Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Reflection on Buystarter Best Practices

I was asked to compile a few thoughts on the best practices of a "Buystarter",  which for those not familiar with it,  is a term I coined to describe completing the manuscript of a work,  then publishing it in that rough form on RPGNow/Drivethru RPG for sale.   Those platforms have the ability to update a work to all downloads after the fact.  The product is sold at a discount, and  I announce that I will gauge the money from the first month worth of sales to improve the manuscript if there are sufficient sales to fund those activities (art, layout, cartography, editing, etc) AND I feel like improving the work. At the end of the month I will either discontinue the product or raise its price to full.

This functions in many ways similar to crowdfunding,  without the added overhead or stress of having obligations to fulfill.  Explicit in the buystarter premise is that people are guaranteed nothing, they paid a discounted rate and are entitled to no improvements.

I have used this with two releases:   "Under the Waterless Sea" and "The Price of Evil". "The Price of Evil" generated more funds than "Under the Waterless Sea",  but neither had massive sales nor profits.

With that bit of context, my advice towards best practices is largely "Fudged if I know",  since I only have two data points.  But here are my educated guesses  (which is a $10 phrase for "hunches").

1.  Be frugal and decide if you really need art, if it adds anything to the works usability.
2.  Layout is the most important thing to invest in.
3. You will not make nearly as much as you could with a kickstarter
4. You need to have a reputation of actually delivering, this might not go so well for a first release.
5. Don't dally,  start working on anything you are going to do immediately, even when the buystarter is still going.
6.  Avoid scope creep.  You can always do more.  Do that on a future re-release.

There you have it,  six platitudes of limited use.  Enjoy!


Thursday, September 1, 2016

How do you know you've got enough elements for a finished game scenario?

Whenever I sit down to generate game content for play I make a conscious decision of how much stuff to cram in one avenue of play.  Elements in an encounter, session, adventure arc, or campaign are all intentionally spaced out to ensure its all playable and fun at the table.  I don't want fifty bajillion things to track at any given time,  nor do I want players stuck dealing boring one dimensional adventures.

I try to have about 5 things.  A magic number based on cognitive power of humans.  You can go a little more, some people have a little less, but this will be perfect for most players to know whats going on, and for me as a GM to remember off the top of my head.  By keeping about 5 moving pieces (sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less) I can keep it all in my head and so can players as long as they don't invent too many red herrings through faulty reasoning.  That simple,  end of article right?

Well, depends, whats a thing?

A thing depends on the context.

For an encounter its participants, terrain, consumable inventory, rival goals, and the like.    If I have 12 identically armed bandits, that is "one thing".  If 6 are archers and 6 are spearmen, that is "two things".  If there are 6 spearmen fighting 3 swordsmen and 3 archers that is "four things".  The swordsmen, the spearmen, the archers, and the conflict between the two groups.  If the terrain is interesting at all, you are already up to five things.  If the PC's are on a mission with limited supplies, their own goal of whether or not to get involved is a sixth "thing".   This is something I try to build into random encounter tables.

Move up to a session or to a based location and you have things such as factions, large monsters,  major treasures, puzzles and the like.  Minor things like a locked desk drawer with a poison needle trap and 10 gold,  not really a "thing" in this context.   The room which contains an orc shaman, the trapped desk, and a bunch of scrolls and books with important investigative clues to the complex as a whole would be a "thing".  The room as a piece of the whole is a "thing".    A series of small guard rooms full of goblin thieves with a faction goal would be a "thing".  The giant spider prowling the halls would be a thing.  The rumoured tomb of a wight with a magical sword is another "thing".  The place is in swamp that has partially flooded the compound is a fifth thing (the terrain).    That site is risking being overfull.  If I also added in a rival adventuring band that is six (still fine),  and a dragon that roams the swamp hunting stragglers its at seven (pushing it),  and then threw in a cult of Gulnor the Frog Demon who are trying to turn the complex into a temple...its now a big mess for most folks  (though, 7 +/-2 means some folk can still handle it).

But what about mega dungeons?  A mega dungeon is meant to be a multi-session longer term game.  So I treat that similar to an adventure arc.   In an arc each adventure location is a "thing",  any overarching goal is also a "thing" .  For example,  if we looked at a a totally unique game concept where players arrive in the town of Bistram to look for a prince who was kidnapped by demons and held in the ruins under an old Cathedral,  that campaign (as a megadungeon)  would have a few different elements.   Rescue the prince,  the sub-dungeon of the cathedral basement, the sub-dungeon of the catacombs,  the sub-dungeon of the natural caves, the sub-dungeon of the demonic palace.  If the town of Bistram had issues to solve at the same time you'd be pushing up to six "things".

As another non-megadungon example you might have a quest to overthrow a corrupt baron.   You have the "things" of dealing with the corrupt baron,  three site based adventures (freeing prisoners from his jail, allying with or defeating the forest bandits,  maybe a monster he won't deal with that threatens peasants), and you then have room to add in another complication or side quest, perhaps something like an invading army of the undead that prevents you from just obliterating his forces but requires you to keep them intact for that future purpose.

Full fledged settings or campaigns then step it up a level.  Each megadungeon or adventure arc is a "thing".  An overall theme or goal is a "thing", examples being carving your own Kingdom out of the region or say being British explorers looking for the Eye of Set.  Large scale faction conflicts are a "thing",  such as an occupation of the region by a foreign power,  or a war with the dark lord and his orc hordes.

If you have a campaign about interpersonal relationships, each of those relationships often becomes an additional "thing" at each level.   If there is a bitter blood feud or devotional love between two PC's that becomes an important element at the encounter, session, adventure arc,   So when figuring out content for your own game,  keep that in mind when writing an adventure.

As a final note,  if you are a fan of red herrings and twists,  depending on how much time you want players wasting you may or may not want to consider those things.   If its an established part of game play to sift through red herrings and expect twists,   might not be a "thing".  Much like an M.Night Shyamalan movie, its expected.  If these are unusual parts of your game,  you might want to consider them a "thing" because players will spend a lot of time and attention on them over other elements.

Or

TL;DR :    5 elements

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Ups and Downs of Fully Episodic Games

Especially during summers,  I try to run episodic games.  What I mean by that is that every session is fully self contained  (even if I have to force the issue) and that there is no case where the same player has to be present two weeks in a row.

The main upsides to this from a play perspective are logistical benefits towards player attendance, but it also allows for easier planning from a GM point of view in that I always know how the game will start, and who will be present.   It allows a number of "boardgamey" mechanics to come in place to deal with what people are doing between games.  I am currently using this to also track where they can start a game from,  but you could also use this (and I have) to force them to start from the same spot each week, which allows you to better control the options available and explain how characters just "show up".

The main downsides from a play perspective deal with immersion. When you make the game episodic that becomes a key decision making point in planning courses of action.  How much actual time is left in the session,  something not at all in a character's mind.  When the payoff will occur also comes up as a factor.  In a non-episodic game it is perfectly acceptable to spend one session planning a caper and the next one executing it.   In an episodic game, no one wants to spend a session planning a caper they will not (or at least may not) be present for.  As a GM, this may require stepping in to remind people that, out of character, this is an episodic game and that if they have a lot of planning to do they should reach out to you after this game and before the next one to cover all that planning.  It will of course be a less immersive and more resource allocation/boardgame style of planning,  but it does mean it doesn't waste the weekend of those who won't partake in the outcome.

I personally find the episodic nature makes the games more memorable in discreet chunks. Rather than remembering specific scenes or moments of a longer arc there tends to be very concrete memories of specific Saturday nights and all of the details, big and small.   This makes it much easier to remember the little details that become important later. I do find it makes the game have less of a resonant "theme" after the fact,  a side effect of remembering distinct "episodes".  This makes the campaign as a whole less, "sticky" for lack of a better term.  There is an almost instinctual habit of comparing session to session rather than viewing them as a cohesive whole even if they form part of a chain of progress towards a campaign wide goal.

When creating content for an episodic game, the brain naturally flows towards content you can re-use in future campaigns,  by function it has to be easier to disconnect to other parts of the setting because it has to be something that can be approached in one sitting chunks and then left alone for potentially several weeks.  As a perk, this makes it easy to create publishable adventures, especially site based adventures.  The downside is of course that this easily disconnected and reconfigurable content would be subpar as a setting book.  It would take heavy rework to make everything not seem like a bunch of disconnected set pieces (specifically because that is what it is)

As a closing thought,  one great advantage of a fully episodic game is it takes zero effort to switch to another campaign  (such as a non-episodic game) for any length of time,  or to switch back during odd weeks.  It allows for a great filler campaign when key players for a non-episodic game are missing,  you can revisit old characters and have a nice little self-contained adventure.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Expedition to the Lost Legionnaire

This post follows the expedition of the online group, as composed to my home group as they compete to find the Eye of Set.

Sitting on the veranda sipping tea they overheard that a sailing ship had seen a makeshift encamp and a lone member of the foreign legion waving to them.  Sadly the cliffs and rocky shores prevented a landing and they were forced to sail on.

Taking the hook, the expedition decided to purchase some riding animals and a large amount of water and millet and to travel days through unknown terrain to mount a rescue.    The party once again contained a judgmental British industrialist, a Texas gunfighter, and now a retired French Cavalry Officer.

They set off across the narrow desert and ventured into the long grass of the savanna, where they were promptly ambushed by lions.   Not wishing to risk injury they rode their horses at full tilt to simply outrun their pursuers.  They rode hard through the day and camped near a large rock,  unfortunately their sleep was plagued by a swarm of flies.   The next morning they cut through a patch of dry scrubland and came upon a dead legionnaire sprawled among the branches of a leafless tree,  his expensive repeating rifle at the base.   They moved forward when the industrialist noticed the tell tale signs of disease and held everyone back.   Deciding the rifle would be useful, the braved the risk to retrieve it before using whale oil to burn the tree and cremate the legionnaire.

Riding further they noticed that a large swarm of hyena's were slowly stalking them, keeping well back.  Unnerved they continued and noticed that buzzards were also beginning to hover over them.  Attempts to turn and ride off the Hyenas were only temporarily successful as they would scatter and then eventually reform.   As the sun wound low they moved into the badlands and saw that jackals were now forming in the rocks ahead of them.   Once more they tried to run down the Hyenas,  but in this chase they heard the voice of a woman, and rode to find an Oasis with a lone woman waving a stick at more jackals.   As they rode in on thundering hooves to rescue her they were assaulted on all sides by a swarm of Hyenas, Jackals, and diving Buzzards that tore at their flesh and were fearless in the face of sustained gunfire from the various repeaters.  In a tense battle of pistol fire and horse hooves they eventually managed to kill the swarm of animals, suffering innumerable small injuries along the way.

The woman thanked them and asked them to camp here at the oasis for the night, and share in her refreshments as she began to strum a Zither.  The Texas stayed up into the evening to speak with her and share dates from her bowl while the cavalry officer and industrialist set fire to the animal corpses.  As the morning sun began to rise the British industrialist awoke early, and noticed out of the corner of his eye that for a brief moment the woman seemed off, corpse-like, before the image of her returned to normal.   A normal person would have been unsettled but left it at that,  but the British industrialist specifically placed no value in the lives of non-Europeans and even then only negligible amounts to the lives of non-upper class British.  So he immediately drew his revolver and shot at her head.   She did not even both moving and seemed almost ready to laugh as the gun was aimed.  As the bullet sunk into her head,  "the universe" reminded "her" that this particular gun was a holy relic having been blessed by god for its role in rooting out the snake cult of the last adventure.   With a shocked look still on the remains of her face,  the bullet exploded her skull and dropped her body to the sand.  He form had the appearance of weeks of rot.    Further more,  the dates in her bowl now appeared to be decaying human toes.

Refilling their water stores and packing up her Zither, which seemed to have an almost magical quality to its tones, the party made haste to continue on their journey.  Reaching the cliffs overlooking the water,  the party was soon ambushed by a band of desert nomads with banditry on their mind.  Thinking the battered trio would be easy picking they charged in firing matchlocks and bringing their lances to bear.    Firing two pistols at once the Texas gunfighter brought down four in a few seconds, his companions taking out another pair between them.   Having their charge broken the remaining few quickly broke.

The cavalry officer took the two injured nomads, and stabilized them to be taken as prisoners (along with their guns and camels) while the gunfighter took the bodies out to be buried.  The industrialist went to find the legionnaire on his own.   The industrialist found the legionnaire,  dehydrated, starving, and wearing a tattered uniform with his rifle still in hand.  He was living in a simple structure of ragged cloth and brush, and was successfully talked into following the party home.   The gunfighter meanwhile was overtaken with a powerful urge while burying the dead and took to eating parts of the dead men's flesh.  He found him self surging with strength and freshly invigorated.   He secretly carved more flesh for "special rations".

Riding home they encountered another band of nomads,  this one offering to pay a ransom for the two prisoners.   Not wanting to risk another confrontation (and seeing financial rewards for low risk) they took the offer and continued.  Moving into the savanna once more they encountered a band of warriors bearing simple hide shields and clubs.  Their leader demanded tribute and the party offered him a matchlock.  This seemed to impress him greatly and he implied safe passage, giving them a small golden trinket as well.   Continuing on the party moved through the savanna to the edge of the narrow desert separating them from Guam-yaiv,   They came to another band of warriors with the same garb and a leader riding a chariot pulled by golden quagga.  This situation seemed tense until the leader noticed the amulet.  He demanded it in payment and then let the party go without a word.  Perplexed by the exchange (which involved little language)  the party returned to Guam-yaiv a success to the local authorities,  happy to receive word of the legion and its progress.



Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Caravansary in the Secret City of the Nomads

For any regular readers,  this is a reference table for use in my Xan Than Du game so that it can be referenced in play.



The Caravansary
Your presence changes prices by 5% per point.  Each point of infamy to the French decreases price in the Caravansary and vice versa for infamy with the locals.  Occasionally the caravans will be out in the desert and can be encountered beyond the confines of the secret city. Goods from the Bazaar in Guam-Yaiv may also be purchased at triple their normal price,  having been acquired through banditry.


Combat Gear

Bamboo Lance



















Large, Pole, Piercing, Light
5 silver


Horn Bow

















Small, Piercing.  30 silver
Obsidian Arrows: 1 silver for 6 arrows

Tortoise Shell Shield










 Small shield.  5 silver


Ivory Knife








 Small, Piercing.   200 silver
                            ?d8 weeks

Requires a combined presence+standing of 6+
 

Tools

Signalling Mirror









40 silver


Candle













1 copper for 3






Supplies


Waterskin








 6 copper, comes with 1 day of water.

Dried Dates











 1 silver a day
 1 dot


Honey










7 silver


Locusts












3 copper for 4 days
2 dots


Prepared Cactus











2 copper for 1 day.
1 dot

Local Meats









 4 copper a day
1 dot


Opium







1 silver for a pipe (1 dot)
2 silver for a dose.
30 doses can be stowed in  1 dot pouch.


Animals

Camel










60 silver (triple for war trained)


Horse









75 silver (triple for war trained)

Tiny Dog











 1 silver (triple for fattened version)

Monday, August 15, 2016

A backlog of Xan Than Du expeditions

So GenCon came and went,  I met many interesting and wonderful people and much merriment was had by all.

It also meant I was drained, didn't run Xan Than Du games for 2 weeks and didn't get around to posting play reports.   Here are back to back play reports from the home group.

The party set out with the treasure seeker Kojata once more to loot the ancient tomb of horror and misery.  The party consisted of the British Cavalry Officer, An upper class gentleman with a bought commission, and a disturbed Royal Marine.    They wandered the familiar route through the harsh light of the desert sun,  burning quickly through water reserves but avoiding the terrors that roam through the night.

Once more they left Kojata to guard and they went deep into the tomb,  the sound of horrible screams and gunfire erupted from deep within, along with the smell of burning flesh and burning incense.  The party returned without the unhinged Marine,  but brought with them six fabulous gems.  The party quickly press ganged a British porter they had forgotten they had hired, a former cabin boy,  and went back into the tomb after some scotch.  It was quiet for a while before a horrid wailing as if from some mournful child echoed forth.   The party rushed out with two jade urns full of honey and a set of silver inlaid bone tools,  including a curious honey dipper.

Not wishing to waste time fleeing from whatever was in pursuit of them they stowed their valuables and made their way through the desert, back to Guam-yaiv.  at night.

Midway back they heard the beautiful music of a zither and the singing voice of a young woman.   The British gentleman and the cabin boy moved forward to investigate while Kojata warned of witchery and the Cavalry Officer smelled a bandit's trap.     The woman was playing an instrument and eating dates from a bowl.   She conversed at length with the British in crisp English,  eventually offering them hinted at rewards and secrets.  At this point the gentleman made to leave and the player was forced to roll a number of resistance rolls to the magical words she had been saying in their conversation, becoming aware of the attempted charms all at once.   The cabin boy pressed for more information,  then spurned the woman.  Who immediately began changing into a monstrous hyena.   A rifle bullet from the cavalry officer knocked over the beast as it chased the cabin boy,  but it quickly began to have its bones and blood reform and heal before their eyes, cackling like mad.

The Cavalry officer drew forth his enchanted sword from the cave of wonders and summoned the Genie within,  the sight of which caused fear in the fabled carrion concubine, scourge of the desert.  As the concubine fled, the genie asked what wish he could grant but the cavalry officer informed him false alarm and that he might make a wish later.  The genie sighed and went back into his prison.

Returning to Guam-yaiv they sold the honey, tools, and jade urns but they sent Kojata out to find a special buyer for the set of Gems,  knowing that while it may result in intrigue it could fetch a much higher price.


The next session the party consisted of the Cavalry Officer,  The Cabin Boy, and the Stage Magician.  Kojata had found a potential buyer in the chieftain of the Desert Nomads.  The party was to meet the chieftain in two days at an obelisk amidst ancient ruins in the desert.   Suspecting potential foul play they left early, scouted the site, and pushed into the savanna to camp.  They camped at a rocky outcropping and hunted gazelle.  The Stage Magician used his Crystal Ball from the Cave of Wonders to scrye the sight the next morning, watching the chieftain set up a potential ambush and bury his treasure.

The party then approached the meeting place and left two sharpshooters behind the chieftain's warriors and sent their negotiators in.   There was a tense debate.   The chieftain offered only the fair value of the gems and a promise of safe passage from all Nomad bandits,  but also demanded the location of the tomb.  The party countered (After a tense and grueling negotiation) to get more than simply safe passage,  but full membership into the Chieftain's tribe.  Eventually the leadership of the tribe relented to this deal and an arrangement was struck.

The party was taken deep through the desert (with only a few encounters with wildlife) to the secret city of the nomads which was  hidden deep inside a mighty chasm,   The city (more a large town) was a series of cliff side dwellings overlooking a massive oasis and an orchard of date palms.

One of the party was required to marry a local, and the cabin boy volunteered. After a series of hazing rituals in which the elders laughed merrily, he was wed to the chieftain's least favourite daughter from his least liked concubine, Parsii.  She was said to be touched by mystic gifts and carried around with her one of the tiny hairless dogs the locals bred for meat. Having married a local,  the cabin boy was offered (and accepted) initiation in the secret mystery cult of the local god of agriculture and insects.  This cult was an enemy of the carrion god whose concubine they had previously battled in the desert, and also an enemy of the decadent city of Guam-yaiv.

In game terms, they unlocked a settlement which allows them to start or end each week at either Guam-yaiv or the secret city of the nomads.  They may also create nomad characters.

Having some time left,  the party set forth and explored desert and the savanna. They fought jackals, saved Nomads, risked disease from flies, and encountered an opium caravan from Yoon-Suin under attack from a pack of painted and bejeweled lionesses.  Slaying several lions and driving the rest away they discovered the caravan was unfriendly and suspicious.  They took the lion corpses and their jewels to be taxidermied and added to their museum exhibit.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Temple of Lies

A couple days ago I said I would get a free adventure out to you all prior to GenCon if the Bundle of Holding for Lamentations of the Flame Princess rose up a few ranks.   It shot up.

http://www.rpgnow.com/product/189628/The-Temple-of-Lies





Behold!  The Temple of Lies your patronage to Mammon has conjured.

You still have a few hours at the Bundle of Lamentations if you haven't yet purchased it.