The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘d&d’


Session 4B: Research and Developments

In which an innocent elf finds herself in the company of ruffians, a multitude of musty tomes are methodically mused upon, and our hearty heroes ennumerate the enigmas which confront them…

As I write this, In the Shadow of the Spire has been running for more than one hundred sessions. The complete campaign journal for this enormous saga, although not currently complete, has just crossed the 500,000 word mark.

Half a million words obviously represents a tremendous amount of labor on my part. So why do it? What’s the function of the campaign journal? Why take the extra effort to create it?

Primarily, it’s because I’ve found that a well-executed campaign journal improves the quality of the game. It can also help sustain the campaign: Having a detailed journal makes it substantially easier for a campaign that’s been placed on sabbatical to come “back from the dead” because players can rapidly get back up to speed on what’s happening by reviewing the journal. For similar reasons, the campaign journal can also make it easier to integrate new players into a long-running campaign.

So, what are the necessary functions of the campaign journal?

First, it’s a record of events. It’s the official canon of the campaign which can be consulted when memories become dim. It, therefore, needs to accurately record a totality of significant events that occur at the gaming table.

This poses a couple of interesting challenges: First, it can often be unclear whether or not something will become important to the campaign until several sessions later. (For example, I don’t find it unusual for a random NPC created off-the-cuff in one session to suddenly be one of the most important characters in the entire campaign ten sessions later.) So you need to adopt a fairly permissive attitude about what does and doesn’t merit inclusion.

As the GM, you also need to watch out for favoring the “true account” when mysteries are present in the campaign. For example, if the PCs are trying to figure out which noble scion is secretly a werewolf it can be a little too easy to only include that clues that point at the true culprit (because you know that those are the only things that are actually “important”) while leaving out all the red herrings the PCs are pursuing.

I find I’m particularly liable to do this when including various theories posited by the players: If the players posit a theory that’s true, I’m partial to including that in the journal because they’ve “figured it out” (even if they haven’t actually confirmed that theory yet). So I make a conscious effort to include a wide sampling of the various theories they posit during a session. (The material in the “Research and Development” section of the journal this week is an example of this. In this case, recording all of their unanswered questions also served as a helpful reference for the players.)

Second, it’s a piece of fiction. I believe that reading a campaign journal is a form of entertainment, albeit one which can often only be enjoyed idiosyncratically.

On a few occasions I’ve had players suggest that I should take a campaign journal and publish it as a short story or novel. I take that as a compliment, but it wouldn’t actually work: The journal’s role in faithfully capturing the events that happened at the table preclude its functioning as a proper piece of narrative fiction. But I do attempt to relate those events with effective prose, vivid descriptions, and dramatic moments.

I don’t think that you necessarily need to have played in a campaign in order to enjoy a well-written journal of that campaign. But I think that reading (and enjoying) a campaign journal is a very different experience than reading a novel. In fact, I think it has a lot more in common with reading a piece of non-fiction. I’d suggest that a good campaign journal in many ways blends the skills of a newspaper reporter with those of a fiction writer.

Third, the journal is a memento of the moment. Like yearbooks and diaries and photographs, one can revisit the journals from bygone campaigns and relive the memories of time well spent. When I read through the campaign journal for In the Shadow of the Spire, for example, I have a very different experience from virtually everyone reading this because I am not just recalling the experience of the characters but also the experience of the game table.

Capturing those memories of the table itself in the journal can be somewhat difficult to balance with the desire to create an immersive piece of fiction. In some cases, it’s impossible. (I maintain a small file of memorable, out-of-character quotes, for example, in a separate document.) In other cases, I try to find ways to capture in the fiction a reminder of what was happening beyond it.

For example, in the journal for the first part of Session 4, you may have been wondering why I included things like:

(Ranthir, with his keen vision, quickly found the book he was looking for.)


(Ranthir narrowly avoided dropping a priceless and delicate volume of ancient poetry… thus averting potential disaster.)

These a rather poor reflection of something that was truly hilarious in the actual session: As described in the journal, Ranthir remained behind at a library while the other players went off to watch Helmut Itlestein’s political rally. When the rally devolved into a riot, I began calling for various group skill checks: Spot checks to notice what Helmut was up to. Reflex saves to stay on their feet in the midst of the mob. And so forth.

Since I was calling for “everyone” to make the check, Ranthir’s player started making the same checks… and then he or I would interpret how the check was relevant to his research back at the library. And since, of course, the checks were radically inappropriate for the sort of activities you’d normally engage in while in a library, there were two layers of humorous contrast at play: The sharp cuts from the riot back to a quiet library and the implication that Ranthir was facing jeopardy to life and limb from musty tomes.


Of course, some people will only be interested in a subset of these three goals.

There are also journals written by players. These serve similar functions (keeping notes, etc.), but the difference in perspective often results in a completely different sort of document. Such journals can also serve as extended acts of roleplaying, allowing players a unique avenue for exploring the thoughts and opinions of their character in depth.

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire



April 7th, 2007
The 18th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty


Instead of retiring, however, Tee took advantage of the evening hours in order to track down the Cock Pit. She was successful, discovering that the Cock Pit was, in fact, an illegal gambling house run by someone named Naosh (presumably the same Naosh that Toridan Cran had made the 100 gp payment to). It also turned out that, while Naosh ran the Cock Pit, the place was actually controlled by someone named Aggah-Shan.

Tee decided to try going to the Cock Pit by herself (suspecting, perhaps, that the less than subtle methods of some of her compatriots might be less than effective in an underground gambling den). She easily found the place she’d been told to go – a nondescript and unmarked warehouse – and knocked on the door. After a cursory inspection by three guards (“Whaddya want?” “I’m here to gamble.” “Go right in.”) Tee entered a surprisingly lavish gambling hall. Guards were posted conspicuously at several locations, including the main hallway that led out of the area.

Tee asked some questions, tried to flirt unsuccessfully with one of the guards (“Elves not your thing, huh? Your loss.”) in order to see what was further down the hall, and then cashed in 20 gold pieces to play the copper ante tables. Over the next hour she gambled with a fair amount of success (ending up on the night) and continued asking questions, trying to find out whatever she could about Naosh and Aggah-Shan.

She wasn’t very successful. In fact, her questioning brought unwanted attention: A guard dropped a heavy hand on her shoulder and said, “Naosh wants to see you. Now.” (more…)


Session 4A: Riot in Oldtown

In which a cry for freedom takes an unexpectedly sinister turn, the scope of events becomes larger than can immediately be managed, and Master Ranthir performs astonishing deeds of derring-do…

As with the rules for handling house fires that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, I created a custom structure for handling the riot in this week’s installment of the campaign journal. And I similarly posted them here on the Alexandrian back in 2007. They’ve actually got much wider applications than just riots, and you can find them here: Crowd Rules.


Although the group’s decision of what to do next is presented at the beginning of this entry in the campaign journal, I had actually asked them that question at the end of the previous session. (As a I talk about in the Railroading Manifesto, one of the most potent tools in the GM’s arsenal is simply asking, “What are you planning to do next session?”) So I knew that the PCs would be present for the riot, which by its very nature was going to be a big set piece.

Successfully pulling off big set pieces at the table can be tricky. By definition, they involve a lot of moving parts and managing all of those parts can be a bit of a juggling act. The secret, in my experience, is clearly organizing all of those parts into distinct tools which you can then easily pick up and use on-the-fly. For this particular scene, I prepped several tools.

First, a general timeline of events as they would play out if the PCs didn’t interfere with Helmut’s plans. (See “Goal-Oriented Opponents” in Don’t Prep Plots, and also the detailed example of doing this sort of thing at a larger scale.)

Second, the relevant stat blocks for the Riot Mobs (the large crowd was broken into 8 mobs) and the City Watch.

Third, Helmut’s speech. Using big speeches like this at the gaming table can be tricky. Being able to deliver them effectively and dramatically helps, of course (I’ve literally trained professionally for this, so I have an advantage). But the real trick is making sure that they don’t deprotagonize the PCs.

You know those video game cut scenes where all you want to do as a player is pull the trigger and shoot the idiot who’s yammering on? Right. That’s exactly what you want to avoid here. At the gaming table you’ve got the advantage that your players actually can interrupt what you’re saying and declare that they’re taking an action. But it can also be useful to take a more proactive approach as a GM, which is what I did here: The timeline of events was specifically designed to overlap the speech and, as you can see represented in the journal entry, the speech was broken down into chunks between which actions could be taken. (So, for example, Helmut would speak for a bit and then I’d call for Spot checks to let people notice the guards moving towards the stage.)


Something that isn’t represented in the campaign journal is the point where one of the players declared that everything happening had been foreordained and there was nothing they could do about it — i.e., that they were being railroaded.

Which was a weird moment. First, it had been their choice to attend the riot in the first place. Second, as we’ve seen, the whole encounter had been structured to insure that the PCs could take action and influence the outcome of the event. Third, the PCs had been taking actions in an effort to affect the mob… they were just failing. The specific moment which triggered the comment was, oddly, when Dominic tried to calm the crowd down… and rolled a 2 on his Diplomacy check. His failure could not more clearly have been the result of pure mechanical resolution.

And yet the conclusion was reached that they were stuck in a railroad.

This was one in sequence of events which led me inexorably to an unfortunate truth: Railroading is a form of abuse.

I recognize the hyperbolic nature of the claim. And I’m not saying that people who are railroaded actually suffer emotional damage. But within the specific context of the game table, the behavior modification is remarkably similar: Railroaded players become hyper-aware of the GM’s behavior, constantly looking for the cues that indicate the railroad is coming. Their response will be to take actions to minimize the damage of the railroad — either acceding to it so that they don’t have to be manhandled into it; or becoming disruptive in an effort to resist it.

And this is where the analogy becomes useful, because this behavior modification persists even after the player is no longer threatened by the railroad: They continue looking for the subtle cues that warn them the railroad is coming. But when those cues occur in the absence of railroading, their behavior becomes seemingly erratic and irrational. (Why are they randomly shooting people in the head? Why are they just blindly doing whatever an NPC asks them to do, even when it’s clearly not in their best interest and they’re endlessly complaining about it?) This can be baffling and confusing for the GM who doesn’t understand what’s happening. (And it can be even more difficult for a GM who is trying to improve themselves and stop their previous railroading tendencies.)

Having identified the problem, what’s the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an easy one to be had. A frank conversation in the metagame where you make it clear that the outcomes in your game aren’t predetermined and that the players are in control of their own destinies can be useful. Beyond that, the best you can do is to keep running your game: When they see that their actions have a meaningful impact — when they realize that the entire course of a campaign can be radically diverted by the simplest of moments and the smallest of choices — they’ll figure it out.

And although that will take time, it will be worth it in the end.

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire



April 7th, 2007
The 18th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

The party decided that Ranthir should continue his research at the Delver’s Guild Library. The rest of them would head to the Republican rally scheduled to start in just a couple of hours.

On the way back up to Oldtown they finished selling the rest of the gear (with Elestra heading into the Bull and Bear Armory to avoid any further repercussions from Tee’s bad run-in with Iltumar the day before).

After dropping Ranthir off at the Delver’s Guild Library, the party continued down Dalenguard Road, discovering that the Administration Building (where the rally was being held) was only a few blocks away. A large platform had been erected in front of the pool in the center of the courtyard before the building. Only a few people milled about – the group was about an hour early for the rally itself.

Ptolus - Administration Building

The group split up: Agnarr headed up to a position parallel from the platform, planning to keep an eye on the crowd. Dominic and Elestra headed to the opposite side, standing near the edge of Dalenguard Road. Tee kept a look-out for Phon, suspecting that she might attend the rally.

Tee was right. About twenty minutes before the rally was scheduled to start – after a relatively large crowd of a couple hundred people had gathered – Tee saw Phon coming up Dalenguard Road from the east. Tee went over to her and waved, receiving a friendly smile and wave in response. After chatting amicably for awhile, Tee said that she’d like to keep an eye on Phon during the rally, just to make sure she was safe. Phon was glad to hear it, but suggested that – since the rally was about to begin – they should get a place near the front.

Just then, a shorter man – barrel-chested and with thinning hair, wearing fancy robes of black and silver – emerged from the Administration Building. Accompanied by two other men, with whom he chatted and laughed, he strode up to the platform, raised his hands, and cried out: “Friends! This is a momentous day! This is the day that you hear the truth of brotherhood and freedom!” The crowd settled down. (more…)


Session 3B: Questioning Cran

In which answers are demanded, justice is served, and a young boy is unexpectedly disappointed by lost memories…

Decipher Script is possibly my favorite skill.

Tussling meaning out of antediluvian texts and puzzling out the secrets of strange runes is awesome. On the one hand, there’s that Indiana Jones thrill of plucking lost truths from ancient texts (towards which end I commonly stock my fantasy setting with hidden epochs and unknown historical ages which are clearly defined but not commonly known, presenting a meta-mystery which the PCs can slowly unravel — although that’s a topic for another time). On the other hand, encrypting a text is also a great way of signaling that there’s something of particular importance to be found (much like locking or trapping a chest). And on the gripping hand, when only partial successes are achieved (or the text is fragmentary to begin with) the cryptic passages immediately create an air of enigma.

With that being said, Decipher Script is also one of the most problematic skills because:

(a) A lot of GMs don’t want to risk their previous railroads being derailed when someone fails to decrypt a text or cypher, so they don’t include opportunities for using Decipher Script.

(b) The default use of the skill is rendered completely obsolete by a 1st level spell (comprehend languages).

You solve the first problem, obviously, by realizing that failing to decipher the counter-ritual that would thwart the cultists is exciting because it forces the PCs to find a different solution to their dilemma. (And then following up by liberally strewing your campaign world with enigmatic texts because… well, why wouldn’t you?)

The second is a bit trickier to deal with. You could resolve it with a house rule by turning comprehend languages into a spell that grants a hefty bonus to your Decipher Script check instead of simply rendering it irrelevant; or by modifying secret page so that it can thwart comprehend languages but not mundane deciphering attempts. But over the years I’ve opted to implement a variety of other methods instead.


One technique can be found in this week’s campaign journal: When Ranthir casts comprehend languages on the encoded journal, it doesn’t work. This is because the journal has been encoded with a Decipher Script check used in conjunction with a comprehend languages spell. (The idea being that you lay the memetic weave of the spell over the page and then inscribe the encoded text onto the page through the weave. When the weave is withdrawn, the text becomes even further “scrambled” and restoring the memetic weave — with a fresh casting of comprehend languages — only gets you back to the encoded text.)

ENCODING A LAYERED CIPHER: This requires a conjoined Spellcraft check (DC 20) and a Decipher Script check (DC 20). If both checks are successful, the text is successfully encoded with the layered cypher. If the Spellcraft check fails, you end up with a text of irrecoverable gibberish. If the Decipher Script check fails, a comprehend languages spell will reveal the text normally.

DECODING A LAYERED CIPHER: A layered cypher can still be decoded with a simple Decipher Script check, but the DC for doing so is at +20. Alternatively, if you cast a comprehend languages spell first, you can use a Decipher Script against the normal DC of the cypher.

IDENTIFYING A LAYERED CIPHER: A successful Decipher Script or Spellcraft check (DC 25, or DC 10 if currently using a comprehend languages spell) can identify the layered cypher for what it is.


Another way of rewarding the Decipher Script skill over the comprehend languages spell is through the simple expedient of using longer texts: The comprehend languages spell only lasts 10 minutes per level. That’s plenty of time to read a couple of pages, but if you’re looking at an archaic tome containing several hundred pages it will take you hours to read through it. You can either cast the spell multiple times, or just make a single Decipher Script check.

Alternatively, for long texts which are heavily encoded or badly damaged complex skill checks (X successes before Y failures) are a great mechanic, allowing the character to suss out additional details for every hour of study with a successful check.


CREATE CIPHER: You can create a cipher to encode written messages. The DC for deciphering the cipher after its creation is equal to 10 + your total skill modifier at the time of the cipher’s creation. Creating a cipher takes 1 day of uninterrupted work.

Quick Ciphers: You can put together a quick cipher in 1 hour, but the DC for breaking the cipher suffers a -5 penalty. A cipher can be created in 1 minute, but the DC for breaking the cipher suffers a -20 penalty.

DECIPHER SPOKEN LANGUAGE: You can make a Decipher Script check at a -10 penalty to decipher a spoken language and communicate in a pidgin fashion. You must make a check for each idea or concept you attempt to communicate or decipher. (You can try this check again if the creature you’re trying to understand repeats themselves or if you try to make yourself understood again.)

(I also allow people to invest ranks into their Language skills, and then use this same mechanic to communicate with people in related languages. This, of course, requires the extra prep of designing actual language trees for the languages of your world. The invested Language skill can also be used like Craft or Profession in order to create written material for sale.)

INTERCEPT SIGNALS: While observing enemies, you can catch a view of any visual signals they are using to coordinate their actions. You can attempt to puzzle out the meaning of the signals and determine the enemy’s short-term plans. Such signal systems tend to use many false signals, leaving a chance that you will pick up on a fake set of signals or misinterpret a signal (if you fail your check by 5 or more). Once a character has cracked a signal set, it becomes much easier to subsequently decode it: The character gains a +5 competence bonus to decode subsequent uses of that signal set.



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