Category Archives: Earthdawn

Building Virag (Part 2)

Last time was dedicated to Attribute selection. As you may have noticed in some of my reasoning, the choices were not made in a vacuum — there were times where later choices influence what I decided to do. For example, looking at the available spells to see what the Effect Step would be based on different Willpower values.

This bit of forethought becomes easier as you become more familiar with the game and the options available (especially to starting characters), but even if you’re new to the system and building your first hero, don’t be overly shackled to the process described in the book. If, at a later step, you find you want to go back and tweak something from earlier, go right ahead. The character isn’t done until you set out on that first adventure.

(Even then, I encourage gamemasters to allow ‘mulligans’ — especially for new players. It is possible they may find the character isn’t performing as well as they hoped, or that certain choices had unforeseen consequences. Since many of the players in the Legends of Earthdawn podcast were new to the system, one of the things I did was offer advice on their builds, pointing out potential pitfalls. I think experienced players and gamemasters have some obligation to help out the newcomers.)

All of that said, let’s continue with the character creation process for Virag.

(4) Determine Characteristics

There really aren’t any choices to be made here. The numbers are derived from the Attributes chosen in step 3, but going over these numbers might prompt you to go back and tweak how you spent those initial build points. For example, if you see that your Dexterity is one point shy of getting a Physical Defense increase, you can go back and see if shuffling some things around might help you get that without losing out in another area.

Here are Virag’s derived characteristics, based on her Attributes.

  • Base Initiative (based on Dexterity): Step 6.
  • Physical Defense (based on Dexterity): 8
  • Mystic Defense (based on Perception): 9
  • Social Defense (based on Charisma): 8
  • Carrying Capacity (based on Strength): 140 pounds
  • Unconsciousness Rating (based on Toughness): 28, +3 for Durability, totals 31
  • Death Rating (based on Toughness): 34, +4 for Durability and First Circle, totals 38
  • Wound Threshold (based on Toughness): 9
  • Recovery Tests (based on Toughness): 3 per day
  • Physical Armor (based on armor worn): Will have to wait until I buy equipment.
  • Mystic Armor (based on Willpower): 3
  • Movement Rate (based on race): 14 yards per combat round
  • Starting Karma (based on race and Circle): 3 points

(5) Record Racial Abilities

As with the previous step, there ins’t really a choice to be made here. Or rather, the choice was made back in step two when I decided Virag would be a troll. As a result, she has:

  • Heat sight

(6) Assign Talent Ranks and Spells

Okay, back to some choices. Virag has 8 points to distribute among her talents–5 Discipline and 1 optional. She also gets two free Standard Matrices (which can inform the selection of optional talent).

The First Circle Nethermancer Discipline talents are: Astral Sight, Frighten, Nethermancy, Patterncraft, and Spellcasting.

While it is possible to assign up to Rank 3 at the start, as with Attributes I tend to prefer a more balanced approach. You never know what might come in handy. If you look at things from a perspective of most efficient use of Legend Points to advance, going with four Discipline talents at Rank 2 means you only need to spend 300 Legend to qualify for Second Circle, you end up not having any ranks in one of your Discipline talents, and no optional talent.

That isn’t necessarily a problem, depending on your Discipline and whether you know what you’re doing. You might want to hold off on selecting an optional talent until you have a better sense of who your character is, or looking to fill potential holes in your group’s suite of abilities.

Back to Legend Point efficiency, any other distribution of starting points would cost more Legend to qualify for Second Circle, but only by a couple of hundred points. In the grand scheme of a character’s career, that isn’t much of anything.

So… Virag. I place one point in each Discipline talent, which leaves me with three points. Before I go any further, I take a look at the optional talents available to Nethermancers, and decide which one I want to start out with.

While there are several good options, my choice is obvious: a third Standard Matrix. The flexibility this offers a starting magician cannot be overstated. Having an extra spell available on short notice can be extremely helpful (though this depends on your starting spells). Other choices are certainly valid, especially if you know what you’re doing or have a particular build objective in mind.

If I’m going to take a third matrix, that uses up one of my three remaining points, and there’s no sense in putting more into it. A starting magician–even if they decide to take a Second Circle spell to start–can’t put a spell higher than First Circle in a matrix.

With all my starting talents selected, all that remains is where to spend my last two points. Looking at the Attributes connected to my Discipline talents, all of them except Frighten are based on Perception. Since I have a Step 7 Perception, that means all but Frighten are starting at Step 8. If you recall from last time, I recommend doing all you can to have as many starting talents as you can at Step 8, to get into those multiple-die Steps.

All right then. I might as well put one of my remaining points into Frighten to bring that to Step 8. One point to go.

Spellcasting is, in my opinion, the best option here. It’s the one that most benefits from a higher Step, and consequently a higher average result. But let’s go over the other talents, and the reasoning there.

Nethermancy has fixed difficulty numbers–First Circle spells have a standard thread weaving DN of 5, and 10 for reattuning on the fly. Step 8 has a fairly good chance of success against a 5 (about 83%). Reattuning on the fly is more difficult (only about a 17% chance of success without Karma), but I’ll leverage my third matrix, and make sure my “standard” spell attunement is weighted more toward being prepared for the heat of the moment (aka combat). If I need to swap out on the fly, I can use my Karma (increasing my chance of success to about 83%), but with only 3 points per day, that’s a precious commodity.

Patterncraft has both fixed and variable DNs. It’s fixed for learning new spells (DN 6 for First Circle, DN 7 for Second Circle, etc). Step 8 gives me better than even odds for both of those, and since learning new spells costs Legend Points, it’s not something I’m likely to do early on anyway. The DN can vary when it comes to using Patterncraft to analyze magical stuff, but I’m not sure how much of that is going to factor into this game. Extra information can be helpful, but not critical.

Astral Sight can benefit from the higher results available with higher Steps, but Step 8 puts me at a decent chance of success against the base DN of 6 for seeing into astral space, and even odds against the modified DN of 8 for “Open” Astral Space. I’m probably not going to be using Astral Sight for more than getting a sense of how corrupted local astral space is, or whether a given item is magical–actually studying patterns is based on the target’s Mystic Defense, and probably a bit out of my reach (at least without spending precious Karma).

Firghten I’ve already raised to Rank 2, and with my balanced approach, probably doesn’t need any more. Especially with my concept of going against type. Sure, making it Rank 2 already works against that concept, but I’m also willing to sacrifice some aspects of concept in the name of numerical advantage. I can make it up through my character portrayal, and not relying on the talent too much.

Spellcasting, obviously, goes against the target’s Mystic Defense. The higher my Step, the higher the average result, the more likely I will be able to affect targets, and get potentially more successes. Last point goes there.

Also, once I’ve gotten a few Legend Points under my belt, it’s only a matter of a couple days to bring up those other ranks. Here’s where Virag’s starting talents stand, with the rank in parentheses, and the final Step and dice after:

  • Astral Sight (1) 8 / 2d6
  • Frighten (2) 8 / 2d6
  • Nethermancy (1) 8 / 2d6
  • Patterncraft (1) 8 / 2d6
  • Spellcasting (2) 9 / d8+d6
  • Standard Matrix A (1)
  • Standard Matrix B (1)
  • Standard Matrix C (1)

That will do it for this installment. Next time we’ll wrap up the series.

Building Virag (Part 1)

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in an actual play podcast for Earthdawn. (For those who don’t know, this means the game is recorded and the audio posted online for people to download and listen to at their leisure.) We’ve been playing for a few months now, building up a backlog of gameplay so  episodes can come out in a regular basis.

The podcast launched yesterday. You can find it here. I’ve been having a good time. It’s nice to play for a change. I’m almost always the gamemaster, whether that’s for my local games (when I had time to run them), or for demos and one-shots at conventions. I went with a magician, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who knows me.

I figured, as a way to generate some content for this site, I would go through the step-by-step process of how I created the character, with some thoughts and commentary on why I made the choices I did. This series will follow the process as described in the Earthdawn Player’s Guide.

(1) Choose a Discipline

I decided to go with Nethermancer as my character’s Discipline. I was originally leaning towards Wizard, going as I usually do for a character that has a reason to know the same stuff I know when it comes to magic theory and such. But upon further reflection, I decided I wanted Virag to be fascinated with spirits and other astral fauna. Kind of an astral David Attenborough. I also decided at this point I wanted to play somewhat against type for Nethermancers, eschewing the deliberately creepy for more of a generally happy sort who enjoys creature comforts when they are available, but isn’t against getting her hands dirty. (And yes, I had decided to play a female character.)

(2) Choose a Race

I decided to go with troll for Virag’s race. I don’t recall what the exact reasoning was. Part of this, I think, was based on what the other players were creating. But I like trolls, and enjoy putting together unconventional Discipline/Race combinations. Trolls are often cast in combat roles, and making my magician a troll goes against type.

(3) Generate Attributes

With my concept established, this is the step where the real nuts and bolts work begins. One of the difficulties when going against type and creating unconventional combinations is the uphill battle of the race’s starting Attribute values not being ideally suited for the chosen Discipline, and needing to spend more points to my scores where I want them.

Trolls start with Dexterity 10, Strength 14, Toughness 12, Perception 9, Willpower 11, and Charisma 10. Perception and Willpower are the most important Attributes for a Nethermancer (and any other magician, for that matter), with Charisma not as important, but useful when dealing with spirits and the like.

When creating a new character, I prefer a more balanced approach instead of maximizing the Discipline’s most important Attributes. I think ‘maxed out’ starting builds, unless you really know what you’re doing, are more likely to hinder than help.

For instance, I could buy a +7 adjustment to Perception and Willpower (using 24 of my 25 available points), but that leaves me with just a +1 to add to one of my remaining Attributes. This means I could bump my Dexterity or Charisma from 10 to 11, giving me a Physical or Social Defense of 7 instead of 6. If I wanted some extra points, I could maybe afford to drop my Strength and/or Toughness… but then I’m hampering my chosen race’s strengths.

I don’t think Earthdawn has “dump stats” as such. Even if a given Attribute isn’t particularly important for your chosen Discipline, it’s often helpful. Dexterity helps you avoid being hit. Toughness makes it harder to take you out. Perception and Willpower each help you resist spells, while Charisma helps you avoid being taken advantage of. For those not expecting to be hitting enemies with swords and such, Strength might count, but even then… a low Strength can limit your options in terms of what kind of armor you can wear and how much loot you can haul out of an abandoned kaer.

You can build your magician around the idea their melee combat companions will run interference, so maybe Physical Defense and Toughness aren’t that important. But Archers are a thing, as is “geek the mage.”

All of this is a rather wordy way to say, I would rather have an Attribute score be one or two points lower than you could otherwise purchase, because it translates into better overall scores. Taking a +6 instead of a +7, for instance, saves you enough Attribute build points to give a +1 bonus to 3 other Attributes, or a +2 and a +1, or even a +3. Bringing up your Dexterity (for example) up enough to get an extra 2 points of Physical Defense is nothing to sneeze at.

Generally, I recommend that a new character shoot for Step 7 in the Attribute (or Attributes) their talents are based on. Not just First Circle talents (though those are important), but the talents available through the first few circles, both Discipline and optional. Shooting for Step 7 in those Attributes means even a single talent rank puts you at Step 8, the first multiple-die Step at 2d6. If you look at the probabilities involved, the jump from Step 7 to Step 8 is significant, and if you can get it, you should.

With all that theory-crafting in mind, here’s how I decided to spend my Attribute build points.

  • 3 points for +3 to Dexterity, raising it to a 13.
  • 0 points on Strength, leaving at its starting value of 14.
  • 2 points for +2 Toughness, bringing it up to a 14.
  • 12 points for +7 Perception, raising it to a 16.
  • 5 points for +4 Willpower, raising it to a 15.
  • 3 points for +3 Charisma, raising it to a 13.

Here’s the more involved reasoning:

Raising Perception to 16 is an obvious first choice, since that puts me at Step 7. Both Nethermancy and Spellcasting are based on Perception, and are the bread and butter for a magician. While a 17 would give me a starting Mystic Defense of 10 (instead of 9), that costs an extra 3 Attribute build points, which as I explained above, limits my options. Also, if I look ahead, I get a +1 Mystic Defense at Second Circle, and I can spend Legend Points to raise my Perception to a 17 later on for that extra point of Defense if I really want to.

Going with a 15 instead of a 16 for Willpower might seem to run against my earlier statement about shooting for Step 7 with my Discipline’s key Attributes, but the only talent based off Willpower to begin with is Frighten. A 16 doesn’t gain me any extra Mystic Armor, and (as we’ll see in a moment), the extra two Attribute build points are better used elsewhere. Spell damage is based on Willpower, but the starter 0-thread damage spells (Spirit Dart or Spirit Grip) are both Willpower+2, which still put me at Step 8. I can put 2 of my starting talent ranks in Frighten to bring that up to Step 8, but given my feelings on going against type… I decide to leave that for later.

Given that I am only one point shy of a Step increase, though, means I will probably aim to have Willpower be the first Attribute I raise with Legend Points.

Between those two, I’ve spent 17 of my 25 Attribute build points, leaving 8. If I divide them evenly between the other four Attributes, that gives me a +2 in each. But that puts both Dexterity and Charisma at a 12 — one point shy of both a Step increase and a Defense Rating increase. Given trolls have a starting Strength of 14, I can get away with not putting any more points there. That frees up 2 points, which get split between Dexterity and Charisma, bringing those each up to 13, granting Step 6 and a relevant Defense Rating of 8. Nice.

The two points remaining go into Toughness, raising that to a 14. Unconsciousness Rating 28, Death Rating 34, Wound Threshold 9, and 3 Recovery tests per day. I could drop my Strength down to a 13, giving me an extra point to raise my Toughness to 15, which gives me an extra couple points of health and a Wound Threshold of 10… but I think things look good where they are.

(I’m not personally fond of dropping scores if I don’t need to, and I think in this case the choice doesn’t make that much of a difference. While the optimization game can be fun, I’m not one to fiddle with the odd point when it doesn’t make what I feel is a significant difference.)

That will wrap it up for this installment. As you can see, none of my decisions were made in a vacuum. I looked at the derived characteristics, along with an eye toward what my talent choices are. This isn’t the only way to approach building a character, but I’ve given you some insight into my process. Hopefully it will help with yours.

Next time, we’ll look at talent selection.

 

GenCon 2016 Schedule

For those who are looking to catch up with me at #GenCon, here is a rough schedule…
 
Thursday
11am-2pm FASA Games Booth (#2029)
2pm-6pm Running “Scars of the Scourge” for ED4
 
Friday
9am-10am FASA Games Panel (Crowne Plaza Penn Station A)
Noon-4pm Running “Scars of the Scourge” for ED4
 
Saturday
10am-2pm Running “Scars of the Scourge” for ED4
2pm-4pm FASA Games Booth (#2029)
 
In the midst of that I have some other events and seminars that I plan on attending. As of right now, my Sunday is largely open up until we need to leave for the airport. If you want a chunk of actual meeting time, best ways to set that up are either to catch me during my booth duty, or send me a message via facebook or twitter.
 
If you’re there, hope to say hi!

I got a delivery!

Hey there. I realize things have been quiet here. But I’ve been busy.

Writing games.

And stuff.

Anyway, got a delivery today and wanted to share. Enjoy!

More later.

Maybe.

T’skrang and Gender Politics (Part the Second)

This post took a bit more time to put together than I expected. This is largely because it sidles up alongside some issues that are, in one way or another, sensitive. There has been quite a bit of discussion about gender issues in the greater gaming community (and I include both tabletop and video games in that).

My intention with these posts is not to push a particular agenda, but instead to discuss a realization that came to me as I was doing some development for the new edition of Earthdawn, and how that can be extended for any kind of world-building. Here’s that realization, as best I can sum it up:

The awareness of issues and experiences outside my own can lead to a richer setting.

This may seem kind of “world building 101.” However, it can be good to look at the basics, because the obvious isn’t always… well… obvious. Part of this also plays into that “controversial” issue of privilege. It can be all too easy for a creator to make the assumption that their own experience is all there is — especially when that experience is the societal “default”.

Awareness of other perspectives, and the difficulties that can be faced by those who fall outside the norm (in one way or another) are valuable for multiple reasons. It allows a creator a more varied creative palette to draw on. It can expand the potential audience for a work by offering characters and perspectives that speak to a greater variety of individuals. It can also avoid the problem of tone-deaf treatment of sensitive issues — especially ones that are widespread among certain segments of the audience.

I want to go into this by way of example, largely driven by the question:

“What if the Shivalahala Syrtis expresses as male after kaissa?”

(Check out the first post for a bit of background if that question doesn’t make sense.)

There are a lot of consequences and knock-on effects of that question. T’skrang society is matriarchal, and has been for as long as anybody is aware. Setting aside the underlying magic of the ancestral memories that get passed down the leadership chain, how would this society react to having this traditionally female leadership position being held by a male?

The other thing is trying to avoid broad-brush ‘everybody reacts the same way’ stereotyping. People (even semi-aquatic saurian people) are varied, and different people will have different reactions.

That said, we are looking at a pretty significant potential change to the fabric of t’skrang society. There are those who will accept it without batting an eye, while others could have visceral reactions against it.

 

To draw a parallel from present day, one of the most visible cases of gender division is the “blue aisle” versus the “pink aisle” in toy stores. Back in August, Target stores took steps to remove gender-based signage in their toy department. The move brought both acclaim and anger.

Even issues beyond gender equality and representation can be looked at for insight into the way people behave. The political landscape here in the United States has been divisive, antagonistic, and fiercely tribal. Gun control. Gay marriage. Taxes and business regulation.

Understanding those with a different point of view can help enhance a setting. It allows you to create authentic, fleshed-out characters rather than two-dimensional cutouts. There is a place for those, but if that’s all you have your world will be flat.

One other advantage to this awareness and ability to appropriately present different points of view — especially if you’re looking to expand beyond the work you create for your own group — is a setting with multiple points of view allows for varied stories to be told, and doesn’t needlessly exclude people because they don’t see a way for them to fit.

There is one more aspect I want to address, which will wait for final part of this series. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long as this one.

T’skrang and gender politics (part the first)

I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks working on wrapping up the setting chapter for the Gamemaster’s Guide for Earthdawn, summarizing what has (and has not) changed with the time jump. Part of this has involved going back to material published for earlier editions, looking at the situation at that time, and deciding what might have changed on both a large and small scale.

This has actually been pretty fun, in a “What if?” sense.

In the course of this, I realized there was one decision I would need to make that if not handled appropriately could have… troublesome repercussions from a gender politics standpoint (especially with regard to issues around matters of trans identity and exclusion).

For the sake of the uninitiated, I’m going to give you a big ol’ data dump of setting information to set things up here.

The t’skrang are a race of semi-aquatic lizard folk in the Earthdawn setting, they are generally a boisterous and exuberant people, with a culture that revolves around feats of daring, courage, and storytelling (with a healthy dose of tall-tale exaggeration thrown in to enhance the teller’s role in the story).

T’skrang have a matriarchal society, led by a lahala, the eldest female in the clan/extended family. This is more than a ceremonial or political position. Through a magical ritual, the lahala is granted the collective memories and knowledge of all prior lahalas from the line. Of course, this has the potential for complications if the lahala dies before the ritual is performed (not passing on the memories), or is corrupted by a Horror (and therefore passes that taint along with the memories — a factor that will come into play shortly).

As additional bit of necessary detail, t’skrang are born (hatched, actually) without a biological sex. It is not until puberty — which the t’skrang call kaissa, that the child’s biological sex is expressed.

All of this is lead-up to a bit of setting detail in the Earthdawn game. Many t’skrang settlements are part of a larger community called an aropagoi, or “Great House”, led by a shivalahala (“lahala of lahalas”) with the same sort of racial memory tradition. The shivalahala of House Syrtis — one of these aropagoi — is known as “The Prophetess” and provides guidance to those who undergo a pilgrimage to meet with her.

One of the prior holders of the title was affected by a Horror’s curse, and the subsequent shivalahala’s have all been unstable and gradually gone insane. In a radical break from tradition, the most recent t’skrang granted the honor was a seven-year-old child. It appears that the change has stabilized the mental health issues otherwise plaguing the position, as the child has displayed a wisdom and restraint that had been lacking for a while. However, there are those (in setting) who wonder what will happen when if the child expresses as male after kaissa.

For the fourth edition of Earthdawn, I decided to advance the timeline by a few years. As I said earlier, this means I need to look at the way things were, and decide how (or if) they would change. I was working on the aropagoi and realized — after doing some math — that the shivalahala Syrtis would undergo kaissa in the time between the prior edition and the new one.

So a decision needs to be made. Thinking about the matter, it turns out not to be straightforward, if I want to be aware of and sensitive to matters of real-world gender politics and social issues.

Let me be clear, I am not upset by this in the least, or cursing the “evil conspiracy of social justice warriors” for making this a question with interesting implications. As a straight white male, the increased awareness of social justice issues (especially in the RPG industry) has brought to light things that I would likely have been blind to just a few short years ago.

That is a good thing.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I’m going to close it out here for now and do a follow-up to explore some of the issues and implications that have come to mind over the last few days this thing has been bouncing around in my head.

Success and Failure (GenCon After Action Report — Part 3)

So I wrapped up my last entry in this series saying that I was gong to look at success and failure in convention games.

On reflection, I’m finding it hard to get a handle on this topic. To begin with, how do we define success and failure? Is it a success if the characters fail at their assigned task, but the players have a good time? What about the reverse, where the characters achieve their goal but the players ended up with a mediocre experience?

Clearly this is a subject where we need to define our terms and narrow our focus.

I think, first and foremost, the enjoyment of the players needs to be a high priority. This is true with RPGs in general, but I think it is especially true at a convention game. You have a limited time, and it isn’t unusual to be an ambassador for the game you’re running; many people use conventions as an opportunity to play new games. A bad experience at the table can turn somebody off a game for a long time.

With that goal in mind, how do you ensure the players enjoy themselves? This is a murky area, since everybody enjoys different things when it comes to RPGs. At your home table, you generally have the luxury of knowing your players and knowing what scratches their itch (so to speak). At a convention, not so much. Your scenario should, in general, have elements that appeal to a broad spectrum of play styles. There have been thousands of words dedicated to different play styles, and I’m not going to rehash them here, but generally speaking you want to have a mix of combat, role-playing, and exploration scenes. You should also be prepared and flexible enough to expand and improvise scenes based on what the players are responding to.

Personally, I view tabletop RPGs more as interactive fiction, with the player characters as the protagonists and heroes of the story. Given the type of fiction I prefer, I want the PCs to succeed. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that there won’t be setbacks, or that they won’t need to pay some price for success. But ultimately I would much rather see the heroes succeed than feel.

No doubt there is some amount of transference going on because success is one of the largest factors that determine my enjoyment when I am playing.

I find, however, that I approach convention games a little bit differently. Failure — overall, actual failure is an option I am willing to have on the table. Two of the three scenarios I ran at GenCon — Pilgrimage and Into the Deeps — end with a climactic fight that could, if things go badly, result in the death of all the player characters. In fact, one of the sessions of Pilgrimage all but one of the PCs did end up dead. The last retreated so that he could let others know what was going on and, perhaps, bring back reinforcements. So… success, but at a pretty high cost, and failure was a real possibility.

But this kind of ending can work and result in an enjoyable experience for the players — as long as it doesn’t feel cheap. In a one-shot there is not the same level of investment in the character as a player avatar. It is a more… singular experience, and much more traditional narrative forms like movies or books can have a kind of catharsis.

So that’s the large scale. What about the smaller scale — success or failure of an individual scene or encounter? I talked about this a little bit in my earlier posts, where each scene should have different ways to resolve the primary conflict. Personally, I hate having an early encounter short circuits a scenario. It isn’t fun for me as a player, and isn’t much fun for me as a gamemaster. Multiple exit routes from an encounter can help keep this from happening. But just as the large scale can have degrees of success, so can the individual encounters.

I think, perhaps, the best way to approach the notion of success or failure is to adopt an idea I have come across in relation to writing more traditional fiction (and improv theatre). Don’t set things up so that failure shuts down your scenario. Instead, failure should introduce complications that make it more difficult to complete the mission, increase the stakes, or make things more complicated in interesting ways. If the characters fail but the players feel that they could have succeeded if things had fallen a bit more in their favor — accumulated failure instead of instant failure — then I think you’ve hit the mark.

Quick news update!

We take a break from our current series to make an announcement. This actually happened at GenCon, but I could only talk about it now.

I have been offered, and I accepted, the Line Developer position for Earthdawn.

This means that I will be in charge of the direction and development of the game line, creative and otherwise. I will also be the public face of the Earthdawn game line on web fora and the like.

This is a big deal. I am excited, and a little nervous.

GenCon After Action Report (Part 2)

In my prior post I talked quite a bit about scenario and character design when it comes to convention games. This time around, I want to talk about time management. There are two aspects of time management. This first is pre-game preparation, the second is in-game pacing.

While I think the variety of the scenarios I came up with was a good idea for a couple of different reasons, it resulted in extra work to get ready for the con. I was smart enough to have two of the adventures use the same set of pre-generated characters, which saved some prep time, but three different four-hour scenarios is a lot of work.

I also outsourced some of the character creation. This didn’t save me as much time as I expected for a couple of reasons. First, I had to go over the characters and make sure they were all built the same way on the same number of points. Second, I had to take the Second Circle characters and boost them up to Fourth Circle.

All of that stuff falls under your standard time management umbrella, though, and not really the main thing I want to focus on. You obviously want to give yourself enough time to getting everything prepared in advance. I was making notes and finishing things up the Tuesday before we left for the convention. If I had to do it over again I would procrastinate less.

What I want to really talk about is pacing. At a convention game, you have a fixed amount of time (traditionally four hours) and unless you are intentionally running a multi-stage campaign you need to fit the entire scenario into that window while also allowing time for introductions, selecting or assigning characters, and any other special stuff you need to cover before the adventure proper gets under way. It’s also not a bad idea to shoot for an early wrap-up, giving players a bit of time to pick up their stuff, chat, or head on to their next scheduled event. Conventions can be very busy, and people often appreciate being given a little bit of breathing room.

This means you are better off shooting for a three (maybe three and a half) hour adventure with a clearly defined goal (or set of goals). The path to that goal may not itself be clear-cut, but the players should have a good idea of what they need to accomplish. When I was preparing my scenarios I came up with four scenes that defined the arc of the story, trying to go for a mix of combat, role-playing, and investigation/exploration.

I was… moderately successful when it came to pacing.  Two Houses, Alike in Dignity suffered the most when it came to pacing, because it was a very much a role-playing scenario, and for the most part I find it a bit harder to… play with time (for lack of a better term) in a role-playing scene. Let me give an example by way of contrast.

The opening scene to Two Houses is a straight-up fight, not connected to the main plot at all. It serves mainly as a way to bring the PCs to the attention of the NPC hiring them for the job, and a way to toss some combat into what is otherwise a pretty non-violent scenario. Some fool has brought a pregnant genhis into the marketplace, and the animal gives birth.

(For those who don’t know, the genhis is a placid herd animal in Earthdawn that gives birth to a brood of dozens of voracious little beasties that try to devour anything and everything nearby.)

Because of the number of potential enemies, and the location, I found it easy to pace the scene. If the fight is going easily, I can bring in more genhis. If it’s not going so well, I can have an NPC adept come in to help out, have the genhis turn against each other (vicious little things that they are), or have an injured one flee. In short, there are different variables that I can tweak in the moment to adjust the level of challenge and how long it is taking to resolve the scene. It’s also relatively easy to determine when the scene is done because the combat is over.

Role-playing scenes, on the other hand, tend to have fewer variables to play with. There are fewer things that can easily and seamlessly extend a scene that is resolving quickly, or resolve a scene that is not going well. This is where some of that pre-game preparation can really come into play. For any given scene (whether role-playing, combat, or exploration) you need to have a goal in mind, and you want to come up with multiple ways the scene could play out, including different ways you can resolve the scene. This should play in to the abilities your player characters have, so that there is a good chance of having multiple “outs” for any given scene in your scenario.

(See, it’s all fundamentally interrelated!)

That will do it for now. I think my next post on this topic will address the role of success and failure in a convention game, both on a scene and scenario level.

GenCon After Action Report (Part 1)

This is going to be a multi-part post. At GenCon 2013, I ran three different games two times each. It was my first time running games at a con that I wrote myself, and only the second time I had run games at a con. I ran three sessions of Journey to Lang at Origins in 2005, which was a pre-made demo adventure from around the time of the original FASA release of Earthdawn.

In general, the games went well. They were all sold out, but I had several no-shows so I didn’t actually have full tables the whole weekend. Despite this, I had positive feedback and I learned quite a bit about designing and running effective con games. One of the more surprising lessons resulted from the stylistic spread of the games that I ran. I had an introductory scenario (Pilgrimage), a more traditional kaer dive (Into the Deeps) and a role-play heavy, more light hearted romp (Two Houses, Alike in Dignity).

There are a lot of pieces that go into setting the framework for a good con game, especially one where you are going to be providing pre-generated characters. You want to make sure you have a variety of character types to choose from, and more choices is better than fewer. You don’t want to have too many choices, though, because then you can run into choice paralysis when it comes time for the players to choose what role they will play in the story. I think a good number is half again as many character choices as slots you intend to have available (for example, 9 choices for a 6-player game).

Before you make your pre-generated characters, you should have a good idea of what your adventure is going to be about, and what kind of challenges the characters are going to face. Each character should have something that can contribute to the progress of the story in one manner or another. Each encounter should potentially have more than one path to resolution, and the possible resolutions should be spread across your characters (preferably with some overlap). This isn’t as critical with straight-up combat encounters, because most traditional RPGs (Earthdawn included) have a pretty strong emphasis on combat mechanics, and almost all characters have a way to contribute to combat.

Puzzle and role-playing encounters, on the other hand, require a bit more flexibility when it comes to adventure design. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you can’t guarantee that a specific skill or ability will be available to the player character group. Second, you can’t guarantee that the players will take a specific action or direction to solve the problem. Thus, you should have in mind two or three different possible solutions to a puzzle, and have helpful skills available to multiple characters. This makes it more likely that the group will be able to find some way to progress without getting roadblocked.

That will just about do it for now. I’ll provide some more specific examples later on, when I break down the individual scenarios. Next up, though, a few words on time management. Stay tuned!