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.

From the DM’s bag of tricks: brainstorming

A couple of weeks back I agreed to DM an ad-hoc session of D&D, since we all had the time to game on a Wednesday and had no campaigns going on with this particular set of players. I had about three days to come up with a decent adventure for my players and I didn’t want to just do a cliché “go there, find that” type of quest. Well, or at least I wanted to give it a little twist.

In these cases I like to talk to my brother, who doesn’t play too much, but he reads a lot, just like me, and has many great ideas if I throw an idea or plot at him. So usually we just go back and forth, throwing ideas at eachother, until I finally manage to come up with the spine of the adventure which I like.

The story itself was nothing extraordinary: there was a city in ruins, just after a war, most of the buildings burnt, razed to the ground. There, a dwarf archeologist found something interesting, some old and cryptic text carved into the wall of a nearby cave. Pretty usual so far. From here came the result of the brainstorming, we figured out the previous residents of these caves, came up with a cool focus point of the caverns, a huge obelisk, bearing an ancient prophecy. Designing this mini-dungeon wasn’t easy, since I had only two players, so bigger combat scenes were out of question, but I still wanted to give the place an implied lethalty. Here, my brother had a great idea: to introduce a deceptive “lackey”, who had only one goal: feed the players to the monster lurking in the shadows. So if the players let themselves get fooled, well, the roper had a nice dinner…

It’s great to have someone reading a bit different kind of books, since a lot of ideas can be borrowed, for example from sci-fi. My brother is a huge fan of that genre and the idea of the obelisk with the prophecy came from him, since he just read about a similar situation. Most ideas are very easy to taylor to fantasy, and if you’re the type who lets technology into their adventures even the less work!

So all I wanted to point out is that for me, the easiest way to improve my ideas or get some more inspiration and ideas is brainstorming, an hour of this is worth days of thinking for me. Of course, it shouldn’t be the players to do this with, even discussing it in forums is a great way to spice up an adventure or come up with something interesting really fast. After that, all what remains is to write it down…

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.