colonization game

A Sense of Menace

Last session in the D&D game, we came to a horrifying realization: a powerful evil NPC we’d covertly stolen an item from (a witch/hag that goes by “Auntie Bloat”) at the behest of a good NPC had found the colony and had managed to sneak in and make a deal with one of the farmers that would result in her taking the infant he and his wife have on the way. It was unexpected and shocking, but it galvanized us into action almost immediately. In a very real way, this will be what the game is about until the threat is removed.

However, unlike a lot of scenarios like this, Grant has left us with a somewhat longer window before we have to act, which does several interesting things.

First, it creates a sense of looming dread that we’re going to have to live with for a while. Incidentally, Grant seems fond of this – we agreed to an unspecified favor for a water fey earlier in the game and that won’t be coming due any time soon; we’re about two months in the world’s time into the game, which means we have about 10 more months until that favor comes due. The saving of the newborn is going to have to happen at least 2-3 months before that, however, which gives us both time to prepare and time for the situation to get more complicated. There’s also the near certainty that the party is currently no match for Auntie Bloat. Which means we need to gain some levels. Plural. Fast.

Second, speaking of getting more complicated, it’s pushing us to solidify alliances we’ve started forming. The party has sought the aid of Rishi, a Kenku sorcerer and the first friendly NPC we met on the island that didn’t also arrive on our ship. But in order to get that aid, we have to help him secure another teacher for his apprentice should he die in the effort, which means we’re going to be traveling to another nearby island (or perhaps several) in the archipelago on a just-salvaged boat we recovered from some gnolls that had been eaten by giant spiders.

Finally, it’s acting as a mechanism to tie several plot threads together. As mentioned in previous blog posts, the party has been building relationships and a reputation as folks useful to the colony (and to a lesser extent, the Kenku), and as such has been able to call in some favors. The boat itself is a massive favor that Governor Hester Warwick has granted us because while the party is so often the bearer of news of new complications that she gets a headache every time we report in, we’ve also gotten results every time she’s sent us to do something. Rishi is willing to help us because we’ve helped him and the Kenku in a big way once already (in fact, he was the one who sent us to steal the item from Auntie Bloat in the first place). And the colony is starting to expand to the point where the target painted on us for various threats to zero in on is getting bigger and more brightly-colored.

This long-term approach does have a single significant drawback, however: it’s far enough out, there’s a certain risk of losing the sense of dread, and on the other side of the coin there’s also a chance (as killed the Shadowrun game) that the players will become paralyzed with second-guessing and not go anywhere. Do that long enough and even a very good campaign can die.

Still, I think there’s a lot of value in taking this longer view. In a previous campaign of mine, a generally very successful one, we sat down at the end and realized that the player characters had started at level 5 and had wound up at level 21 less than six months of game time later. Their journey had been a constant charge through an unending chain of immediate threats and un-ignorable emergencies. They’d had no time to breathe at all; in the real world, even hardened combat verterans couldn’t keep up the pace they’d kept up, and in retrospect, that had been poor storytelling on my part.

So I think there’s some real value in placing a problem that’s certain and scary on the horizon and letting the players get to it over a longer period of time rather than dropping it on top of them and forcing them to react NOW like so many GMs, including me, have done.

As usual, I’d love to hear your comments on this topic. How have you and your gaming group paced your threats, and how did it work out?


This week’s image is used, unaltered, under creative commons and comes from Schizoform.

Campaign Report: Player Perspective, Part 1

Grant has written a number of very well-thought-out reports on our D&D game from a GM’s perspective, but so far, aside from mentioning it on the show, I’ve been a little quiet on the game, other than stating repeatedly what a blast I’m having. I’d like to take some time to explain why I’m enjoying the campaign so much, and I’d also like to point out some things that are going particularly well that I think are worth mentioning. As you can see by the “part 1” in the title, I intend to check in here at least occasionally about the game.

Threats without horror

A lot of the time when GMs are running fantasy games, there is an all-too-seductive temptation to lean heavily on supernatural or horrific cruelty to create a sense of stakes in the game, impressing on the players how important their mission is with demons, undead, or mangled remains of innocent victims almost from the jump. While this can be effective in certain games, it is an overused trope, so it’s been refreshing that Grant has used supernatural horror elements very sparingly and has instead focused mostly on natural threats. The first encounter of the game was with sahuagin, who basically act like a nasty school of predatory fish – they attacked and dragged prey into the water, but didn’t curse people with foul magic or ritually sacrifice them on the beach. The biggest, nastiest threat currently on the island (at least, that we know of) is a wyvern, which is a massive, venomous beast, but isn’t demonic or evil – just big and hungry. There have been some supernatural threats sprinkled in – a spectral undead and what we think is probably a hag – but for the most part, the difficulties and adversaries we’ve faced have been very grounded – taking care of the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and trying to establish good relationships with the other people we’ve met on the island – the kenku.

It’s not all about alignment

Speaking of the kenku, one of the things I find cool about the game is that I have no idea what alignment Rishi is. I am similarly ignorant about the colony governor, Hester Warwick, and in fact about every single other character in the entire game except the other two player characters, whose alignments I know through metagame knowlege only. In addition, there is literally no way for Lambert to find out, despite the fact that he’s a cleric, because the “Detect Evil and Good” spell now simply alerts you to the presence of supernatural entities or magically consecrated or desecrated areas rather than letting you see where every sapient creature around you falls on a 3×3 alignment bingo card if you cast it enough times. That means that, in the game as in life, we have to figure out who is trustworthy and who isn’t by observing behavior and interacting with characters rather than simply scanning them. This is a change in the D&D system proper from previous editions rather than something Grant is explicitly doing, but after playing a number of sessions with it in place, I can say without reservation that I think that was an exceptionally good design decision.

Things that are interesting without being epic

The kenku look like walking, wingless crows, but they also have aspects of lyrebirds in that they can mimic all sorts of sounds around them and even pass these sounds down to descendants, which is why the party can communicate with them at all. The old mystery cult monastery we cleared out as our first dungeon was full of implied story and interesting bits of world history, but there was nothing world-shattering in there, just an old building that had some history.

The desire to make things epic or jaw-dropping is another pitfall a lot of campaigns can fall into, and having a world that is interesting and feels grounded and lived-in has helped me to stay interested and engaged in the game. It seems to be pushing our group to actually live in the world a lot as well – there has been a lot more focus and a lot more in-character time in this campaign than anything we’ve done since the Shadowrun game.

Limited violence

There has been combat, certainly, but the entire game is not a string of fights connected with flimsy plot. Some of the best moments in the game have been role playing ones, and that has been consistent. Grant has done an admirable job of keeping the challenges of setting up a society and interacting with a new one front and center, and I will admit that I (and my PC) have much more anxiety about the colonists going all conquistador on the kenku than I do about the monsters on the island.

Grant would probably ask me to balance this out with criticism, but I honestly don’t have any, and in any case he has done so in his own posts already. So there.

Personal Goals

One of the things I’ve been trying to work on is my tendency to hog the spotlight. Fortunately, the other players made deeper and more complex characters than I did, so they’ve actually been helping with that quite a bit just by being awesome. Lambert is a very busy PC, but he is certainly not the toughest member of the party (that is unquestionably Garm, especially now that he’s gotten access to some magic) and he’s not the most skillful or intelligent member either (that would be Aster, the unbelievably competent rogue).

I am also trying to use this game to practice what we preach on the show. Lambert is a very deliberate attempt at breaking away from some of the more violent and self-righteous characters I’ve played in the past. What I’ve been trying to do with him is make him into “glue.” While he’s not a pacifist, I want him to be a peacemaker, and I also want his influence to be at least one reason why the members of the colony live in harmony with the natives of the island rather than conquering or disregarding them. Lambert was designed to be the kind of person who doesn’t get a lot of recognition, but helps society be better, more empathetic, and more compassionate, hopefully due to his example. I want to use him to practice humility, charity, and kindness rather than just righteous fury and decisiveness. I want him to help the other PCs become the epic, noble heroes they can clearly become. And most importantly, I am hoping that his story will point toward the life that really is life, that he will be a good example of how to be authentically human and a servant of God (despite the fact that he’s in a polytheistic setting and a cleric of a member of the pantheon therin). Time will tell how successful I am in that.

Campaign Report 4: Into The Witch’s House

Hey, folks. Grant again, and … what’s this? A bonus play report? Delicious! My recap from a few days ago was pretty negative—and rightly so, because I screwed up hard. In these last two sessions, though, I think we collectively made up for that. Character development, problem solving without violence, some great roleplaying, and a couple of nasty combats. Oh, and the rogue set a needle blight on fire and robbed a witch. Good times.

(A personal note: This blog post was supposed to go up last Friday. However, between a nasty head cold and some other issues, that didn’t happen. I apologize for not getting this out in a timely manner.)

Session 6

I’m going to try something a little different for this post. Since these two sessions were pretty action-packed, I’m going to recap each session and then immediately talk about it from a GM’s perspective, rather than packing all the GM notes at the bottom.


Kenku WitchI left the party on a cliffhanger: Rishi (the wacky old kenku loremaster) was juuuuust about to tell the party something they could do to earn the trust of Kondou (head of the kenku village) and the other kenku. (I’m going to talk about that cliffhanger in the “GM’s Notes” section below.) Well, Rishi’s task was simple, on the face of it. He wanted them to retrieve a stone tablet, about 8″x12″x1″, with a kenku carved into it. It had “gone missing”, he said, and he’d just learned where it went: It was in Auntie Bloat’s house.

“Auntie Bloat”, it turned out, was an ancient kenku witch—much older even than Rishi—who lurked in a bog at the far western end of the island, living in a fish’s skull. She and Rishi apparently were in a bit of a standoff, and the PCs offered the opportunity to shake things up. So the next morning—after waking up to the sound of Rishi shouting a story off his balcony to passing kenku—the party set off to find Auntie Bloat.

The kenku village was just a bit uphill of the small lake the party had spotted the day before, and the witch’s swamp was (naturally) at the end of the small river flowing out of that lake. Finding her was therefore just a matter of traveling down-river. This occasioned an interesting debate, however: Aster (the scrappy, urban rogue with a … limited … grasp of the concept of personal property) was strongly in favor of taking a fishing boat, even if there wasn’t anyone around to ask about that. (Her player—my wife—invoked her “It’s not stealing if I need it more” flaw, and earned an Inspiration point for doing so.) The party argued this for a bit, and eventually nixed the idea on both moral and practical grounds, but it was a good (and 100% player-created) moment. (more…)

Campaign Report 3: Exploration & Narrative Railroading

Hey, folks! It’s been about a month since our last campaign update, and I’ve got four sessions to recap as a result. That’s a lot to cover, so I’m going to break this up into two posts. Expect a follow-up later this week. A lot has happened for the PCs, and as a GM I’ve done some good and some bad things, all worth talking about. I don’t want to skimp on too many details!

Anyways, let’s talk about exploration—and bad GMing.


For those keeping track at home, I’ve written about three sessions so far. Here’s a recap of the next two.

Session 4

Ball's Pyramid (North)So after exploring the ancient monastery and clearing it out, the various colonists moved in (somewhat) and started settling down in earnest. After a day or two of helping with various chores, the PCs decided to explore and try to find an easy way to the top of the cliffs they had settled in front of. They went south, following the coastline, and found a sizable bay there that might one day be a good harbor, though the current colony location is a bit far away to use it themselves. In the distance, well to the south-south-east, they also spotted a sharp, solitary spire of rock jutting out of the ocean. (The picture I sent them to illustrate this was of Bell’s Pyramid, a pretty amazing natural wonder in the ocean between Australia and New Zealand.)

After about half a day of travel, they eventually found a place where they could get up the cliff face. They found a sub-tropical forest at the top, along with a few high places they could get a better view of the inland terrain from. That gave them a glimpse of a bit more geography—a tall, volcanic mountain in the distance, a plateau sloping away from them … and a thin, barely-visible plume of smoke rising in the distance to the west of them, suggesting that someone might live there.


Campaign Report 2: The Ancient Monastery 1

It’s been a couple of weeks since I updated everyone on the status of our Dungeons & Dragons game. Not to worry, though—there’s been plenty of action to generate both blog posts and episode content. Plus, we’re trying something new by not missing sessions, and I’m pleased to report that this seems to be working surprisingly well!

But seriously: Last week, the party wrapped up the first dungeon crawl of the campaign. This was kind of a major milestone for our gaming group, on both sides of the virtual GM’s screen. My wife had never actually explored a proper ‘dungeon’ before, since she’s relatively new to gaming. I’d put maps together for the Savage Shadowrun we played a while back, but those were mostly floor plans I’d filed the serial numbers off and turned into heist scenarios; this was a properly-gridded dungeon, which the players had no foreknowledge of, and that was a first for our group. And for myself, this was a bit of a personal milestone: My previous D&D game was a terrible Eberron game, where I’d focused so heavily on making pretty maps that I completely neglected to put together a coherent plot. So just by virtue of entering a dungeon at all, we were off to a good start.

Good thing, too.


Campaign Report: Supplemental Content: Meet the PCs

Grant floated the idea of doing a post introducing the player characters for our D&D game casually to me in a Facebook message earlier, and any other ideas that were half-formed in my brain immediately got stuffed into a metaphorical drawer. The idea is just too perfect to let go. So, without further ado, the player characters!

(Well, okay, just one quick ado. A word from Grant on stats: We rolled stats since that “felt more like D&D”, using the “4d6, drop lowest” method. Since I don’t mind characters actually being competent, if anyone had two stats less than 10 to start with, I let them re-roll one of those bad stats once more. Dealing with one “bad” stat is a fun little challenge, and it can give a D&D character something unique to remember them by. Dealing with more than that just gets frustrating.)


Campaign Report 1: Playing Sharks and Daggers 5

Any time I blog instead of Peter, you know it’s gonna get weird. Today, I’m giving everyone a rundown of the first session of our D&D campaign! This game’s been rattling around in my head for years—a game heavily inspired by the Roleplaying Public Radio “New World Campaign”, but tweaked to fit our group and my own sensibilities. I’m also running this in D&D 5e, which is … well, significantly better so far (but I’ll get to that.) I’ll go over the events of the session, and follow that up with an analysis of key GMing moments.

I’m not going to give a rundown of the characters in this session, except a very basic race-and-class. I’ll save character writeups for another time, because they deserve a post all their own.


I started things off with a bit of narration to set the scene: A colony ship laden with people and goods, about fifteen weeks at sea. It’s en route to a distant archipelago believed to be rich in land, goods, and magic—the last being a rare thing indeed in the “old world”. Unfortunately, this vessel (which I still need to name!) has been separated from its sister ship, and has been driven before a hurricane for several days. It’s just run aground, and the morning light and clearing weather shows that its hull is badly damaged, and that the storm surge and winds have grounded the ship on a low barrier island.

After deliberation and a little scouting, the settlement’s governor and captain decide to unload the ship and, using her longboats and manpower, move to the “mainland” across the lagoon created by the barrier island. There’s a series of sandbars that protect the space between the barrier island and the larger landmass beyond—shallow enough that a man could walk across it in water up to his chest, and with several places only ankle-deep (at least, at low tide.)

I’m leaving out a lot of detail, of course, but that should be enough to set the scene. Enough talk—time for action!


The Classics are Classic for a Reason 2

For the first time ever with the particular gaming group I’m in, we’re doing Dungeons & Dragons. Grant has been wanting to try out the 5e rules and it didn’t take any arm-twisting to the get the remaining three of us on board. This is going to be the colonization game that Grant has alluded to on the show, which is a neat idea to begin with, and we’re going to be doing a more Renaissance-era game than a medieval one to go with the idea of exploration and colonization, but it’s still going to be D&D.

There’s a reason why D&D and its progeny such as Pathfinder, 13th Age and the entire OSR movement continue to have staying power – the basic gameplay feedback loop of dungeon crawling, fantasy (whatever its level), and leveling up is so much fun that it’s spawned entire genres of digital representations. Everything from roguelikes, to various types of traditional cRPG, to Diablo and the Dark Souls games have their roots in various flavors of D&D. There’s a lot of fun and excitement to be gained from battling monsters and collecting treasure.

But there’s also something else that’s cool about this type of game: Character creation is front-loaded. Because you pick a class (or two) and then follow it from there, the possibility exists to define more about who your PC is and who they will become in a D&D style game than in something more open-ended like GURPS or Savage Worlds. A class gives you a predefined role to play and as such, it gives you a lot of room to think about how you’ll go about coloring that particular archetype in the campaign. And because of that, I’ve been sitting here entertaining a number of possibilities.

I’ve been thinking about a tiefling paladin/rogue that’s basically an investigator and advocate for the religion he serves and looks like Judge Frolo but acts much more like the bishop in Les Miserables. I’ve been thinking about a wizard, ranger, or wizard/ranger that’s basically the benevolent hermit that lives in the woods and keeps an eye out for the safety of the town(s) he lives near. I’ve been thinking about a wizened, kindly old Celtic-style druid, about a tough old man-at-arms (fighter) who will train the colonists in how to keep bandits and wild beasts at bay with spear and palisade, about the cleric of a sea god on the ship as a hedge against the dangers of the long voyage, and that was just TODAY. (Grant floated the D&D idea on Saturday evening when we wrapped up our Rogue Trader micro-campaign.)

The classics are classics for a reason. Gygax and Arneson definitely managed to bottle lightning when they made D&D, and while it has benefitted from refinement over the years, it’s telling that most of the successful refinements have been ways to make it more like itself. I love all kinds of different RPGs, but I never want to reach the point where I sneer at D&D and turn my nose up at it. Much like cheesecake, I don’t want nothing BUT it all the time, but if I never got a chance to have it again, I would definitely be sad.