3d6, in order? – Rolling characters

A couple of weeks ago I saw a video about rolling characters the old-school way, 3d6, in order. It was really refreshing to see someone defend his point of view and could support his claim with solid reasons. I liked how Noah told examples of making the best of the worst, and he was also very thorough about this topic, with many great ideas.

My view is very similar, I have rolled 3d6 in order a few times and those were my most loved characters. It was fun to come up with a reason for those one or two poor stats I got. As an example, when I was playing Rappan Athuk a few years back and rolled my character the classic way, I rolled 18 Strength but a Constitution of 7. Quite contradicting to say the least. So I came up with the idea of a barbarian who had to take a magical potion upon his rite of passage, which granted him superb might, however, it left his health damaged quite a bit (and also his intellect, since I rolled an 8 for that). It was fun playing him, with bulging muscles but only with a primal cunning and stamina issues. He did really well and didn’t die, it was a great session with some good laughs.

I like to have my players roll up characters as well, although I’m a bit more lenient with the method. For Rappan Athuk I had them roll 3d6, in order, but I let them roll all 1-s again, and let them have two series of rolls and choose the better one. Now thinking about it, I may have been too nice. Still, two players got a 6 for their Charisma, which is not much of a big problem usally, but they still went ahead and tried to come up with a good reason for that score. All the other stats were pretty decent, and with racial bonus they could even feel powerful with good main stats for their classes.

I have noticed as well that many players are afraid of just going with such a gambit, and prefer to use point buy, or choose to play another system. I understand them, they don’t want their characters to suck (at anything, usually), since the character is usually our fantasy badass version whom we like to see succeed, overcoming obstacles confidently, and so on. Fortunately after a while most players get mature enough and want to mix things up a bit and then the miracle happens: they want to do 3d6, in order. That’s usually the point when roleplaying improves for many players (or even roll-playing becomes role-playing). I have also been through this “journey”, playing it safe, then after a while I just got bored with always playing “the same character class” and decided to go with rolling characters instead of point-buy.

As a DM, I like rolling up my NPCs as well, it can help giving them a little more personality, maybe even a weak spot or a defining feature which the players will remember them by. Of course it would be too time consuming to do this for every single one, but I found it a good method to spice my campaign up a bit with such NPCs. In my current Rappan Athuk campaign I’m running, Rex the Henchman is such an NPC.

I think the most important thing a DM needs to do is to convince his players to give 3d6 a try, and help them with ideas how to explain a bad stat, let them feel that it’s not the end of the world if they have an ability score of 6. Of course, if half of the abilities are at -2 modifier scores, a wise DM would let the player roll a new series…


What keeps them going?

Reading some discussions on forums and blogs lately reminded me of some things why a story can get flat, and how some campaigns just run out of steam after a while. It happened to our group as well several times, and it probably will happen again in the future. I think one of the main reasons can be the wrong type of campaign for a certain type of characters.

I usually run two types of games, either I want the characters to go through a full, detailed story I wrote, or I just create a setting where they can go after their own heads, only throwing in adventure hooks every now and then. I usually prefer the latter, to see what interests the players. If they bite on one of the hooks, that’s a good start, maybe even to build a campaign on. In the first case I rather ask for characters fitting the adventure, so I wouldn’t have problems keeping the players on track.

The reason why I try to figure out the players’ or their characters’ tastes is to tailor the adventure to them. Even with the regular players around the table, the dynamics of the team and the motivations of the characters vary. Just a few factors that can make any great idea fall off a cliff:

  • Alignment: you wouldn’t really want to ask the mostly chaotic party to enforce the laws of the local lord, would you?
  • Religion: some players just don’t like religion involved, some would go on a holy quest. You can determine it with a simple adventure hook from the local priest.
  • Class: it’s great that you have everything lined up for the local noble’s quest, too bad the bard decided to lay his daughter last night…

The list goes on, but these are the most common factors in the party I think. It’s worth to have some adventure hooks prepared, but depending on your players and their motivations you can go for a complete sandbox if they are proactive enough, or if you are running a megadungeon then you should just toss them a few quests and let them loose. It’s all about keeping the players motivated, whether it is loot, story, uncovering secrets or having their own tavern. If you find the thing that keeps them going, you can build a whole adventure or even campaign around it and your players will be more than happy to play along with your plans. I think many DMs neglect this, and just focus on telling their own story, making the players feel it’s more about the DM than them.

I usually try and focus on my players and their characters, so everybody could have a great time, all characters can have their time to shine and be the hero of the day. And it’s true for darker settings, it’s worth to let the paranoid character play out his affliction and just wave a torch at every shadow, because “something moved there”. It all adds up to the flavor and atmosphere of the game. And it should be the players who add this with their own words and their actions, not just the DM narrating everything they do. This helps everyone feel more being part of the story, and not just being a pawn on someone’s chessboard.

Children of Moradin – I. Winged kobolds!

My dwarf campaign finally got on its way, and what a great start it was! My players did their best to get into their characters, we managed to finish what I prepared for my players by the end of the session, what else can a DM ask for?

Here are the heroes of the campaign:

  • Thorgar Redhammer, Cleric of Moradin’s Fire
  • Tormodan Horren, Paladin of the Legion of Ancestors
  • Bärin’Dour Irongrip, Apprentice Wizard of Groimdäll Icebeard
  • Borin from the Clan of Clanging Cannons, Master Engineer
  • Dimwar, Barbarian who is yet to get a name for himself

The story started in the small town of Millerstone, where a small group of dwarves lived after having to abandon their old home, the kingdom of Silver Vein a good fifty years ago. A comet crossed the sky about two months ago and many thought it was a sign to find a new home in the heart of a mountain again. The dwarves called the meteor Moradin’s Spark.

Bundragur, a veteran warrior and leader of the dwarves of Millerstone sent for the young dwarves and asked them to meet the Rockmawer brothers who went out a month ago in search of a legend. They should have come back or at least sent a message by now, and the old dwarf was getting worried about them. As Thorgar and Tormodan just came back from a pilgrimage, they weren’t really enhusiastic at first, but a few tankards of dwarven ale quickly raised their spirits. Borin received a gift from his father, a gunpowder horn, gauded with silver, bearing his name in runes. Bärin also got a little gift from his master, Groimdäll Icebeard, a wand of magic missiles with a few charges left in it.

The group set out the day after, but Thorgar was adamant on celebrating the morning prayer for Moradin at the shrine. His booming voice echoed throughout the town as he praised the Allfather, blessing the dwarves in his name.  Then the company took off towards the town a Phandalin, taking the road to the northwest. On the second day, late in the afternoon they found a cart with two humans shot in the back and the mule also had arrows sticking out from its neck. Thorgar recognised immediately that the arrows were of kobold work, while Dimwar found a cape tossed aside on a hill, near the forest, bearing a dwarven brooch. Upon further tracking the party found tracks leading into the woods and after a few hours of tracking they found a cave enterance. Just as they were about to enter, a chunk of honey-comb fell in front of Tormodan’s feet from above and soon a bear charged from the trees. It wounded the paladin, but Borin felled the beast with a single shot of his boomstick.

Finally they entered the caverns and found some really neasty surprises inside, the crafty little beasts were prepared for the intruders very much. Dimwar “found” a pit trap first and twisted his ankle in the process, but from that point forward, the careful dwarves managed to disarm or avoid all further inconveniences, except for the moment when the kobolds threw two boxes of giant centipedes in front of them. Tormodan couldn’t stand insects in any way, so even after emerging victorius, he kept whacking at the carapaces. In a large hall they were bombarded with rocks by the inhabitants, a lucky shot almost crushed Thorgar’s skull, and after Borin shot down a winged kobold they fled towards a tunnel to the west. Bärin and his friends didn’t fall for the trick and didn’t pursue, but rather took the other tunnel to the east and what a good call it was! They not only managed to avoid fighting a pair of giant spiders, Khyz and Nax, but also found the youngest of the Rockmawer brothers, Nudrek.

After the party managed to get out of the tunnels they wisely decided to collapse the enterance with the help of Dimwar’s dinamites. The young barbarian watched the destruction with tears of joy in his eyes. Nudrek (or Noodle, as Borin called him from their childhood) told them, that they indeed found some clues to the enterance of the legendary Wave Echo Cave, and he was sent as an envoy by his brothers to ask for the help of some of his sturdy brethren. Borin assured him that they will do what they can to help him and his brothers and they pressed on to the troubled town of Phandalin…

The DM’s note: I took the time in the beginning to build the mood for the campaign, and just wrote a short, introductory adventure for the first session, linking it with the Starter Set’s adventure, the Lost Mine of Phandelver. I won’t be telling the exact same story, but Wave Echo Cave and Phandalin are solid foundations at least for the next few occasions, probably even more. I leave it up to my players where they take the campaign. I am not pushing the story towards combat or dungeon after dungeon, if the guys feel comfortable just playing their characters and offer many great opportunities to move things forward only by roleplaying, so be it, I’m trying to be prepared either way.

A thing I learned over the years is that you shouldn’t be disappointed if the players aren’t going in the direction you want them to, or if they don’t explore evereything you designed for them. In this session they purposely went the other direction, didn’t let the winged kobolds lure them to the spiders and hence they missed the only loot opportunity of the game, but they stayed alive. On level one, the loss of even 3-4 hit points can be a great deal to a character. They were already a bit winded from the traps and the bombardment they took from the nifty little kobolds, so they tried to avoid further complications and they made a good call!

Also, a final note: you could see that there were only two “real” battles during the session, against the bear and the centipedes. The bombardment was rather a cutscene than a real encounter, after one of their kin died the kobolds retreated, trying to leave the dirty work to the spiders. I tried to emphasize the craftiness of the kobolds, I wanted them to annoy the dwarves, who intruded into their domain, and I succeeded in doing so. Fortunately the players didn’t mind at all, and played along, grumbling at the cowardness and tactics of their foes.

A campaign, which actually lasts

So I have been playing a Star Wars Saga Edition Campaign for more than a year now, we are just past our 14th gaming session, which is the most a campaign has got to live in the past five years. So far I would say this is a successful campaign, despite some shortcomings and concerns.

The whole idea of starting a new Star Wars campaign began as my friend met some guys while playing Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO who seemed cool and were interested in trying Saga Edition. They have all played pen and paper RPGs before, but not this one. My friend also invited me to join, and I was glad I could finally participate in a game as a player. I only knew my friend as we sat down for the first session and haven’t stopped since, and most of us became good friends by now.

The campaign had its ups and downs in the past fourteen sessions, but the team has great dynamics, which helps us past the the bumps during the campaign. All five of the players have different playing styles and personalities which balances the party out, and thus we manage not to stray too far from the main plot. Two players (including myself) have a bit stronger personalities and so taking the initiative in most social situations. The two characters we play are a bit opposite in alignment (my lawful versus his chaotic), so it provides a good moral balance altogether, since two other players play soldiers who do what they are told and give advice if asked. The fifth player is a bit more introvert and usually just sits back and goes with the flow, rarely influencing things. Despite all the differences in habits, gaming style, our GM provides equal opportunities for all characters to shine, so nobody feels out of the game, there are no tag-alongs in the party. I think this is one of the most important things: to keep everyone engaged and have their moments.

As most RPG groups we tend to joke around and initiate off-topic conversations during the sessions, however, it has gotten a bit out of hand lately, it started to distract us from the actual game. We have invented a house rule because of this, whoever goes off-topic, pays. Since this little new law we started playing again, and the campaign started to move forward faster.

Last session we had some difficulties recalling details of our last session, and it made a big in-game argument between characters hard, since none of us remembered what exactly happened last time. This is the curse of playing only once a month, and now I see that someone ought to have kept notes or written a campaign blog with all the important stuff. It’s too late now to do retroactively, but I will surely be making notes from now on…

So to summarize, good chemistry and engaged players are the things that make a campaign last longer. Even with a mediocre story(telling) the players can have a good time, roleplay and stay enthusiastic about the next gaming session. Also, characters with plans and purpose helps…

Coming up next: A few weeks ago I had to come up with a short adventure in a very short time, and I found out that brainstorming can be a tremendous help and source for inspiration, I’m going to reflect on this topic a bit.


Handouts, handouts…

Last time I mentioned some other handouts besides the “big one”, which were fleshing out some other aspects of my campaign, those that are worthy of a longer introduction. Their length varied a bit, but I tried to keep them sweet and short, in the end they were between one and four pages. Every handout contained some flavor text to get the players more engaged, I believe if they only see system mechanics in those PDFs then it’s not fun at all.

In “The Children of Stone” I wrote about dwarves only, their beliefs, their place in the campaign, the situation of the particular group the players belong to. This was the longest of these smaller handouts, since I wrote one and a half page of a story as flavor text. I also introduced the seventh ability all characters have, Honor. This will work as all the other abilities, the players will roll checks, adding their Honor bonus to the roll. This score starts at 10, and can increase or decrease over the course of the campaign, depending on how “dwarfish” the PCs act. And by this I don’t mean the getting drunk and head-butting the crap out of everyone type of dwarfish. Honor will be about respecting the clan, living and acting according to Moradin’s traditions, etc.

I wrote a 1-pager about the campaign’s starting town, Millerstone. I don’t intend to spend too much time in this little town, however I thought it would be worth describing where the characters were raised and where they spent their past few decades. I just gave an overview of the town’s atmosphere and main profile and also described a few buildings that are worth mentioning.

One of my players decided to go with a paladin, but he didn’t really find a path he liked at 3rd level, so I created a new oath for him, the Oath of the Ancestors. It’s based mostly on the Oath of the Ancients, but I tailored it to dwarves instead of the fey. It resulted in a pretty awesome oath in the end, I will translate it to English and upload it sometime in the future.

Altogether I managed to write up a whopping fifteen pages of material for my players, and it was nice to see that some events and names came back in their character background stories. I also added quite a few pictures to my handouts for more visual stimulation. I already downloaded 50+ pictures on my hard drive which I intend to use somewhere through the campaign, even if I don’t know the exact purpose yet. I just saved all images which I liked and thought that I could use it later. You can never have enough pictures for your campaign!

Another thing I was keen on as I wrote my handouts was clarity, both in phrasing and also in layout. I like to use more paragraphs, divide my text a little bit more, so I wouldn’t confuse my players and also provide a nice, clean layout which is easy and enjoyable to read. Also I think it’s worth giving a name to the handout like a chapter of a book. As a player, I would love to have a handout called “The History of the Damned Legion” rather than “Handout 01”. I like to think of my handouts as small chapters of a bigger book or encyclopedia, not just as separate few pages about some stuff.

Coming up next: Probably a “Lessons learned” type of post about the Star Wars Saga Edition Campaign I am currently playing in, since it has been going on for more than a year now and it has been a while since I played in a campaign which survived so long. So there are some things I would definitely highlight how campaign can live more than five gaming sessions.

The setting: Draekath

Yes, the name suggests dragons (or drakes), and it was fully intended on my side, since the kingdom was founded on an empire where dragons ruled and battled each other. One day, the humans, dwarves and elves  rose against the tyranny of their lieges and defeated the dragon lords one by one, either killing or banishing them from the surface of the continent. So the kingdom of Draekath was founded, the humans crowned their first king, and the other two races retreated to their own kingdoms. Since then a thousand years have passed, alliances have been forged and broken, disasters and wars struck all races and now the campaign is about to begin…

This is the basic concept of my campaign setting, which didn’t take much time to think about, but cost much more effort to build up and flesh out. I began with writing down a few paragraphs of flavor text, with only a few facts, like the name of the king and his elite royal guard (all members being dragonborn).

Then I sat back and tried to think about a brief history line until the starting point of the campaign, and I ended up with more than a full page of events. The timeline included various moments from the history of Draekath, some concerning all the races, but mostly concentrated on the dwarves (I’d say 60-40 for the stocky fellows). I also left some open questions, which can be a nice adventure hook for the campaign later (like the dwarves defeating a dracolich, but never finding its phylactery).

Next came the geography of the continent which was the most brain draining task for me by far. So far I mostly designed my setting from the bottom up, expanding the region the players knew as it was needed, saving a lot of work and also leaving me free to introduce new and exotic places as I wished. This time I decided to lay down the foundations in advance, still having some space for coming up with new areas if I think I would need anything else for the game (or the players decide to go another direction). In naming the places of interest I tried to mix styles a bit, so the map wouldn’t contain only names like The Dark Forest, The Foggy Lake, etc. Of course, there will be one or two such, but I came up with some names which reflect the race of the inhabitants, like a dwarven kingdom called Dvergurfjall (“Dwarf” and  “Mountain” put together in Icelandic) or the forest Vyhlatellin (I was just trying to find an elvish sounding name, and in the common tongue it would translate as the Grove of Autumn). One of my players has studied cartography, and he offered to draw the map of Draekath for the campaign, which I will post as soon as it’s ready. Needless to say, an amazing addition for the game!

The next thing for this handout was to introduce the most notable personalities of Draekath, the NPCs everyone in the kingdom knows. Here I wrote a few sentences about the person itself, his role in the kingdom and sometimes a piece of gossip as well, which can be a great hook for the later stages of the campaign.

Finally I had to decide on the pantheon of my setting. I have given it a lot of thought, and I am going to use the gods from the 4th editon of Dungeons & Dragons, because I find it simple enough (not too many deities), and has enough flavor for my taste. As usual, Pelor is the most commonly worshipped in Draekath, but I am not expecting my campaign to focus greatly on faith. Well, except for Moradin, of course, since he plays an everyday role in the lives of the dwarves.

So, these five main chapters make my “big handout” for the players, helping them to get hooked on the campaign and hopefully inspire them to write some really good background stories for their characters.

Coming up next: There are some other handouts I have created, which I’m going to talk about in a short post, and also just write a bit about how I compose my handouts.



Inspirations for my dwaf-only campaign

My main inspiration to create a dwarf-only campaign for my players was the “The Dwarves” Saga from Markus Heitz. The guys were really glad to hear that I was thinking about running such a campaign, since dwarves are the most beloved race among us by far.

There is nothing new under the sun regarding originality, I shamelessly stole a lot of things from here and there, which I felt suited my campaign and help estabilish a great atmosphere. So just a few sources I had inspiration from:

  • Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: mainly the visuals of Moria and Erebor from the films, plus the basic concept of the homeless dwarves from The Hobbit
  • World of Warcraft: dwarves with guns, how cool are they?
  • Markus Heitz – The Dwarves Saga: the clans, the strong sense of honor and clan duty, the classic rough and tough image of the dwarves
  • The Campaign Bible from Chris Perkins for his Valoreign Campaign: I found its structure and style perfect to create my handouts for the players, also a great checklist for me as a DM
  • My players: finally I found a group of players who inspire me in many ways! They are interested in the campaign immensely, ask questions, pamper me with quality, well-written character stories. They induced a lot of ideas for the campaign, a great example is the presence of technology. At first I had no intention of using firearms, gunpowder, steam, etc. in the campaign, but they convinced me to give it a go, and now I wouldn’t imagine the setting otherwise.
  • Lost Mine of Phandelver: Wave Echo Cave sounded like the perfect new home for my players’ dwarves and their people, it has everything that makes their new kingdom unique. There is a trademark feature (the echo of the water hitting the stone), and also a magic item (The Forge of Spells) which can be an amazing source of quests/conflicts later.

I also go and save every image, photo I find remotely relevant to my ideas or dwarves, so I will have a very wide range of visual inspiration as I go on in designing encounters, new places, etc.

For me, music plays a major part as I sit down in front of my laptop to write, it helps me focus more and shut my environment (street noises, wife, dog) out.

Coming up next: I will introduce my campaign setting, the continent-kingdom of Draekath, sharing some issues I had during its design, and some thoughts on my style of campaign building.