one or more of these NPC characters. 

Party One: The Treason of Isengard

Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas sage an impromptu funeral for Boromir, sending him down the Anduin, and head off to track the orcs and uruk-hai who have taken Merry and Pippin captive. They have a few skirmishes before they encounter the Riders of Rohan, led by the NPC cavalier Eomer, played temporarily by Boromir's former player. Eomer informs the heroes that the night before, the riders had encountered a pack of orcs--the same ones Aragorn and Legolas had been tracking via their ranger abilities--and had slaughtered all of them. 

Just as all hope seems lost, Aragorn finds a set of small, bootless tracks--the tracks of hobbits--leading into Fangorn Forest. Following this session, Faramir's player departs for the Monday group (see below). 

Tracking the hobbits, they catch glimpses of an old man who makes their horses bolt. They assume this to be Saruman and take caution. As the GM builds mood and tension, the heroes are about to burst, when suddenly, they encounter the old man, who turns out to be the resurrected Gandalf, now Gandalf the White. To get the group back on track, Gandalf informs them that Merry and Pippin are free of the orcs and quite safe, and their paths will cross again one day. But for now, they must make for Rohan, where dark forces are afoot. 

Meanwhile, the story of Merry, Pippin and the Ents has played out on the side, with the GM communicating via phone, email, snail mail, on lunch breaks or whenever they can get together, with Merry and Pippin's players. 

They make their way to Edoras, where they find Theoden deep under the spell of Saruman, via the posoned words of Grima Wormtongue. They also discover that Eomer has been imprisoned as a traitor. As the group holds off the royal guard in nonlethal combat, they witness Gandalf free Theoden from the enchantment in an awesome display of power, further hammering home his change following resurrection. 

Grima is expelled, and Theoden orders Eomer freed (in the movie version, Eomer has been exiled as opposed to imprisoned, and will arrive later) and named as heir. A funeral is held for the king's son, who it is revealed fell in battle. 

A few side adventures ensue wherein the heroes gather some scattered Rohirrim, encounter refugees from the Isen Fords, and ride with the host of Rohan to the Hornburg. This section of the campaign, for this group, comes to a climax during the Battle of Helm's Deep, with the departure of Gandalf and his return with the Huorns of Fangorn Forest and exiled Rohirrim led by Erkenbrand at his back (and in the film version, the exiled Rohirrim led by Eomer). 

Another new character makes their appearance here, as a friend wishes to try out role playing and asks if there's space in any of the groups. This becomes Eowyn. As Eowyn's player learns the rules, she (or he) engages mostly in role play, not yet being comfortable with the mechanics of combat, but continually voices her desire to win renown in battle and excel as a strong woman in a world of men. 

This also provides an opportunity to flesh out Aragorn's back story, which the GM allows to play out naturally, wishing to let Aragorn's player define his path, and being okay with adapting to revelations as they come (he trusts Aragorn's player). He makes notes about the developing relationship and notes that Aragorn's player seems to have determined his prior relationship with Arwen (hinted at iin Rivendell during an earlier session) is deep and abiding.   

The battle of Helm's Deep is run in two fashions: with a massive miniatures battle game (because the GM hasn't yet determined the outcome at this stage), and interludes featuring heroic actions by the individual heroes. These interludes, the GM decides, will have a direct effect on the battle in terms of bonuses to morale, attack and defense values on either side. During this section of the game, Legolas and Gimli's players dive in full bore and develop a surprising comeraderie between their heroes, something unheard of between dwarves and elves.

Following the battle, the epilogue of this section occurs as the group heads for the Isen River. 

Upon arriving, they discover Treebeard and the Ents, and are reunited with Merry and Pippin (whose players have requested to rejoin the game), and are told the tale of how the Ents destroyed Isengard (Merry and Pippin's players do such a good job that the GM awards them bonus XP for the retelling). The group then treats with Saruman, who refuses Gandalf's offer to repent and redeem himself. Saruman's staff is broken, he is robbed of his angelic power, and he is banished along with Wormtongue, who hurls a palantir at Pippin, which Gandalf takes away, much to Pippin's player's consternation. He manages to look into the device, and sees the Eye of Sauron within. Fortunately, he succeeds on his Saving Throw and emerges largely unscathed from the experience. 

The appearance of a Nazgul overhead indicates that full-scale war is coming and will soon cover the world. Gandalf entrusts Aragorn with the palantir and the group decides that it's time to marshall Rohan's forces and head for Minas Tirith, which is most certainly under siege by now. 

Party Two: The Ring Goes East

Meanwhile, on Mondays, Sam and Frodo head South with the Ring towards Mordor. They capture Gollum, temporarily played by Faramir's player, and with an agenda to mislead them and steal the ring for himself. Surprisingly to all involved, Frodo's player opts to show pity towards Gollum, and the NPC takes an interesting turn, reverting to his Smeagol persona, promising to guide them to Mordor and leading them through the Dead Marshes. Yet, he still portrays the split personality and obsession with the ring, muttering to himself about wanting to take it, and letting someone he mentions only as "She" kill the hobbits since he is bound by a promise. 

He persuades the hobbits not to try to enter through the Black Gate, and offers to lead them on a secret path to a sort of back entrance into Mordor. Wary, but trusting of his promise, they agree. This leads the group into Ithilien, where Faramir makes his first appearance. Frodo (the character) learns of Boromir's death, and the existence of the Ring and the plan to destroy it are revealed. Faramir allows the hobbits to leave after Frodo negotiates Gollum's release, understanding the importance of their mission (in the film version, the side journey to Osgiliath occurs during this time). 

Faramir's player now exits the Monday game and returns to the Saturday group. Gollum reverts to being an NPC, and leads Frodo and Sam past Minas Morgul where they witness the Witch King lead his army towards Minas Tirith, and into Cirith Ungol where they face Shelob and Frodo once again is mortally wounded. Sam grabs Sting and the Ring, puts the Ring on (and succeeds at his saving throw against its corruption) and follows the orcs to Cirith Ungol to rescue Frodo. 

And the GM calls a close to this section of the adventure. 

How it Breaks Down

In this section we see how the GM deals with the splitting of the group into two, and how he faces the challenge of replacing a deceased character. It is, in many ways, representative of some of the most difficult challenges any GM can face. Your party is split, you're facing losing players, you need to create extra time to handle multiple parties, and somehow you need to keep your story trucking along, all while finding a way to introduce a new character while allowing that character's player to continue on with the game in the meanwhile. 

The Two Towers shows us just how this can be done. 

Regarding the introduction of a new hero, our two parties are in the middle of nowhere, and Boromir's player's new concept doesn't allow the GM to randomly drop Faramir in without messing with the buy-in of the story. Fortunately, Boromir (now Faramir's) player is flexible and wants the best for the campaign, so he's willing to help out with NPCs for a few sessions. 

As a side note regarding the Faramir concept, it was not unusual in the old days for players who lost a character to pick up with a new hero that was a relative of the lost character. 

The GM spends some time plotting the new dual course of the campaign, and determines that this will give him the opportunity to explore the larger war going on during Frodo's quest to destroy the ring. It will also let him more deeply explore Aragorn's background and legacy. 

Eowyn's player joins the game, now, but opts to take it easy for awhile, getting their feet wet with the system and sticking mostly to role play, while building to something they hope will be big.

The two groups go on their separate courses. Merry and Pippin rejoin the Saturday group, which at the end of the game consists of Merry, Pippin, Eowyn, Aragorn, Faramir, Legolas and Gimli-- large, but still a manageable size. The Monday game, on the other hand, has three players for awhile, but in the end consists of just Frodo and Sam, very small and indeed, minimalistic in size, but the GM resolves to make it work. Indeed, he determines this will allow him to shine a laser focus on the goals of that group. In fact, he's got big plans for the end of this campaign that he hopes will enable him to have everyone at the same table together. 

The divergent stories also allow the GM to really open things up. He opts to try his hand at a major battle, as a test run for what he hopes will come. This leads to the battle of Helm's Deep. To be honest, there are a wide variety of ways he could to this. Above we have him using a hybrid system--large scale miniatures wargame rules to run the battle, with role play interludes allowing for heroic actions to take place.  

Alternately, he could simply run full on miniatures battles, he could use a narrative mass combat system, or he could simply focus on the heroes' actions during a battle whose outcome he has determined in advance, allowing them to shine as the events roar around them. What system any given game uses really depends on the makeup of the players and what they would prefer. 

Again, all of the heroes both old and new get a chance to shine, while character backgrounds are explored, and the story moves towards its inexorable conclusion...