The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘running the campaign’


Session 6B: Return to the Depths

In which a sheen of blood signals terrors from beyond the grave, and numerous clothes are ruined much to Tee’s dismay…

The Complex of Zombies - Justin AlexanderThis installment of Running the Campaign is going to discuss some specific details of The Complex of Zombies, so I’m going to throw up a


for that published adventure. (Although I guess if you’ve already read this week’s campaign journal, the cat is kind of out of the bag in any case.)

Interesting conundrum:

  • D&D has zombies.
  • D&D can’t take advantage of the current (and long ongoing) craze for zombie stuff.

Why? Because zombies in D&D were designed as the patsies of the undead world. In the early 1970’s, when Arneson and Gygax were adding undead to their games, zombies were turgid, lumbering corpses that had been yanked out of a fairly obscure film called Night of the Living Dead. (Even Romero’s sequels wouldn’t arrive until 1978, and modern zombie fiction in general wouldn’t explode until the ‘80s.) Even skeletons, backed up by awesome Harryhausen stop-motion animation, were much cooler and had more cultural cachet.


From a mechanical standpoint, the biggest problem zombies have is their slow speed. In AD&D this rule was, “Zombies are slow, always striking last.” (Although in 1st Edition they were probably better than they would ever be otherwise, as their immunity to morale loss was significant.) The 3rd Edition modeling of this slow speed, however, was absolutely crippling: “Single Actions Only (Ex): Zombies have poor reflexes and can perform only a single move action or attack action each round.”

They were further hurt by a glitch in the 3rd Edition CR/EL system: The challenge ratings for undead creatures were calculated using the same guidelines as for all other creatures. But unlike all other creatures, undead (and only undead) could be pulverized en masse by the cleric’s turn ability. This meant that undead in general were already pushovers compared to any comparable opponent, and zombies (which were pushovers compared to other undead) were a complete joke.

(The general problem with undead was, in my opinion, so limiting for scenario design in 3rd Edition that I created a set of house rules for turning to fix the problem. There’s some evidence that these house rules are actually closer to how turning originally worked at Arneson’s table.)

In short, you could have a shambling horde of zombies (as long as the horde wasn’t too big), but it wouldn’t be frightening in any way.

Which is kind of a problem, since “horror” is literally what the whole zombie shtick is supposed to be about.


My primary design goal with The Complex of Zombies scenario was, in fact, to reinvent the D&D zombie into something which would legitimately strike terror into the hearts of PCs. James Hargrove described the result as, “… more or less Resident Evil in fantasy. Which rocks. And it rocks because it’s not just zombies but zombie-like things. Bad things. Bad things that eat people. Bad things that are just different enough from bog standard zombies to scare the crap out of players when they first encounter them.” Which I absolutely thrilled at seeing, because that’s exactly what I was shooting for.

One could, of course, simply have gone with a souped up “fast zombie, add turn resistance”. But I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to create a zombie-like creature that would actually instill panic at the gaming table. And the key to that was the bloodwight and its bloodsheen ability:

Bloodsheen (Su): A living creature within 30 feet of a dessicated bloodwight must succeed at a Fortitude save (DC 13) or begin sweating blood (covering their skin in a sheen of blood). Characters affected by bloodsheen suffer 1d4 points of damage, plus 1 point of damage for each bloodwight within 30 feet. A character is only affected by bloodsheen once per round, regardless of how many bloodwights are present. (The save DC is Charisma-based.)

Because the bloodsheen was coupled to a health soak ability that slowly transformed desiccated bloodwights into lesser bloodwights, the resulting creature combined both slow and fast zombies into a single package. The bloodsheen itself was not only extremely creepy, but also presented a terrifying mystery (since it would often manifest before the PCs had actually seen the bloodwight causing it).

Eventually, of course, the players should be able to figure out what’s happening and be able to put a plan of action in place to deal with it. (“Cleric in front, preemptive turning.” will cover most of your bases here.) But the design of The Complex of Zombies is designed to occasionally baffle or complicate these tactics.

Which, in closing, also brings me to another important point about using scenario design advice: I’ve had a couple different people who purchased The Complex of Zombies contact me and say, “Hey! Why isn’t this dungeon heavily jaquayed? Isn’t that your thing?”

The Complex of Zombies - Map

Well, no. My thing is designing effective dungeons.

The Complex of Zombies uses a claustrophobic, branching design in order to amp up the terror. Multiple doors create “airlocks” that prevent you from seeing what’s ahead, but also cause you to lose sight of what’s behind you. Its largely symmetrical design creates familiarity and allows the PCs to benefit from “unearned” geographic knowledge, but that familiarity is subverted with terrible, hidden mysteries so that the familiar becomes dangerous. The progressive, three-layered depth of the complex meant that every step forward felt like a deeper and deeper commitment to the horrific situation. Finally, virtually every navigational decision meant turning your back on a door. (And the myriad number of doors became daunting in and of itself when the bloodsheen could be coming from behind any one of them.)

There was one stage in design where I considered linking Area 4 and Area 11 with some form of secret passage. But there are only three possible uses of such a passage:

  • The players use it to “skip ahead”, which wouldn’t really give them any significant geographical advantage due to the nature of the scenario, but would disrupt the “pushing deeper, committing more” theme of the scenario. (I wanted depth in the dungeon’s design and this would have flattened the topography.)
  • The players miss the first instance of the passage, but find the second. After a moment of excitement, they end up backtracking to an earlier part of the dungeon, which in most instances is going to be accompanied by the “wah-wah” of a sad trombone sounding the anti-climax as they trudge back to where they were and continue on.
  • The bloodwights could use it to circle around behind the PCs and ambush them. The bloodwights were so deadly, however, that a clear line of retreat was really kind of essential for the whole scenario not to become a TPK. (There’s still a risk of this happening if the PCs don’t play smart, but that’s on the players.)

To sum up: Design guidelines are rules of thumb. Following them blindly or religiously is not always for the best. In this case, minimal jaquaying was the right choice to highlight the terrors of the bloodwights.


Session 6A: Blood in the Depths

In which a hole in the wall leads to an unexpected labyrinth, and one pest problem quickly leads to another…

This section of the campaign is notable because the dungeon complex they begin to explore at the end of it was directly adapted into the The Complex of Zombies, a mini-module which you can purchase on Drivethru (among other places).

Adapting material from your personal campaign into a published form can be very rewarding, but there are a number of pitfalls you need to avoid.

The first thing you have to do is purge the material of any material inherited from other creators. Personal campaigns are, I fervently believe, strengthened beyond measure by becoming a beautiful mélange of influences and inputs. Copyright law, on the other hand, has other opinions.

In the case of The Complex of Zombies, fortunately, I’ve already “translated” Monte Cook’s Ptolus into my own campaign world (which I’ve been running and developing since 2000), which often has the effect of preemptively scrubbing off many of the serial numbers. But some work still needed to be done.

This process is less simple than it may first appear because you can’t just go through and delete everything. That would leave the material feeling hollow and incomplete. Nor, in my opinion, can you just replace other people’s creative content with generic versions of the same: “Generic” isn’t good. Generic lacks identity. Generic lacks interest.

So you have to go in, take this one really cool thing that has a bunch of specific context and content that you can’t use, and you have to replace it with something really cool and creative and detailed in its own right. And that usually has a cascade effect, as one change affects another. A well-designed scenario, after all, isn’t a bunch of unrelated stuff: So once you start changing some elements, the rest of the scenario can and should change, too.

(This process is often beneficial, though: Re-contextualizing material from one context into another often lends richer and unexpected depths to the new context which you might not otherwise have considered or created.)

For The Complex of Zombies, the most notable example of this was swapping out the deep background of Ghul’s Labyrinth (beneath Monte Cook’s Ptolus) for the research complex of the Sons of Jade. If I recall correctly, the Sons of Jade were an original creation for the adventure module, but I tied them into the mythology of the Jade Magi and the Lost City of Shandrala, which I had originally developed for the background of the gemstone golems I’d designed for the Penumbra Bestiary (although that background was stripped out of the final book) and which had also featured in a proposed mega-adventure in the pre-3.5 says of the D20 license. (A project which I occasionally play with the idea of returning to, but probably won’t all things considered.)

And although this didn’t really apply to The Complex of Zombies, the other thing you have to be wary of when going from table-to-page is trying to recapture the campaign instead of the scenario. For example, I’ve actually encountered multiple published scenarios where the author, seemingly out of the blue, suddenly starts talking about what the GM should do if one of the PCs falls in love with a seemingly random NPC.

This is almost certainly because that’s what happened in their campaign. In one case, this ended up being an extended subplot that chewed up almost half of the published scenario. Twenty or thirty pages of material. And I’m willing to bet hard currency that it was an absolutely, positively amazing experience at the table; probably one of those gaming memories that you’re still talking about fondly twenty years later.

But I’ll also guarantee you that literally no one else playing in that scenario will ever duplicate that precise experience. And you have to be cautious of those moments — at both the seemingly obvious macro-level, but also at the more insidious micro-level — when attempting to offer the material to other people. If you do your job well, then the odds are that the other GMs running your scenario will experience similarly amazing, spontaneous, and memorable acts at the gaming table. But they won’t be the same moments that you experienced. (No matter how much you try to craft a railroad to force that moment to come again. It’s like when things go sour in Groundhog Day as Bill Murray’s character tries to recreate the perfect day.)


Session 5: The Trouble With Goblins

In which a tragedy unfolds amidst the squalor of goblins too clever for their own good, but a gateway is opened which beckons the curious while promising potential terrors in the days to come…

Anyone who’s read The Railroading Manifesto knows that I’m no fan of GMs predetermining outcomes and negating the impact of player’s choices. But sometimes outcomes can be controlled through design. (Or, in other cases, the evolving circumstances of the game world will naturally create these circumstances.)

In the case of this session, for example, Jasin was dead before the PCs were ever aware that he existed. Their effort to save him was guaranteed to fail. I didn’t know exactly how it would play out, but the sad scene in which Tee carried Jasin’s shrouded body out of Greyson House was essentially inevitable.

As a GM, you can use similar techniques to guarantee a variety of outcomes: For example, later in the campaign the bad guys will breach the Banewarrens (a crypt filled with ancient evils). In a similar fashion, the PCs never learn of their attempt until after they’ve already succeeded. Firewalling scenario hooks like this is a useful practicality (since it prevents scenarios from being unexpectedly smothered in their cribs), but also a rather natural consequence of how the world works. (The PCs have no reason to go looking for the Banewarrens until they start encountering the eldritch evils which have been released from it.)

The more general version of this boils down to a relatively simple maxim: If you don’t want the PCs to affect the outcome of something, don’t let them know it’s happening until it’s already done.

The world is a big place, after all, so there’s constantly things happening that the PCs don’t know about.

With all that being said, however, be mentally prepared for the PCs to nevertheless surprise you: That almost happened in this session. As low-level characters they had neither the power nor the resources to access resurrection magic, so it never really occurred to me as a potential option for resolving Jasin’s death. As you can see in the log, however, Agnarr struck on the idea of unexpectedly leveraging Tee’s house to pay for it. Even though that ultimately didn’t happen, the result was a beautiful crucible which had a long-term effect on Tee’s character and her relationship with Agnarr. (It also revealed her deep emotional attachment to her house; which was the one lifeline she had back to her old life and, beyond that, her parents.)


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 the 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 are 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.


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.



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