Saturday, April 30, 2016

Experimenting in Ravensburg: The 3 x 5 Index Card, or the DM's Best Friend

I got the idea for planning my game using 3 x 5 index cards from Sly Flourish's book The Lazy Dungeon Master. I really liked the rationale behind the concept. The physical space limitation of the card itself forces a DM to really do some triage and prepare only the things that are most important.

My take on "what's important" boils down to actionable information for the players, or broad-brush flavor from which specifics can be derived easily in play. For example, available cover in a location is actionable info for the players; the color of the banners in the baron's hall is not. So I make written note of the former, but not of the latter. Or for broad-brush flavor, "richly furnished" is all I need to write for the baron's hall; details like "bright, colorful banners" or "ornate, gold goblets" derive from "richly furnished" and need not be set down in advance. As +Ken H  has noted on his blog, improvisation does not mean "just winging it." It means having a well-prepared foundation from which details can be extrapolated. That's the whole idea behind this kind of prep.

So here is how I've been using the cards for my own prep so far:

  • One location or NPC per card; locations can be "broad" or "pinpoint." 
  • Broad Locations (such as a city, a forest, a mountain range, etc.) have a name, a one-line general description and a list of random encounters/events written on their card.
  • Pinpoint Locations (a more specific site within a "broad" location, such as a tavern, someone's apartment, a bandit camp, etc.) have a name, a one-line general description, any usable info (e.g. terrain that can be used for cover) denizen stats, treasure, information to be gained in the location. 
  • NPC Cards have a name, a one-line description, and a list of information or goods to be gained from that NPC, and stats if needed. 

I'll talk more about both locations and stats in later posts, but strictly in terms of the 3 x 5 card approach, the I'm finding that the method is working quite well for me. It cuts down on prep time (or conversely it lets me get a lot more prep done in the same amount of time). It also gives my game a more spontaneous and less scripted quality. And as a bonus, it's easier to keep track of what info the players have and haven't gotten without even taking notes, since I can just group together the cards location and NPC cards they've visited and set those apart from unvisited cards.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Experimenting in Ravensburg: Three People Can Make a Difference


Running a game for Brie has resulted in a longer continuous game than I've run since high school or college. This in turn has given me a really good chance to analyze my own GMing, find areas for improvement, and experiment with a lot of things. This is the first of several posts where I'll talk about some of my experimentation in our Ravensburg campaign and how those experiments are panning out.

Three People

I never really thought much about connecting the PCs to the world in my game, largely because I've typically run short campaigns and it never seemed too important in that context. As my campaign with Brie ran longer, I thought I should change that. So I asked Brie to come up with three people that her character, Olivia, knew in the world. I specifically didn't have her write a complete character history because frankly I hate those as much as I hate complete game world histories – lots of verbiage and little practical use. Rather I had her just imagine three people she knows in the world and put them in a bullet-point list. They could be anything or anybody. So she came up with:

  1. her mentor Gustaf, who taught her magic; 
  2. the neighbor's child Chloe to whom Olivia taught archery; 
  3. the Cult of Vecna, who were responsible for Olivia's parents' death. 

Conspiracy Theory: From Disparate Hooks to Plot

The other thing that I've tried in conjunction with this is that I initially started the campaign with absolutely no plot in mind. I tossed out a bunch of unrelated adventure hooks, and sat back and watched which ones Brie would have Olivia pursue. After several sessions I decided to pick some of the hooks Olivia had followed and connect them to each other.

So in the early stages of the campaign, Brie had Olivia pursue something like the following six hooks.

  1. investigate mysterious occurrences at a dead necromancer's tomb; 
  2. deal with goblin bandits near Ravensburg;
  3. investigate the activities of a local business woman suspected of being involved with trying to bring the necromancer (the one from hook 1) back; 
  4. take out a local thieve's guild; 
  5. take down the assassins who killed the elvish ambassador in Ravensburg and find out who hired them to do it; 
  6. investigate Bugbear raids on Elvish settlements in the Grim Forest; 

Personalizing the Plot: Three People Make a Difference

From these I picked numbers 1, 3, 5, 6 to weave together along with Olivia's personal connections to the world (I provide here only the info the Olivia currently has of course, in case Brie reads this post).

  • Two hundred years ago, the necromancer Dargol was a bigwig in the Cult of Vecna (hook 1, connection 3). 
  • The Elders of Briarwood were an alliance of elvish and human mages who killed Dargol and nearly destroyed the cult as well (hook 1); Olivia's mentor, Gustaf, is the last living member of the Elders of Briarwood (connection 1).
  • For decades the surviving cultists were too weak to do anything other than seek revenge – killing off the Elders or their descendants one by one whenever they got the chance; Olivia's parents were descendants of the Elders, killed in revenge by the cultists (connection 3).
  • Now the Cultists are getting stronger again. 
  • Their high priestess, Lilith Tenebris (the business woman), is the one who took Dargol's body from its tomb and wants to raise it from the dead (hook 1, hook 3).
  • The Cultists want to ensure there is no alliance of men and elves to thwart them this time; to this end: 
                  --Gustaf is besieged in his tower by the cultists (connection 1, connection 3).
                  --Lilith's second in command, Eileen Pitworthy (a rogue member of the
                     Ravensburg city council) hired the assassins to kill the elvish ambassador
                     in Ravensburg and thus drive a wedge between men and elves (hook 5).
                  --Pitworthy has also hired Bugbear mercenaries to raid Elvish villages in the Grim
                     Forest as a diversion from cult activities (hook 6)
  • Chloe is now a guard in the elvish village of the Grim Forest where she and Olivia grew up (connection 2).

Into the Future

Of course this didn't all come to Brie/Olivia as a single massive information dump. She got the info gradually over several sessions. But that's where it stands now. Even though all the previous plot-hooks are now connected, there are still a lot of ways for Olivia to go. Pursue Tenebrith? Pursue Pitworthy? Try to break the siege of Gustaf's tower? Help defend the elvish villages? And whichever course of action she chooses next, there's no way to know how the paths not chosen will evolve.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Super Simple Traditional Races for The Black Hack

I've been thinking about how I would bring races into The Black Hack, coming up with different answers depending on whether I were to run it for +Ken H and +Tim Shorts (one of them is not a fan of race-as-class, and I'm not telling which), or if I were running it in a context where race-as-class was the better option (for example, if at some point down the line Brie and I decided convert our current game in which Brie is playing a race-as-class elf).

Since +Marshall Brengle just asked a question about race-as-modifier vs. race-as-class over at the Black Hack discussion community on Google+, I thought I'd toss out the ideas I've been bouncing around on the matter.


Since virtually everything works on stat checks in The Black Hack, the simplest way to bring in races is just with stat modifiers. Roll for stats as per the rules, then apply the following modifiers.

Dwarves: +1 to CON, -1 to CHR
Elves: +1 to INT, -1 to CON
Halflings: +1 to DEX, -1 to STR

If I went this route I might bump the modifiers up to +/-2 instead, to make the modifiers themselves more meaningful. While this is slim on flavor, it does keep everything streamlined. This is the way I'd do things if I were to run a game for players who wanted races but disliked (or didn't care) about race-as-class. Modify your stats and then pick a class as normal.


That said, it would not be terribly difficult to actually come up with a new class for TBH. Lots of people are already doing so, both at the discussion community as well as over at RPGNow (e.g. +Mark Craddock's The Class Hack). While I don't think Brie and I are going to convert our current game to TBH (at least not in the immediate future), I have thought about it and I'd probably do something like this if we did:


Starting HP: d6+4
HP Per Level/Resting: 1d6
Weapons and Armor: All except Plate & Mail.
Attack Damage: 1d6/1d4 Unarmed or Improvising.

Special Features
Roll with Advantage when using WIS to search for secret doors.
Roll with Advantage when saving vs. effects caused by undead.

Leveling Up
Roll to see if attributes increase, roll twice for INT and DEX.

Arcane Spellcasting
Elves can cast a number of Arcane Spells per day according to the Daily Elf Spells table below.

Elves start with a large spellbook containing a total of 1d4+1 spells from the Level 1 and 2 Arcane Spell Lists.