Thursday, December 17, 2020

Lessons Learned 24

The following happened months, MONTHS I say, ago. In the before times, and then global pandemic hit and we have not played in my campaign since. Maybe after the first of the year we will see the first of several vaccines come out, and we will finish this thing up. Excuse me if I have forgotten anything, or the details have become muddled, but I have been busy in the interim.

The party got to dabble in the sandbox, and then I railroaded them right into the giants' lair. After their last adventure, a side quest where I let them choose which path to take, I once again used their affiliation with the government to go where I wanted them to go. For those of you not following all of that, in my desire to fight "murderhobo-ism" I tied the party to a paramilitary organization at the very beginning of this campaign, which makes them be responsible to their local government and which also lets me guide the group from time to time. This adventure is the classic Against the Giants, originally published all the way back in 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but lovingly updated to 5e by Wizards of the Coast and published in Tales from the Yawning Portal. Unlike the two other arcs of this campaign, which I stole whole-cloth from 3rd edition and had to modify to 5th as we played (usually before each session, but sometimes as we were playing them out), this arc has already been translated for me, by professionals! 

There is, however, still much preparation that I have had to do for this arc, and the party is not past the first of three parts of the adventure. I highly encourage you to read Fiddleback's (of GM Word of the Week fame) review, I guess you would call it, of this particular module, Fiddleback vs Against the Giants. If you are planning on running this series of adventures, heed the man's warning and prepare your butt off. I will let you read what Master Fiddleback wrote for yourself, but I do want to relay some of the things I had to do to get the first third of this arc running smooth. 

One moment while I digress on my use of the word "master" just now. I did not use it, as has become anathema to the liberal left snowflakes, in the manner of "master and slave". Yes, slavery was (still is) abhorrent, and GitHub was right in discontinuing the term "master" as it was traditional to call the orginating code "master", and the subsequent code "slaves". However, not every use of the word master is about slavery. My use of the word master just now refers to a master craftsman (craftsperson, fine, PC bullshit, grumble grumble), as in apprentice, journeyman, master. Good on GitHub for dropping it, but not every other usage of the word should be abandoned, unless it directly reflects back to slavery. My buck fifty on the matter.

The first thing I realized in setting up this adventure is the broad scope of monsters and NPCs in this one fort. The original creators (quite possibly Master Gygax himself) did not want you to get bored by running into the same monster over and over, so there are numerous different monsters and NPCs. There was no way I could keep track of them all trying to flip between the pages of the Monster Manual, so I wrote all of their stats onto 3x5 note cards. I am not kidding, there is like 30 separate monster types and NPCs in just the first third of the adventure. Now, you do not have to hand write them onto note cards, you could compile them onto a couple of pages and print them out. However you do it, do something and do not try to reference the books mid-session, as you will slow everything down as you flip back and forth betwixt all the different baddies.

Speaking of monsters, the adventure gives you the positions of all of the said monsters inside this two level fort at one specific time. Making sure your party reaches the fort at that time is easy, but after that, the players could decide to do something other than kick open the doors and commence to rolling for initiative. My party scouted the fort from the shadows, and then withdrew to discuss options, then snuck back in the next night to assassinate the head giant, after most of the giants went to bed. Totally throws the whole lot of baddies into a spin and suddenly what is in the book is no longer correct. Time passes, the monsters and NPCs, if you want this to be realistic, move to different parts of the fort and go about their different routines doing different things at different parts of the day in different areas of the fort. No, the adventure does not tell you what these routines are or where any of the baddies are at any other time of day, you have to decide as the DM what these routines are and where the monsters are at throughout the day. You will want to do this before your players and their characters arrive at the fort, as you will be too busy directing the scene to figure all of this out on the fly. For my session prep, I charted out where everyone was at and what they were doing at various parts of the day - in the deep of night after the feast, during the morning, then the afternoon, and finally early evening just before the feast. You do not have to go that detailed, or you may decide to go even further, whatever works for you. I did make the decision that until the party did something to interrupt it, the feast described in the adventure module would reoccur every evening at roughly the same time, just so I would not have to reinvent that particular wheel. 

Beyond all of that, the adventure is, and has been since the first edition, very vague on many of the particulars - how do the PCs get the job? where are these giants' strongholds exactly? how does the party travel to these locations? how do some of the non-automatically evil giants react to the party? what will drive off each band of giants, also known as what is their breaking point? For most of these questions, like how does the party travel to the hill giant fort, I have let the players figure it out. For these kinds of questions, as long as the party has not made an obvious bad decision, they will automatically succeed, but they still feel powerful and their actions and decisions have an effect on the world. For the other questions, you as the DM have to figure this stuff out ahead of time. Or during play. Like I had no idea my party would go straight to assassinating the hill giant chief, but they did and they managed to pull it off. Did this drive away the other giants? No, I decided on the spot, but it did create a bit of a power vacuum, and as a result there is some infighting that the PCs could take advantage of. Some folks will see this lack of concrete information on every aspect or possibility as a failing by the adventure's author, but I think you cannot possibly cover down on EVERY eventuality in the scenario, you as an author can only do so much on any product, and there has to be a point where you say "enough is enough", end it and publish it. Take it as a challenge to improve your DM'ing skills, and try not to whine about it too much.

Not really a lesson learned, but a funny story in and of itself - my party has a fascination with the Awaken spell. At the beginning of the previous arc of the campaign, the party traveled to the ranger's tavern (we used Pathfinder's Ultimate Campaign book for some downtime options, and the ranger built a tavern, the druid built a sacred grove and herbal shop, and the paladin, as the party's leader, oversaw the construction of their guild's chapterhouse) and one of the party joked they were going into the ranger's personal bedroom and stealing his badger. "How do you know he has a badger," I asked, "and that he keeps it in his bedroom?" "He's a ranger," came the reply, "don't they all have a badger in their bedrooms?" So I rolled Luck (I just use percentile dice and kind of guesstimate what the likelihood of anything happening is, and just roll with it), and rolled very, very high. So the party finds a badger in the ranger's bedroom... which they then proceeded to die pink, shave all it's fur off except for a mohawk, put a bikini on (another roll, this badger is female), and then the druid gets the bright idea they should Awaken the poor thing. Which they did, and then gifted a spare Headband of Intellect no one in the party was using (obviously). Said badger, now wearing a very nicely tailored suit, runs the ranger's tavern while the ranger is off on adventures with the party. Also the badger was given a lot of marijuana (the druid and ranger were the biggest pot dealers in this particular corner of the empire, and after they made friends with the myconids at the end of the last campaign arc, are also now the biggest 'shroom dealers) which helped soothe the badger down after the whole "shaved and dyed pink" thing. 

But it does not stop there. The party's newest member is a dwarven cleric who came with his own giant boar to ride around on. What did the party do after the dwarf got to trusting the rest of the party? They Awakened his boar. Then the ranger, whose family has a fascination with wolves and werewolves, managed to make a dire wolf his loyal pet after nearly killing it, definitely killing its former master, and bringing said wolf back from the brink of death. Which the party then Awakened. But no extra Headbands of Intellect for what I have been playing as the party's new peanut gallery. Think Waldorf and Statler from The Muppet Show, except they each weigh half a ton, are the size of a horse, only have an INT of 6, and could maul you at their leisure. I am dreading what they will Awaken next, but also fascinated at the same time, like a train wreck you just cannot tear your eyes away from.

That is all for this post. Sorry for the delay, but the COVID has kept me and the family busy. My group is still playing online when we can get manage to get together, but it has not been as regular as any of us would like. Hope you and yours are doing well and surviving the pandemic.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Lessons Learned 23

The party had several rumors presented to them as side quests between the last arc and the new, upcoming arc of the campaign. They chose the adventure into the Underdark, fearing they would face Illithids (Mindflayers) or the Drow, but still went in. They found Troglodytes, being chased by Quaggoth, who had been sent by Kuo Toa that were worshipping an Aboleth. Oh, and there was a Purple Worm, too, but the party was not supposed to fight that one, it was just a goad to get them moving.

I think I have talked about all of this before in previous posts, but wanted to ponder on it more. As well as talk on into the next arc of the campaign. I had built the last side quest from pieces chosen from the Monster Manual, but with no real plans other than the quaggoth were chasing the troglodytes at the behest of the kuo toa, who's were praying to and serving an aboleth, and incidentally, said aboleth was using the kuo toa's odd ability to create their own gods through belief to strengthen its own power. The purple worm was added later when it became obvious they party needed a goad to drive them out of their comfort zone (cautious approach that was taking way too long). I really did not expect the party to fight the worm, only run from it, and I could move it around at a whim to guide them away or towards other things. But then they tracked it down and used a polymorph spell on it that the worm failed to react in time and failed its save against, and suddenly the party is using it against their enemies.

It was brilliant! Utterly stupid but brilliant nonetheless. If the worm had acted before the spell was cast or it had made its save, the two party members involved in the tracking and spell casting part of the plan (the other three party members were well away from them) would surely have died. The three remaining party members would have had to continue on without the other two (no resurrections or the like in the party at the time) and utterly failed against the kuo toa and an upgraded aboleth. Or they could have tried to locate at least a little of their friends' bodies and gone back to the surface (by teleportation circle, if they remembered they had it, a long walk if they did not) to get them resurrected and then try again. The second option was also pretty much doomed to fail, because the kuo toa and aboleth would have been even more prepared for the party, and would not be playing nice. That is, if the purple worm did not simply TPK the lot of them in the first place. 

With luck, however, they managed to pull it off. The lesson here is, as the DM, I got to write the beginning of this "story" (there are rumblings in the deep and the party needs to take care of it), the ending (the party succeeds if they kill or drive off the aboleth, or simply convince the aboleth to leave by getting the kuo toa to stop worshipping/serving it), and who was involved. Beyond that, setup was even easier as I decided to come up with maps on the fly, and since we were using Roll20 due to COVID-19 and a statewide isolate in place order, I was not terribly familiar with that program, so improvisation was the way to go. Yes, the party would have faced a much tougher threat if they had avoided the worm - the kuo toa want to capture you, usually to make you into their slaves, but in this case to give the party to the aboleth and let it mind dominate everyone into servitude - but going after the worm was much more precipitously dangerous as opposed to being merely dangerous for a longer period of time. 

Therein lies this post's lesson - even as unscripted as you make your adventures, your party can still surprise you. And that's kind of the point of playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, the players face problem X, but this group may choose solution A, that group will waffle between solutions B and C, and yet another group will surprise you with solution Purple Ostrich. I have been having a lot of fun playing pre-generated adventures, The Shattered Gates of Slaughtergarde and Red Hand of Doom from 3e/3.5, and after the adventure I talked about above we have already had 3 sessions in the updated Against the Giants found inside Tales from the Yawning Portal collection of adventures, as I did not have to do much in the way of session prep. Yes, there was some prep work, especially transforming the 3e adventures into 5e-friendly fares, but very little deep investment of time. But as little as I had to do for the purchased adventures, for this little sidequest, I did amazingly little as well.

I had originally heard of the idea of using an adventure generator from the Web DM folks, as one of them was using basically a random table to make the games for his Spelljammer campaign. These side quests were very much like that, but I kept them as simple as possible - pick a monster or combination of monsters that sounded interesting, figure out a location that made sense to encounter them (or even made them more interesting), and then add that combo of monster and place into my game world. Shadows are terribly interesting if you pair them with a necromancer who has turned their generation of new shadows from the bodies of slain foes from hours into mere rounds, especially if they are also encountered in a subterranean realm where no sunlight can normally reach. A skull lord is a much higher level of challenge than my party was, but what if it could only exist on the Prime Material for a few rounds before being recalled? There were other ideas - some tied into a character's background (sometimes you just cannot avoid that one player who wants to write so much outside-of-the-game fiction that some of it will eventually worm its way into your game), others tied into other character's in between campaign downtime activities, but nothing screamingly unexpected and world-changing in terms of D&D adventures. Sometimes you throw curveballs at your players, and other times you give them the #2 combo they've always ordered from their local fast food restaurant - it may not surprise them, but what they get they will enjoy.

There you go, bunch of ideas, some funny stories, hope everyone enjoyed the ride.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Good Story, Bad Game

The party, newcomers to the adventuring life, had answered the summons by the village, and had trekked into the dark caverns to clear out the bloodthirsty goblins residing therein. Triumphant but still battered, the party returned to the village to find the local lord had finally deigned to show up with his retainers. The party didn't care, they had taken the job from the village overseer, and the overseer was who the party was expecting payment from, not this lordling that couldn't be bothered to take care of his villeins properly. 

Yet the lord had other ideas. Embarrassed that he had been proven to be lacking in attending to his sworn duties, he had gathered all of his warriors and rushed to the village to find the adventurers had already performed the necessary extermination. Now here they were about to receive gold that should be going to him in the form of taxes, as this was his land, after all. This was a feudalistic society, not some anarcho-syndicalist commune. The lord ordered his retinue to seize the gold and any other treasure the party had gotten from the goblins. The adventurers protested, but they were very much outnumbered, and not high enough level to matter, so they handed over the villagers' gold and the mere pittance of coins they had gotten from the goblins. Oh, and the +1 dagger the rogue had found on the body of the head goblin. 

"This is fantastic!" thought the lord. "My men didn't have to fight anything, the goblins are gone, and I still got my taxes. Plus this beautiful dagger! Isn't the next town over complaining about orcs?" And so the lord, laughing up his sleeve, mentioned the orc problem of the next village over in passing to the adventurers. He would wait a few days, and then follow them with his war host, see if he could arrive in time to repeat the act.

All of the above is an idea I had recently on something to inflict on my D&D party, I have not actually done that to them yet. Having been a medieval recreator and studied our actual history, I could see some feudalistic lordling doing that to a party of D&D adventurers. Let the adventurers take care of your monster problems, that's less wear and tear on the folks that you have to buy healing potions for, but adventurers aren't covered by your health insurance, now are they? And isn't there some quote about teaching a man to fish so you can beat him up to take his fish everyday?

So why not make your game more "realistic" and do this too them? As the title of this article suggests, the above makes for a great bit of fiction, and while we DMs are "telling a collaborative story with the help our players", that doesn't mean this story makes for a fun or interesting game. By having the lord be more powerful than the party and basically telling them to hand over their hard won booty or die, you have stolen their agency and killed any desire in them to adventure further. That is, unless your ultimate goal was to have the party deal with this lord, this is not a good dose of realism to inflict on your party. Which would make an interesting game - how is the party dealing with little Lord Fontleroy? Outright killing him? Political assassination by going to his Baron/Count/Duke/the Queen? Peasant revolt? What are they doing afterwards, taking the lord's place themselves or giving it to a peasant or one of the lord's old retainers? - but only one time and only if the party themselves are interested in playing along with it.

Just a quick idea I had. Sorry for the long hiatus, been very busy since the beginning of the 'Rona, as my business turns out to be critical, and also my job as well. Looking to finish up several other drafts I have had bubbling on the back burner for a while, and will be posting them soonish.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Punisher as a Guide to Running Cyberpunk Campaigns

As Cyberpunk Red is due to come out in full later this year - yes, I realize that the Jumpstart Kit is already out, I have it, and it is by far not a complete enough product to get more than a taste for the new ruleset, much less a continuing campaign - more than likely in conjunction with CD Projekt Red's release of the much vaunted videogame Cyberpunk 2077, I have been pondering running some 'punk. Why do I think they are waiting for the release of CP2077 for the release of Red? R. Talsorian Games has not kept any secrets that they are working with CDPR on CP2077 and then I notice this in the copyright section of the Red Jumpstart Kit rulebook:

Click to embiggen
Yep, that is CDPR's copyright next to RTG's. So, yes, I am pretty sure that RTG will release the full version of Red when CDPR releases CP2077 to us salivating masses (mid-November is the latest revealed release date, as I am typing this). I really like what I have seen so far in the Red rules and world setting, and would really like to run my group through the CP2020 Firestorm campaign (the 4th Corporate War) so the world setting info does not spoil the surprise for them, and then straight into Red with a continuing campaign based on their characters' (at least those that survive Firestorm) from the previous adventure. Wrinkle in that plan is my current group is fully focused on reaching level 20 in our current 5e D&D campaign, to then maybe go on to an Eberron campaign (why? airships!), and even if we skip Eberron to go into my grandiose Cyberpunk dreams, that is still going to take a few years just to get them through the final two arcs of the campaign and to 20th level. Oh well, maybe they will suffer a TPK before then and decide that maybe 5e can be put aside for a while.

Related to that, I was perusing one of the firearms related groups on the Book of Face, and was reminded of a firearm from an issue of Punisher Armory from all the way back in the 1990s. First, a little history - back before 1994, there was no internet. This thing I am posting this blog onto? Yeah, the World Wide Web, did not exist before these comics came out. Yes, you had local BBS's over dial-up modems and ARPANET was being experimented with, but the internet as we know it was not a thing. If you wanted information on anything, much less firearms, you had to find it in the library in the form of a book or a magazine. Being a young man with an overabundance of testosterone and having watched too many 1980s era action/adventure movies starring the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, I had an interest in the military in general (yes, one of the reasons why I did eventually join and serve in the United States Army National Guard) and guns in specific. Do you think my parents would let me purchase firearms related magazines? No, not a chance, but they would let me buy comic books (which they did not approve of either, but I had a lot of friends who were already loaning me their copies, so it was an avenue that was already well trodden) and that is where the aforementioned Armory comes in. No Forgotten Weapons, no C&Rsenal, no Firearm Blog, just a bunch of newsprint stock colored comic books. This series was all about the titular character's guns and gear and training and living spaces and with just a few exceptions was as realistic as if Frank Castle was a real person in our world, and it had a ton of info on everything from Saturday-night-special crap up to multi-barreled cannons. I have no idea where this series came from as I cannot find much on the history of it other than what I linked above, but apparently someone at Marvel, most likely Eliot R. Brown, was a serious firearms enthusiast and knew what he was talking about.

This brings me to the aforementioned reminder of this series. Someone had posted up what looked like a home-made pistol that fired full powered rifle rounds in the .308 Winchester/7.62 NATO range of power. Yes, from a hand-held, no stock, short barreled pistol. Anyway, that reminded of one of the pistols found in the Punisher Armory series, which after a little digging, I found to be issue #7, on page 5, a Philippine home-made, 4-chambered revolver that fired 5.56 NATO rounds. Here is the page in question:

Again, clicky to embiggen
That revolver has fascinated me since I first saw it in the early '90s. I had no idea what it was then, as I had no real experience with firearms (BB rifles and .22LR rifles at Boy Scout camp do not convey much beyond the fundamentals), but even now, after serving in the military and shooting competitions at a local level, that revolver still breaks my brain. Science knows that beast has to be a wrist-breaker, and with only 4 rounds it is not very long to empty, yet the firearm still fascinates me - someone with access to a decent machine shop and the knowledge to use them, plus an overabundance of 5.56 NATO cartridges, built this from scratch. Not only that, but they built enough of them that the group that used them became known for this firearm, yet they built few enough of them that you really could not call it a serialized production run. Why, for the love of Athena Promachos, would anyone build it, though? One word: necessity. Fascinating.

This mini-series of The Punisher as a whole always fascinated me - here is Frank Castle as real as he can get, no one else in the Marvel universe, no mutants, no super-heroes, someone who is fighting organized and unorganized criminals and corrupt law enforcement practically on his own, with only the skills he learned in a nasty war and the material he can steal from those he "punishes". Oh, and he has Micro as well, his techie assistant, who is the most polar opposite when it comes to physical characteristics, but he is the one you want to go to when you need something technical like computers, electronics, vehicles, or firearms sorted out. The pair have to do everything themselves, cannot go to law enforcement (too corrupt) or the government (also corrupt but also too uninterested in such "small matters"), and everyone else is in the criminals' pockets or thinks the Punisher is crazy and has gone too far. They are practically alone in their quest.

Is it just me, or are Punisher and Micro edgerunners? I could use this as a campaign setting - the party are up against some powerful organization that has wronged them personally, and when the party fought back, they pissed off everyone - other powerful and semi-powerful organizations, the locals, the gangs, the corps, the civvies, other edgerunners, local and regional law enforcement, everyone - and now the group is on their own. Even their usual Fixer will only do business with them on a very limited basis and everything is more expensive, automatically. All they can count on is their own skills and whatever material they can steal or plunder from the corpses of their targets. Obviously (or maybe not), the rockerboy/girl, the nomad, the media, and the fixer all got much harder to play. Who listens to a rockergirl that has betrayed her fans (she was set up, of course, but the fans don't know that) so many times? Or a media who constantly lies about such and such corp (said corp moved the evidence into LEO and slandered the media)? Or the nomad who killed fellow packmates (again, setup job)? Those characters would have to reduce their special abilities to almost nothing (temporarily or permanently, that is up to you, the Ref), and either be allowed to build up other special abilities, or work through the handicap as a challenge. Basically the team is on their own, can not ask for help from anyone outside the group, and is facing an organization that normally is very dangerous, but because now everyone else believes the team is less than scum, they are facing a huge uphill battle.

Of course, this is how I would want someone to run a CP2020/Red game for me so I can live out my Punisher fantasies, I am not sure how much other players out there would enjoy it. I would totally enjoy going after my own intel, spying on the bad guys and figuring out what their organization's structure is and who rests in the key positions. I would totally enjoy having to dig through all the gear my team would get off of the bad guys and trying to figure out how much ammo we have for which of the guns we also got, plus what other goodies we come up with: tech scanners, medical supplies, vehicles, even what illegal drugs we gathered and could sell off to fund our adventure (or use recreationally... no one is as straight-laced as Frank Castle in the grim dark of the dystopic future, everyone needs a break from time to time). I would totally enjoy mapping out each of our safe houses, showing hidden closets full of hardware, fast escape routes, illicit workshops to tinker with all the hardware, training rooms to test hardware and hone skills, and garages full of modified vehicles. After typing all of the above, I am just not sure how fun any of that would be for a normal group of CP2020/Red gamers. Also, I am very aware that your normal game of CP2020/Red is probably one of the most deadly out there, so putting your group into this situation just cranks up the difficulty to a quite possibly unmanageable level.

Oh well, it was fun to think about and peruse the old Armory issues. And maybe some of my ramblings may spark some creativity from you folks. It is interesting, as a modern firearms enthusiast, to see what was considered to be what the operators of the late '80s/early '90s considered high (and low) tech. Single stack, 7 round 1911s in .45 caliber (favorites of Frank Castle and practically every shooter in the late '80s/early '90s) are poo-poo'd these days, if not in favor of the "wondernine" high capacity polymer 9mm pistols like the Glocks and the Smith & Wesson M&Ps, at least for the more modern "2011" double-stacked magazine 1911s, most in .45 but some in 10mm or 9mm or .40S&W. Glass optics and laser sights mounted "above the slide" on semi-auto pistols, where today our semi-autos come with an accessory rail under the barrel and the "slide ride" optics are rugged enough to withstand repeated recoil impulses. Remote control drones the size of sub-compact cars, streaming VHS-quality video from cameras the size of a toaster-oven. A GPS unit the size of a briefcase with the antenna and everything, and all it can do is tell you your longitude and latitude, so count in the other briefcase full of survey maps and a protractor. Every once in a while, Mr Brown and his cohorts let a little bit of sci-fi slip through and believed the advertising script from some of these manufacturers that promised a lot more than they could deliver, but it was usually on something that I could totally see existing in the grim dark dystopic future, like an automated construction bot that builds multi-story training areas unsupervised. Or this "dalek" protection robot, that even our modern military is still trying to come up with that will only kill the bad guys and not the good guys (hint: even the US DoD in the actual year 2020 has not made this happen yet).

I do not think this jaunt down memory lane has been a complete waste. Yes, I do not think I will ever crank up the difficulty on a CP2020/Red game to "Punisher" level, but I think I can incorporate parts of it into my next game. Maybe the party's Fixer isn't that good or the local leftist party is threatening stricter gun control laws, whatever the reason, the team cannot seem to get any gear beyond the cheapest of the cheap, and ammo is scarce too. Maybe the Nomad's pack is heading out of the region for a while and the Nomad cannot ask for any help. Not all of the things I mentioned before, but just one of them, crank the difficulty up just a smidge. I definitely need to go back through all the Armory issues, see if there is anything else I can use. I will try and post it up here if I do run into anything.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Old School Tips and Tricks

I was discussing with the newest player to my table the other day some ideas for his character and was reminded that hardly any of my players have been alive as long as I have been playing tabletop RPGs, much less playing them for nearly as long. Part of my job as a long time gamer and specifically as their experienced DM is to help all of them play the various games better with lessons learned from past campaigns. I mean, it is not something you as a player should expect from every one of your DM/GM/Referee/Storyteller/Whatnots as part of the unwritten social contract between gamers and DMs, but as an experienced and long-time gamer turned DM, I feel for me this is something I should have been paying attention to since Day One. In my game, we are at the end of a side quest which will bring the party up to level 11 and ready for the next major arc of the overarching campaign (campaign goal - get the party to 20th level and have fun while getting there), so I figured now is a good time to review how I as the DM am doing with the players, how my players are doing both from my perspective and their own, have a bit of downtime activities, and impart some "wisdom". Really these are just tricks us old time grognards used to make the games we played more palatable, well before the time of the internet, 3d printers, and pocket computers (what we call "cell phones", far different than what we called cell phones around the time that Wizards of the Coast bought D&D from TSR and released 3rd edition), and for as cheap as possible because we were all broke, minimum wage workers. Also, as the COVID-19 "isolate in place" orders are about to lift in our state/county/city, it will be nice to get out of our various houses, see our friends in person and away from voices over the internet.

Before I get into this, do not mistake me, I am not bemoaning the modern technology that we are enjoying. I am very much busy enjoying my 3d printer (currently down for maintenance, but most recently working on modular bar pieces) and the use of such technology as Discord and Roll20 to play online during the COVID isolate in place orders, Google Drive and Docs to share files with the group as well as gather files for the campaign, and all the various free bits of software, both from WotC and 3rd party designers. However, some of these technologies can become very expensive - the 3d printer addiction will likely outstrip the rest, only because my video gaming addiction meant I already have an expensive gaming rig for that addiction and not necessarily for tabletop RPGs - both in software and hardware and may not be for every party. The free and paid character creators and sheets from D&D Beyond, for example, work very well, but unless you are able to spend quite a bit of money on a tablet, the sheet is way too slow at accessing information for comfort at a gaming table. Plus, you lose something in muscle memory when you create something digitally versus writing it onto paper. As such, these tips and tricks are not for every group (they may not even be for my own group, we will find out soon), but have worked well for me in the past.

The following is for my D&D 5e campaign, but I have used many of these in other tabletop RPGs, and most of these are for the players as well as the DM. For everything that I purchased for this week's presentation to my players, I went to WalMart and priced everything there, as I wanted to try and get the most common prices across the US, though you may find these cheaper elsewhere, like at Staples or Office Depot, or even online at Amazon.

The first and probably most relevant to modern technology is fine tip dry erase markers (found at WalMart for $4.74 for 5 in a variety of colors). I say that these are the most relevant to modern technology as dry/wet erase boards are far more available and prevalent than they were 20 years ago. In fact, back when 3rd edition first came out and I first ran into this idea, we did not have dry erase markers, they were called overhead projector markers (still are) as there were not any dry erase boards but schools had been using overhead projectors for decades. Dry erase markers are fantastic for both the party and the DM, as the DM can create a map board with some plexiglass (which can get a bit expensive for the larger sheets, but cost can be offset by having your players chip in to a party fund) and poster boards. You tape the poster boards to the back of the plexiglass after you mark out your 1 inch (or whatever, I am considering a 1/2 inch grid and utilize 15mm minis instead of 28/32mm heroics to get more room for maneuver in my battles) with a simple yard stick and a permanent marker on the poster boards. In the picture below, you can see some of my 3d printed walls and terrain bits on my own 1 inch grid board.

these have all been painted by now, and look fantastic

The dry erase markers are great to quickly mark out any terrain or pertinent information that I do not have a model or miniature or marker for. Note that I use regular chisel tip markers on my battle map, just to cover more area quickly, but the fine tips work well for certain applications and should be your first purchase over the chisel tips. The other use of the dry erase markers, more pertinent to the players and why I said that fine tips should be your first purchase is character sheets. Now, I am not saying your players should use the dry erase markers directly on their character sheets, but in addition to the markers, they need to invest in some sheet protectors. I found, on my little WalMart expedition, a pack of 20 economy sheet protectors for $0.88. Since each player is only going to need a few each, this pack is enough for my party, at least for their current characters. Once the players have their regular character sheets filled out (the stock ones direct from WotC are good looking enough, and if no one in your group has a computer and printer to print them off, someone can do it from work, or the party can pitch in and have a bunch printed up at your local Staples or Office Depot, or even most public libraries offer print for pay services) with pencils, they slip them into the sheet protectors and use the dry erase markers on the outside of the sheet protectors to record temporary information - current and max HP, Death Saves, any temporary buffs or debuffs to skills or stats or any other characteristic, XP gains, and even keep track of spells cast and material components consumed. Once you get to the end of the game session, the players simply pull out their sheets and write down anything they need to know for the next game session. I am kicking myself for forgetting this one, as my players' sheets look atrocious, with notes and markings and even eraser rub holes, to the point that I have printed up pristine new sheets for everyone and part of next session will be them transferring their characters to the new sheets. And I have a ton of dry erase markers floating around that I have been using specifically with this campaign, so not doing this before now is doubly frustrating for me.

Speaking of pencils, I provide to my players BIC Matic Grip Mechanical Pencils that I get in bulk from the local Sam's Club. This could be something your group pitches in for, as they are used by the whole group. You do not have to buy that specific brand, but I have been using them for multiple decades with great success, and if you do have a bulk store account, can be had for not a lot of money per pencil. I suggest a mechanical pencil, as you do not have to worry about providing sharpeners, but if you want to go with something more reusable than the BICs I shared above, you can find nice ones and refills for both the leads and the erasers easily enough. I find the BICs write well, erase well, and last quite a long time, but when they run out of lead or eraser, I do not feel I wasted my money throwing it away and grabbing a new one.

Next up is something to keep said sheet protectors in. Currently I keep all of the character sheets at my house so that if any of the players do not make a game, we can pass off their character to someone else to keep the game going. To that end, I had a mess of manila folders leftover from other uses at my house and gave one to each player to hold their sheets, and even stapled in the crit/fumble charts and the initiative chart we use in the game. However, I really should have listened to Seth Skorkowsky and started the campaign with each player having their own 3-ring binders that I had prefilled with paper and sheet protectors and other info. During my trip to WalMart, I found the cheapest option which has no inside or outside pockets, merely some plastic front and back covers and the requisite 3 rings to hold onto punched items. These run $0.88 and will suffice for the very economically-minded gamers out there, and they do not take up a bunch of room. However, even going up to a half inch binder with cardboard covers and extra pockets inside and out will only run you $2.64 apiece. You do not need much more than about half an inch ring size, as anything more than that and you will want to clean out old, unneeded information. I am upgrading my players this next session, but this could easily be another group purchase to further defray the costs for each of the individuals.

Of course, if you have a 3 ring binder, just holding some character sheets in it seems a bit of a waste of space. That is why I am also recommending that, as a player or a DM, you put in some filler paper, preferably college ruled, which I found 150 page packs for $0.82. Why regular notebook paper? Easy, you take notes on notebook paper. After the basic rulebook for whatever system you are playing and your character sheet for that game, having something to take and keep notes on is probably the most important item in your inventory. And yes, I am including dice in that equation, you can always borrow dice from someone else at the table, or I have even played in games where the group could afford exactly one set of dice and so the game master rolled for everybody. Yet having somewhere other than merely the back of your character sheets to write notes will mean you are better prepared to play the game - what is the name of the NPC quest giver? the local ruler? the big bad? what is the name of the city/kingdom/area you are in? what was that rumor(s) we heard in the tavern again? how much gold are we getting to save the son/daughter of the local important person? what was that cryptic poem carved into the front door of this dungeon? Note paper is there to take notes, and you should definitely be taking notes in any RPG, even in one shot adventures. A couple of years back, before I joined the group that morphed into the group I am running games for, I was jones'ing for a game bad enough that I went and played a game at my friendly local gaming store's (FLGS) Adventurers League night. I do not have anything against the Adventurers League, in fact I think it is a fantastic idea and if I had more time in my life, would probably offer to run AL night at my FLGS. Anyway, I show up, having taken a gaming hiatus pretty much from the introduction of 3.5 through 4th edition D&D, and run a one shot with a pregenerated character they handed me that night. I ran across that character sheet a week or so back, and the back of the character sheet, the blank part of it, is full of notes, little drawings of maps, a puzzle we ran into in the dungeon, and that was from a gaming session that lasted 3 hours. Plus, writing something down manually means you retain it better than if you just type it into your phone, tablet, or computer (and far better than just trying to remember whatever). Notes, while not often discussed when people talk about tabletop RPGs, turn out to be very important.

Speaking of notes, the next thing you should add to your brand spanky new 3-ring binder is some graph paper (which I found also at WalMart, 80 pages for $1.76). Very much old school, but I think graph paper is very useful for dungeon-crawl type medieval fantasy RPGs. Now, not every player at the table needs to map out the dungeon to the exact dimensions, but it would behoove at least one player to be the party cartographer and do so. Have you been to every room on this level, cannot locate the way forward, and is there an odd empty space between a couple of the rooms? Chances are there is a secret door in one of those rooms that you have not located, but you only notice that if you really pay attention to the dungeon cartography. Is it 100% required in any game? No, but having the tools available, and especially for under $2, makes this a good addition to any player's toolkit. All of you game masters out there, should definitely be practicing their map creation skills. You do not have to be Dyson Logos, but if you want good tactical combat, you should at least learn by messing around with graph paper. Yes, there are plenty of good graphing programs for free on the internet, but there is something about physically drawing out a dungeon (or an abandoned warehouse in the combat zone, if you are playing Cyberpunk 2020) that ties you to it and makes it your own.

The next bit of old school trickery I am passing along is to suggest you pick up some 3x5 index cards (sorry, cannot locate a link, but a 300 count of ruled ones I got at Wally World for a mere $1.44) and a box to keep them in (also a WalMart purchase, for $1.88). This trick comes from the days before products like The Deck of Many's many products, there just was no company two decades ago offering anything like their monster, spell, or weapon decks. And I am not saying that, if you find them affordable, you should not use their products, but for many a player who is trying to game on a budget or as inexpensively as possible, a stack of 3x5 index cards and a box to hold them in (for less than $3.50) is the way to go. Even if you do purchase any of The Deck of Many's products, or any of their competitor's products for that matter, there are many things you can (and should) do with index cards. The new edition of D&D, 5e, is far simpler than previous editions, but there are still many powers and abilities each character earns as they play the game. Let us take probably the simplest class, the one almost every player tries at the beginning, the fighter. Level one they have a Fighting Style and the Second Wind ability. Level two, they get Action Surge. Level three they choose a Martial Archetype, which gives them an ability at 3rd, 7th, 10th, 15th, and 18th levels, which could simply be an ability at the named levels or spells and an ability or different maneuvers, three to start with, plus the aforementioned abilities. They get an Extra Attack at 5th, 11th, and 20th. And finally, they get the Indomitable ability at 9th level, which improves at 13th and again at 17th. That is a lot of things to keep track of, and while writing them all down on the character sheet (front and back, let us be honest) is one thing, but if you write each ability, each maneuver, each spell down on a card of its own, by hand, not only will the muscle memory help you remember each of those things. Plus you have the reference for each of those to hand and you do not have to go digging in the Player's Handbook each time you want to do something. Not only do index cards allow you quick reference, but having the physical cards allows you to keep track of your abilities and whatnot. This ability refreshes after a short rest - after you use it, flip it over and, since you have written "Refreshes after short or long rest" on the back, you know that after the party has a short rest, you flip it back over to the front and you can use it again, because that reminder is right there. For the game masters out there, and I am as guilty of not doing this (before now) as anyone else, use your 3x5 cards to track your NPCs, your side quest rumors, your treasure hoards (if you prepare those for your big bads beforehand), your big bads, your scratch built monsters, and you can even find 3x5 cards with grid lines on them to do pieces of maps or even geomorphs. I think Jim Murphy has some of the best ideas for index cards and their use by game masters, you should watch it here. I may even get a fancy wooden box for my index cards if I do them up correctly.

My last suggestion for players and game masters alike are Post-It Flags (found at WalMart for $2.88). Everyone should have at least the basic rulebook for whatever game they are playing - the PHB for D&D, the core rulebook for Cyberpunk 2020 - and a good way to reference your books is to use these little plastic flags to mark sections in the book. Here is my own PHB, all flagged up.

This has been marked for what I, as the DM, need for my game, so this may not be the markings you need for your game. Maybe you are a player that is playing a dwarven cleric, so you would mark the dwarf race entry, the cleric class entry, the equipment entry, and then each of your often used spells. You may be a fighter or some other character who uses the movement rules a lot and so you mark those sections specifically. You can mark your books however you want to. And yes, I know I spent the last section talking about using 3x5 index cards instead of referencing the books, but it never hurts to have the source material to hand. Especially if you are a DM, you will need these little beauties, all of the sections and tables in odd places in the Dungeon Master's Guide, all the different sources and bits of information from the published adventure you are either running or stealing from, and all the bits from Xanathar's Guide you are allowing your players to use (but not the ones they dare not touch, or face your wrath).

There you go, for roughly $10 ($15 if you go fancy on some of the items) you can improve your game. Adopt some of them, or none of them, but thinking about how you can improve your game from either side of the screen is always a good thing. Remember, if you and everyone else is having fun, then you are doing something right.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Rumor Driven Campaigns

While I am not against running modules in D&D, truth be known that I prefer them a little bit more than creating my own whole cloth just because I admit to being as lazy as I am, I still run the occasional arc of my campaigns as a more free form, let the players decide what they are doing. To this end, I give each of the players a rumor that is more often than not pertinent to their PC and let them hash out which of the rumors they are following. Take the campaign I am running as I type this - the party needs a level or two worth of side quests before they start up the next major arc, so I gave each PC a rumor (plot hook) that was pertinent to that PC, and let the party decide which way they are going to go. The party pulled out all of their rumors, shared them with the party, and settled on the one that sounded the most interesting to them, and away we went. While this was going on, and also while I am currently about halfway through the side quest they chose, I have realized a few things about this style of running that will make this style of DM'ing more engaging and entertaining for your players.

The side quest my group decided on was the Underdark adventure. They had five total rumors to choose from - diplomatic mission, trade caravan protection, backstory driven quest, local spy ring and weapons smuggling, or the Underdark - and the party decided to find out what the "rumblings in the Deep, something is moving in the dark..." is all about. Most of these rumors I basically picked what I thought was a neat bad guy or group of baddies to fight - a skull lord, a necromancer and a mess of shadows, a large pack of werewolves - and then created a rumor they could follow to get to said baddie(s). Really barebones stuff here, just a quick idea, a rumor to lead into it, and then flesh it out only after the party has chosen to follow that quest. What I have learned at this stage of the adventure creation is to look not only at the main baddie, but also who they are using as minions, who is a threat to the baddie in their natural habitat and how they interact, and any other interested parties that might be involved. If you are a player in my group, go away and come back in a couple of months after we have completed this side quest.

Gone? Good. So the "rumblings in the deep" is an aboleth, not the illithid like my party originally feared (still chose to go into the Underdark in the first place), and the aboleth is controlling a bunch of kuo toa (or they believe it is their new god), who are using quaggoth to wipe out a tribe of troglodytes who live close to where the party has discovered an entrance to the Underdark in a previous arc of this campaign, so that the kuo toa and by extension the aboleth have better access to the surface and potential mind slaves. The aboleth is a fantastic monster, and extra creepy due to the mind control powers, plus being nigh immortal, if the fight starts to tilt out of their favor, they just swim away and set up shop somewhere else. Also, they are not known for being big on physical belongings, and my party, having played in two campaign arcs I transferred over from 3.5e to 5e have more than enough goodies for their level. The kuo toa are another interesting choice, being weird god creators and also a monster which you can generally parley with as they are more interested in capturing you instead of outright killing you. Also, any changes to the aboleth's power block I can explain away as the effects of the kuo toa worshipping it. The quaggoth and the trogs are just your average Underdark grist monsters, they are there to kill or hide from or avoid or ignore as the party sees fit, and in any other setting would be a couple of other common monsters like goblins and orcs, or kobolds and bugbears, but they are Underdark dwellers so here they are. Pretty basic. However, looking into the kuo toa further thanks to the DungeonCast podcast (particularly this episode), I learned the kuo toa eat mainly underground dwelling fish and mushrooms. Who lives in the Underdark and are excellent mushroom farmers? Why myconids, of course, and I also learned that kuo toa are notorious slavers and lazy, so in the middle of the last session I decided that the kuo toa have captured some myconids (no sovereign) and the aboleth is slowly turning the whole clan into willing slaves for his kuo toa worshippers. This is a great opportunity for the players to do some role playing - do they save the mushroom-folk or slay them along with all of the other weird monsters down in the Deep? If they do spare them, do they negotiate a peace with them and ask them to move into the Shallows near their home area and begin trade with the surface? I also looked around the Monster Manual, wondering what could be a threat to an aboleth and came up with a purple worm - higher CR, bestial level intellect so immune to the kuo toa's and the aboleth's mind control abilities, and since it is mostly a mindless beast, it will strike at anyone be they in the party or not. 

The aboleth was the seed. The kuo toa were the next step back towards and between the party and the big bad, and the quaggoth are crunchy pawns that the party has faced before, though at a much lower level so they felt threatened until the players realized how easily they were scything through them. The troglodytes were an issue, as they were just not relatable enough. You kind of felt sorry they were being wiped out by the quaggoth and the kuo toa, but then you remembered that no one wants a tribe of troglodytes near their cities and villages, and you stopped caring. But I could not replace them with myconids, too many moving parts to get the party into contact with them peaceably, all while the myconids are being wiped out by overwhelming forces if I had merely put them in the trogs' place in the game. So having the trogs as fodder no one cares about and setting up the myconids as prisoners/mind slaves that could later be rescued and dealt with diplomatically is the better way to go, after all. The purple worm is just a goad, an overwhelming force that if the party faces it head on will kill some if not all of them, so I can use it to guide the party around. A bit, a small bit, but a bit is better than nothing. The party had been very cautious approaching the kuo toa warren, and I needed something to force them to get there more directly - sneak in, bust in swords swinging, something - plus if the party is smart, they will figure a way to use the worm to their advantage, as I said before, the worm is a mindless beast and will attack anything it comes across. And it is always fun to, without warning, drop in such a large creature on the party and one they cannot simply punch to solve. 

What was learned in all that was the addition of the myconids and the purple worm. The original seed for the adventure just had the troglodytes, the quaggoth, the kuo toa and the aboleth. But looking farther afield and adjusting the adventure mid-stream to include these other monsters from the environment really fleshed out this story, and will give my players a lot more opportunity to role play instead of just rolling dice and killing monsters. Yet, you have to be careful and not expand it too much. I definitely did not need to also include the drow, the duergar, the derro, Zuggtmoy, the mind flayers, and the githyanki/githzerai. Yes, they could have been added in, I could have led from this side quest into a major campaign arc that involved all of those, but since we are not headed in that direction, I left them out. Too much is too much, and while my original plan for this quest would have worked, it would not have worked quite as well, so I am glad I changed up my plans.

The other takeaway I got from trying out this rumor-based series of side quests and letting the party choose their path is that I realized that in addition to the multiple rumors, I needed to also decide what would be the consequence of not following each of those rumors. The consequences do not all need to be dire, or even considered detrimental, but something has to result from the party not chasing down that rumor. Remember, each of your rumors do not necessarily need to be mutually exclusive, maybe salt in a few smaller side quests that could be taken on, where the bigger ones do not allow any of the other side quests to even be attempted. For the consequences, these range from another local party takes them on and succeeds or fails, all the way up to something unpleasant has happened and now the party's next campaign arc is resolving that issue. For this stage in my current campaign, I am sticking with mostly minor consequences - the diplomatic meeting with the neighboring country almost ends in disaster but is saved by a rival adventuring party; the werewolf pack retreats away from civilization due to the party's next plot hook showing up; that strange town along the trade route goes oddly quiet as does the last trade caravan headed that way, and one of the PC's significant other, a member of the local militia, is sent to investigate along with their fellow troops; and the cultists do manage to capture one of the former party members for their grimoire (part of their background), but the local constabulary apprehend the would be kidnappers and everything is well. Of course, the consequences of not following these rumors is low because the rewards of almost all of these rumors is likewise low - a character level, an opportunity to do some character development, maybe a boost through some backstory relativity, and a chance to get in some role playing. With such low stakes and rewards, you do not want to run an entire campaign off of them, it would quickly grow too boring, but for quick, interlude type side quests, these lower reward/consequence side quests are perfect. And they are so easy to whip together, you could set up a table like a random encounter table, and roll to see what your rumors are, if you want to be truly lazy about it. 

Which brings up another question to my mind - could you run an entire level one to twenty campaign solely off the rumors model? I am thinking yes, but if you want to truly run it that way and have an overarching plot that ties it all together, you will need to set up your decision trees beforehand. Just watch any of the making of documentaries on open world computer RPGs, you will get the gist of what is involved. And looking at a recent Wizards of the Coast campaign setting release, Eberron: Rising from the Last War, they have provided plenty of plot hooks tied to both organizations and geographical locations you can practically run your Eberron campaign from those plot hooks. They do not really provide any solid overarching plots, though, you will have to come up with that one on your own. Reminds me of what I have seen from computer RPGs, at least the "making of" documentaries about them. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Airberron Musings

Here I sit, cooped up by the COVID-19, or the CORVID-19 as I have seen on one misspelled sign, and instead of working on the Roll20-ification of my current campaign, I am busy hacking away at my keyboard getting my Airberron campaign ready. Which I will need roughly 2 years from now, at the rate we are going. Ah well, such is life, and running a D&D campaign is a bit of an art-form in the sense that when the Muse strokes your brain, you follow it and write down as much as you can.

In broad strokes, then, here is the setting. I had originally planned on doing a very detailed worldbuild on Airberron, but remembered - or was reminded by some more experienced GMs, to be honest - that much like writing fiction, your world just needs some highlights and you can fill in the details later as the game goes on. Unless you're preparing your world to share with others, which I am kind of doing, but as this is a modification of an extant campaign setting instead of a new creation, I realized that just hitting the highlights will suffice. 

Of course, you already know about the major change from Eberron - the Change that ended the Last War and brought about the Mournland, well, in Airberron it changed the entire face of the world. All continents (as far as everyone knows) lifted from the face of the planet and are now floating in the air. Some floated higher, some stayed lower, but all lifted off the face of the planet.

The next big change from the setting that, in response to the continents floating into the air, the Changelings all took on the form of Aarakocra. To me, this fit far better with the setting of Airberron and also because I always found the Changelings to be rather meh. Ooh, it's a secret race that no one knows about (except all the players and by meta-extension, their characters), which guarantees that every Changeling PC will come with more backstory than your average Wiki entry. That feels strange, using a comparison to Wikipedia instead of an actual, printed encyclopedia, but who knows what an encyclopedia is these days? Anyway, you know how I feel about PC backstory, and this fantastic article proves that, but is also why I'm paring down my wotldbuilding backstories as well. Managed to get rid of one class I definitely did not care for and added a class with flying, which will be most helpful on a world where the landmasses are all in the air.

Other race changes from the core book - I put on my big boy undies and once again outlawed Dragonborn. Come on, the dragons of Eberron are mysterious figures who rarely contact any of the "lesser" races openly, the world is steeped in dragon lore and mythology, so no, I am allowing none of their relatives to be played by the PCs. The original Eberron setting in 3.5 stated explicitly no dragon characters, partly because there were no Dragonborn until 4e, but they did have half-dragons (let us be honest, half-dragons are the same thing as Dragonborn, and made a lot more sense) in that original edition and what that version was referring to. Now in 5e, WotC is loathe to tell the players "no", so they waffled and said if you spun your backstory right, you could have Dragonborn. I am not a waffler, however, so no Dragonborn. Also no Tieflings, and no Drow, there is plenty to see and do in this campaign setting, you do not need to try and recreate Drizzt Do'urden or play another "race of the week" from 4th edition. Warforged, since the world has changed, can turn in their natural armor ability to get wings and a flying movement speed. That one just made sense to me, and would allow another PC race to come with the ability to fly. And we are discounting all the other spare races from Xanathar's Guide, because the main Eberron book does, which is also fine by me. 

The next bits are less world setting related and more neat things that I have run across that I am incorporating in the campaign going forward. First up is backstory connections. In my current campaign, I am using what would be called a framing device in the literary world to help bring the party together and give them direction. In Eberron terms, the party has the option to have a patron, which in my own world is a government run agency much like the Musketeers were to France in our own history. Why not stick with that? Well, even after telling my players this is what is going to happen, some of them still insisted on making the most unlikable, narcissistic, team hating edgelords they could. (it is not all that bad, but sometimes it feels like they are being disagreeable on purpose, and I want to strangle them - this is a cooperative game and not your personal piece of fanfic!) This connections idea I got from a recent video I watched about character creation in the Traveller RPG, and when I realized what a neat bit of party creation it was, it also made me realize how well it puts the onus of getting the party together on the shoulders of the players. Basically the idea is this - every player decides with the other players what connections in the past each PC has. Each PC has a connection with two other PCs, and if you have more than 3 players, each set of connections is unique, and if a PC has a connection to another PC, they can not share their other PC connection. Each player (in conjunction with the other players) decides what the connection is and when it occurred in the past, and uses their background, not their character class, to help define the connection. For example - the acolyte hung out with the sage, the acolyte as they were taking their rites in the church and the sage while they were studying at whatever institute of higher learning they were at, and they partied like the world was ending. That was five years ago. The sage got into a bit of debt with the local crime syndicate, and the criminal was the one who had to come around and collect the weekly payment and any interest owed. This was two years ago. The criminal got waylaid along the highway (irony) and was helped out by the soldier when their troop of cavalry happened by. This was last year. And the soldier is cousin to the acolyte. Four PCs, each with two connections, all unique, but they quickly and simply describe how the party knows each other and gives just enough of a backstory for the players to build on. Hell, you could even just use Eberron's patronage section of the rules and skip all that, but my players will have to decide together how this is going to work.

The other thing I am adding into future campaigns is a few tables from Xanathar's Lost Notes to Everything Else, a little fan-made product over on the GM's Guild store. I say "fan-made", but it is written by some of the biggest names in the fan community, not so much professionals themselves as they are top seeded amateurs. Anyway, I like the Lingering Injuries table in the DMG, so I am definitely using the expanded table from Lost Notes. In addition, while I have been using Seth Skorkowsky's critical hits and fumble tables in my current campaign, they are just overpowered for most 5e campaigns. However, I still like having more options beyond just "you crit'ed, double your damage", so I will also be using the expanded crit and fumble tables, also from Lost Notes. The one thing I am surprised at with Lost Notes is how badly in need of an editorial pass it is. At least the copy I have has many small grammar issues, and maybe they have updated it - it is mainly a digital product with print on demand dead tree versions also available - so I may just have to redownload my copy to correct them. It does remind me that even the semi-professionals need to pay more attention to their grammar and editorial passes. I have been typing most of my recent blog posts, especially this one, on my phone and not on my computer, so I need to pay close attention to what autocorrect is doing to my words.