Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Galaxy of Adventure

The goal of this post is to show my Storybox approach to Adventure Design 'in action' by recounting an old campaign in which I used this method. 

Before I get into it though, I want to say I'm a little surprised by the response to this or lack there of. I was really expecting more views and comments.

Sure, most would be of the 'have you lost your mind' sort of thing, followed by the 'what you describe would never work' variety. Instead...nothing so far.

Hmm. Perhaps people are just nodding their heads in agreement and understanding. Maybe what I am proposing isn't all that strange these days. Have I waited too long and now my off beat way of doing things is just the norm or worse yet...mundane? Good grief. I don't know that I could live that down. 

Please, someone out there read from a boxed text or remind me how 'adventure paths' work. 

To illustrate exactly how the Storybox method works, I will recount one of the first campaigns I can remember where I consciously used this approach. It was a homebrew Star Wars campaign from back in 1985-86. The campaign never received a title but was jokingly referred to for years as the 'Forcepunk' campaign.

The game featured a view of the Star Wars universe from the average citizen of the Galaxy instead of the big heroes and villains of the war between the remnants of the Imperial Empire and the New Republic. It also had a bit of dark humor. 

Now let's break it down Storybox style:




The Premise: A Star Wars campaign focused on a group of misfits trying to survive in the aftermath of the Emperor's death and the fall of the Galactic Empire. The New Republic has been established but things aren't going all that smoothly on the frontier (what we now call The Outer Rim Territories)

The Map*: The map is mostly concerned with Hutt Space and independent worlds beyond the reach of the New Republic and the Imperial Remnants; the latter being small groups of Empire holdovers serving as regional warlords or trying to pretend the Imperials are still in charge.  
 


Star systems noted with a blue star are ones from Star Wars canon. Those with yellow stars are original locations created by me. The PCs were free to travel anywhere they wanted with the limitations of having the Hyperspace Coordinates, time, fuel*, and the like. 

Most of the campaign ended up with the PCs traveling to many worlds but often bouncing back and forth between Gardine**, Tatooine, and ZellZell. They would do jaunts to worlds as far away as Corellia, Mandalore, and Ord Mantell but then head back 'home' to their base of sorts on Gardine. 

Of special note is Kolindoor, identified on the map with a blue ring around the yellow star. This planet was not originally on the map. Its coordinates were obtained by the PCs after a new PC joined and the others helped him obtain it from hidden ruins on Mandalore. 

Conceits: The prevailing themes of the campaign were as follows...

The PCs were bad people ashamed or tired of being bad. They sought redemption. 
They were good at being bad but sort of bad at being good. 
The campaign's take on The Force was that it was much like Karma. 

The Opening:

The campaign opened with the PCs, a group of Gangsters, and a group of Imperials in a firefight on the planet Ord Itani. I made references to a deal, a botched job, a double cross, and a desperate squad of Imperials swooping in to claim the prize. 

Improvised dialogue between the Players/PCs filled in the details. The Gangsters hired the PCs to get Spice from Kessel. Imperials showed up so the PCs dumped their cargo and the Imperials found nothing. The PCs never dumped anything; it was a trick. They reached Ord Itani and gave the Spice to the Gangsters but the Imperials followed the PCs there and demanded the shipment. The Gangster refused to pay the PCs since they brought the Imperials to them. 

Blaster fire and chaos ensued. 

PC party splits up. Three hold off the enemies with blasters, smoke bombs, and some neat tricks using the environment of the jungle spaceport. Two sneak off to the docking bay where their ship is to get it ready to leave. One steals a Speeder Bike and attempts to nab some of the Spice. 

A bit later, the ship flies right over head and picks up the rest of the party. The guy on the Speeder Bike gets one case of Spice and drive the cycle into the PC freighter's cargo hold. One PC manages to get the Imperials and Gangsters shooting each other more than they shoot the PCs. Still and all, two of the PCs are badly wounded. 

Escaping into space, the freighter is soon pursued by Gangster ships and TIE Fighters. The player ask me where they should jump to next. 

This is key. I said, "I don't know. It's your ship. Where do you want to go?"

Absorbing this, the PCs check their Nav Computer to see what's near by and what are these places like. They decide to go to Gardine, an original planet not far from Tatooine. It is independent of the Hutts and a good place to lay low because its largely unpleasant and few want to go there (heheh). The PCs eventually find Gardine so cool they make it their unofficial base of operations. 

Onward:

While they start off as low lives and ne'er do wells (except for the Jedi Wannabe who joins later), the PCs play out the idea that this isn't what they want. In fact, many of them are trying to leave that lifestyle behind and do some good. Others don't know any other way to be. As the campaign progressed, the PCs went from smuggling Spice and taking on underworld bounties to trying to protect alien refugees and turning the Gangsters of Ord Itani in to the New Republic. 

As is the nature of my Storybox philosophy, the PCs would ask around once arriving on a planet and find out the local goings on. One world might be the domain of a interstellar kingpin but also noted for a rare fruit and offering a bounty on illegal poachers. There were always multiple things happening on a given planet. Add to these hooks and leads whatever it was the players were looking to do. 

Thoughts:

I never quite knew what the next game session would bring though and neither did they. Although I had laid out all the current politics and happening, made notes on each of the planets and their inhabitants, I had no idea which of these would see the light of day until the PCs decided to go there. 

In one session I'll never forget, the PCs find out that their 'change of heart' activities have them wanted by several figures of the Galactic Underworld. One of the bounty hunters after them is rumored to be Boba Fett, even though the PCs had heard Fett died three years ago on Tatooine. 

Anyway, this event was supposed to be part of the living background, a little crumb to be explored at some later point. One of the PCs, the one with the highest bounty on his head, decided the group needed to do something about this right away. With the help of his companions the PC enacted a brilliant plan; he appeared to blow himself up in his landspeeder, left one identifying piece behind, then disguised himself as a different bounty hunter and turned it in to collect the bounty - ON HIMSELF! 

This scenario was the culmination of numerous previous events and pro-actively initiated by a player. I like to believe myself pretty creative but there is no way I saw that coming. Is that going to happen in anyone's pre-written adventure? Is there a way to pencil in room to have that happen? I mean, it's possible but I don't recall a lot of that kind of thing coming up in the Village of Hommlet or Griffin Mountain. Again, it could happen but generally the way most adventures are created and structured there doesn't seem to be room for the kind of pro-active, player driven narratives seen in this more open-ended method. 

For me, this improvisation-with-parameters or perhaps improvisation-with-provided-tools approach works much better than the more traditional version of adventure design. 

With that, I think I will end my analysis of this idea and move on to something else. November is almost upon us and I want to consider what I am going to talk about next month and perhaps beyond...

AD
Barking Alien

*We never actually addressed fuel beyond being out of it or needing to get it. A botched Navigation or other flight based roll could have me saying, "Seems you burned a lot of fuel this trip" or "Your low on fuel after that last jump". Fuel was more of a MacGuffin than a tracked resource. 

**I have mentioned Gardine (pronounced gar-DEEN) before. It is one of my oldest original planets. It is also nearly identical to the planet Nevarro that appears in The Mandalorian streaming series from Disney+. From the ash covered landscape to the lava rivers and the presence of Offworld Jawas it is startling how similar Nevarro and Gardine are. 










Saturday, October 23, 2021

Chose Your Own Adventure

Once I have the key components I need for a table-top RPG campaign  - A Premise, A Map, at least one Conceit, and a good portion of the accessible locations Fleshed Out (See the previous post) - it is time to start designing the Adventures for said campaign.

Or it would be if I designed Adventures. 

Wait...wasn't this a series of posts about Adventure Design?

Oh indeed it is but I believe you'll see that I go about things a bit differently than most. 




The point of Fleshing Out the various regions of the game world (or universe or multiverse depending on the game) is so I know who and what is there as well as why they're there and what they would do if PCs decided to visit.

It is especially important to know, for example, that the port master of the unassuming fishing town a few miles North is in on a secret smuggling operation run by local pirates. He doesn't want to get caught and hasn't so far so I have notes as to why he's doing it and what he'll do to avoid being arrested. Is he the fight the PCs type or a cut them in for a deal type? This is vital because I have no idea whether or not the PCs will interact with him but if they do, I'll be ready. Regardless of what the PCs do I will be able to react appropriately based on the motivation and personality I've given him. 

Hold on...you don't know if the PCs will meet up with this guy at all? Isn't he an Encounter? If that isn't where the Adventure in that town leads, why create so much information on him at all? 

Ah, therein lies the crux of the matter. A Storybox game doesn't lead you anywhere. It follows you as you move through the setting. 

When I run a Storybox game I include lots of (hopefully) curious characters, interesting concepts, and intriguing goings-on and see which of these things the PCs latch on to. Often some of these elements, scattered here and there throughout the setting, have a direct relation to one or more of the PCs, to their goals, or to the goals of the party as a whole. 

I begin the campaign proper with either some [GM generated] event to get the ball rolling or drop a series of potential hooks, revealing some of the occurrences that I know are going on in the world/universe. These hooks will include a few that connect to the PCs' backstories as noted above. I then wait and see what the PCs want to do and which lead they want to follow. 

Other times one of the players/PCs will say something like, "OK gang, we know we need to do/buy/obtain X in order to achieve this thing that we all care about. Maybe we should start out by traveling to Such-and-Such place." Basically, the PCs can generate plot by saying, "We want to do this thing" and then the campaign will pursue that thing until something else comes up. 

What it's really all about is the choices the PCs make and the things that excite them are what generates 'Adventure' and determines the nature of the scenarios. Whoever and whatever the PCs decide to interact with then creates a domino effect of organic connections and logical consequences.

If the PCs learn of a stolen Magic Item and seek to retrieve it, they will likely cross paths with the other characters and organizations that I as Gamemaster know are also after the item. I know how the NPC from whom the item was stolen feels about the item and the PCs for trying to get it back for her. I know where it is or more accurately, where it is likely to be, but that could change based on the actions of the PCs and their antagonists. 

While I am still the GM, the players very much choose their own adventure from a combination of possible options as well as new options they can generate themselves. Also, there is a tendency in these games to see both Big Adventure Goals and smaller personal goals. The PC Superheroes may want to track down all the members of the villainous Legion of Crime but that'll take a while. Between following leads and fighting bad guys Tomorrow Man and Intrepid want to upgrade the defenses of the team headquarters. Visitor and Spellbound visit with a new hero who helped them on their last mission to see if she wants to join the team. These latter subplots - upgrading the base and recruiting a new member - were the PCs'/players' ideas, not mine. 

How do you plan encounters then?
How do you make sure there's enough treasure for the PCs efforts?
How do you manage the 'Challenge Rating' if a bunch of 'low level' PCs up and decide they want to take on an Ancient Dragon. 

Easy...

I don't. I see what happens. 

Treasure isn't a big deal in my games as I've noted before. Wealth isn't the reward the PCs are hoping for in my campaigns more often than not. In the case where this is a monetary or physical reward of some kind that will be figured into whatever they're doing. Ridding the countryside of a terrible monster gains you are reward from the local Duke. Successfully smuggling vital Medical Droid parts to a Rebel Base in the Bontooine System gets you credits from the Rebel Alliance.

Meanwhile, saving the Earth from the menace of Dark Seid or Dr. Doom gets you thanks and praise from Humanity. That's it. It all works itself out by genre. 

If a bunch of novice adventurers travel from their tiny, one-horse village to the Mountain of Endless Despair to battle Mourngoth, The Ebony Dragon of Sadness Over The Departed, then they'll likely die...but maybe not. An infinite number of things could happen along the way. 

Next post I will do a mini-'Campaigns I Have Known' wherein I will recount a campaign a run with this approach and how it worked in play. 

Later,

AD
Barking Alien


 




Thursday, October 21, 2021

A Taste For Adventure

For some time now I've wanted to convey my particular approach to Adventure Design in as concise and yet complete a manner as possible. 

I've made attempts to do this in the past and a number of previous posts touch on the subject to varying degrees. Honestly, I don't feel as if I've been able to properly explain what I do very well at all. It is a thing that comes very natural to me, something I've been doing for over 40 years now and as such, I've found it difficult to put into words in a way others can understand. 

I am going to try and fix that with a short series of entries that I hope will get across the way in which I create adventures for my campaigns.  

Fingers crossed.

Please note that this is my preferred process but not the one I always use. It is best for Open World, Sandbox style campaigns with largely Pro-Active players. It showcases an approach I've nicknamed the 'Storybox' method, which I have discussed before. 

These days I find myself running adventures for my games that are more akin to the type most GMs probably employ: There is a specific thing happening, the PCs are told about it and offered a reward/paid to do a job/called upon by higher authorities or powers to take care of the situation. 

When my Starfleet crew comes upon a planet emitting unusual radiation that could endanger the entire sector...well...that's what's going on. They are Starfleet and they know they have to deal with it. On a meta-level, they understand that dealing with this is the scenario I've set up for that evening (more about this as the series goes on though...).

What I prefer and what made me a very popular GM when I was younger, was a far more open-ended approach...

My campaigns generally began with a Premise and a Map.

The Premise could be something like, 'The PCs are the crew of a starship exploring a region of the galaxy that was once home to an empire of highly advanced aliens. Their artifacts are everywhere.' It could also be something like, 'What does it mean to carry on another hero's legacy?' For the first part of this adventure design series, our Premise is 'A Medieval Fantasy setting wherein the PC Adventurers are Fantasy Foodies traveling across the world to sample and cook culinary delights largely made from Monsters and plants that grow in Dungeons.' *

I'm calling the campaign, 'A Taste For Adventure'.



Swords and Food
Art by navigavi


The game Map created for this campaign covers the lands in and around the city in which the PCs begin the game. The PCs have a wagon and beasts of burden capable of traveling between their starting city and any of the locations on the map they might be interested in investigating. That said, it would take them months to travel to reach the lands beyond the map due to distance, supplies, inclement weather, etc. but it's definitely possible with determination and forethought on the players part. 



Not my best Map.
Fantasy Maps are really hard for me. 


Next I devise a Conceit. In this context a Conceit is a concept that governs the campaign, not unlike a custom made troupe. Often the Conceit has a Player Element and a Gamemaster Element. Players may be informed of one or both of these but usually they will only be aware of the Player Element. It is possible, even likely, that there won't be a need to explicitly point these elements out as the players should catch on to them pretty quickly. 

The Conceit for 'A Taste For Adventure' is that each location on the map is known for a particular kind of food or signature dish (Player Element). Eating the famous and/or rare cuisine or obtaining the ingredients to make it will allows require the PCs to overcome an obstacle or face a conflict.  

For example, the village of Draughtmount hosts an annual Beer and Mead competition as part of their Great Brewmasters Festival. Brewers from all across the land come to show off their drafts and tavern owners and barkeeps place orders for the most popular of the potations. This year, a lack of rain and good barley and hops harvests threatens the festival as few distilleries were able to make enough beer to meet the demand. 

If the PCs traveled to Draughtmoount hoping to lift a pint of Dwarven Roasted Red Stout or Elven Willowwine Ale to their lips, they are going to have to find a way to convince the brewers to part with the liquid treasure for less then a king's ransom. 

Note that some campaigns may feature multiple Conceits. 

Alright, now that we have a Premise, a Map, and a Conceit we can get to the most important part - fleshing out the locations on the map! 

Fleshing Out The Map deals with a lot more than just naming regions and identifying who the mayor of a particular city is. Some of the important things to know about any given point on the map include:

  • What is this place known for? What makes it significant in the setting?
  • What does it and its people produce? What do they need? What do they want?
  • What are its people like? How do they think and why? 
  • Who lives there that wants thing to improve? Who wants more than they have?
  • Who lives there that seeks to keep the status quo?
  • What's the terrain and weather? How does it effect other details about the location?

In the case of many of these questions, the answers can sometimes be nothing and/or no one. That's fine as it says something about the place as well. What you want is a detailed understanding of each place, its people, key individuals (NPCs) who live/dwell/work there, and why these things are the way they are.

While I don't recommend you go nuts, I will say the more detail you have in this regard the better it will be for the next step in our process. I of course,, go nuts.  

Cool. I think we're finally ready to...

Hey Barking Alien! I thought you said this was going to be about Adventure Design! So far this is all about Campaign Design. Tell us how you write adventures!

Oh, I don't write adventures. 

You...What? You don't writer adventures?

No. The players do...




To Be Continued,

AD
Barking Alien

*Clearly inspired by my favorite Manga Delicious in Dungeon (aka Dungeon Meshi). 





 


Sunday, October 17, 2021

Juggling Ideas

I've been thinking a lot about what games I want to run next year. 

Yes, next year.

This year I am already running three campaigns and playing in one. With real life getting in the way and the end of 2021 coming up before you know it, I've no time, desire, or need to start a new game right now. 

Next year is kind of special. It will mark 45 years for me in the tabletop gaming hobby. Forty-Five Years. That's some serious mileage. To that end, I am juggling a number of different campaign concepts that I'd really like to pull off for the big Four Five. 




It is important to note - at least I feel it's important for me to point out - that all the ideas below are ones I've been working on in my spare time. Can't believe I said 'spare time' with a straight face. 

I want whichever one of these that I choose to do to be a big production. An Art Film and a Blockbuster all at once. I want it in-person and not online. I want a good number of players and a regular schedule. It's possible I won't be able to get everything just the way I like it but I am going to try.

Some of these concepts have been in the works for weeks or months. One has been under development for many years. All have been waiting for something; some outside requirement or idea to click into place before I can fully and properly execute them. A couple of these are still waiting for this but I now have a better idea about when the needed ingredient is coming. 

Here's what I have...

Ghostbusters




I've been really interested - really, really interested - in running a full-on Ghostbusters campaign again. 

I had an absolute blast running my last one and the two specials I ran over the Pandemic were both fantastic. Those who've played in these games seem to have enjoyed them immensely; I won't lie, that is the kind of thing I live for. 

My particular approach to Ghostbusters is a little less humorous and a little more spooky/serious. Not that it lacks for comedy but the balance between humor and horror weighs a bit more to the latter than the original film. 

The missing piece for this one is [of course] the new film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife. I feel like I need to see it before I can run a new campaign.  

Star Trek: Lower Decks




It's no surprise to any reader familiar with myself or this blog that I am a huge fan of Star Trek and gaming in the Star Trek universe is my favorite thing to do. That said, aside from my ongoing, bi-weekly TOS Era campaign (now in its 6th year of real time), I've been unable to come up with a different approach that has the same sustainability. 

Part of the reason for this is that I've run a lot of Star Trek at this point and even for a fan like me, keeping it fresh can be tricky. This hasn't been helped by modern Trek, which hasn't added a lot of interesting material nor generated [in me] feelings of excitement or inspiration. 

That has changed with Star Trek: Lower Decks...

I have totally fallen in love with this series and with the Season 2 Finale I am more jazzed than ever to run a Lower Decks inspired game. The thing is, I already ran such a campaign, although it didn't quite hit the notes I'd intended. Instead, it was just a very good Star Trek game. It wasn't specifically 'Lower Decks'. 

Now that I've seen all of the second season, I feel I might have a better grip on how to pull off what I have in mind. 

Obviously completing the second season was the missing piece. 

Star Wars: Visions




Like Star Trek, I am pretty much always in the mood to run Star Wars. That doesn't mean I always have a good idea for a campaign. 

Following multiple views of the episodes in this series, I find myself very much intrigued to run something in a Star Wars universe we only think we know. A game with all the tropes and trimmings of that familiar galaxy Long Ago and Far, Far Away but one in which there is a high degree of unknown elements and unusual takes on classic concepts. 

Exactly how I want to go about this is something I am honestly still working on. I was writing posts in this regard (see this one in particular) but stopped because I am unsure of where to take the idea next. 

It is possible that the missing piece for this is still missing. 

The Dark Crystal




For almost 40 years I've wanted to run a Dark Crystal themed and inspired RPG campaign. Periodically throughout that time I made notes on the subject and generated possible plot and adventure ideas.

With the release of The Dark Crystal young adult novels and especially the (Absolutely Amazing) Age of Resistance Netflix series, the desire to run a Dark Crystal game became stronger than ever. Previous concepts and narratives I'd considered became clearer (one could say they 'crystalized'. Heh.), while a number of newer ones came forth. 

What I needed -what I'd always needed - was the right system. Over the 40 year span I have played with various rules but nothing clicked perfectly. A number of years back I got very close as I was asked to be part of a design team working on a proposed official RPG. Unfortunately that project fell through. It did inspire thoughts on hope to continue with my own homebrew, one which is very close to completion.

The possible missing piece here (aside from a hope of more Dark Crystal series or film content) is River Horse's official The Dark Crystal Adventure Game, due out in the first quarter of 2022. If the system for that game is better than my homebrew I will use it to run my campaign. If not I will either use my homebrewed system or see if the two and be incorporated into each other in some way. 

Finally there is one last concept I have that I am not yet willing to completely reveal...

The Mystery Game




A Medieval Fantasy campaign inspired by Anime and Manga that I've been considering for a little while now, this game idea is one that is waiting for a missing piece in the form of a Japanese TRPG that is due to be released sometime early next year. 

More information will be posted as thoughts on it develop. 

That's it for now my friends. If any of these ideas are interesting to you please share your thoughts on them down below in the comments. Which of these would you want to play in?

AD
Barking Alien









Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Sure Beats Working For A Living

A few weeks back I was discussing Treasure, Wealth, and Money in RPGs with my Sunday evening gaming group when the topic took a turn toward in game economics. 

Hmm. Perhaps that's not an accurate name for subject I want to discuss but it is how I think of it. What I really mean is the bookkeeping elements of certain RPGs that relate to the game world or universe's economy.

  • Busting Ghosts, getting paid, and putting take-out Chinese on the table in Ghostbusters.
  • Docking fees, repairs, and paying off that galactic gangster you owe in Star Wars.
  • Hiring Hirelings for Hire and I assume paying them in Dungeons and Dragons.
  • Things like fuel, upkeep, and payments on a starship in Traveller.

These are just some examples of what I'm talking about but hopefully enough for you to get the idea. The settings of many RPGs revolve around the making of money just like real life does. [Remember this as it will come into play later on]. Making money in this context is very different from seeking Treasure. At least it is in my mind. 

As opposed to Treasure being the one time motivation and reward for completing an adventure, Money is the ongoing ancillary element that allows the adventure to happen and to continue. Without Treasure, a Fantasy Adventurer goes on an adventure to find Treasure. Without Money, a business is out of business and the 'adventure' is over. 

Now the big question that this brought to my mind was...is this fun? Is a game where you struggle to make sure your company stays afloat or you have enough fuel to keep your ship running something people enjoy? 

Responses were mixed. 

My friend Keith summed up the overall consensus that, "Worrying about how much money I have and whether or not I can pay the bills is what I do in real life. Making that money and balancing my books is work. I am not here to do work. I'm here to have fun."

Sure, I get that. Far be for me, as Anti-Math as they come, to advocate economics as an enjoyable pastime but...well...I have on more than one occasion run and played in games where this dynamic was present to a greater or lesser extent and had a blast. Funny enough, it hasn't always involved 'real math' but rather an abstraction of money management that sets a tone and atmosphere more than anything else. 

The best example of this in my own experience is Ghostbusters, specifically my Ghostbusters/InSpectres hybrid. There you have a pool of dice or rather a set of pools called, 'Franchise Dice'. In my version, there are three pools that make up a Ghostbusters Franchise:

  • Information - Resources in the form of physical or digital writing or access to it. 
  • Equipment - Resources in the form of physical device and gear on hand or accessible. 
  • Capital - Resources in the form of liquid assets - Cash or funds that are easily accessible. 

An example of Information would be a small library at the team headquarters that includes Spates Catalog and Tobin's Spirit Guide. An example of Equipment would be a pair of Hand-Held Fire Extinguishers or a Geiger Counter. An example of Capital would be a Bank Account that enables you to write a check to pay a fine from the EPA. 

PCs in my Ghostbusters/InSpectres mash-up get Experience Points towards improving their skills but they can also pool their points to improve one of the three Franchise Dice categories. The catch is, in order to improve any of the Franchise Dice the team must have been paid for their services and have a positive amount of money after paying for any fines or damages they caused.

In the end I am not saying monetary resource management is objectively fun, though I am sure some gamers out there do. What I am saying is that for me, some resource management and the trappings of 'needed to pay the bills' can be an interesting part of an RPG campaign; one oft overlooked aspect of 'Survival Skill' in modern to future settings. If you focus on the results more than the math itself, it adds a distinct level of immersion that makes certain genres and settings feel more real. 

AD
Barking Alien







Saturday, October 9, 2021

Sleepless Nights, Endless Laughter

Hi Ho and Welcome to the Afterlife!




It's October, the month of Halloween! You know, that one day at the end of October which dominates the tone and aesthetic of the entirety of the preceding thirty days plus itself. 

Don't get me wrong, I love Halloween...kinda sorta. OK, largely I do. I like the idea of it

A day that celebrates all things spooky and weird with candy and costumes definitely makes me smile. Unfortunately, as noted in the past, I am not exactly a Horror fan and I don't dress up any longer or go Trick or Treating so the practical applications of the holiday are a bit lost on me. 

I also miss Halloween being more silly and fun and less frightful and gorey. That said, when a rare attempt to combine these two takes on All Hallow's Eve comes around I am totally down for it. It just so happens that Disney Plus has done just that with Muppets Haunted Mansion

First, a little background...

Muppets Haunted Mansion is a project with a considerable history.




The Henson Company has been trying to develop a Halloween special featuring the Muppets for about 50 years. The first was The Muppets Halloween Show. Developed in 1970, the proposed special had a very strange premise and one that wasn't particularly 'Halloween' themed. Eventually the project was cancelled in favorite of other ideas that would become the pilots for The Muppet Show. 

A year after Jim Henson's passing in 1990, his son Brian sought to keep the Muppets in the public eye via a series of holiday specials beginning with a Halloween one. That concept was shelved and instead Henson Associates created the TV series Muppets Tonight. 

A third idea was proposed just after Walt Disney acquired the Muppet in 2009. This version met its end as focus changed to the production of a new film, The Muppets, which hit theatres in November of 2011. 

Now, in 2021, Disney has merged the Muppets franchise with their world famous Haunted Mansion theme park attraction for what I must say was an excellent outing.

Written and directed by Muppet production alumni Kirk Thatcher* (Kelly Younger and Bill Barretta also have Screenwriter credits) and featuring three new and original songs by Ed Mitchell and Steve Morrell, the streaming program features Gonzo the Great and Pepe the King Prawn being invited to spend the night at the famously haunted home of legendary stage magician The Great MacGuffin. This being the 100th Anniversary of MacGuffin's mysterious disappearance and him being something of a hero of Gonzo's, everyone's favorite blue-purple weirdo is just dying (get it?) to accept the challenge of staying over in the world's most spooky abode. 

I won't say more as not to spoil things but I will say, as I often do, what I liked and what could've been a bit better. I will avoid spoilers and discuss things more generally. May have to revisit this later. 

The Good

The special largely focuses on Gonzo and as he is my personal favorite of the Muppets, I was thrilled by the choice to make him [effectively] the star of the show. I also like Pepe and teaming them together is always a good idea.

The puppetry and effects were awesome if not ground breaking. Very impressive and well done to be sure. 

Numerous cameos by Muppets we haven't see in forever! I won't say who but if you are a fan of previous Muppet productions you will be pleasantly surprised to see old favorites and obscure notable revisited.

The integration of the Muppet with the Haunted Mansion lore, as well as the modifications to the latter to make it work better with the Muppets, really worked and I think it was excellent given the need to do so. 

It was funny. In some parts very funny, which is a big plus and something that was missing from much of the ABC TV series. The Muppet characters were also very much in character - more like in the Disney Plus Muppets Now episodes, although...see below.

The Bad

Not bad but there were things that could've been better. 

First and foremost, the special focuses so much on Gonzo (and to a lesser extent Pepe) that the other Muppets are really just there for elaborate to very minor cameos. We don't get to see the Muppets enough so it is a shame we only got to see them in brief glimpses in this show as the next time could be...who knows? Disney's track record with the Muppets is spotty at best. 

One character who doesn't get nearly enough screen time given this specific special is Uncle Deadly. The 'Phantom of the Muppet Show' and a break-out star of the Disney era of the Muppets gets waaay too little to do or say given the Haunted Mansion concept. 

The Creepy

I really liked the creepiness that was put in, elevating the special above the level of 'children's programming' while still keeping the Muppets the Muppets. With some very eerie effects and some mature through lines, this felt the closest to the Muppets of old we've seen in a long time. 

Well, that's it ghosts and ghouls! Muppets Haunted Mansion is on Disney+ now and I whole-heartedly recommend it. Why it's so good...it's scary! Muhuwahahaha!




Until next time,

AD
Barking Alien

For another take on the Muppets + Halloween + Another Disney Franchise, check out these posts on the second time I ran The Muppets RPG at RECESS:


*Kirk Thatcher is well remembered by Star Trek fans as well as Muppets ones. For a Barking Alien No-Prize can anyone point our Thatcher's contribution to Trek?








Monday, October 4, 2021

There's More To You Than Money

Continuing my thoughts on the role of Treasure in RPGs...

When I first entered the RPG hobby I had very little experience with or exposure to Fantasy fiction of the type that inspired D&D.

I may have read The Hobbit by that point but I'm not positive. I first played Holmes Basic D&D in August of '77 and the animated film wouldn't air until November. Fantasy to me was Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and books like Faeries and Gnomes. I knew what Knights, Dragons, and Castles were thanks to Erol Flynn films on the Sunday Afternoon Movie, Walt Disney films and Bugs Bunny/Warner Brothers cartoons.

Yeah, I wasn't what you'd call 'well versed'. 

My closest friends were largely in the same situation, so we defaulted to what we did know: Movies, TV shows, and comic books. That's why in our first campaign ever we almost never looted the bodies, never checked for treasure, and we weren't really concerned about money for the most part. Of course we needed money from time to time but we didn't concern ourselves with it or with trying to amass it. Obtaining wealth and all that simply wasn't high on our list of interests or priorities. 

As I've mentioned, our roles models for heroic characters were Captain America, Mister Spock, and The Lone Ranger. None of these fellows searched fallen enemies for loose change. How demeaning for a hero! That's the work of low lives and common thieves. 

Sometime later when I would play with others who'd been playing the game 'correctly', I was confused and a little weirded out by all the pick pocketing, tomb robbing, and stealing from corpses. Over time and exposure to the source material found in Appendix N I found it...well...less strange but still freaking odd.

AD&D would eventually come along and we would start playing a game wherein you gain Loot Points...sorry...Experience Points for finding Treasure. Wait. Let me read that again. Experience equals something something Gold something something...hmmm. Yeah, not doing that.

It makes no sense. How does finding coins contribute to you being better at healing spells or smashing a goblin's head with your mace? The system already had enough counter-intuitive, hard to swallow concepts for me without the idea that wealth made you a better wall climber or barbarian berserker. This cognitive dissonance (which I honestly had with many elements of AD&D) was what first inspired me to do things a little differently.

Beginning with my first major Aerth/Winghorn Guard campaign in 1983 (or thereabouts), I used a homebrew Experience Point system based on things like 'Creative Use of an Ability, Spell, Item, or Weapon' and 'Personal Character Development'. Contrary to what some would assume, it wasn't that players tried to emote whenever possible to get XP but rather if you happened to you'd be rewarded.

These rewards were given by the DM (me) but based largely on popular opinion of the party members. Each player would bring up a cool moment, action, or bit of dialogue from one of the other players and we'd discuss if it warranted a reward. I still use a similar system today in many of my games. 

What made this work especially well back then was that The Winghorn Guard campaign wasn't about Treasure hunting. The game focused on the PCs as Heroes, protecting innocents from monsters, thwarting thieves guilds, and preventing mad demi-gods from taking over the world. How then would the PCs ever obtain Experience Points? In fact, I created a system wherein the PCs would get XP for donating coins/money to their organization to help maintain it. 

In the end I don't recall how wealthy any of these characters became. That is to say, we don't sit around telling stories of the Treasure we found or money we made. Does anyone? Instead, we remember the characters - their personalities, activities, and the events that surrounded them. That's what was memorable and so that's what was rewarded.

Additional thoughts are brewing...

AD
Barking Alien








Persistence of VISIONS

This is a re-write of my previous attempt at this entry.

After reading the original over a few times I felt it didn't quite say what I wanted it to say. I think this is more accurate to what I was hoping to communicate. 




I've now watched all the episodes of Star Wars: Visions at least twice, with some of them having been viewed three times. The ones I gave a third viewing to I watched in English that additional time. All the previous viewings were in Japanese with English subtitled which were (unfortunately) in Close Caption format as a standard English subtitle format isn't available on Disney+ for some reason.

While some of the English dubs were decent, even good, nothing beats listening to Japanese Seiyuu (Voice Actors) do their thing. Amazing. 

As a result of watching these episodes I'm inspired to run another Star Wars campaign but before I do I want to take a closer look at Visions and see what I can take away from the series and integrate in as  potential game material. 

Let's begin with which story elements I think would make for an interesting campaign. For this there is no better place to start then with Episode #5, 'The Ninth Jedi'.




I am imagining a Star Wars game set 'many generations' after the stories we know; perhaps a century since the last known Jedi protected the galaxy. War rages across the cosmos once more, fueled by sinister forces attempting to resurrect the Sith. 

Those who feel the call of the Light Side of The Force seek out one of the few others of their kind seeking to keep the legends of the Jedi alive. If tales are true, the art of Lightsaber construction, a skill thought lost to time, is known by Margrave Juro and the his new order of Jedi Knights. Will you be among them or will your fury and impatience lead you to the Dark Side?

In my humble opinion, this is a wonderful premise for an ongoing campaign and much of the phrasing above could be worked into an 'Opening Crawl' quite effectively.

This particulars of this narrative gives us the idea that everything that we know exists in Star Wars does in fact still exist in this setting. This is definitely the Star Wars universe you're playing in but it's all new and the familiar is old. We'd have R2 units, TIE Fighters, and Stormtrooper armor as things of the past, only seen on backwater worlds or in the possession of bandits.

This could give you planets like that seen in The Duel, with brigands dressed in Imperial and First Order cast-off equipment and local mercenaries using repurposed droids and weaponry.

 
With no Jedi Masters around Force Sensitive individuals are own their own, scouring the galaxy for any information on what the Jedi order was like and how to train in their ways. Alternate forms or beliefs in the Force, as seen in The Village Bridge, might be a hopeful Jedi's only way of becoming connected to the planets and people they seek to defend.




Another way might be a legacy left behind by a Jedi of a bygone era. Perhaps one of the Jedi from the Order's final days (prior to their resurrection in the campaign) left a Lightsaber, their teachings, or even a bloodline that influences one of the Player Characters. This would be akin to what was mentioned and mayhap implied in Episode #8, Lop and Ochō .




While the various episodes of Visions are not supposed to fit together, I am purposely creating a variation of the Star Wars milieu influenced by many of the entries.  

Definitely more to come...next I will address what system or system modifications I might use to make things feel a bit more 'Anime'.

More to come...

AD
Barking Alien







 

Friday, October 1, 2021

What's Treasure Worth?

One of the sacred crows of Old School gaming that I've always have a strange relationship with is the concept of 'Treasure'. 

Let me start by saying I will not be addressing Treasure from my usual vantage point as a Gamemaster and (occasional) player of games wherein Treasure simply isn't a thing - Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes, and others. I may talk about this in a separate post. We'll see. 

Instead, my goal is to discuss Treasure from a more general gaming point of view; though obviously one that is based on my own experiences and ideas on the subject, including my earliest forays into Dungeons & Dragons with Basic and Advanced 1st Edition.. 




Treasure is defined by Merriam-Webster as 'Wealth (such as money, jewels, or precious metals) stored up or hoarded'. 

Also:

Something of great worth or value
A collection of precious things

These certainly fit the traditional RPG meaning of Treasure wouldn't you say? We usually imagine piles of gold coins, a smattering of jewelry and gemstones, and perhaps a magical sword or ancient urn. Riches beyond ones wildest dreams are to be had for the Adventurer brave enough to seek them. 

Unless...that isn't what the Adventurer seeks.

In order to discuss Treasure as an Old School fan might understand it, I went to an Old School D&D fan - JB of B/X BLACKRAZOR - to give me his explanation of what Treasure is and why its awesome:

- As a goal, "money" is easily understood / recognized by players.

- As a goal, treasure acquisition is an objective, measurable means of success. You're not worried about what constitutes "good role-playing" or humor awards, etc.

- As a measurable objective, it invites risk-reward assessment (should we spend our resources (HPs, spells, etc.) to take down a big difficult score? etc.).

- For a GROUP of individuals (the players) it provides a unifying objective...we all want treasure, let's work (together, cooperatively) to find treasure.

- As a target objective, it invites a multitude of ways to accomplish the objective (stealth, trickery, negotiation, combat, etc.). When experience is only awarded for combat (as in 3E and 4E D&D, for example), there is only one means of earning experience points (fighting), limiting the experience overall.

- As a "tangible" objective of play (the imaginary characters must go after it), it encourages proactivity on the part of the players in order to gain the reward. Passive reward systems (XP for participation, for example) do not encourage proactivity. It provides no game-related impetus/motivation.

- With regard to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition) specifically, treasure is tied directly to the game economy (it's needed for hirelings, training, equipment replacement, magical research, tithes and fees, construction, etc.) providing reinforcement of the reward system (we need money - we need to adventure - we acquire money - we spend money - we need money). 

Money is a common and easily understood goal and a common motivator for adventurers in many stories across an array of genres. Except...it isn't really. Certainly Captain James T. Kirk, Luke Skywalker, and Superman aren't motivated by the promise of wealth. Ah, I said I was going to avoid those universes so let's look at Fantasy...

Bilbo Baggins does not except the undertaking of traveling to the Lonely Mountain for the treasure. At the end of the Hobbit he is indeed a wealthy man but he is back home with a story to tell and that is his reward. 

Frodo Baggins doesn't go to Mount Doom to get rich. He journeys to rid the world of the evil of The One Ring and Sauron. 

Neither Elric, Corum, nor Dorian Hawkmoon were motivated by wealth but rather a mixture of political power, obligation, and on occasion love. 

Surely, Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser, the quintessential D&D Fantasy style heroes were drawn to the call of adventure by wealth, yes? Well...many of their adventures start with this idea but along the way they end up with more altruistic goals of saving cities and defeating villains. 

Money is mundane. It is a base need in societies that utilize it. The desire for it is easy to understand but simple, even shallow. There are also easier ways to obtain money than go through a trap laden cave network infested with monsters. If you're going to go through all that you'd better come out with a king's ransom in gold and there is the second problem...

If a group of PCs go through and adventure and face the same hardships, do they get the same share of the Treasure? Perhaps. Though perhaps one believes they did more work and they deserve a larger share. Another feels they exhausted resources and need extra Treasure to recoup their investment. A Fighter might begin and end a dungeon excursion with the same sword or find a magic sword but a Wizard isn't often getting their material components back if used and wands have charges. Incidentally, it always kind of bugged me that such items were finite while a dagger never runs out of stab. 

Wealth and the desire to obtain it promotes greed and greed is one of the lowest and saddest qualities of your...of the Human species. How many Thieves have attempted to rob from their own party? The common motivator of Treasure can easily become the thing that divides a group. A lot of wealth is never enough. On that note...

With the exception of the misprinted Treasure cache' at the climax of Tomb of Horrors, no published adventure I've ever seen delivers what it promises in the wealth department. I've yet to see a dragon's hoard that is truly a Dragon's Hoard, with PCs swimming in coins and jewels Scrooge McDuck style. 


Bilbo Baggins and Smaug
Art by Anatofinn Stark

Funny enough, if PCs did come across a Treasure trove like that they'd likely be done. They'd stop adventuring. That's how most folklore and legends go after all; hero goes to say their true love, must defeat cruel antagonist, does so and finds out their opponent have a vast collection of money, gems, etc. This signals, 'And they lived happily ever after', with the hero and his beloved wedding and settling down as a rich couple. 

These are the issues with Treasure that have always perplexed me. 
  • It is a simple, common, base desire/need that isn't heroic.
  • It isn't noble, emotionally driven, and serves no greater purpose beyond personal gain.
  • Making it the primary goal promotes envy, greed, and distrust. It can divide the group.
  • It is never enough, partly because no reward is as epic as described in stories or art.
  • If genre appropriate, Treasure would end the story. Filthy rich PCs need not adventure.

With all this in mind, we come to the real purpose of Treasure in most old school TRPGs: Rule mechanics. Treasure is a means to an end and that end is the meta-reward of Experience Points.

How much money you have translates to how good you are at your chosen vocation. Basically, the more coins you find on the floor the better you are at shooting arrows or praying to your deity for spells. All I can say to this is...HUH?!? This never made any sense to me. Never. Beginning with my first read throughs of Advanced D&D in the late 70s/early 80s to now I can not understand why the game was constructed this way. It feels like design laziness, though I will fully admit that's with the benefit of 40+ years of hindsight.

Dating back to my very first gaming session ever - August 25th, 1977, Holmes Basic Dungeons and Dragons - we had plot. We have reasons for adventuring that weren't related to treasure. 

My Halfling was searching for his father who disappeared.
The Cleric was seeking a cure for a Curse.
The Elf was running from Human Undead out to get him. 

As it turned out, my father disappeared trying to deliver potions to the Human Kingdom (in the form of Hot Sauce!). The Cleric discovered the cure to the Curse involved using the potion, which had magical ingredients. The Curse was turning the dead into the Undead that were hunting the Elf.

The Elf turned out to be the lost Prince of his Kingdom but that's another tale...

The point is we were motivated by something more than money and it gave us deeper purpose. Instead of a group of ne'er do wells looking for wealth, we were heroes trying to save our Kingdoms and each other from an evil priest and his Undead curse. Everything connected and it unified the game to create a story I still remember 44+ years later.

Remember that one time you found that dollar bill on the floor? No? Neither do I. I know I've found money on the ground in the past but if you think any one of those times is specifically memorable to me...nope. Sorry. 


Art by Izzy Medrano

More thoughts to come...

AD
Barking Alien