Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Episode 1: A Light in the Belfry Session 1

Trying to remember how THAC0 works
Short version:
It went smashingly.

Longer Version:
I ran the first session of the first adventure of Erratic Episodes last night. Four strangers, linked only by their shared employment or passage on a caravan, came face to face with the strangeness and menace of the Demiplane of Dread in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition adventure A Light in the Belfry.

I've kind of got a thing for dramatics (something of an understatement some readers will probably note), so the game started for me earlier that week. Relearning Second Edition was fine. It made me realize that I was either an idiot or a genius in my teens to parse the far-flung, vague, or just absent rules, but it was fine. I made my little crib sheet, reviewed the adventure, an rolled right into the arts and crafts part of the project. Every adventure needs a gimmick. And if it comes with a gimmick like this adventure does, it needs two gimmicks. And music. So there was still plenty to do. After this episode wraps up I'll post some of the pictures and details of the production side of this, you'll see some of it in the photos below, but there's still a few bits I don't want to spoil quite yet.

Behind the screen
An hour before the game found me in the Paizo conference room, setting up my sound system, digging out an old Ravenloft DM screen, making sure the lights were appropriately dimmed, picking out some last minute mood music, and flipping through the second edition Dungeon Master's Guide for magic items and equipment for the players (a bec de corbin, scroll of protection versus fire, and a longtooth dagger stood out as forgotten favorites). Jeff Alvarez, James Sutter, Erik Mona, and Sara Marie Teter all stopped in to check out what I was doing madly scribbling away in the dim conference room with Tartini's Devil's Trill going on in the background. (I'll get them all in games here eventually.) As this adventure uses CD narration and I refuse to play without background music, I had the adventure CD copied to my iPhone and that attached to a set of speakers I'd brought along. My laptop, playing the score for the evening, stayed behind the DM screen.

The group showed up promptly at 7:00 and started divvying up the magic items and finishing up characters. This was Mark's first second edition game, and none of us had played for about a decade, so there were plenty of "how's that work?" moments. For a half hour they relearned the game and equipped up. We started at 7:30.

As written, a Light in the Belfry starts with the players at the gate of the haunted set piece, Tergeron Manor. As I run it, a Light in the Belfry with starts with a caravan in flames and Valeiru getting face-bit by the wolf standing on his chest. The wolf fight reintroduced us all to second edition combat, playing without a map and miniatures, the fast pace I like to keep combat at ("Tell me what you're doing now or you'll lose your turn!"), the fact that I don't sit down while I run games, and the acceptance that it's more fun to roll a die and call it good than spend 5 minutes looking up a rule that isn't really that important. The group fought off the wolves, made some introductions as the only survivors, and looted the caravan for a trove of mundane goods (salted herring and a fine fur cloak proved quite popular).

Things got weird as the night went on. Mists started to rise up around the wagons. It became unseasonably cold. Zola climbed a tree and found the forest had closed in around the road in both the directions the caravan was headed and had come from. Berry picking Bearnar found the foliage nearby changed significantly before and after they rested for the night. Valeiru identified the wolves as being non-native to the region and seemingly running from something. Arth... Arth protected his precious, precious sanity. And the night didn't end. Yeah. After a "full night" of rest, not even a glimmer of light on the horizon. Except for a distant light in a strange tower... a "belfry" even.

The grounds of Tergeron Manor
It was almost 9:00 before we even got to the start of the adventure, and despite the hardcore railroad nature of the game up till then, we'd had a great time. Reaching the beginning of the adventure meant the introduction of the game's CD narrator - dubbed half-price Vincent Price. The CD narriation proves intensely overwrought, but after the first few snickers, everybody seemed to get into it.

Without going on with a complete blow by blow, here were some of the highlights:

Bearnar (Jason Bulmahn)
* Being the only character to roll stats (3d6s) right down the line and take those stats in those slots.
* Adopting an orphened chicken.
* Being Dr. Goodberry.
* Getting attacked by a spectral knight.
* Destroying a giant green slime with a scroll of remove disease.
* Flowing mysterious footsteps right to the main plot point before we had to wrap up for the night.

Sane Arth (Mark Moreland)
* Murdering the most wolves (3 out of 5).
* It wouldn't be D&D if someone didn't try to put out the fire by peeing on it.
* Wisely deciding, "Hey, maybe we shouldn't touch the giant algae covered pool."
* Noticing the "Slender Man" in the upstairs window.
* Making the only Fear check of the night.
* Taking up the first glass shard and plugging it into the mirror.

Valeriu the Grey (Rob McCreary)
* Rolling up multiple windows and ladder on his robe of useful items. (Valeriu, Wizard of Egress!)
* Capably proving to be the party know-it-all.
* Discovering that just because the creepy house's doors are magicked shut doesn't mean the windows got the same attention.
* Knowing and passing on the info that you can kill green slime with remove disease.
* Not getting too pissed about using his only lightning bolt on a creature immune to spells.
* Kind of being the party tank. Valeriu's 15 hit points are obviously hit points of action!

Zola Nordandi (James Jacobs)
* Having Dr. Girlfriend's grandma's voice.
* Proving that backstab has always been hardcore.
* Climbing everything, and in so doing actually noticing "Hey, the adventure's over there!"
* Impromptu dwarf mining songs.
* Sticking his foot in a pool that ended up being a giant green slime.
* Noticing the strange cold affecting the house, yet still being the first one inside.

A fateful shard
At the end of the first session, the group had 1 of the 13 shards they needed to find. This gave me the opportunity to wrap the session up by actually handing Mark one of the shards I'd created and revealing the magnetic, white board "mirror" it goes in. Folks seemed pretty pleased with that and there were a number of questions about it afterward. Since he was the one who found it, Mark has the responcibility of holding onto the actual, physical shard he received until the next time we play. I  wonder if they'll be able to finish the adventure if he loses it.

Overall, I think we all had a great time. It's been over 8 years since I actually ran a game for friends and it was funny how fast things came back. And how pissed I was at myself for not doing this sooner, because it was a blast! In the next week here we'll set up a date for the concluding session - though we plan to play on a weekend so we can get farther along. Although I'd really like to get to the end to the end of the adventure, I plan to stick strictly to the two session format of these episodes, so we'll see how it goes. Will the team manage to find all 12 remaining shards and solve the mystery of Tergeron Manor? I'll post here just as soon as I know. Thanks for reading!

Adventure Soundtrack: Various tracks from Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust for group scenes and combat, various tracks from From Hell for investigation.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Episode 1: Bound for the Mists

I've got my crew for the first session of Erratic Episodes! In alphabetical order, here's the party that will dare the horror of Tergeron Manor in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition adventure A Light in the Belfry.

Jason Bulmahn: Bearnar, dwarf cleric of Moradin
James Jacobs: Zola Nordandi, half-elf fighter/rogue (retired trapeze artist)
Rob McCreary: Valeriu the Gray, half-Vistani wizard
Mark Moreland: Sane Arth, human fighter (dubious moniker)

I'm keeping things small and close to the Paizo development pool for this first episode to test the whole crazy concept, but thanks to everyone in the landslide of eager players who contacted me. I want to run games for you all down the line here, so I'll be sure to post details on the next episode soon after the completion of this one. I also plan to implement a no players in back-to-back episodes rule, so if you didn't get in this time your chances for next time are greatly increased.

But for now, I hear the frantic rolling and cursing of new victims bound for the Land of Mists. I'll post more as there's more to post, but look forward to a recap of session one of Erratic Episodes by the end of next week!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Episode 1: A Light in the Belfry

The episodes start with a nostalgic piece, TSR's 1995 AD&D Ravenloft adventure, A Light in the Belfry.

Aside from beings a delightfully campy story, this adventure  comes with a built-in gimmick: an interactive audio CD. That means that anytime the players enter a new room, get a bit of back story, or encounter a special event, I cue up the particular track so either the adventure's narrator can take things over in his ghoulish baritone or you get treated to the best stock sound effects a faltering 90s gaming company had at their disposal.

All that not selling it for ya? Shame, because this adventure is full on Mystery Science Theater, Army of Darkness, so bad it's good, horror-camp awesome.

It's also a way for me to get the process down for this series, as I've run this adventure numerous times and am quite familiar with the whole production. Of course, I did run those sessions about a decade ago for AD&D. So why mess with what's worked so well - we're doing this old school: AD&D all the way!

Episode #1: A Light in the Belfry
Game System: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition
Campaign Setting: Ravenloft
Adventure Description: Discover what mystery and tragic fortunes transpired within Tergeron Manor, a mansion now possessed by an evil necromancer's malign intelligence. Thirteen shards of glass hold the secret to either an innocent's salvation or your damnation.

Players Wanted: 4
Characters: 7th-level AD&D Characters (created in advance of the first session)
Sources Available: AD&D Player's Handbook and Domains of Dread
Miniatures: Not Required

Deadline for Registration: 11/13/11
Proposed First Session: The week of 11/21/11

If you're interested in playing just post in the comments below or contact me otherwise - Facebook is probably easiest. Please include a brief concept for the type of character you'd like to play. Remember, Ravenloft has a vaguely Victorian tropes and technology that butt right up to more classic fantasy elements. In other words, mesmerists, big game hunters, and the like will fit be just as well in this game as knights and clerics. The only other requirement is that you be able to show up to the Paizo offices the day we finally decide to play. (And it probably helps my selection process if I actually know you, though who knows, I'm always willing to consider awesome new folks!) I will respond to everyone who gets in and post the list of players along with their character concepts on 11/14.

Thanks in advance to anyone and everyone who wants to play and here's hoping the inaugural episode of Erratic Episodes is a big success!

Open for Gaming

Here's the long and short of it: I love running RPGs - being a GM, DM, storyteller, whatever have you. The problem is that, whether because of the crisis du jour at work, personal freelance deadlines, or other responsibilities and adventures, it's been a challenge for me to run games as much as I'd like to.

That's an understatement. It's been more than 8 years since I regularly ran a RPG.

This isn't to say I don't play RPGs. I'm in more gaming groups now than I've ever been in my life. I'm also not saying I haven't GMed in 8 years, but these days it seems like it takes a convention for me to dig out my GM screen.

The real shame of the matter, though, comes in the form of my friends and coworkers - a who's who of some of the most skilled, creative, imaginative, unpredictable authors, game designers, artists, explorers, and evil geniuses anyone could ever hope to surround themselves with. And nearly all of them are top-notch gamers. With so many charming and talented folks in such ready supply one of the major difficulties of starting a new game becomes simply choosing who to play with.

So this is my solution: Erratic Episodes.

Life is hectic - even more so when you work in publishing, and even more so when that's game publishing - and, after 8 years, I've finally accepted the fact that "calming down" was a 90's craze that went out with Tomogatchis. With that, I'm not using the "I'm too busy" excuse to not run games anymore.

That said, things are still hectic. People have boyfriends, cats, wives, freelance, kids, mixed drinks, and other relationships that make sticking to a weekly, even bi-weekly, gaming regimen challenging. So rather than get myself and others motivated for some elaborate campaign, only to have that enthusiasm wane and start the slow slide toward game death, I'm proposing a format that captures the excitement of a game's first sessions, without being an unmanageable impediment to the players' other obligations.

I'm not starting a campaign, I'm hosting a series of episodes.

Every other month I'm going to run a single adventure. This might be a published work, this might be something of my own design, it might be using the Pathfinder RPG, it might not, it might be in an established campaign setting, it might be in a galaxy I'm excited about at that moment, it might be fantasy, it might be sci-fi, or it might be something else. In the weeks leading up to the first session I will post a description of what I want to run and interested parties can sign up on this page, e-mail me, hand deliver haiku, or express interest in whatever fashion best conveys their interest. As a firm adherent to the "GM as tyrant" philosophy I will choose who plays - largely based on factors of group size and player compatibility. From there players will receive further instructions (or not) and, as a group, we will determine two dates, one for the first session, and another for - should needs be - a concluding session the following month. And then we'll play.

That's worth commenting on as well. I kind of go all out for my games. There will be gimmicks. There will be custom soundtracks, there will be handouts, there might be a menu, there might be other props. I've always considered "host" one of the most important roles of a GM, so it's not just about the game system and the story, it's about the whole experience and making it as engaging as possible. As I plan to run these episodes at the Paizo offices there's certain elements that won't be under my control, but as much as possible I plan to make these episodes detailed productions. By that right, I'd also ask that anyone who signs up to play comes to play, not paint, not write, not text, or engage in other distractions. Additionally, as there's limited time for each episode, I plan to limit the usual joking and table talk to the minimum. That's not to say I expect some sort of gamer high seriousness, but with only two sessions to play we've got an objective.

And what happens if an episode runs out of time? Well, that's it. There are no third sessions. Things end where they end and that's that. After all which did you like more: the way Firefly ended, with cool characters left unexplored and exciting plots unresolved; or the way Carnivale went down, with a thousand awesome ideas bungled in a rushed mess? (Yes, you have to pick one.) My preference and goal will always be to complete stories in two episodes, but if it takes longer, game over - tune in next month for something else cool.

So that's the idea, and hopefully it really is that easy. We'll see. But either way, I'll be posting details on the episodes here, using this blog as a staging ground for episode details, a player rallying point, and a spot to host the results of this little experiment. One month it might be sword swinging and spell slinging on Golarion with the Pathfinder RPG, the next it might be laying in ambush for megacorp freighters off the rings of Rhea with Eclipse Phase, and the next it might be investigating a grisly murder in downtown D.C. with True 20. They're erratic because who wants a locked-in schedule for their playtime, and they're episodes because who has time for anything more?

Now who wants to play?