Getting Sinister in Saltmarsh, Pt. 1

When I moved back from Austin, one of the things I wanted to do was get a family RPG campaign going. Our long running game night only sometimes actually features games anymore (long story), and I could tell from various comments that Kate found it frustrating to spend so much time around gamers without getting to roleplay regularly. I tried to get something going with a Dragon Age game last year, but I we only played a few times. I was writing all the adventure material and since this was Dragon Age, it started feeling like an extension of work. I wanted this to be about the family just getting together and having fun, so I decided to take a different approach. Kate had heard endless discussions about D&D at game night, but her actual experience with it was limited. I was looking for a game with a lot of pre-written adventures anyway, so I decided to go all the way and run an AD&D game set in Greyhawk. Might as well give the girl a proper education!

With just Nicole and Kate playing, this was going to be a small party, so I had them create 3rd level characters. Nicole made a paladin and Kate an elf ranger/thief (yes, I bent the rules for her). I created a NPC cleric of Procan as a support character, so the party would at least be a trio. To open the campaign I choose Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, a classic adventure that I had actually never run before. I dug out my DMG II (from 3rd Edition) because it had a write up of Saltmarsh. Most of it was useable, though I dialed the year back to 576. My plan was to keep them in and around Saltmarsh for at least a couple of levels, so the town info would be useful.

Spoilers for Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh follow! Do not read on if you plan to play this module.

At the start of the first session, I told them they had traveled to Seaton at the behest of Saltmarsh’s Alchemists’ Guild to find and acquire some rare ingredients. The day before their arrival, a squadron of ships will yellow sails had raided the town. Hundreds of prisoners were taken and many buildings burned (including the shops they were to visit). The game picked up with the PCs at the Alchemists’ Guild, explaining why the raid had prevented them from completing the mission. The head of the guild said not to worry about it because something more important had come up. He found a letter indicating that an alchemist from the area named Turnbull had a copy of a rare text called Ye Secret of Ye Philosopher’s Stone. The man had disappeared 20 years ago and his ghost was said to haunt his dilapidated mansion. Would the PCs venture inside and try to find the book?

The module makes much of how you have to play up that the house may be haunted. I tried to do so, telling them local legends of the ghost of the “Mad Alchemist.” After they took the mission, I had the NPC cleric ask, “Do you think it’s really haunted?” Nicole and Kate both scoffed immediately, which made me laugh. Kate, so jaded at 16. Nicole quipped, “If I ran a thieves’ guild, I’d hide it in a supposedly haunted house.” I said nothing in reply.

The trio then went to the mansion to investigate. I thought the upper levels needed a bit of jazzing up so I added an encounter in the dining room. They came upon a table and next to each place setting was a severed hand. Kate asked if any of the hands had rings; I said yes. When she entered to loot the rings, the hands (in fact, crawling claws) leaped up off the table to try to strangle them. That was fun. Later they freed Ned the assassin and let him tag along for a little while. Right before he was about to get his clothes back, Nicole hit him with detect evil and the jig was up. They sent him packing wearing only his underwear.

In the basement they avoided the rot grubs by burning the dead body in plate mail straight away. I added the detail that the armor was engraved with symbols of Pelor. Nicole is playing a paladin of Mayaheine (yes, GH nerds, I’m bending the timeline slightly) so I thought it’d be suitable armor for her. Kate then found the secret door and got the drop on Jebbric, the smuggler inside. They interrogated him and tied him up. They then found the book they had been sent for and smashed the smugglers’ ring operating in the caves under the mansion. They turned four prisoners over the Saltmarsh watch, but let the one who gave them information go. Jebbric promised to straighten up. They then returned to the Alchemists’ Guild for their reward. So ended session 1.

Overall, it was a really fun time. Kate, who is soft-hearted in real life, was all about the ducats in Greyhawk. She took meticulous notes on every item of value they found in the house and tallied everything at session’s end. I can see some future adventures involving her thief side. Other possible hooks include the escaped assassin, the plate mail of Pelor, and the raiders that attacked Seaton.

We played session 2 last night. I’ll try to write that up later this week.

A Chronicle of Ice and Fire

I haven’t been doing any regular roleplaying since getting back to Seattle, as weekly game night at our place long ago devolved into eat, drink, and bullshit night during which boardgaming sometimes happens. And hey, that’s fun too but it wasn’t scratching my itch. Jon Leitheusser, Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds developer, was nice enough to invite me to join his group, so this week I trekked down to Renton for a kickoff session of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying (abbreviated SIFRP).

When people ask me at cons and such how SIFRP captures the flavor of the books, the first thing I tell them about is the house system and the campaign framework it provides. Before you make your character, you sit down as a group and generate a minor noble house. This is the glue that will hold the campaign together. All the PCs are members or retainers of the house, so you have both individual goals and group goals as the house engages in the game of thrones. It gives a real reason for your characters to work together, so you aren’t just a random collection of mercenary sociopaths (though if you want that, I suppose you could run a chronicle in which the PCs join the Brave Companions).

So Tuesday night Jon, Seth, Jason, James (by Skype), and I got together to generate a house and start character creation for the chronicle. We decided to roll up a couple of houses and pick the one we liked best. Houses have seven attributes (Defense, Influence, Lands, Law, Population, Power, and Wealth). You establish starting stats based on its location in Westeros and these can be modified in several ways throughout the process. You then get to make a certain number of rolls on the historical events table, which both modifies the attributes and gives you seeds to develop important events in the house’s past. Once the final attributes are determined, you can then spend resources to determine details of your holdings. When you’re done, you should have a good starting point for your house and an idea of where Player Characters can fit within it.

The first house we generated was in the Westerlands. That meant Lannisters, which I don’t think any of us were too keen on. Nonetheless, we went through the process so everyone could see how it worked. We ended up with a new house created after Robert’s Rebellion. We had small holdings in the hills with a hall near a river that passed through our territory. We had a lot of money (because hey, Lannisters) which we figured came from river tolls and our two mines. I had a feeling we weren’t going to stick with this house, so I suggested we skip detailing our banner house and military forces. We felt there were hooks here we could certainly use but overall it wasn’t what we were looking for.

The second house was in the Iron Islands and it was clear pretty quickly that this one would win out over the Westerlands house. Jon’s roll of 1 also meant we were an ancient house dating back to the Age of Heroes. This gave us a lot of rolls on the historical events table and plenty of stuff to work with for our house history. Our house was founded by treachery, for example, and other events made it clear it had had its ups and downs: defeat, victory, ascent, scandal, decline, favor. I suggested that defeat be the most recent event and we tie that to the Greyjoy Rebellion. With our resources were able to secure our own island and a small castle, but its dominant terrain was wetlands. We decided the house controlled a bigger, better island in the past, but in a period of decline we lost it to our rivals. As Ironmen we naturally opted for veteran warhips and raiders, as well as some sailors and a garrison for the castle. We brought in an artisan we we could have castle-forged steel, and used other resources so James could play the house’s heir.

At some point we decided that one of our ancient ancestors slew a sea dragon (or perhaps stole the credit for the deed, if we opt to make that the founding treachery). With that in mind, I suggested that we become House Greenscale and that our motto be “Cold Seas, Cold Blood.” We almost went with Seth’s suggestion of Highrock (he thought that’d be funny considering our wetlands) but Jon countered that it’d be a better name for the castle. We all agreed and so we became House Greenscale of Castle Highrock.

We still have some work to do fleshing out the history of the house, but this gave us a good framework to start creating our characters. Clearly court adventures and tournaments are not going to be our forte. We are a house of Viking raiders looking to revive our ancient glories. I’m working on my character now and will try to post something more when I flesh him out. I enjoyed the house creation session and I’m looking forward to getting the game going. Cold Seas, Cold Blood!

Originally posted on LiveJournal on December 1, 2011. 

Fuck Wil Wheaton, I Want to Game!

It was 1987 and I was a freshman at New York University. I’m not sure why, but I thought at the time that I might not do much gaming at college. As it happened, however, I stumbled across a game group playing in the lounge of my dorm when returning from a punk rock show at CBGB. I talked to a guy named Sandeep and he invited me to the game the following week. That’s how I joined the Society for Strategic Gaming at NYU (funny name, as we did way more roleplaying than strategic gaming, but there you go).

We played on Sunday nights. We’d have dinner and then rally up around 7 for roleplaying. This was AD&D at first, then other games like Runequest, MERP, Twilight 2000, TORG, WEG’s Star Wars, and especially WFRP. We’d usually end the session between midnight and 1 am and then a group of us would inevitably head off to the Washington Square Restaurant (a nearby 24 hour diner) for food, coffee, and conversation. The hardcore would then return to the dorm at 3 am and play a boardgame. We had nights when we’d start a game of Talisman at that time, finish at 8 in the morning, and then go get breakfast in the cafeteria. Ah, college. Sometimes we even found time to go to class.

This was all just starting in September though and I was getting to know the group. John Footen was trying to run up to a dozen people through the original Dragonlance modules and it was no great surprise that it was bogging down. Nonetheless, it was great to get to game and to make some new friends who shared my geeky interests (and indeed many of these folks are my good friends to this day).

One Sunday we were eating dinner and Chris Keefe (who later did art for Green Ronin) informed me that we’d be starting the game hours late that night. When I asked why, he said, “Star Trek: The Next Generation debuts tonight.” I was not impressed. Surely we could watch it later. Chris said no, the plan was to watch it in the lounge with a big group of people. He added, “Come on, Wil Wheaton is in it, and he was great in Stand By Me.”

“Fuck Wil Wheaton,” I said. “I want to game!”

I lost the argument. We watched Encounter at Farpoint and didn’t start gaming until something like 10 pm. While I would later come to like the show, my response at the time was, “I can’t believe we delayed gaming to watch that bullshit.”

Life, of course, is weird, and I could never have predicted that 20 years after I said, “Fuck Wil Wheaton,” we’d become friends. I think it was at a PAX that we first met, courtesy of our mutual friend Andrew Hackard. As I’m sure you all know, Wil is also a gamer and nerd. Turns out we also like many of the same bands and we are both step-dads, so we had a lot in common. Subsequently, Nicole and I would try to meet up with Wil for a meal when he came to Seattle. We’d talk about trying to game together but it was always hard to coordinate with his travel schedule.

A couple of months ago Wil told me he was going to be at GenCon. Knowing he had enjoyed my Dragon Age RPG, I asked him if he’d like me to run a game at the show. His response was something like, “OMG, YES!” And amazingly, despite the craziness of GenCon, the game actually went off. The group was on the big side but we made it work and the game was really fun. Nicole invented a new maneuver, the Axe Tackle, and that’s been a running gag amongst the players since the game, no doubt to the confusion of many a Twitter user.

Now the Penny Arcade Expo is coming up. Wil, of course, will be here to deliver the blessings of the Omnigeek to his people. Many of the other players from the GenCon session will also be at PAX so naturally the idea of playing more Dragon Age came up. To which I can only respond:

“Fuck yeah, Wil Wheaton, let’s game!”

Originally published on LiveJournal on August 23, 2010. 

GenCon Swag

It’s just not a GenCon if I don’t bring home some new games and such. Sadly, I did not have a whole lot of time to walk the exhibit hall this show. I got in maybe two hours of browsing time across four days. I paid cash money for two games (the minis games AE Bounty and War Rocket). The rest I either traded for or was given by friends. It is good to have friends. Here’s the run down:

AE Bounty: This is a scifi skirmish miniatures game from Darkson Designs. Basically, designer Matt Hope took his system from AE World War II and ported it over to scifi. You have your choice of three types of crew: bounty hunters, mercenaries, and pirates. All are quite customizable, so though the game is designed for Darkson’s minis you can easily use other scifi figs you already own. If you liked Necromunda, you should check this out. It’s a little spendy at $25 for a 98 page digest sized book, but it is color throughout and print on demand color is not cheap. The rules are also more complete than 98 pages might suggest.

Battles of Westeros: This is the first new BattleLore board game that FFG has published since acquiring the line from Days of Wonder. I love BattleLore and I love A Song of Ice and Fire, so this should be a win win. I have not had a chance to play it yet, but a read of rules showed that is more complicated than the original BattleLore game. I will give it a spin and see if that’s for good or ill. Components are of course quite nice.

Duel of the Giants: Paul from Z-man hooked me up with this board game before the exhibit hall even opened. It’s another World War II game from the team that did the groovy Duel in the Dark a couple of years back. This has some similarities to Memoir ’44, but concentrates on Eastern Front tank battles in 1943. Nice components that include 11 plastic tanks (Tigers and T-34s, and their turrets even rotate). It’s like Paul somehow divined that I might enjoy a WWII game. What gave it away?

Fantasy Craft RPG: This is the fantasy port of Spycraft from the fine fellows at Crafty Games. Basically, they have taken the core d20 rules, broken them down into component parts, and reassembled them into a highly customizable system for fantasy roleplaying. The results are quite crunchy, as you’d expect, but everything seems sensible and flexible. If you liked the guts of D&D3 but felt Pathfinder didn’t change enough for your tastes, Fantasy Craft may be what you are looking for.

Icons RPG: Green Ronin stalwart Steve Kenson, who designed Mutants & Masterminds and DC Adventures, decided he had to design a completely different supers game. He was nice enough to hook me up with a copy of the print version from Adamant/Cubicle 7. I haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet, but as I understand it’s a supers riff on FATE. I like Steve’s designs and I like FATE, so I look forward to reading it.

Legend of the Five Rings, Fourth Edition RPG: I remember playing first edition back in my WotC days, so I’m curious to see how it looks ten years later. Physically, it is a beautiful book. The page design drips with Japanese flavor and the art is excellent (you go, pinto). I was also glad to see the book devotes some pages to different ways to play the game (something the first edition sorely needed).

Realms of Cthulhu: This is a Savage Worlds RPG sourcebook from Reality Blurs. I believe I have Sean Preston to thank for it, as I discovered a book with my name on it while packing up our booth at the end of the show. Thanks, Sean. Haven’t done more than flip through it, but I’d presume this is meant for a more pulp style Cthulhu game. That seems best suited for the Savage Worlds rules anyway.

Shattered Empires RPG: Veterans of the d20 era may remember the world of Arcanis from Paradigm Concepts. Those rules were never the best fit for the setting, so Paradigm has taken advantage of the post-d20 environment to launch their own rule set customized for Arcanis. Although labeled as a “Quicklauch,” Shattered Empires is a full RPG and over 200 pages at that. It is perhaps better to think of it as Book 1. Again, haven’t really had a chance to dig into it, but it looks interesting. Thanks to Henry for the hook up.

The Ultimate Unofficial Fan Collector’s Guide to D&D: I believe there are three of these books out now and I got volumes 1 (OD&D and Basic D&D) and 3 (AD&D 1st Edition). Each one breaks out the products from the era, providing a cover shot and fairly comprehensive description (page count, levels covered, authors, etc.). They also include some non-TSR stuff (like Wee Warriors, Metro Detroit Gamers, etc) and checklists at the back. Gamers Rule, the publisher, could use a little help in the graphic design department but overall these appear well-researched and quite handy for those interested in all the nooks and crannies of D&D’s history.

War Rocket: This is a new minis game from a fairly new company, Hydra Miniatures. I know nothing about them but was immediately sold on the concept. War Rocket is advertised as “Space Combat in the Atomic Age.” 1950s-style rockets in a fast paced minis game? I’m there. The rules look easy to pick up. There is not a lot of Starfleet Battles type damage tracking. A rocket is either OK, stunned, or destroyed—that’s it. There are four fleets to choose from and what makes it interesting is that each has rockets with a different mode of movement: flying, thruster, pulse, or saucer. This gives each a different flavor and means they fight differently as well. The graphic presentation of each ship’s stats is quite clever and let’s you see in an instant what your ship can do. I didn’t get any of the minis that go with War Rocket, but I may if I can convince a friend to do the same. This really looks like fun.

So what did I miss? Well, this may be the first GenCon I didn’t bring home any miniatures, though to be fair I wasn’t looking for a whole lot either. I had my eye out for a box of Immortal’s plastic Greek hoplites, but I didn’t find them anywhere. I meant to pick up Red Sands, the new Savage Worlds Space: 1889 book, but didn’t get around to trading with Shane. Always liked the setting but the original rules left a lot to be desired. I would have picked up Blitzkrieg, the first early war book for Flames of War, but it wasn’t out yet. I will be patient until its September release, since I have plenty to keep me busy in the meantime.

Originally published on LiveJournal on August 15, 2010.

Green Ronin: The Early Years

It was a decade ago this month that Green Ronin released its first product at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio. I remember getting that first box of games and cutting it open on the convention floor. I could have no idea that the company would still be going 10 years and well over 100 products later.

In the beginning it was just Nicole and I. I was working at Wizards of the Coast in the company’s first attempt to do miniatures games. I had previously worked in Roleplaying R&D, mostly on Dungeons & Dragons, but moved over to the new minis division because it seemed a good opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what could be a major new part of the company. By early 2000 I had been working on the game that ultimately came to be known as Chainmail for a while, and I found I missed doing RPG work. It would also be fair to say that I was frustrated with my job and WotC’s corporate backstabbing environment.

In February of 2000 I decided to go ahead and start my own company on the side to do roleplaying games. The goals were modest. We’d try doing two books and see how it went. Having previously been part of a small press RPG operation (the original Ronin Publishing), I was under no illusions.

Our first release was Ork!: The Roleplaying Game. Back in college my friend Crazy Todd had run this fun and totally zany campaign in which we all played Orks. It was in theory an AD&D game but really the rules amounted to Todd saying, “Roll some dice,” at appropriate moments. I suggested to Todd that Ork could be a fun beer and pretzels RPG and that I’d design a set of rules if he wrote up what was dubbed “The World of Orkness.” We aimed for a short, punchy game and succeeded in bringing it home in 64 pages of wackiness.

At the same time the Open Game License was under development at WotC and with it the idea of D&D3 as the “d20 System.” I remember sitting in a meeting with most of R&D about the OGL and d20. Many folks were dubious about the whole endeavor. One argument made at the time was that third party companies could do products that WotC itself had trouble doing profitably. In other words, adventures. And I thought, “I bet I could turn a profit selling an adventure when D&D3 hits the shelves.”

That thought led to Death in Freeport, our second product. It debuted at GenCon on the same day as the third edition D&D Player’s Handbook. Atlas Games also had a short adventure out that day by John Tynes. If you wanted to play some third edition D&D on August 10, 2000, there were exactly three books you could buy. That’s how I justified doing a print run that was, by any normal standard, insane. A gamble certainly but one that did actually pay off. Death in Freeport was a hit, we sold gobs of it, and soon the d20 market exploded.

If I was rash, I wold have quit WotC right then and gone full on with Green Ronin. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had. I tried to be sensible, however, and still believed that we could make a traditional miniatures business work at a company that simply didn’t understand it. So I stayed on after the Hasbro buyout, but ultimately was laid off in 2002. By that point Green Ronin was thriving and I just stepped into doing the company full time. Hal Mangold, who had helped us out with cover design early on, came on as well and the core of the company was set.

Since then we’ve had highs and lows, successes and disasters, great times and dire times. I never thought we’d last as long as we did, but now that we’ve hit that 10 year mark, I can look back at what we’ve achieved and feel proud. Next week at GenCon we’re launching the DC Adventures RPG and starting another new chapter of our history. How many more will there be? Hell if I know, but as I said back in 2000, “Let’s put out good games and see what happens.”

Originally published on LiveJournal on July 30, 2010.