The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘running the campaign’


Session 7B: Blood in the Water

In which the dark abyss of the harbor claim many a valiant soul, leaving but one to stand vigilance upon disaster…

So what you have in this session of the campaign is basically a TPK. (Ranthir stayed in the boat, but other than that…)

What happened here is a sequence of strategic errors which are, I think, well summarized narratively in the journal, but which may be useful to break out more specifically:

  • The players ignored the shark on the surface, dismissing it as not being an active threat.
  • When the shark attacked, Tee and Elestra continued swimming down, leaving the rest of the party multiple rounds of movement behind them. (This problem was further exacerbated by poor Swim checks that caused characters to flounder instead of making progress.)
  • As the situation got bad, characters rushed forward one at a time (again, exacerbated by poor Swim checks) instead of regrouping.

The result was that instead of facing the encounter as a group, they basically fought the encounter as three sequential micro-groups.


The Princess Bride - Grandfather

The campaign did not end here. I’m explaining because you look nervous.

Once the water was filled with blood, I called a short break. The group was in various states of shock. Things had gone from “pleasant romp” to “horrific” really, really fast. We all needed some time to recover, and that included me. I needed some time to think about what had happened and what was going to happen next.

In many similar circumstances, this would most likely have been the end of the campaign. Or, at least, the campaign in any recognizable form: With Ranthir still alive, it’s possible he might have been able to continue. Maybe called in some favors to bring his comrades back (albeit, with a huge debt weighing them down like a lodestone). Or, more likely, fallen in with a different troupe of delvers.

But there are plenty of TPKs where that’s all she wrote: You got killed by people who don’t care in a place where no one will ever look for you. (Assuming methods of resurrection exist in the milieu of the campaign at all.) Game over. What shall we do next week?

And, by and large, I’m okay with that. I think it’s important that encounters play out to their logical and non-handicapped conclusion because that’s what makes the moments where a group truly rallies and wins a day which had seem lost truly exciting. And the same is true on a large scale: Knowing that a campaign is not fated to end in success makes it more meaningful when a campaign does.

You value what you earn, not what you are given as charity.

In this particular case, however, there was another logical outcome: The sahuagin weren’t a random encounter. They were there for a purpose. And the people who had hired them for that purpose would logically be interested in who the PCs were and why they were there. I also realized, as you’ll see in the next journal entry, that the PCs would be immediately useful to them. In fact, once I stepped into their shoes and thought about what they would do with the situation that was being presented to them, there was only one logical thing they would do:

They’d dump some healing magic in the PCs, wake them up, and start the interrogation.

So… not a TPK.

This time.


The other great thing about letting things play out (instead of predetermining or forcing an outcome) is that the consequences you discover along the way are inevitably wonderful and unexpected and take you to amazing places you would otherwise have never discovered.

Although, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. This session had severe metagame consequences: Agnarr’s player felt strongly that I should have railroaded the encounter to prevent them getting overwhelmed and knocked out. He also hated the idea of his character being taken prisoner in general, and specifically felt there was no justification for the sahuagin taking prisoners.

He didn’t hang around to see how it played out. He quit the campaign.

Which threw things back into a bit of chaos for awhile, leading to a long break and the sequence of events which eventually resulted in the Big Retcon before we continued.

In the campaign itself, however, the consequences were much more interesting: They resulted in the PCs coming to the attention of (and becoming indebted to) the Balacazar crime family, with wide-ranging consequences that would continue to effect play more than half a decade later.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll just have to keep reading to see exactly how things turned out.


Session 7A: The Aristocrat’s Table

In which preparations are made for a momentous meeting, secrets are kept, and a fateful flame is seen burning in the harbor…

I’ve talked previously in this series about the role of a journal in enhancing a campaign. This week you can see  some vestiges of the document’s living history: At this early stage of the campaign, many of the characters were keeping secrets from each other. Although there are many ways of handling this, I’ve generally favored having the players also keep the secrets from each other. A little light paranoia never hurt anybody, and the resulting patchwork of understanding can have all sorts of entertaining fallout.

If a secret is worth keeping, then a secret is worth keeping.

So these early days of the campaign featured a number of sub-channels in our online chat, and later there would be any number of side conferences and the like with me and various player scurrying off to another room.

Preparing and, more importantly, disseminating the journal for In the Shadow of the Spire proved somewhat challenging under these conditions, however. I didn’t want to leave all this secret action unrecorded, so simply leaving it out of the campaign journal entirely wasn’t a viable option. In practice, it meant carefully structuring the campaign journal so that the secrets were clearly separated from the rest of the material and could be removed as a “chunk” without leaving a clear trace behind. (The section near the beginning of this journal entry headed “Tee Slips Away” is an obvious example of this.)

There was one memorable session where this meant creating a different version of the journal for every single player, although in general it meant preparing 2-3 different versions. And, eventually, only Tee was still keeping a part of her life hidden away (necessitating a “secret journal” for her every couple of sessions; or rather, vice versa, a special incomplete version of the journal created for everyone else).


There are, of course, many groups who would consider this entire concept of players keeping secrets from each other anathema. I’ve generally found that these groups are virtually always the ones which also prohibit any sort of intra-party strife of any kind, and many of them also abhor the concept of splitting the party.

Keeping Secrets - In my experience, these sorts of prohibitions (“no secrets”, “no strife”, etc.) are almost always seeking to address a fundamental problem by targeting its symptoms. There are generally two variants of this problem.

First, you have a disruptive, immature player is just trying to ruin other people’s fun. To address this problem you create a network of Thou Shalt Not rules attempting to knock down the player’s disruptive antics. In reality, of course, the disruptive player will always be able to find some new way of disrupting the group. You need to solve the underlying problem of them being an asshat (by either getting them to stop doing that or kicking them out of the group).

Second, and often related to the former (or previous experiences with the former), the group has constructed a whole interlocking network of formal or informal rules preventing:

  • PCs leaving the group.
  • PCs attacking each other.
  • PCs agreeing to kick other PCs out of the group.
  • Splitting the party.

And  so forth. The exact network of such prohibitions or “understandings” varies, but the net result is that you take a bunch of characters, thrust them into high stakes situations, and then artificially force them to continue co-habitating even after events have set them at irreconcilable loggerheads. Basically, you’ve created an RPG simulation of Sartre’s No Exit.

That problem is generally some combination of:

  • You have a disruptive, immature player who is just trying to ruin other people’s fun.
  • You have a formal or informal rule preventing PCs from simply leaving the groups (or, vice versa, preventing the group from kicking out a character — NOT PLAYER — who they no longer wish to associate with).
  • You have a formal or informal rule preventing PCs from killing each other.

The result is that you take a bunch of characters, thrust them into high stakes situations, and then artificially force them to continue co-habitating. Basically, you’ve created an RPG simulation of Sartre’s No Exit. And then you just keep adding on more forced conventions in an effort to keep the lid on the pressure cooker you’ve created.

And what you lose in the process is all of the cool gaming experiences that can arise from hidden player knowledge. The entirety of Paranoia, for example, or the superb Ego Hunter scenario for Eclipse Phase are a couple of pre-packaged examples, but the organic examples that rise up spontaneously at the gaming table can be even more exciting.


A few best practices for handling player secrets.

First, take the initiative from the players. (Or, more accurately, from the actions of their characters.) Although it can be useful to make it explicitly clear that the option is available, since some players have been conditioned by previous tables to think that it’s not an option, generally speaking the desire to keep a secret needs to originate from the character keeping the secret; it’s not something that can be imposed from the outside.

Second, you’ll generally want to follow the same conventions as splitting the party: Make sure to balance spotlight time and switch between the groups so that neither is left loitering. (Although giving part of the group a straight-up break while you resolve what the other part of the group is doing — and then vice versa — can be an effective technique.)

Third, don’t mistake “the other characters don’t know this yet” as being the same thing as  “secret”. Nine times out of ten, when the party splits up, there’s no need to keep their activities secret from each other: If they’re not trying to keep secrets from each other, they will most likely be fully briefing each other next time they get together (so you might as well let them know as it’s happening; which will save you time on the other end and also keep the table engaged as an audience to what’s happening). There are exceptions to this — when keeping each group blind to what’s happening to the other group will enhance the enjoyment of one or both groups — but they’re relatively rare.



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.)



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