Expanding on My Procedures for Open Table Gaming

I’m responding to some questions by irken][nvader on my previous blog post.

I would love it if you can fill in some details about a few things:

  • can you expand on: “Set expectations about DCC (and old school gaming)”
  • what about: “Look for connecting pieces”
  • why “Assume that I may need to run something different”, and how different? Different adventure? Different world/campaign? Different game?

Set expectations about DCC (and old school gaming)

When new players join the table, I recite something along these lines:

We will be playing a Dungeon Crawl Classics character funnel. Each of you will have 4 fragile characters to start. The goal is to make it through the dungeon with at least one of them alive. In campaign play, the survivor(s) would be your character(s) in further adventures. It won’t be easy, and you should think of your characters as pawns. Don’t risk them all at once.

My Dungeon Crawl Classics Agenda and Advice post has more on this topic.

Look for connecting pieces

I have run 3 funnels in Bitterweed Barrow. Joan has run 2 more. Each funnel creates a few possible subplots or ideas.

In each of the funnels, Joan has been the consistent player. To help connect characters from one funnel group to another funnel group, I look for things to connect.

A holy writ discovered in one funnel will come up later and may inter-relate with a map from another funnel.

Assume that I may need to run something different

At present, when I show up at the game store, if I have quorom (me and 2 other players), I’m going to run DCC. I have a primary crew, that is presently in the Tower of the Stargazer. My assumption is I will run that.

If there are players without characters, I’ll do what I can to incorporate some new level 0 characters. Otherwise, the table has one shared character (Obexa the Agent being a key example).

I’m going to encourage them to begin hiring hirelings and henchmen. There is wisdom in having more than 4 characters in your group.

If I don’t have two players from that group, I’ll run another funnel. I’m building up Bitterweed Barrow to be a place where people are coming to seek their wealth (see my “Guess Who’s Coming to Bitterweed Barrow” blog post for these procedures).

I also make sure that I’m bringing the following to each session:

  • 30 or so random characters
  • My copy of Barrowmaze Complete
  • Extra pencils
  • Extra dice

My Procedure for Facilitating Open Table Gaming

I am 7 sessions into a drop-in Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) campaign that I run at my local game store – Better World Books. I have made a personal commitment for the foreseeable future that whenever possible I will run an open table RPG session at the game store.

My Procedure

On Friday check my schedule, if it’s open:

Set aside at least two hours of solid preparation time to:

During commutes to work:

On game day (Thursday):

  • Show up at least 15 minutes beforehand
  • Bring pencils, character sheets, dice, paper, rulebooks
  • Create an open and inviting table
  • Set expectations about DCC (and old school gaming)
  • Assume that I may need to run something different
  • Say yes an awful lot; require luck checks
  • Take some notes

Afterwards

What is Working

Regular Schedule

The regular schedule is mission critical; Every week is optimal. I also run regardless of who is present.

Open Table

Keeping the table open – I have now played with at least 13 new players, introducing them to DCC and my interpretation of old school gaming. Each table has different dynamics; Seeing the camaraderie build over the session is rewarding. I do my best to ensure that I have an open and inclusive table.

Writing Session Reports

I’ve made a personal commitment to writing extensive session reports and sharing them across different channels. I also want people to see my session development process. James Maliszewski’s Grognardia posts are my inspirations. He developedDwimmermount, his megadungeon, session by session; Encoding lessons learned into the random tables, encounters, and history of Dwimmermount.

Writing Random Tables

I have found writing random tables helps my campaign preparation. I think about different directions the campaign could go, but don’t commit to going there.

Joining the Road Crew

The thing that tipped the scales in my decision to run a FLGS open-table game instead of a house game was the Goodman Games road crew program. The table appreciates the small tokens of appreciation sent by Goodman Games. It also builds in accountability into my proces.

Focusing on the Campaign and not the Characters

Yes, I think about what the King of Elfland demands of his patronee; Or how stealing a few silver coins from a road side shrine can have dramatic consequences. But my focus is on making sure I understand the campaign world as it emerges. That I can convey that understanding to the players. And that the players can build assumptions and take actions based on their understanding.

Start Them at 0-Level

New players start with a handful of 0-level characters. They are mixed with the seasoned 1st level characters. I have found this works, and the players grow attached to their survivors.

It also means that there is a steady influx of characters, implying that no characters are foundational for the campaign. The world goes on without them.

When in Doubt, Call for a Luck Check

Players are always coming up with plans; Some more outlandish than others. But DCC provides a perfect mechanic to address these brilliant plans; Call for a Luck check. Either roll under or hit a DC. Regardless it lets them know that Luck is important.

Sidebar: I am contemplating adding the DCC Lankmar “Fleeting Luck” rules to the game, but don’t know if that is yet the style I am after. I’ll test drive it in another funnel.

What Have I Done Differently

I have a deep love for campaign play. Characters developing. Growing a shared narrative amongst friends.

For years I kept trying to force a campaign by orchestrating schedules and clearing times that we could play. That is a lot of work. Now the requirements for this game are: I am running a game on Thursday, come if you are able.

This flips my previous dependency on others. If the game captivates the players, they will make time for my game.

I’m seeing the emergence of the campaign I desire. Seven sessions is the longest campaign I’ve run since running The Red Hand of Doom in 3E.

Burning Sanctuary

I’m looking to leverage the situation of the English Anarchy. I have not given much consideration for non-human character stock.

What’s the big picture? What’s going on in this setting that makes it ripe for adventure. What’s changing, evolving, declining?

British Isles

14th Century English Isles

The Norman barons had once sworn to install Empress Matilda as Queen of England. But upon King Henry I’s death in 1135 they, along with the church and people of London, raised Stephen of Blois to King of England. Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou fled England.

Though supporting King Stephen, the barons have used this time to expand and tighten their holdings in England and Normandy. A Welsh rebellion has succeeded, as King Stephen focused on England and Normandy.

Both the Earl Robert of Gloucester (her half-brother) and King David I of Scotland (her uncle) have declared for Empress Matilda. King David I of Scotland has broken his earlier treaty, once more invading northern England. The Earl of Gloucester is in open rebellion.

Stephen has responded to these revolts, by attempting to seize control of Gloucester. Part of that campaign has been the siege and capture of Shrewsbury.

What’s the world’s culture? What are the cultural analogs? Analogs can be taken from historical earth, current events or fantasy works.

Its 12th century Northern Europe. Serfs are bound to their lords manor. Knights follow a complicated code of chivalry, established by the papacy to better shape their aggression.

There is a general chaos as Norway, Denmark, and France cope with civil wars and succession conflicts.

What’s the conflict in which the characters are involved? What are the sides? What’s wrong?

Three days ago, you declared sanctuary at Shrewsbury Abbey. Per the law of the land, you have 40 days to either confess your sins or abjure the realm. You have surrendered your possessions. Per the charter of Shrewsbury Abbey, you are free to move about the abbey’s holdings; a few fields for sheep.

Yesterday, King Stephen hanged over 100 knights that had defended Shrewsbury. But the castellan of Shrewsbury, Willian FitzAlan, managed to escape and join in rebellion.

It is September 1st, 1138 A.D.

What physical place does this conflict take place in? What ecology, environment, place?

12th century England. Keeps and castles dot the landscape, many wooden motte and bailey, though a few are stone fortresses. Connecting pockets of civilization are trails and roads, some reminders of the Roman empires. Ancient burial mounds dot the fields. The old forests remain, a reminder of past eras.

What’s the name of the most important place in this setting?

Near the heath and hills of Wales is Shrewsbury, a city with an abbey and motte and bailey castle. It is along the river Severn.

What’s the name of a faraway place that folks talk about, dream about or mutter under their breath about?

Rome, the divine seat of power and progenitor of the empire of the eagles.

Who are the antagonists? Who is opposing the goals of the characters?

There are two major factions:

  • King of England, Stephen of Blois
  • Empress Matilda, claimant to the Crown of England

King Stephen

  • Matilda of Boulogne, queen consort of King Stephen
  • Bishop Henry of Winchester – Brother of King Stephen
  • Count Eustace IV of Boulogne – son of King Stephen
  • Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec – appointed by King Stephen
  • Earl Ranulf de Gernon of Chester – loyal to King Stephen, though upset at loss of holdings to Scotland
  • Pope Innocent II – supported by letter King Stephen’s claim
  • Roger of Salisbury – Chancellor of England, Bishop of Salisbury
  • Miles of Gloucester – loyal to King Stephen, though he is reconsidering

Empress Matilda

  • Henry FitzEmpress – son of Empress Matilda
  • King David I of Scotland – uncle of Empress Matilda
  • Earl Robert of Gloucester – half-brother of Empress Matilda
  • Count Geoffrey of Anjou – husband of Empress Matilda
  • William FitzAlan – Castellan of Shrewsbury and Lord of Oswestry
  • Brian Fitz Count of Wallingford – loyal to Empress Matilda

Imagine all of the characters are standing a room/ruin/field with the antagonists or their minions. What do the antagonists want from that meeting? What do the characters want from that meeting?

King Stephen demands your loyalty and assurances of such; Be they hostages or holdings. You will take up cause against Empress Matilda and fight to ensure that Eustace is his heir.

Empress Matilda has similar demands, though she seeks Henry FitzEmpress as her heir.

Alternately, imagine the characters standing at the scene of some great disaster or calamity clearly caused by one of the antagonists. What’s the disaster? How did it happen? What are the characters going to do about it right now?

The peasantry has been taxed to its breaking point; Starvation is rampant and disease lays waste to villages. Banditry and worse are the result of two nobles fighting for the scraps of a decaying kingdom.

What type of magic exists in this world?

Lets talk about this. I am thinking of Faith and at least Folklore from the Burning Wheel Codex.

This will be a table conversation.

What character stocks are in play in this world? Which are restricted and why?

  • Humans are the dominant character stocks. It is said that the Welsh are the descendants of the Elves.
  • Trolls haunt the hills and fens.
  • Great wolves live in the ancient woods of the world.

I’m up for including others.

What cultural traits apply to the characters of this game world? Pick three character traits for each culture.

  • Anglo-Saxon: Folksy, grumbler, charitable
  • Anglo-Normand: Refined, tall, arrogant
  • Welsh: Beautiful singer, rebellious, charitable
  • Scottish: Rugged, independent, boisterous
  • Irish: Rugged, artsy, story-teller

What’s your resources cycle? 1 month, seasonal, 6 months, annual? What’s the game world’s currency? Who collects the taxes? What do people do for work? what’s the major economy?

Resource cycle is seasonal. The kings taxmen collect the taxes. Pound, pennies, and farthings. The major economy is agriculture. Most people are peasants or yeoman scratching out a meager living.

Material world: what weapons and armor are available? Are some weapons and armor restricted to certain cultures or character stocks? What property is available? are resources and gear otherwise restricted?

Firearms and plate mail are not available.

Back on the Gaming Treadmill (maybe)

It would appear that running a lengthy session of Dungeon World for a table of five was great for a few reasons:

First, the dwarven judiciary is only slightly less terrifying than the dwarven actuarial system. Together, their justice is both exacting and miserly. And with 10% interest on debts accumulated each month, adventure is mandated!

Second, roaming bands of halflings are dangerous. They lay “surprise siege” to a city/village by first entering, eating all of the food, then leaving the city and setting up a blockade for all arriving caravans. All of this in search of a coin on one of the player character’s person.

Third, playing with a new player that doesn’t know all of the old tropes of D&D is revelatory…realizing a curse is an opportunity for even more adventuring.

Most important , playing with a great table is hands down one of the best parts of role-playing. It took a lot of questions to get a sense for why a Templar, Cleric, Halfling, Druid, and Mechanic would all stop around together, but we eventually built some cohesion and a good adventure was had by all.

So yesterday and today, I’ve been sharpening my RPG tools, gathering up raw resources, and beginning some work on a potential campaign. I spent about an hour on Friday morning cataloging what system I would want to run and use.

The contenders were:

My heart initially said Burning Wheel Gold. So I started with reading the Adventure Burner, an excellent resource on getting campaigns going.

And I got to thinking, Burning Wheel Gold is great; The system speaks to me. But it feels very tightly coupled. There are lots of intertwined elements, crafted to work in concert. I have no doubt the game would be amazing.

But it pushes hard against several of the play styles of the gamers I have available. In some cases, I think the accounting would be overwhelming. In others, the odds are too much to overcome. This also knocks Ars Magica out of the running (as not everyone wants to play a wizard).

So I set aside Burning Wheel and its sibling Torchbearer. I gave Dungeon World a brief consideration, but it is my goto game for one shots, it is not what I want for longer games.

As an aside, I’m considering lifting Discern Realities from Dungeon World and bringing it as an option for any game; I’ll need to normalize the probabilities, but it is a good “We are stuck, what comes next” release valve.

While Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Sword & Wizardry, and Labyrinth Lord appeal to me for their bare-bones systems, I am looking for some additional “tech” to provide for the gaming group.

This leaves D&D 5E, Stars without Number, and Pendragon up for grabs, though I’m leaning heavily towards D&D.

I spent some more time poking around in the DMG 5E. There are an awful lot of house rules to push things in a direction that I believe will work best for the table and for the type of game I want to run.

Next steps are to figure out who all can play, a schedule for a character creation session and mini-adventure, and a plan for what to do when someone can’t make it.