April 30, 2012

The In-betweeners

My biggest problem these days with my gaming is not lack of good players or lack of a good system, it's a lack of time. As a 40-something parent, squeezing in even a monthly campaign session is tough. There's so many great games and adventures to be experienced (from both sides of the screen) that I simply can't work it all in.

One recent tactic I've employed to battle this time deficiency is the use of chat sessions. Although there is some great software out there for holding games completely online, I'm still a big fan of face-to-face gaming. But recently I ran a group chat session with my players to cover a discussion with an NPC. It was an important, info-laden discussion, but it didn't involve much in the way of dice rolling or combat. We chatted for approximately 2 hours and it worked so well, we're doing it again this week to handle some town chores (more NPC talk, equipping PC and buying goods, selling unwanted magic items, arranging for transportation, etc.).

Was the chat session the same as "being there"? Nope. But it did feel immediate in a way that simply exchanging e-mails never would. They were asking questions and getting answers in real time, and they knew their "question time" for this NPC was finite. The chat program in question (Talker) also allowed for graphic uploads and we were able to store the whole chat for later perusal—which was not only useful for the players but their DM as well!

We'll see how the second chat session goes, but "meeting" online for a 1-2 hour chat late on a weekday evening has so far been easier than meeting in person, and it allows for more combat and dice rolling when we do meet in person. One more weapon in the fight against dwindling time.

April 12, 2012

How deep is too deep?

Recently my mind has turned to the subject of plots. I'm current running a 4e campaign with a long overall plot and backstory. All the adventures are connected to the main plot, and the PCs are picking up clues as they go along and are slowly piecing things together.

So far things are going well, but my plot is a deep one. Red herrings and traitors and grey allegiances abound, and I wonder if the whole is a bit too complicated. It's been work for me, as DM, keeping everything straight as far as what the various bad guys are doing, so I naturally worry about the players. Can they figure it all out in the end? I should note that this particular group in composed of long-time roleplayers and more than one RPG industry professional, so I think they are up to the challenge (as do they). But how deep is too deep?

Deep background often makes fun reading for the DM, but is it really needed if the players often never penetrate beyond that first layer? I recall reading Dungeon back in the day and skipping past adventures that had a page and a half of background. Those always got looked at later—I wanted to get into the room descriptions and "good stuff" quickly. I simply didn't have the patience for all that led-in material. As a player, I often have a "Where's the beef?" style of play too.

I'd say my initial anti-deep-background attitude came from the fact that I learned the game in the 1e days, but I doubt that accounts for all of it. And not all early adventures were simple, with regard to background material. Remember the Temple of Elemental Evil? Good luck to any players that could piece together that infernal tapestry of demonic alliances pulling the Temple strings!

Recently I've scaled back my campaign from an end goal of 20th level to 10th level, so this also has me reconsidering the overall plot complexity. (I won't talk about that plot here, not yet anyway, lest my players be clued in.) I'm not planning any big changes, but a refinement is the order of the day because we'll have a good 20 fewer play sessions to work with. That's a lot less NPCs to meet! (My initial plan would have been great back in the days before most of my players were parents! Now, not so much. I tend to dream big before reality sets in.)

I'm not sure what the perfect balance of backstory to encounters is; I guess, as with most things, it comes down to what you and your players want from the experience. I was careful to repeatedly ask my players about their feelings toward an overall plot versus isolated adventures, so I recommend talking to your players too. In the meantime, I'll see how it goes for me and release actual campaign examples here when possible.
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