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Use Your Words

Great session last night.

We're doing the Scepter Tower adventure right now, and I'm enjoying it quite a bit.  I think that it was the perfect module for me to have chosen, given my goals - it does all the prep for the fights encounters for me, cool terrain and balanced monsters, and leaves all the rp stuff pretty much in potentia.  There are lots of interesting NPCs briefly described but nothing to tell you exactly how to use them.  Which means that I can do what I like with them.

Last night the group headed on over to the dragonborn Vannak's camp, since they'd deduced that he was the one holding the elf girl who'd recently seen the Lady.  He wasn't adverse to a chat with the adventurers who'd cleaned out the ramparts, but seemed rather morose and low spirited.  I added in an NPC of my own, a busybody uncle who wanted Vannak to go home already and stop messing about with this ridiculous quest to talk to a ghost.  Some of their clan members had died on this stupid jaunt, and now they were dishonouring themselves with the kidnapping and (admittedly mild) torture of an innocent elf.  The party members didn't do very well through the skill challenge and didn't get much out of Vannak in terms of information.  Instead they ended up precipitating a quarrel between nephew and uncle. The uncle, having shamed Vannak in front of his men, further exerted his new power by handing the elf over to the party and the lot of them were more or less tossed out the camp.

The next day, it was all over Spellguard.  Vannak had fallen on his sword.  The remainder of his party was packing up to go home.

When I told the group this (I had an NPC come into Clewsoro's camp where they are staying and start gossiping about it) I could see on their faces that a) this was a surprise and b) they actually felt bad about it.  I think getting your PCs to actually give a crap about an NPC deserves some kind of DMing gold star.  It certainly felt good.  Not to mention that we spent the whole first half of the session roleplaying and even my most hardcore hack n slash player seemed to enjoy himself.   They had some bad rolls, but they were really smart about how they handled their situation, which is why I ended up letting them leave with the elf anyway. 

I came into the Vannak encounter with hardly any notes.  I had three or four ways that it could end, I knew all the NPC's motivations and goals, and I just kind of ran with it.   I think that's where my biggest strength as a DM lies, in off the cuff improvisation.  The risk that comes with that is the possibility that I might paint myself into a corner.  Having the possible outcomes in mind throughout helped with that quite a bit. 

You'll Be Stone Dead in a Minute

Well I killed my first player last session.  Ryan took it pretty well and was rolling up a Shaman to replace his Warden before the rest of us were even out of combat.  I still felt bad, which means I suppose that I don't make the cut as a DM.  I think what it really means is that neither Shawn nor I were building encounters correctly and that we as players are really sloppy about tactics.  I've been trimming the encounters to make up for the fact that there are only four characters instead of five, but they are still having a hard go of it.  The adventure gives lots of opportunity to use environment, they just aren't really taking advantage yet. 

My players decided, immediately upon arrival at the ruins of Spellguard, to forgo sleeping or eating or talking to anyone or acting like people who have just completed an arduous trek through the wilderness and just set off through the ruins on the rumor of kobolds.  One player who shall not be named, oh let's call him Bob, didn't listen to a word that I said all through my opening scene setting and only looked up from reading his power cards when he heard the word "kobolds."  And then he didn't even remember what they were called.  "Let's go - kill the things."

Sometimes it's hard being a DM.

The first step is acceptance

I should just quit attempting to do write ups for any campaigns that I play in or run, it never has enough steam to make it to the finish line.

BUT the online DRYH went pretty well, all in all.  We wandered quite a bit right at the start until I realized that this particular group needed more direction and encouragement than my previous one.  Once I manned up (metaphorically) and started to be more active in moving the story forward, things got more exciting.  I feel like all the characters got a satisfying end and a couple of moments to shine.  Once again, one of my players ended up dethroning the Wax King and then taking his place.  I have to wonder if it's something that I'm doing, or if his amibiguous backstory just lends itself to this kind of interpretation about his intrinsic nature.  In my version of the City, he's the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Meanwhile, back in meatspace, my Tues night group and I were kicking around various ideas about what to do while Shawn's DM battery recharges.  Originally I wanted to run some Spirit of the Century, and I still intend to do so at some future time, but what we settled out on was something very basic.  I'm going to run an H1 official D&D 4th ed Adventure Module and everyone will roll up new characters.   I wanted to do this for a few reasons.  I feel like my DMing in 4th ed is weak and I can't really figure out why.  Letting the module do all the heavy lifting might shed some light on this.  Also everyone is going to choose character classes and personalities that are contrary to their natural preferences. 

I'm hoping this might shake us loose from the rut we seem to be in.   Lately our gaming sessions have seemed sort of unexciting and almost drudging.  The last session of Shawn's campaign was entirely outside the norm of what we've done before - a well laid out dungeon crawl - and we all really savoured it.  Maybe in our desire to present complex and intellectually challenging stories, we've been neglecting the base tenents that D&D is built upon - killing monsters and taking their stuff.  More exciting battles, with terrain and traps and interesting monster tactics are definitely the focus of the module I chose, with very minimal overarching intrigue so that should be a refreshing change. I want to run it pretty fast and loose on the roleplaying side, too.  I'll be sticking to the flavour text and module descriptions of the various NPCs, resisting the impulse to tart it up with all kinds of political complexity. 

Sometimes you just want vanilla, you know?

The Crazy Doesn't Seem to be Catching

We started out with a bang, picking up with Arnold, laying in his bed, listening to the phantom ticking.  He finds a clockwork device in his showerhead, and then a series of other devices scattered all through his house, which he methodically gathers up and smashes to shit on his front walk with a hammer.  The last one is a larger thing up in his attic which spills out a tickertape-like paper reel with his every move neatly typed up and recorded.  While he's burning the reams of paper on his front walk, his neighbors by this time understandably somewhat pissed, he notices those damn kids again, skulking around the side of his house.  Hefting the hammer, he follows them out through the back alley, and finally manages a good look at one. 

The kid doesn't have a face. 

And down the alley a ways is what looks remarkably like an unmarked cop car, two inhabitants in the front seat both staring at him.  When he gets closer, that ticking sound starts up again.  The cops are ticking, and each has a little clockwork key sticking from the top of his head, ticking neatly around in circles.  They even have a clockwork radio on the dash, which is ... ticking.  Really, it's too much to bear.  Arnold puts his hammer through the face of the one who gets out to talk to him, and the other throws the car in reverse and tears away, radioing for help.  Before long, sirens start up in the distance.

Arnold flees the scene, heading for a local convenience store, pursued by the sound of sirens and also the phantom, faceless kids.  He steals a truck and manages to run one of the kids over, only to find that once dead, she looks very much like a normal kid, if a normal kid was struck by a vehicle and had her brains dashed out against a brick wall.  Arnold gets the truck moving again, knocking the bloodstained windsheild out, and loses his tail of oddly mismatched police cars, only to crash at the mouth of an alley.  He's thrown clear, and when he manages to get himself to his feet and focus in on his surroundings, he's not where he should be.  The street is nowhere in his neighborhood.  From the rooftops all around, he hears the sound of hundreds of doors slamming shut, as the sonorous tones of a clocktower tolls out the hour.  Thirteen o'clock.

HossThat Freight, Crawl That Dungeon

We wrapped up the second leg of Shawn's D&D 4th campaign last night with a classic dungeon crawl.  Lots of fun traps and interesting puzzles, including "one size only fits one" people skins that we had to match up to their former (now skinned) owners.  And a nice little battle with a mind flayer to top it off. 

And after all my wah wah about the lack of real rp in the campaign, it was this session that was the most fun.  I'm trying to figure out why.

Method in the Madness

I got up this morning with the full intent of actually working, but the Mad City wouldn't let me.  Instead I spent about an hour looking over character sheets and thinking up Nightmares.

The one previous game of DRYH that I ran, I 100% winged it.  I had no plan, I had a couple of Nightmares that I'd thought up ahead of time, and I let the City do the driving, as it were.  It was a lot of fun, that game, and I think the players had good resolution, but I did feel like the story could have been tighter.  There was some random wandering around, some encounters with NPCs that didn't have any actual purpose other than to demonstrate how Very Weird This All Is, which was all good fun but didn't really satisfy me.

So this time around I want to attempt to streamline things, make sure that whatever is happening to the Awakened is meaningful and important.  And at the same time, keep the story free and loose and off that goddamned railroad.  This is going to be a challenge.  The best way I can think of is to take a look at their sheets and make sure that everyone they meet is interested in them for a particular reason.  Which means making some Nightmares just for them. 

Lucky, lucky PCs!

There's a part in the supplemental Don't Lose Your Mind that talks about drawing Madness talents from the questions on the character sheets, and how each type of question can guide you into choosing a Talent that is really tailored to the person.  We dipped a bit into this in our character creation, and it gave us George's Talent of manifesting musicals around him.  Can't wait to see that one in action.  It seemed to me that this was also an ideal way to create Nightmares.  The books don't talk much about this creation process - there's about a page in DRYH that talks about looking for common threads among the characters and also about manifesting modern fears - and I think that Fred probably assumed that if you'd gotten that far, you could extrapolate from how the rest of the game is described.  In a game that's as free form as I really need touchstones like personally tailored Nightmares to prevent the wheels from spinning.  And I came up with a doozy.  I think.  I hope.  I guess we'll see.

Back in the Mad City, session 1

Rabbit had to bail just as we were finishing up character creation, so it was just George and Mack for this session.


Ever since Buddy melted away into nothing, Mack’s been talking to the people who used to know him, and finding out that they don’t remember him anymore.  Everyone except one of Buddy’s (many) ex-bosses, a guy named George who manages the Old Navy outlet in a local mall.  He remembers Buddy and even has some pictures of him from the last office birthday party, but when Mack shows up to see them, Buddy isn’t in them.  There’s a weird grey blur where he should be, and the girl he had his arm around has forgotten him entirely.  Within the week, even that grey blur is gone from the pictures, but not before briefly turning into Buddy’s screaming, tortured face right before Mack’s horrified eyes.  Worst of all, pictures of Mack are starting to look a little…grey…

Desperate to maintain contact with the only other person who seems immune to the memory loss that’s going around, Mack calls up George.  George doesn’t pick up, but suddenly some odd operator is offering to make the connection regardless.  All it’s going to cost is a summer day. 

George isn’t really in a position to talk.  Taken by a sudden upsurge of loathing for his workplace, and drawn on by a series of green lights that seem to be lighting his way somewhere, opening a path for him, he’s driven right by the mall and off into somewhere new and strange.  As much as he was yearning for something new in his life, being boxed in by bizarre policemen at the corner of Taylor and Screaming St. isn’t really what he wanted.  His cell phone is accepting calls without his input, he’s crashed his car into a cop car and now this alley is trying to eat him.  He makes it to the rooftops, and shouts at Mack, the only familiar thing he has left, help.

The helpful operator is back on the line, upselling their new product: transdimensional portals, for the low, low price of the fourth year of your life.  I mean, you don’t really remember much from that year anyway, right?  Not even at the age of reason yet, nothing important. You won’t even miss it. Mack balks, and helpful operator lady offers the option of copay.  George isn’t interested in haggling.  Do it! The transdimensional portal turns out to be Mack’s phone, which eats him, and then coughs him back out again onto George’s rooftop, both of them minus half of the year they were four.   After a moment, Mack’s phone coughs out a receipt, too.

Together at last, they try to take stock.  Doorways and windows dot every surface.  The whole place is laced with walkways and bridges from roof to roof in a seeming unbroken warren of paths and connections.  Oh, and there are hundreds of crashed planes, their shattered fuselages protruding from the roofs and walls around them. 

Plus, they’re being watched.  A kid in a NYG cap is peering around the stairwell of their roof.  He comes out when hailed, cocky and bratty and about ten.  According to him, most of the doors and windows up on the roofs lead to places that they don’t want to be, but he can take them to a door that leads back to the Slumbering City if they want.  In trade.  Do they have any knives?  Baseball bats, maybe?  Mack gives up his belt, which the kid seems to really like.  And really know how to handle, seeing as his testing blow against the brickwork of the stairwell cracks the bricks.  George is dubious but Mack suddenly doesn’t want to piss off the kid, so they follow him as he starts off across the rooftops. 

But the sky is going dark, even though it’s only midafternoon.  The kid looks up, curses someone named Mr. Time, and starts booking it for their target, a door standing partway open on the next rooftop over.  The stars are sliding by overhead like a time elapse film, and just as the kid reaches it, the door claps shut with a bang.  All the doors do, as the bell from some monstrous clock tower begins to toll the hour.  It’s 13 o clock, and they’re stuck in the Mad City.

Back in the Mad City

I'm running DRYH for some friends online, using this nifty online dice roller designed for the game: http://www.redkingdreams.com/dice/dryh.cgi  We had our first session tonight and it went pretty well.  It's surprisingly difficult to explain dice rolls without actual dice.  It's also been interesting roleplaying when you can't see the other people.  I tend to gesture and make faces and use body language a lot, so I have to keep reminding myself to describe that stuff.  We got into the swing of things pretty well by the end, though. 

We did character creation together and then one of the players had to bail, so it was a short session.  Julian had played before, so I took the other two guys through a little bit of gameplay just to get them up to speed.  I'll be using this blog to record the session so I have something to look back at when I (inevitably) start forgetting details.

Some great powers and paths here, can't wait to start messing with them for real. 


Arnold Ross (Julian), a misanthropic accountant with OCD, he’s being tailed by crowds of feral, ninja, light fearing children and kept awake by the ticking of a clock that doesn’t exist. 

Exhaustion Talent:  Puzzle solving, pattern resolution, the ability to see things in their proper place.

Madness Talent:  “Things Fall Apart / The Center Cannot Hold” Chaos is the bane of his life, but also his eager, willing dog.


Jim “Mack” Mackinaw (Allen), a slacker suffering from existential angst.  His best buddy fell asleep and then slowly stopped, well, existing.  Now everyone’s forgotten that he ever did exist, and Mack thinks he’s next…

Exhaustion Talent:  Con artist – he’s really really good at making people believe him.

Madness Talent:  “Out of Step”  He can take a step outside the consensual reality for a period of time.  People and events can’t affect him.  While this is useful, it’s also likely to be fairly fundamentally disturbing, given his concerns.


George Wilkinson (Mike), a highly upset middle manager.  He’s a Negative Nancy, the kind of guy who never gets invited to the bar, and makes his coworkers want to stick a plastic fork in his eye at office parties.  Underneath, though, he just wishes he were happy, that the world was a better place.  He just wants to sing.

Exhaustion Talent:  He’s a tough son of a bitch, for such a middle aged office softy.

Madness Talent: “Part of Your World”  He can make you want to sing.   He wants you to see his vest.  Say it loud and there's music playing, say it soft and it's almost like praying. Once more, with feeling! 

Oh yeah, it's a New Year

I don't usually do New Year's Resolutions but looking back at 2008 I can't really say that I accomplished anything major on a personal level, so here goes:

1) I will finish my nearly completel fantasy novel first draft.
2) I will go to the gym regularly.
3) I will run or play at least three new tabletop RPG systems.

That last one is the only one sort of semi blog relevant, of course.  It's pretty close to the time where Shawn wants to hand off the reins on our mid week sessions, and I'm contemplating running a quick Spirit of the Century instead of the 4.0 scenario I've been planning.  Then there's Dogs in the Vineyard, which I have the PDF for, and Erik says he's willing to run some Unknown Armies and I'm invited, so I think I can manage it, if I can convince our group that they want to try new things. 

Ryan is usually up for anything, but Shawn is concerned that I'll poach players away from his longer campaign if SotC drags out longer than a couple sessions, and Rob tends to like games in which he gets to hit things a lot.  SotC probably fulfills that need, but Dogs?  From the look of it, heavy, involved roleplay is a core requirement.  All the relationship stuff and the basic premise and so on.  And to be honest that's what draws me to the game, so I'm not really willing to try and make it a fighty-fight sort of thing, although the gunfight mechanics look pretty fun.

I also want to run some more Don't Rest Your Head.  That series of sessions was the gaming high point of 2008.  If I could find some kind of online dice rolling app I'd even try running it online, over Skype or something, because I know people who don't live in my city who were gagging to play some after GenCon.  Any suggestions, oh my multitude of readers?  ;)

I think it's about time, really.

Terry Pratchett is now Sir Terry Pratchett, by the Queen's grace, for services to literature.  I am so pleased.