Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Filling in the Blanks

It’s been a little while since I have spoken about our new homebrew campaign.  In fact it’s been a couple months, and that was back in the great halls of The Mad Adventurer’s Society.  Perhaps it is time for an update on how things are going in Port Haven…

Just to bring you all up to speed on what Port Haven is, I have to give a little bit more from before that.  Before this new campaign, I had been running the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons for over a year.  We were halfway through and the bounce had gone out of our bungee.  Being a community gaming organisation, the player roster changed so many times that there was very little character investment in the overall plot, which had reached the point of crawl, rinse repeat anyways.

We flat out ditched PotA.

And with a brand new table of player characters, I decided to start a homebrew.  Except I had no ideas for a homebrew, nor time to create one.

So I let the players make it up.

They wanted to be somewhere a little wild, but with a bastion of civilisation.  Near a coast, and with a variety of temperate terrain to suit a variety of adventure locales.  The characters they had made lent themselves well to a nomadic tribal society.  A goliath ranger, half orc barbarian, a tiefling runaway warlock and a storm cleric to name a few of the six players I have.

We managed to sketch the broad strokes of the countryside and its inhabitants in just a session or two, and have since then been filling in some of the more general details.

One thing I have really enjoyed has been my decision to let the weather of the real world govern the climate in the world of our port city.  It’s winter in Muskoka, and unlike more popular destinations in Ontario like Toronto, we have an ample amount of snow on the ground around here.  So every week as I contemplate the encounters I’m planning, I pay attention to what is happening outside.  Working very closely at times with the outside as a carpenter, I am never that far, and am very conscious of how temperature can affect mood and performance, and how multiple layers of clothing feels when you move and bend, twist and walk.

I was anticipating regular Survival checks and Constitution saves as we navigated their adventures, but lucky for the party it has been a fairly mild winter.  Not without snow and extreme weather, but certainly lacking the brisk -25C temperatures we are used to in January and February.  Lucky sods.

I let other matters inform our adventuring as well.  Christmas is always a holiday worth capitalising on in the world of role-playing games, and I feel I did OK in this regard.  The group was looking to hire themselves out, having just cast off their employment as local militia/constabulary toughs, and I had a desperate young man engage their services.

He was from a fairly new logging settlement and had come to Port Haven hauling the final shipment of cord wood and lumber for the season.  His brother was supposed to arrive a day or two after, but hadn’t shown up.

After discovering the empty settlement and spending a tense night searching amongst solstice decorations and strange wooden dolls, the group set off to find the missing people of Timberfell.  I didn’t want to specifically use Santa, Jack Frost or Krampus, so I blended all three into a demon who wanted to put the settlement and then the whole north into perpetual winter.  Demons don’t understand food stores and the necessity for the seasons to change, but all these humans think solstice is so great, why can’t they just celebrate forever?  What a great gift for the demon to give the world?

They did indeed save Timberfell and return to Port Haven to collect their profit.  Since then I have had to take a few absences, and my friend Shayne was there to take the reigns, filling in with prequel adventures and a side quest or two as needed.

And as needed, we have begun fleshing out more details, and as needed I have been attempting to sow the seeds of an overarching plot to get the players tangled up in.  And thus far, it has been a good experience.  The players’ backstories are giving me plenty of fodder to be sure.  Everyone has come up with enough of a history and origin to give me some good plot hooks, and to tailor certain encounters to appeal to certain backgrounds, but as the PCs navigate these encounters, they are themselves shaping how my story will go.

We start a story.  I establish the scenario and give the group time to formulate a plan.  Due to the fact that our port city is only conceptualised in the broadest strokes, they have every avenue available to them when it comes to where they can go and who they can talk to.  Locations, NPCs and their relationships with those people are up for grabs.

You would think this might be viewed as an easy or win button situation, but that’s where I come in.  The Dungeon Master’s role is to create and referee the challenges the party will face, so I do my best to add an element to these people and places as they arise.  Which usually means putting some kind of roll to the group.

The party is currently adventuring at level four.  They are no longer a wet behind the ears troupe of rat slayers, but they are certainly not the epic heroes the city needs.  However, my players are not very lucky.  They just don’t get stellar roles all the time.  So when they go off to have a chat with the local dreamleaf dealer, or bribe the quartermaster or try and pass along a suitors’ gift to the moneylender’s daughter, things just have a habit of not going their way.  Low roles or bad choice of skills to use have kept things challenging for my little group of would be heroes, and given me no small source of story for them to enjoy.

The challenges I am facing as a DM are as they have ever been since forming the Bracebridge Tabletop Gaming Community, and even further back to Game On when it was open.

Mostly time and regular attendance.  Time will ever be a factor, since we game once a week and for only a few hours at a time.  This stretches certain scenes to the breaking point and throws off my schedule if the PCs make things unnecessarily complicated, which they inevitably do.  I am trying to make each minor story no more than three sessions, and any major plot movement take up no more than six.  That means three weeks to complete the fun stuff, and six weeks to go through anything major.

I set a time limit of April/May to end this campaign, so that means I have to get a move on.  After this is done, I am looking forward to getting back into FFG’s Star Wars system, as it has been too long since I have been able to run a campaign there, and the variety will do the table good.  Keeping things fresh.

Attendance is just a thing I can’t control.  Sam has trouble getting a consistent ride, Morgan seems to be working a lot of Thursdays, and sometimes I get extra players from another table whose plans just fell apart for whatever reason.

The thing you have to remember about running a gaming community is that people are paying you.  It is very rare that I can just call off a night due to lack of attendance.  If I have two or three players, I am running something.  The problem comes when those two or three people are not the ones who would benefit directly from the story being played out, or they are people who have not been involved at all!  The best laid plans of mice and men, indeed…

Yet so far, we have been lucky.  Things are treading along quite well compared to the previous campaign, and I hope that the group’s very real involvement in creating their world has played a role in motivating them to attend.  Shortly I will accelerate the meat of the story, now that they have had a chance to reach a certain level of camaraderie and teamwork amongst the table.

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