The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘running the campaign’


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.


Session 3A: On the Murderer’s Trail

In which a fire is unleashed which will haunt the wanderers for many moons to come and a man of ill-repute is brought to a much deserved justice…

Ptolus - House on Fire

For the house fire found in this installment of In the Shadow of the Spire I used a set of custom rules I had designed for handling encounters inside burning buildings. These rules were actually posted here on the Alexandrian way back in 2007 and you can find them under the title Advanced Rules: Fire.

Intriguingly, a few months later, I got a bunch of flak for these rules on a forum: They proved I was a hopeless grognard who had never actually played an RPG because it would be completely ridiculous to use these rules to model huge conflagrations like, say, the Great Fire of London. (Which is true in much the same way that it would be ridiculous to use D&D’s combat rules to model the Battle of Waterloo: It’s true, but completely irrelevant.)

As you can see, of course, these rules were designed to handle fires in small buildings. If I was going to expand the system to handle large conflagrations — like, say, a skyscraper — I’d probably look at adding a more abstract system for handling the spread and severity of the fire in areas where the PCs weren’t immediately interacting with it. For even larger conflagrations, it’s likely that I would handle them in a more narrative fashion (as I did in Mini-Adventure 2: The Black Mist), using the larger crisis to frame scenes with more immediate challenges that the PCs could actually cope with. (Unless, for some reason, the PCs were in the position of trying to put out or contain the fire, in which case I’d still try to find a mechanical structure for them to do that within.)

If you’ve read my discussion of Game Structures, you can probably see where I’m going with this: By creating a custom game structure, you’re giving the players a toolkit for interacting with the situation. When properly designed, these custom structures are incredibly empowering because they can isolate the GM’s preconceptions about the situation and give the players the freedom to craft outcomes which are utterly unique.

Eternal Lies - Jeff Tidball, Will Hindmarch, Jeremy Keller(As another example of this, consider the heat track used in my Eternal Lies campaign: Robust mechanical distinctions between traveling, camping, and resting at oases were then tied to the recovery mechanics for characters suffering from heat exposure. This created meaningful decisions about rate and method of travel. Once you’ve added the risk of pursuit or the consequences of time passing outside the desert (both of which are true in the scenario), this results in the players making meaty decisions with potentially long-term consequences.)

When designing a custom game structure to handle a situation in your game, the first thing I recommend is making sure that it’s a flexible tool instead of just reinforcing your preconceptions about how the scene should be resolved. (For example, if the only mechanical interaction in your structure for handling house fires is “putting the fire out”, then the players have little choice but to put the fire out.)

Second, the structure needs to either be simple enough that it can be rapidly explained or it needs to be player-unknown (in the sense that the players don’t need to fully understand the structure; they can simply make decisions in character and the GM can use the structure to invisibly make rulings). You generally don’t want to create situations where the game grinds to a halt so that you can explain a custom mechanical structure to the players.

An exception can be made for structures that are going to impact a broad swath of gameplay. (Like the Eternal Lies heat track mechanics, which influenced two full sessions of play.) A related technique is to introduce the custom game structure through minor encounters so that the players can then take full, experienced advantage of it during the big, important scene. (You get more bang for your buck this way, and the players get the satisfaction of gaining and then exploiting mastery of the system.)


Session 2B: A Woman Assaulted

In which assaults both inexplicable and inexcusable are committed against the innocent and guilty respectively, and a holy man asks a favor with long-lasting consequences…

The shivvel addict in the first part of Session 2 is what I sometimes think of as a “foreshadowing encounter”.

In the Shadow of the Spire is primarily designed as a node-based campaign (with a few wrinkles that I’ll discuss at greater length at a later date). This means that I do have some general sense of what will be included in the campaign, if not necessarily what will happen in the campaign.

(Although only a general sense: There are quite a few “foreshadowing encounters” scattered throughout these journals which foreshadow… absolutely nothing. The PCs went a different way. I like to pretend that I always meant for those to be “local color encounters”.)

In this particular case, I knew that the PCs were probably going to get wrapped up in a tight little knot of criminal conspiracy involving the shivvel trade. The pay-off starts coming in Session 7, but by laying the groundwork for shivvel here I’ve established some necessary exposition which will make the later stuff easier to present when it comes up. I’ve also established shivvel as part of the wider reality of Ptolus; so when I later say “the shivvel trade is important”, the players don’t have to just take my word for it: They know it.

A subtler example in this same session is Brother Fabitor. I knew that in Act II (which turned out to be several dozen sessions later) I would need someone from the Imperial Church to contact the PCs; thus the introduction of Brother Fabitor here.

I thought there was actually decent odds that Brother Fabitor would become a more significant NPC. And he might have if the paladin Alysta had remained part of the campaign. Instead the PCs ended up becoming more closely associated with Mand Scheben (who you haven’t met yet) and ended up engaging the Imperial Church in completely unanticipated fashion.

… but those are tales for the future.

Random GM Tip – Foreshadowing in RPGs


Session 2A: Welcome to Ptolus

In which the darker side of Ptolus proves to be an addicting experience and the services of many are divided across shopping trips both past and present…

At the beginning of the campaign journal for this session, Tee shares the revelations she gleaned from reading through the Delver’s Guild membership papers. This is actually something that was resolved between sessions. In fact, I’ve still got the original e-mail from Tee’s player:

One thing that should probably be added to the journal is the matter of the ID papers.  Everyone took their set that says they are members of Ptolus (I’d imagine that Tee would either keep Agnarr’s for him, or explain to him what it means so he can hold it himself) and the rest of the papers were placed in the secret compartment of Tee’s trunk, and the trunk was then locked (Tee now carrying the key with her instead of leaving it in her room).

I’m not sure what happened with the Delver’s Guild papers officially, though I would imagine that they were distributed and not locked up with the ID papers, as presumably they are not falsified. On a side note – Tee would have read through her set of Delver’s papers (you said there was a packet of information) and probably gone through the ID papers that night, to see all of the things we were “members” of, to try to keep a mental list in case they were needed later, and to see if we were all members of the same things.

I’ve found it can often be quite useful to end a session at the point just before the players are going to engage in a lot of “down time” activities. These activities can then be resolved at length, in detail, and at leisure through e-mail or other means. This conserves table time, allows for more detailed explorations of certain aspects of the campaign, and can also keep the players engaged in the campaign between sessions.

This particular e-mail from the player was prompted by an e-mail in which I sent out the campaign journal for session 1 and asked all of the players to, “Please take a look through it and let me know if you feel anything was misrepresented
or anything important left out.”

This is another aspect of keeping a detailed campaign journal: The process of review not only helps to keep the record accurate, it also helps to reinforce the players’ memories of the session for future reference.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to convince the players to actually read the campaign journal. So I’ve taken to secretly docking their XP by 50% whenever they don’t do it.

(No, not really. That’s just my way of seeing whether or not any of them are reading these essays. I’ve found that if players don’t want to engage in a campaign, you can’t force them to do so through punishments. You need to keep adding carrots and trying different techniques to see what will stick. And what sticks will often change over time.)


Session 1D: The Common Room at Night

In which further friends are met as strangers, recompenses are paid for a broken door, and the matter of several strange documents become of quizzical importance…

As I’ve mentioned before, the players for my Ptolus campaign were originally scattered to all corners of the country: Indiana, Iowa, Arizona, and Minnesota. The group included my oldest friend, one of the players from my original 3rd Edition campaign, my brother, and my girlfriend. This was, in short, the only way I could play with these people.

Today we’re fortunate enough to have a plethora of online game tables to choose from. Back in 2007, there weren’t as many options to choose from. And most of them were expensive. IIRC, one involved purchasing a $50 piece of software for the GM and then $25 licenses for all of the players. With 5 players it would have set me back $175, which I considered to be a fairly ridiculous price.

The solution I eventually settled on was ScreenMonkey: It had the dual advantages of being affordable and not requiring any special software for my players. ScreenMonkey allows the GM to host a session that can be accessed through any browser. That being said, it’s not a great piece of software and — at least when I was using it — prone to severe lag. But it handled dice rolling, let me display maps, and allowed the players to move their miniatures around.

To supplement ScreenMonkey we also used Ventrilo and, later, Skype for voice-chat. And we used the SSA-X2 PDF character sheets to conveniently swap standardized character sheets.

Which basically sums up what you need for a virtual tabletop:

  • Ability to share graphics (preferably with battlemap and miniature support).
  • Dice roller.
  • Ability to talk to each other.

With that being said, I’d also like:

  • Ability to tab and/or splitscreen multiple graphics.
  • Integrated private messaging.
  • Fog of war. (Customized to individual PCs would be great.)

I know lots of people also like to see integrated mechanical support for their systems of choice (character sheets, initiative trackers, etc.). But I’ve found they’re usually more trouble than they’re worth: I’d rather keep the digital interface clean and simple and let people manage initiative and character sheets and all that the same way they do at the physical table.


With that being said, I haven’t done a lot of gaming at electronic tables. Partly this is because I don’t do a lot of gaming with strangers. Partly this is because my gaming schedule is already filled beyond capacity with face-to-face games.

But largely, speaking as a Game Master, it’s because prepping for an electronic table requires a lot more work than prepping for a table game.

Largely, this is because I’ve found that people tend to have very different standards for what they consider “graphically acceptable” on a computer screen. When I scratch out some lines using colored markers on a Chessex battlemat, players at the table tend to simply provide closure and imagine vast halls of cyclopean majesty. When I’ve taken the same players and shown them the same chicken-scratchings on a virtual tabletop, however, it doesn’t seem to work.

(I eventually started using Dundjinni with the Old School map pack. This is the only mapping software I’ve found that lets me crank out polished maps in about the same time it takes me to sketch them out by hand. It’s not glitzy and it still needs to pre-prepped for a digital table, but it’s of a high enough quality that my players stopped getting perceptibly yanked out of the game.)

But this also goes beyond battlemaps: Stuff that can be quickly shown at the gaming table without any effort at all requires special prep for the virtual environment. Something as simple as holding up a bestiary and showing the picture of a monster requires scanning the image and getting it into a format (and location) where it can be displayed to the players. (This is becoming less of a hassle as more and more of my RPG library becomes digital, although I still need to get the picture out of the PDF.)

The net result of all this is not only that prepping is more labor-intensive for a virtual tabletop, but that I also find the virtual tabletop inhibits improvising. If my tabletop players unexpectedly go into a random building, it’s not hard for me to whip up floorplans on the fly. On the digital table, however, there’s just no way for me to pull that off in any sort of smooth or effective way.

In many ways I find this similar to using detailed miniature terrain like DwarvenForge. It’s fabulous. And if I was independently wealthy I would hire somebody to make and customize miniature terrain for my campaigns full-time. But it’s too time-consuming for me to use it on a regular basis.



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