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Finding My Way – Mapping for RPGs

Finding My Way – Mapping for RPGs

Quite a while ago I had written a post about mapping when I was looking into setting up a Pathfinder campaign. In all honesty, I can’t for the life of me remember anything about the reasons for doing such a thing, although I do recall the time I spent learning techniques for hand-drawing maps. I remember this because I was pleasantly surprised with some of my results, although the actual maps I’d made have since been lost the mists of time.

Maps are an ancient and revered tradition in the RPG-sphere because the only reason why not all who wander are lost is because they stopped at the service station and picked up a map. Since the release of the MMO-esque D&D 4E, maps have been getting short shrift as tools of the Devil, dragging what should be a game about imagination into the realm of tactical miniatures (an argument which seems to ignore the fact that D&D was created by a tactical wargamer). Maps have been around since the very beginning of tabletop RPGs and have been used to push counters around as well as serving as useful reference tools for players to understand the lay of the land. While neckbeards around the world are chiding lesser beings for the inability to visualize everything about the elven kingdom down to the embroidery on their undergarments, visual aids not only help with immersion but allow GMs to go that extra mile, because art ain’t cheap and players love the details.

I’ve been on the lookout for easier ways to make maps for some time. As my earlier post stated I’d tried some of the really expensive tools like Campaign Cartographer, and have used freebies like the excellent tools on offer at Pyromancers.com (which I learned this weekend is offering a stand-alone mapping tool on Steam, which works great). Tools like CC bring a lot to the table by providing you with in-app ways to create content if you don’t have access to it, while tools like Pyro’s Dungeon Painter Studio rely on custom artwork to be imported from some other source.

The issue, then, is finding something specific that fits your needs. Yes, we can hand-draw a map, which is great for those who are fortunate enough to play locally, although we can scan it for download for those of us who have to play remotely, and while I’m sure those efforts can be just as appreciated as a frame-worthy map rendered by a top-notch cartographer being able to build a map using software has some advantages, like being able to maintain a sense of scale, and being able to speed up development through features such as layers.

This weekend I spent a good amount of time working with Dungeon Painter Studio trying to put something together for the mini-adventure I’ve been working on for Call of Cthulhu. It takes place inside a museum, which means that I need visual elements for things you’d find in a museum around the turn of the century. I figured there’d be a certain level of opulence in the public areas that was intended to invoke mysterious far away lands in an era before world travel was common: marble floors, Roman columns, tapestries, curving staircases, tropical plants, and so on. The exhibits themselves would also need to be represented, so I needed art for display cases, statues, and “ancient things” like sarcophagi. While I was able to create the perimeter of the museum’s first floor without issue, filling the space inside was decidedly more impossible, since like many mapping applications DPS leaned heavily towards high-fantasy assets like traps, mystical crystals, and castle flooring.

I ended up making a few simple floor tiles in Photoshop which worked OK, but absolutely failed when I tried to create anything more complex. I tried making a red wing-backed chair that resembled no chair anyone would consider sitting in (although for a CoC adventure, that might be a good thing to use). I also tried making a simple top-down view of a banner on a display post but failed in that as well. My only other option was to download a 5.5GB community collection of publicly available assets that were collected from free sources on various cartographic forums across the Internet. Although the organization required for DPS was lacking, there were more than enough assets in that archive to provide everything I think I need to create this map.

Sadly, it took me more time to get a fraction of the assets organized for use in DPS than I had available to re-work my initial attempt at making the map, so I don’t have anything to show you right now, and even if I did I don’t know that I would because it could end up spoiling the mystery of the adventure.

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RPG 101 – Organizing Your Stuff: A Questionnaire

Posted by on Mar 2, 2017 in Tabletop and Board

vigora kaufen UPDATE:

Well, the search is already over, I’m afraid. I thought I’d stop back here and provide an update in case anyone finds this post later on and has a burning desire to know what was decided, or even if someone wants to give an alternate suggestion.

I had totally forgotten that I owned a copy of Scrivner. Scrivner is an application primarily aimed at writers of novels and short stories, scripts, and other organized documents. It has a fantastic organizational approach, allows for linking between documents, and even embed media.

One thing I had to check on before I got 100% excited was whether or not the iOS version could sync with the desktop version, and the answer is that yes it can if the data files are stored somewhere like DropBox.

For those who are looking for their own powerful organizer for their RPG content, or really want to start working on that Great American Novel (or Great Wherever You Live Novel), check out Scriver for Windows, MacOS, or iOS.

—- ORIGINAL POST BELOW THIS LINE —-

As our D&D game is winding down, I plan on taking a bit of sabbatical to consider options. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG, so I might lean in that direction, or I might sit everything out for quite a while. We’ve been on the D&D track for several years now starting with 4E and then segueing into 5E and to be frank, I’m pretty burned out on the sword and sorcery angle. If I were to run another game, I’d want to move onto a different system. I’ve been working on a small one-shot module for Call of Cthulhu, but have also been considering an idea for a campaign setting for Numenera.

Organizing a homebrew used to be easy. One pen. One notebook. But since my groups aren’t local, and my locals aren’t interested, I turn to the Internet with its wealth of online tools. I’m never one to use a shovel when a transdimensional AI-enabled cranial backhoe will do, so I am always on the lookout for tools to help organize my thoughts.

The problem, though, is that nothing feels like a good fit, which is why I turn to you, dear reader, and your friends, dear friends of dear reader, for ideas.

comprar cafergot sin receta What tools do you know of to help organize a world-building exercise for RPGs?

I do have a few requirements for what I’m looking for, although none of these are non-negotiable:

  1. My goal is to have something as full-featured as possible. This means text and visuals under one roof without having to store images with a hosting service and linked to the rest of the content.
  2. Ideally, it will be online. Offline is OK, especially if I can store data files in Dropbox or OneDrive or something.
  3. Ideally, it will be for PC, although if it’s online, something that works well on a tablet browser is also welcome.
  4. I’m really just looking for something that I will use; I don’t need the ability for players to use it since it’s intended to serve as a reference for future campaign designs.
  5. Free is good. Cheap is also good. Expensive one time fees will get a consideration. Subscription is less good, but if it’s the end of the road and that’s the only meal to be had, so be it.

And also to save some folks the trouble:

  1. I know all about pen and paper notebooks. For me, in 2017, they no longer cut it.
  2. I know all about eNotebooks like Evernote and OneNote. I use them frequently, but they are too unstructured for creating a reference manual. Office Online and Google Docs are also known, and also are lacking.
  3. I know about Obsidian Portal, but see item #5 above. I also have RealmWorks from Lone Wolf, but ye gawds it insults my eyes. I also have (and love) Fantasy Grounds, which works, but is rather un-portable.

If you have experience with eTools for organizing your campaigns and general world-building, please let me know. I’m so desperate I’ve started writing something myself, but that takes longer than I’d like to spend building tools to build tools. Also, if you could please share this with folks that you know in RPG communities, I’ll grant you Inspiration, an extra 1d8, or some other boon on your next attempt at success.

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Posted by on Mar 1, 2017 in Adventure Co., Tabletop and Board

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The plan (as I recall it), was to free the prisoners that were being held in the Well of Dragons, and to use them as a distraction while the party did what it was that they came to do.

What happened was that the party found a bunch of prisoners, but had no key to unlock the cages. There were anywhere between 150 to 200 prisoners left in the pens spread out across at least three rooms, so a quick assessment was needed. While the party tossed one room looking for a key, the barbarian wandered down the hall to another, more populated room and found a gnome cultist busy trying to to unlock one of the cage doors…with thieve’s tools.

Turns out that the spy that the Zhentarim had deployed to the Well was the party’s good friend Jamna, who left the scene after the party crashed the flying castle. She mentioned that she was working for the Zhentarim all along, and since their goals and the goals of the party worked so well together, she was ordered to tag along and gather intel on the Dragon Cult. Once they had enough info and an opportunity, the Zhentarim pulled her from the group and sent her undercover into the Well of Dragons. It was her information that allowed the party to know about the unused southern entrance.

With a way to free the prisoners, the party was under pressure to open the cages. Soon after, a patrol wandered down the hall. They stopped to make conversation with the warlock before continuing on.

This was when the party had to figure out what to do about the prisoners. One option was to lead the prisoners to the entrance of the Well that the party had used and leave them to their own devices. Another was to leave them in the cell rooms where at least they should be safe until the party could complete their mission. A third option (favored by Jamna and the warlock) was to misdirect the prisoners deeper into the volcanic complex to stir up confusion among the cultists. Finally, someone suggested that the party take the prisoners with them.

In the middle of the conversation, however, the guard patrol re-emerged at the rear of a column of about 50 prisoners. The earlier interaction with these guards informed the party that prisoners were being taken to the Black Chapel where they were being sacrificed to lend power to the ritual. Rather than allow this group through, the party silently redirected the oncoming stream of prisoners into the cell rooms they had just liberated.

About half way through, the guards at the back noticed that the column wasn’t progressing towards the intended destination, and two guards pushed through the remaining crowd to investigate. They were promptly cleaved in two by the barbarian. While this solved 1/2 the party’s issue regarding the guards, the remaining prisoners were now trapped between the other two guards and a gore-covered barbarian and his party, so their problems were just par for the course at this point.

These remaining prisoners were ushered into the cell rooms. Upon seeing the hallway empty, two dead compatriots, and a party of what looked like traitorous cultists, one of the guards turned and fled immediately. As the rest of the party set upon the remaining guard drake, the warlock chased the running cultist into what was apparently a guard drake stable. He managed to take out one drake and fell back to the hallway intersection where he met with the rest of the party to make short work of the remaining enemies.

With the coast having been cleared, the party really needed to come up with a plan of attack. They sneaked within range of the Black Chapel, finding that there were eleven cultists on three levels of the structure — two of which required their occupants to be floating 50 and 100 feet above the ground — performing a gate summoning ritual. Once again, the prisoners came up as a potential disruptive technique, but the idea was deflated when it was realized that “slaughter the prisoners to fuel the ritual” was actually why the prisoners were there in the first place. Due to the way that the chapel was built, however, it was decided that the party might be able to take out the ritualists in each silo — both at ground level and levitating one level up — one alcove at a time.

+   +   +

It had been about a month since we’d last convened, due to several real life issues. We opted to have an Emergency Session Tuesday in order to catch up.

Seeing as this is the “end game”, there’s not a lot I can speak to without potentially giving away info that would greatly affect the course of action should one of the players read this post. Suffice to say that I remember being concerned that the party was focused on the wrong goals and would spend a lot of time exploring the Well of Dragons, but they seem to have come around to face the point from which the urgency stems. I tried throwing some “deus ex machina” in there by way of the guard patrol (“based on how often they want prisoners, and how many we have, I guess the ritual has maybe about 2 hours left before the glorious return of our Queen”) and also the reintroduction of Jamna the rogue.

I wanted to bring Jamna back because of no good reason, I suppose. Technically, she fit the bill: the Zhentarim DID give the party insider info, and Jamna IS a member of their outfit, and she HAD run with the party for quite some time, so it was a tropey addition. Plus, GM run NPC companions can serve as a Greek chorus, assuming the players ask the right questions, but will never volunteer critical information on their own. And, you know…she’s more firepower in the event that the party needs it.

The plan is to assault the Temple of Tiamat. I’m glad the group got a plan sketched out before the next session; it could be over fairly quickly if the party is efficient and smart about it, or it could turn into a protracted bloodbath. We’ll see!

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Numenera and the Concept of the Weird World

Posted by on Feb 21, 2017 in Numenera, Tabletop and Board

My two favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy, which is boilerplate for nerds around the world, but I had no idea how to open this post beyond stating the obvious. The main reason why I like these genres is because they both allow stories to exceed the possible — sci-fi goes beyond technologies that we live with now, and fantasy…well, fantasy has license to simply blow the doors off of reality. Novels, movies, and video games are all about escapism, and give us stories set in worlds where problems can be solved with a plasma cannon or with a carefully selected magical spell, unlike the real world where a lot of the issues that concern us are way outside of our reach or exceed our available resources to deal with.

Most fantasy, though, seems to have limits. “high fantasy” is a super-popular sub-genre which practically defines the sweep of its parent, thanks to the enduring nature of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other folks who use letters as whole names, and folks like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss whose names are short enough to spell out in their entirety. I shouldn’t have to elucidate the meaning of “high fantasy” for you, dear nerd, but in the event someone happens along who has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, consider this: elves who live in trees, dwarves with Scottish accents who live under mountains, humans who bumble through the world and reproduce at astonishing rates, maybe a live dragon or memories of dragons long since dead, orcs, trolls, giant spiders, and of course, magic both good and evil. Despite the presence of magic as magic (unlike “the Force as midichlorians”), high fantasy worlds seem to have a hard stop to their possibilities. The genre offerings always seem to have lines that they won’t cross, because even when you’re talking about pointy-eared humanoids who live hundreds of years and in the woods, there are some ideas which are apparently too wacky to approach.

Thing is, I LIKE the wacky approach a lot more than fantasy with artificial bounds. Sci-fi will always need to be rooted in the idea that “we’ll get there, someday”, which is why I love shows like Battlestar Galactica (the newer) and The Expanse (and the book form). Over the years, I’ve come to want more from my fantasy than what Tolkien’s legacy has left us with, and I’ve been able to find such things in works of Clive Barker (Imagica, et al), Felix Gilman (Thunderer, et al), and China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, et al).

What ties these offerings together isn’t their lack of elves and dwarves, but their world building. High fantasy popularized the practice of deep world building, and to this day you’d be hard pressed to find a D&D DM who DIDN’T get into the business because of his or her love of creating a whole world from scratch. RPGs, in particular, give people opportunities to create worlds to their liking, and a lot of game-runners tackle this step with gusto because it sets up the parameters of what is and is not possible for players and NPCs to accomplish. But world building is hard, especially if one has grown up only on a diet of high fantasy with its contrived limitations and an understanding that if the Evil Necromancer can raise an army of the undead, then by golly the players should be able to do that too! And if the players can wield the Sword of Interdimensional Collapse, then by golly…the Ultimate Evil should be able to do that too…for better or worse. I call this the “Deck of Many Things Conundrum”: give your players leeway to come up with creative solutions, but don’t destabilize the game world because if the players can do it, then the NPCs should be able to do it as well*.

When the world becomes a character, things get interesting. Case in point: Numenera, a setting that uses Monte Cook’s Cypher System for role playing games. The world of Numenera pulls absolutely no punches; several billion years in Earth’s future, humanity has survived several “ages”. Each new age is built upon the ruins of past ages which means that players in the current age are constantly finding bits of ancient artifacts — numenera — that are unexplainable and range from the stupidly mundane to the terrifyingly game-altering. Whereas high fantasy discourages the idea that the players should find themselves in control of something that could cause the fabric of reality to turn itself inside out, Numenera considers that kind of opportunity “a day that ends in ‘y'”.

As you can imagine, this opens up opportunities for game runners to throw down absolutely anything he or she wants to in an effort to reward or bait the players for making good decisions or to try and push them to make really, really bad ones. Magic works as either a mystical force OR as science. Space ships are either technologically invented OR are unexplained steampunk contraptions. A creature is either organic OR mechanical…or both…or neither if you can figure out a way to present that. When there is no explained limit to what can be done, or in the case of Numenera, explicit instructions that THERE IS NO LIMIT, things get weird…and difficult.

I tried setting up a Numenera play by post game once, and quickly found myself confounded by the options in the face of established examples of what Numenera is capable of. My scenario involved nothing more than a hand-wavey reason to put the players up against a criminal syndicate, which in retrospect seems lame, and a waste of the expanse of what Numenera provides. In fact, I was recently playing the soon-to-be-released Numenera: Tides of Torment on the PC when I realized that I am simply not equipped to do the Numenera world justice.

Case in point: This screenshot.

Click for the horrifying description

If you’ve ever read anything by Clive Barker or China Mieville, then the LEVEL of this kind of weirdness is par for the course. To me, it both makes my skin crawl and gives me gooseflesh because of the sheer level of malevolence and creativity involved in pushing well past the barriers of the kind of thing high fantasy would employ to tackle such a scenario. This is some other-world level stuff right here: one part mystical, one part horror, and one big part psychological. It takes the conceit of the world and employs it in ways that are projecting at an angle that can’t be measured by traditional geometry, and it hurts my head. I am in awe of the creativity in this one panel simply because I know such a system would never have occurred to me. I don’t know if I’m too practiced in the ways of high fantasy, too old to get my mind kick-started to think this far outside the box, or if I’m just nowhere near as creative as I’d always assumed I was. I suspect it’s at least a little from each column, and that makes me sad.

The Cypher System is one of a new breed of “anti-D&D” systems that have been cropping up over the past few years, where the rules call for fewer numbers, less dice, and more free-form roleplaying. For many, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around, but I continue to really want to try. Problem is, I don’t know that I could ever do the system justice, certainly not on the level that Tides of Torment is offering. That is what makes me sad: it’s a great system with actual, limitless potential, and here’s me…wasting it.

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Poor Impulse Control

Posted by on Jan 6, 2017 in Adventure Co., Tabletop and Board

Poor Impulse Control

When we last looked in on our heroes, they were on one side of a door through which they could hear the muted sounds of conversation. Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?

We shall because that’s the point of this post. 

The hunter was concerned that the door might squeak when opened, but it was well made enough that it swung open without a sound. On the other side was a large cavern, half filled with water, half filled with stolen treasure, and half filled with a dragon. The other half was filled with the dragon rider who was apparently trying to hide behind a transparent rock on the off chance that someone opened the non-squeaky door on the other side of the room. 

True to her maiden name, Tinda “Jenkins” Spellsinger barreled past the ranger and barbarian and burst into the room, finger-guns blazing. Unfortunately her aim was off and her double Eldrich Blasts only scored the cavern ceiling. Smelling the shit on the fan, the barbarian rushed in and closed the gap between the party and the dragon rider who was really positive that he had been hidden from view, guys! despite the fact that he was so obviously not. Never one to be left behind, the warlock stepped into the cavern and took up a safe but observable position right in the cone of poison breath that the dragon unleashed after patiently awaiting his turn. The warlock was instantly gasping for breath and, finding none, expired like a two-month-old carton of milk, while the bard developed a really nasty case of asthma which guaranteed that she’d not be running any marathons any time soon. 

Using his Shit Is Gettin’ Real senses, the ranger asked the monk to hold his beer as he stepped into the cavern. The faint strains of Wild West gunslinger showdown music could be heard from elsewhere in the cavern, despite the fact that the party had killed or freed everyone else in the complex. Maybe it was someone’s alarm clock. Regardless, the timing couldn’t have been better: the ranger unleashed a punishing barrage of physical and magical whupass upon the wounded dragon, felling the beast in a world record breaking six seconds. As the smoke wafted from his bow, the ranger tugged down the brim of the Stetson he mysteriously acquired and leaned up against the wall, arms crossed, while the rest of the party reverted to clean-up.

Seeing his dragon companion fall so quickly, the rider whipped out his own dual Eldrich Blasts at the barbarian, hitting him squarely, before attempting to disengage by diving into the nearby pool. The monk, not wanting to the low-scoring member of the party this round, energized himself and bolted across the cavern to chase the escaping cultist into the murky water. Unsurprisingly, the barbarian decided that swimming was fun, and also jumped in, although being one of the least perceptive members of the crew, he got lost easily as the monk kept close on the heels of the dragon rider. Through a secret tunnel they swam, eventually emerging into the cavern where the initial encounter had taken place. It was there that the monk cornered a severely wounded cultist when the barbarian finally found his way out of the pool. Still under the effects of Rage, the barbarian wasted no time (or words, or, you know, thought) in smashing the cultist’s head into the ground…and when I say “smashing” I mean literally smashing, like with a maul, and, like, with flying brains and stuff. 

After an awkward moment standing around the corpse with the January Jack-O-Lantern head for a while, the party opted to take what little they could carry from the dragon’s treasure hoard, adding it to their Chest of Undisclosed Treasure From A Previous Session, and eight bottles of some Seriously Kick Ass Booze that they had found previously, and made their way out of the Misty Forest and back to Waterdeep. 

 

Their arrival at the city was fortuitous, as it seemed that the cult situation had escalated in their absence. The city was on lockdown, and the normal citizen hustle was reduced by several magnitudes of bustle. The party was quickly ushered up to the council chambers where they relayed the news of their encounter with the dragon and its rider to Delaan and Algarthas. At the mention of the rider’s name, however, Algarthas grew pale and quickly left the room. Delaan informed the party that the rider they had encountered — Neronvain — was Algarthas’s half-brother, and the estranged son of the council’s King Melandrach. 

Lady Silverhand was quick to bring the party up to speed on what had transpired. The draakhorn had been sounding almost continuously for the past few days, and streams of chromatic dragons could be seen heading to the Well of Dragons from every corner of the region. To make matters worse, scouts from all over report that cult forces had broken off their raids and were returning to the Well with haste. The council has no choice but to consider the cult’s plans to be entering their final phase, which meant that the council was out of time: they had to begin deploying their forces to meet the threat of the Dragon Cult. 

She had one more task for the party: infiltrate the Well of Dragons and do whatever they could to disrupt the plans of the cult in any way possible to weaken their offensive and stop their ritual. The party had proven themselves capable time after time, having won over the various personalities that made up the Council of Waterdeep. They didn’t agree on much very often, but the council had come to the unanimous agreement that the Adventure Co. Brand Adventure Company was the Sword Coast’s best and only hope at stopping this threat (because of course they are…it’s their story). 

There was one loose end: informing Melandrach of the death of his wayward son Neronvain. The warlock, bard, and ranger tactfully explained the situation to an incredulous Elven king, offered their condolences, and watched as the trembling elder was lead from the room by his surviving son. 

+   +   +

It’s been a few weeks since we have been able to convene, due to holidays and various Mishaps of Real Life. Thankfully we weren’t in a really complex story because apparently I need to work on my note-taking skills. 

This was a notable session for a few reasons:

First, the fucking hunter one-shotted a dragon. A seriously wounded dragon, but still a core threat to the people of the Sword Coast. What surprised me was the fact that the ranger had apparently been holding out on this Skill Chain of Badassery. Obviously not something to use against rank and file minions, but the “firepower” had traditionally been concentrated in the hands of the multi-strike monk and the berserker barbarian, so who knew we had devastating artillery in the group?

Second, the dogged persistence of the monk in chasing down Neronvain. I see the reasoning behind it — this guy might have a dragon mask, so there’s no way they were going to let him get away — but there was always a chance. Neronvain ducked into a concealed tunnel while under water, but the monk was able to keep his eyes on him. Liberal use of Ki points to initiate Dash, coupled with several Attacks of Opportunity and a blistering string of critical rolls decimated the cultist as he tried to run. I admit that my hope was that Neronvain would escape because having him alive and bringing this news to Melandrach would have severely different consequences than what we’re dealing with now. Of course, Neronvain’s death, I think, was a surprise to everyone since it was handled as an in-character situation involving a raging barbarian who could only see killing his enemies as the way to end the encounter, regardless of how incapacitated his enemies were. 

Third, the score sheet. I’m not going to say much else about it right now, but I had thought the council affinity tracking would vary far more than it is. I am interested in completing this module mainly so I can write the whole post-mortem about it. 

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