Category Archives: Microsetting

Slenderman, for ShadowFinder (Starfinder-Compatible)

So, if I DO a ShadowFinder rpg, or campaign book, or Starfinder hack, or whatever, obviously it’s going to involve adventures that include fighting things (because if it didn’t, I’d pick a different game system). While part of the point of doing something compatible with an existing game system is to make all the existing options available for use as a GM pleases, we’d obviously need some other, new things.

So, what will PCs oppose in a ShadowFinder campaign?

Creepy things. Like a SlenderMan.

(Slenderman art (c) Jacob Blackmon, and used with permission. Check out his Patreon here!)

Apóleipa, Innocence-Eater (Slenderman) (Combatant)
CR 7
XP 3,200
CE Medium fey (Extraplanar)
Init +6; Senses blindsight (emotion) 30 ft., low-light vision; Perception +14
Defense HP 98
EAC 19; KAC 20
Defensive Abilities Only the Fearless (DR/Resist all energy 10 vs attacks from frightened foes), Tilted Away
Fort +6; Ref +8; Will +10;
Offense
Speed 40 ft.
Melee touch +13 (2d4+7 B), critical: staggered 1d4 rounds, 15-foot reach
Ranged warped world +15 (2d4+7 A)
Statistics
STR +4; DEX +2; CON +0; INT +2; WIS +1; CHA +5
Skills Bluff +19, Culture +14, Diplomacy +19, Intimidate +19, Sense Motive +19, Stealth +19
Languages alltongue
Other Abilities alltongue, feats (Improved Demoralize), isolation (DC 19), warped world
Ecology
Environment any
Organization solitary, pair, or infestation (3–6)
Special Abilities
Alltongue (Su): The Slenderman can speak and understand all spoken or signed languages, and is always able to be heard, even in areas of deafening sound and by creatures without a sense of hearing.
Isolation (Su): The Slenderman is a creature of isolation, and this extends to efforts to communicate with people far away by magical or technological means, or even just shouting. Anytime a creature within 300 feet of the Slenderman attempts to send or receive communication with anyone or anything not in their line-of-sight, they must succeed at a DC 19 Will save. On a failed save their radio turns to static, magic spell returns just whispered howls of pain, or their scream seems to die as soon as it leaves their throat. Once a creature fails this save, the condition prevents any communication beyond line-of-sight until it gets more than 300 feet from the Slenderman.
Any effort to record or preserve any image or sound of the Slenderman also requires a successful DC 19 Will save, with failure resulting in just a vague blur or feint whisper, or a picture of what appears to be a tall, thin, but mortal man in a suit, with a blurred face.
Only the Fearless (Su): Those who know fear find themselves nearly unable to damage the Slenderman. When a creature is suffering a fear effect (including the Slenderman’s own Intimidate check with Improved Demoralize), the Slenderman reduces damage from any attack they make by 10 points, regardless of damage type.
Tilted Away (Su): The space the Slenderman is in seems to ripple and roll away to make it difficult to make ranged attacks against it. Any ranged attack made against the Slenderman at a range greater than 2 feet grants the Slenderman concealment.
Warped World (Su): The Slenderman can reach out a long, crooked finger and cause someone to have a sense the world is spinning and twisting, wrenching their organs and insides as if they were being wrung out like a rag. This is a ranged acid attack against EAC, has a range increment of 50 feet, and has Knockdown as a critical hit effect.

Apóleipa are a form of fey native to the Plane of Shadow that represent the unformed fears of spaient creatures. As cultures form specific fears or hatreds, various apóleipa form to both try to stoke these negative feelings of natives to the mortal world, and to feed on them. Among the most recent form of apóleipa are innocence-eaters, also known as Slendermen, who feed of a sense of loss of innocence and self-loathing at having done horrid things. They operate mostly in places already suffering from great tragedy or resentment, often on the fringes of society, and seek to convince the most vulnerable members of these places to take actions that will deepen the fear and despair of the population.

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Battle of the Bands: Reskinning Chases as Musical Contests for Starfinder

One of the great things about the Starfinder Core Rulebook is that is has built-in vehicle chase rules. That framework is great for opposed efforts that just wouldn’t work well using normal battle-grid and movement rules. But once we HAVE that framework, we can adapt it to other conflicts that don’t depend on attack rolls and Stamina points as much as they do relative success.

Like a Battle of the Bands, Starfinder-style!

“Can no one defeat the Digital DeckGod? Wait… a new challenger appears. Please welcome to the stage… Cherry Cyborg Candy!”

(Art by Corona Borealis)

Okay, to run a Battle of the Bands, where two or more acts compete to win the hearts of a judge or audience (be that live in person, or while suspended on platforms above molten lava with a mad undead host calling the shots),we need to take the existing Vehicle Chase rules, and make some tweaks.

If you are setting up a battle of the bands where actual attacks are allowed, you may describe the set-up as having each band of a floating, mobile stage hovering over the crowd. then, engaging maneuvers allow members to make melee attacks, as normal.

This could be a one-time event PCs have to take part in to save a kidnapped famous singer, the only way to earn the trust of a powerful witchwarper drummer with a secret the PCs need, or even just a common part of the mystery-solving adventures of a space band.

Relative Positioning: Battles of the Bands uses the same Relative Positioning rules as vehicle chases, but rather than represent a physical distance apart, it represents relative popularity with the viewers or judges. Once you are 2 or more relative positions behind the leader, you are out of the battle. If there are just 2 bands competing this ends the battle, but in a free-for-all bands could be slowly dropping out until only 2 remain. If a single band is ahead of everyone else, they get the normal Being Ahead bonus to skill checks and attack rolls.

Musical Armor Class: Each band has a Musical Armor Class (MAC), equal to 10 plus (average ranks of appropriate Profession skill among band members). Each band member contributes only their highest ranks in appropriate Profession skills to this total. This does mean a bigger band with a few less-skilled members may have a lower MAC, but those extra members get actions each round so it may be worth it. Use this in place of vehicle KAC for actions.

Musical Item Level: Each band has a Musical Item Level (MIL), equal to 10 plus the highest number of ranks of an appropriate Profession possessed by any band members). You use this in place of vehicle item level for all Band Action DCs members of the band attempt. This does mean the better your best band member is, the harder it is for anyone to make Band Actions, but it turns out if you can’t keep up with your headliner, it sounds bad.

Phases of a Battle of the Bands: Use the normal phases of a vehicle chase for the battle of the bands, but with one crucial difference. Rather than Pilot actions, the first phase is Perform actions, representing musical actions or part of the band’s stage show.

There are the same choices of perform actions as pilot actions in a vehicle chase, but perform actions are taken with appropriate Profession skills (normally dancer, musician, orator, poet, video personality, electrician, vidgamer, and manager, though specific bands might have others) in place of Pilot.

Each member of a band can attempt their own perform action (go in order of initiative), but a band can only benefit from one successful action each phase (ie if a band member tries to break free and fails another member can try the same action, but once any band member succeeds, no further benefit can be gained from that action in that phase. All the pilot actions from vehicle combat are allowed, with the GM and players describing them in terms of band actions (“I’ll use the trick pilot maneuver to represent playing a riff that is disharmonic with all the other band’s music, making them sound worse, while reinforcing our disintegrator-rock sound.”)

If a band member attempts the same action another band member has already attempted, or uses the same Profession skill, they take a -2 penalty to their check. This applies to checks attempting in the same phase, or that were attempted in the previous round — it turns out audiences like some variety. Band members can also ready an action to aid another on an ally’s perform action skill check — harmony is a thing.

The chase progress phase and combat phase proceed normally. Even if a battle of the bands doesn’t allow actual combat, this is the phase when characters an use other class abilities, cast spells, try to demoralize foes, and so on, if they have actions left.

That’s It! You are now ready to run varied, nuanced Battle of the Band contests in Starfinder!

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Ned Kelley vs Dracula. A Timeline

A timeline.

1431. Vlad Tepes III, Prince of Wallachia, is born in Sighişoara, Transylvania.

1441. Vlad is knighted into the Order of the Dragon, the youngest noble to ever receive this honor. The order’s primary goal is to destroy the Ottoman Empire. Vlad receives the right to be named “of the Dragon,” or “Drăculea.”

1442. Vlad and his older brother are imprisoned in Tokat Castle, in northern Turkey, and held as hostages to ensure that his father, who is waging war against the Ottomans, does so honorably. The Tepes brothers are treated well, and educated and taught science, philosophy, the arts, and even allowed to continue their martial training.

1444. Chaffing under his imprisonment, Vlad III seeks additional, darker educations. He managed to communicate with a secret agent of the Scholomance, a school of sorcery that is ruled by the Devil and demands the soul of 1 in 10 students as payment. Vlad excels in these dread powers, as he has excelled at everything he has attempted.

1446. Vlad’s older brother is allowed to join his father. Vlad redoubles his efforts to master sorcery.

1447. Vlad completes a complex ritual to force fate to arrange for his release. Vlad’s father and brother are killed by Vladislav II with the support of the Ottoman Empire, and Vladislav takes control of Wallachia. Considered no threat as a deposed younger son, and having hidden his fouler education from the jailkeepers he has largely charmed, Vlad is allowed to leave as long as he vows never to take up arms against the Ottomans.

1448. Backed by King Ladislaus V of Hungary, Vlad takes up arms against the Ottomans, and Vladislav. He fuels his victories with a combination of personal combat prowess, tactics, strong leadership, and blood magic using the fresh vitae of fallen soldiers and civilian victims on both sides.

1453. Constantinople falls. Vlad III takes control of Wallachia, and continues to wage war against the Ottomans. Insisting on continuing the war does not sit well with the boyars under his command. He has them impaled, and gathers and preserves the blood for more sorcery.

1462. Vlad is deposed as Prince of Wallachia by Mehmet II. Vlad flees into the mountains, and returns to the Scholomance for further training, doubling the chances his soul will be demanded as payment by doing so.

1476. While leading a scouting party to set an ambush to destroy Mehmet II, Vlad and a small guard are themselves ambushed and his men are all slain. Vlad appears to be dead, but has been performing blood magics in preparation for this day for decades. Though his own flesh dies, its living functions are supported by the vitality of the blood he has hoarded.

Vlad flees into the mountains, and begins building a hidden network of agents and apprentices he has trained in scraps of the Scholomance lore he knows, plotting Mehmet II’s death. He sustains himself with magic performed with small, voluntary donations of blood from loyal followers.

1481. Vlad unleashes a curse on Mehmet, slaying him. However, Mehmet had powerful supernatural protections of his own, woven by Gileadian talismancers and astrologers, who were tolerated by the Ottomans. Vlad suffers massive eldritch backlash, and his need for blood intensifies. He also suffers a need to draw strength from the earth, preferably in a stone vault, and a vulnerability to many holy words and objects.

For the next 400 years, Vlad Tepes, the Drăculea, and the Gileadian champions of peace and life known as the Hieremias (or ‘Weeping Prophets,’ as they can invoke a sight to pierce illusion which turns one eye blue briefly and causes it to weep tears of blood) wage a secret occult war against one another in eastern Europe. Drăculea is impregnable in his hidden mountain fortress Nefartatul, but lacks the resources to strike far from there. He trains Sfinții Dracului (‘Saints of the Dragon’) to act as his agents and form secret cells of those loyal to him, but they cannot overcome his enemies without being revealed and then destroyed. The Hieremias seek to find a way to cut Drăculea off from the safety of the earth and stone, but must be close to Nefartatul to do so, and suffer great losses in the efforts. Over time, both groups grow weak and are vastly reduced in numbers.

1536. King Henry VIII deposes the FitzGerald dynasty as Lords Deputies of Ireland. A group of Hieremias rush to Ireland to recover and protect ancient Ottoman relics that were in the FitzGerald’s hands. A small group of these remain in Ireland, using the chaos between Catholic and Protestant forces to remain largely unnoticed. They marry in to local families, and pass on much of their mystic lore. Those families become known as “Cuidightheach,” or “The Helpful Folk,” and “Mac Óda” or “son of Óda’ (Óda being a nickname given to one of the original Hieremias to arrive in Ireland).

1691. The Irish Catholic Jacobites surrendered at Limerick. Among them are several families descended from the “Cuidightheach” and “Mac Óda,” though these names have become the family name “Cody.”  

1800. Mary Cody, a strong scion of the Cody linneage, is born in the Irish townsland of Clonbrogan.

1820. Mary Kelly ne Cody gives birth to John Kelly.

1840. John Kelly is transported to Australia as punishment for the crime of Pig Stealing.

1845. The Irish Great Famine of 1845 – 1847 begins.

1854. Ned Keely is born in Victoria, Austalia, the third of eight children of John Kelly and Ellen Quinn. He grows up to be a bushranger, a criminal who operates out of the wilderness in Victoria, Australia.

1877. Dracula travels to London by ship, consuming all aboard.

1878. Dracula is nearly destroyed by Professor Van Helsing and his allies. The Dread Lord successfully fakes his destruction, but must flee from eyes that will watch for him in England and Transylvania. Needing a place civilized enough to provide sustenance, and considered dangerous enough for his kills to not immediately raise suspicions, Dracula takes passage to Australia.

1879. Dracula uses his experiences in England to successfully introduce himself into British nobility in Victori, and begins to take control of it

1880. Ned Kelly, bushranger, famously dons heavy armor to survive various shootouts with Victoria police and army forces. Kelly’s crucifix, passed down from the Cody line, reveals one of the sheriff deputies he shoots to be a Sfinții Dracului, and realizes Vlad Tepes, the Drăculea, is present in Australia.

He begins gathering forces to support him in a crusade against the undead prince.

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Owen Explains It All! – 0-Level Starfinder Characters

Before we get to any OGL content, an editorial aside:

So, why is this tagged as an “Owen Explains It All” post, when that’s very unlike my normal marketing tone? Well, because this links into a new show from the BAMF podcast, titled “Owen Explains It All!“.

We have a logo and everything!

No description available.
(Why no, that’s NOT Doctor Dungeon… Obviously!)

If you haven’t already gone and watched that whole inaugural episode, we talk about The Tomorrow War and how to implement elements of it in a Starfinder Roleplaying Game campaign. We’ll do an episode every two weeks, picking new things from the zeitgeek to use as inspiration for game material.

As we covered in the episode, there’s a lot of good pacing and scene-setting material in The Tomorrow War that can inspire cool setups for a Starfinder game. But the most interesting idea from my perspective was having some of the characters be largely untrained… “0-Level” versions of themselves, not yet even at the base level expected for the things they had to do.

So that’s what we’re looking at in this article. If you want game material inspired from other elements of The Tomorrow War, or want to suggest other things for us to feature on Owen Explains It All, let me know!

Now with that explanation out of the way, let’s get to the OGL game content!

0-Level Characters for Starfinder

There are two common approaches you can use when starting PCs are below-1st-level of power, which I refer to as the Weak Firsters, and the True 0-Level. The Weak Firsters is much easier for the GM to implement, but less flexible for the players. True 0-Level takes more effort on everyone’s part, but it a good deal more flexible. We’ll look at both these using Starfinder Roelplaying Game rules, though the ideas can be easily adapted to any ttRPG system.

Weak Firsters

Using the Weak Firsters rules, each player still picks a character class for their character before play, and then makes a weaker-than-1st-level version of them. Species are picked and their abilities and bonuses applied as normal, but characters start with only 8 points in their ability scores. Each character can spend a single skill point and select a single class skill (which need not be a class skill for their character class — they deserve some reward for beginning at less-than-1st-level), and pick a single armor or weapon proficiency (which DOES need to be something their class starts with).

And that’s it. No other class features, no other skills or proficiencies. Everyone is suffering proficiency penalties to either armor or weapon choices, and depending on what they begin with (normally the GM will have a standard kit of starting equipment everyone begins with in a game like this, though players could be given half their normally starting wealth to pick their own gear) may suffer penalties to everything at first.

Note that this makes EVERYTHING much harder for the characters than for 1st level characters. If you want to frighten your players with CR 1/2 or 1/3 minor threats, now is the time to do it! Even climbing over a wall or driving a vehicle is challenging at this point, and it should be clear that these characters are essentially untrained civilians trying to survive in a situation they have never been prepared for. But they have a key ability score, and thus Resolve points, so at least they can stabilize when at 0 HP…

However, after each encounter, not only to the characters receive normal experience points, they get to add one element from their starting character. At first, each pick must be a class skill and skill point, an armor or weapon proficiency, one of their two missing ability score points (still limited to a max of 18), or gaining a 0-level spell known and castable (spells again being restricted to their class’s normal options), but once those are filled in, characters can start to gain their class’s actual class features, base attack bonus, base saving throw bonuses, and pick their 1st-level feat. This is trial-by-fire, and surviving a single fight with CR 1/2 wounded Mandible Beasts has the immediate reward of getting better at some thing you just had to do while terrible at it.

Once characters select all their 1st level class features, leveling occurs normally from there. This does mean many PCs will have different class skills than their core class, but if they are restricted to the same number of total class skills and skill points, that’s not a huge power boost, and it is a fair reward for beginning play so weak.

True 0-Level

True 0-Level characters have a similar set up with species abilities and 8 ability score points, but don’t have to select a class in advance. Instead each gets proficiency with light armor and small arms (since all classes start with that in Starfinder), but have only 5 base SP and HP, no key ability score, no base attack or base saves, no class skills, and just 2 skill points spend on skills.

Then they gain advances as in the Weak Firsters rules, but make their choices without a class to guide them. Each time they add something other than a class skill or skill point spent, they limit their choices in the future to only classes that have that. For example, if a player decides to gain proficiency with advanced melee weapons, they are then limited to choices matching the solarion, soldier, and vanguard (the only classes that get +1 base attack at 1st level). Once a character has assigned skill points equal to 4 plus their Int bonus, they can only assign more if there is a class available with additional skill points/level.

This is a move flexible system, where players may make careful choices to keep their options open as long as possible, but eventually get locked into a class based on what they want to advance next. Checking that each choice has at least one class that allows it is a good deal more work, and the GM may need to be forgiving of the occasional out-off-class mistake (or even allow one to each player as a bonus–it’s not the worst thing in the world if a soldier happens to have one 0-level spell known, or an envoy has a +1 base attack bonus at 1st level).

Wrap Up

So, see uses for 0-level characters in a game you want to run? Want to pitch it to your GM? Interested in having me Explain It All for some other media-inspired content? Leave a comment and let me know!

(This is an Extended Post, with additional material discussing the Deadly Character Pyramid option to go with 0-level characters, exclusively on my Patreon, for my supporting Patrons.)

Top Ten Modern Crystal Balls

I love stories that mix magic with a range of modern time periods and aesthetics. Inspired by some such stories, I’ve come up with some modern stand-ins to be used in place of crystal balls by urban, modern fortune-tellers.

Top Ten Things Modern Diviners Use as Crystal Balls

10. Magic 8-Ball
No one ever expects the Magic 8-Ball toy to be, you know, magic. But it’s a perfect place to hide your real scrying lenses, and already thematically aligned with divination energy.

9. Mirrors
They’re a classic, and remain a popular choice for modern spellcasters. however, the big wall-mounted mirror is no longer the standard for scrying mirrors, though some older models still exist. Instead scrying is more often done through bathroom mirrors (good for early morning divinations), car rear-view mirrors (especially for threats that are closer to you than they appear), and make-up compacts (which are particularly good for showing you your own faults).

8. Pocket Watches
While a few modern spellcasters have turned wristwatches and even step-trackers into crystal ball equivalents, its much more common to use pocket-watches for this. The practice dates back to the 1800s, when the devices were far more common, but the protective cover, larger viewing surface, and psychic link to conductors on railways (often built along ley lines) still make pocket watches better divination tools than more modern timepieces.

7. Mashed Potatoes
As homaged in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” it turns out Starchomancy remains a powerful tool for foresight. Visions sometimes form within the mash itself, and other times the scryer finds themselves sculpting the vision received. The loss of scrying power is somewhat offset by the ease of acquiring and concealing the tools of divination.
This works best if you make your own mashed potatoes, but if you don’t have the time, store-bought is fine.

6. Fireball Whiskey
Long thought to just be catnip for college kids, it turns out cinnamon-infused spirits are a powerful medium for seeing visions, dating back to the temple of Apollo at Miletus. The bottle itself is most commonly used as the scrying surface, with the whiskey inside becoming briefly cloudy as it fills with visions.
A single drink of the whiskey can aid in divination, but more than that is a terrible idea.

5. Giant Novelty Dice
Though divination through casting lots with dice (a form of cleromancy) is common, using dice as crystal ball stand-ins is increasingly popular, using giant translucent dice the size of your fist or bigger. There is a direct correlation between the number of faces of the ide used, and both the complexity of the divination and the level of detail. A d6 may not tell you much beyond broad strikes, but it easily scryed with. A d100 takes much, much more effort, but a successful scrying gives you many fine details.

4. Cats
Yes actual, living, fur-covered cats. There is an entire school of scrying dedicated to feeding a cat a favorite feast, brushing them, luring them into a pillow, in a box, in a beam of sunlight, and then staring deep into their fur to foresee the future. While this is much harder to do on-demand than inanimate scrying tools, there are numerous curses and supernatural threats that can be detected by ailouromancy that other soothseeing methods miss.

3. Smart Speakers
While newer technology often takes time to be properly aligned with divination rituals, interactive smart speakers apparently come almost ready-made to be turned into crystal balls–though most use a purely auditory interface, rather than the old visions viewed without crystal-covered mists.

2. Stock Ticker
From 1870 to 1970, stock prices were broadcast via telegraph/telephone lines to stock tickers, then printed on ticker tape. While no one uses stock tickers anymore, many were enchanted during the near-century of their use, and those enchanted stock tickers are still powerful divination tools… especially if you want to predict financial news.

1. Old Computer Monitors.
The better the color and resolution, the better the vision you can get on it! Know someone with a pile of old computer monitors? They’re probably a modern spellcaster!
Or a hoarder.
Or both. Both is likely.

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 4

Fourth part of a series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

You can find Part One here.

You can find Part Two here.

You can find Part Three here.

Event

An Event kickoff begins with some big happening that has long-lasting consequences, and that the PCs are intentionally part of one way or another. If the PCs are all contestants in a bloodsport that determines the fate of the world (or just has prize money they all want), that’s an event set-up. If they are all arriving in the Big City for the World’s Fair, Queen’s Birthday, Anniversary of the End of the Z-Wars, Inauguration of the Jack of Graves, or Battle of the Planar Rock bands, and plan to partake of those happenings, that’s an Event setup.

An Event can often be tied to other setups, as a lead-in to a longer-lasting framework for the campaign. If the annual Demigod Trial Festival is a continent-wide celebration the PCs are all attending, with various chances to get up to mischief, and at the end of the first adventure the PCs are all going to be accepted in the Demigod Academy, then it’s an Event leading into an Organization.

An Event can be particularly useful for new players if you can have their participation in the events help showcase individual elements of the rules. If the PCs are all young adventurer-hopefuls attending the Adventure Academy Admittance Trials, those trials can highlight the game’s various systems (a mock combat, a lockpicking speed trial, tightrope walk, insult-duels, riddle contests, and so on) allowing the players to see how their PCs do in those situations and how the rules world while the stakes are fairly low.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time

The difference between an Event and Wrong Place/Wrong Time is largely intentionality of both attendance and what spawns the adventure. It can be on a large or small scale. If a dragon (or kaiju, alien starship, floating castle, demigod, zombie hordes, tank battalion–whatever is genre appropriate) attacks a city that is home to all the PCs, or is hosting a major festival the PCs are all attending, turning it into a ruin from which they must escape, that’s a Wrong Place/Wrong Time setup. If the PCs are on a train headed west when it’s hijacked by teleporting snakemen, that’s also a Wrong Place/Wrong Time setup.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time is a great way to get quickly and directly into some action. All you need is to have all the PCs in one place, and then the adventure can come to them. This works best if the action that occurs naturally leads to more adventure, so the PCs don’t just go their separate ways when the first adventure ends. For example, if the PCs are all on a fantasy-themed roller coaster, and it warps them to an actual fantasy realm, not only do they have to deal with whatever is waiting for them when they arrive, they now have to figure out how to survive in this new realm, and make a living, or make it home.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time can be a good addition to a longer campaign setup. Even if you are doing Family, Organization, Patron, or Tavern as on ongoing setup, you can start with a Wrong Place/Wrong Time to get the PCs into the action, together, quickly.

Right Place/Right Time

The difference between Wrong Place/Wrong Time and Right Place/Right Time is that while the former is about misfortune arriving wherever the PCs are, the latter is about something good (in the broad scheme of things) occurring and leading to adventure. If the PCs are all hanging out at the Taco King parking lot when a Dark matter meteorite bathes them in cosmic radiation turning them into superheroes, they have been thrust into a world of adventure by being in the Right Place/Right Time.

Right Place/Right Time can later be revealed to be Destiny, if you want. While it may seem the servants of Sir Gerginald got lucky by being present when he was slain by a dragon, bathing them all in martyr’s blood and anointing them with eldritch magics, that may in fact have been the fulfillment of the Blood Guild Prophecy. Or perhaps Mr. Cellophane has been injecting hospital patients with experimental super-serum, and the PCs as survivors of a train wreck were just the first recipients to survive his efforts (which, obviously, they find out when they see right through him).

Right Place/Right Time doesn’t automatically assume the PCs are going to agree to participate in the adventure those events open up for them, so it may be useful to combine it with anther setup. It’s easy to have Right Place/Wrong Time blends by having the triggering event be random and a mixed blessing. Perhaps the PCs were in the same hospital as the Ghoul Outbreak, forcing them to fight for their lives against bloodthirsty undead, but as a result they also have immunity to the ghoul virus, and develop various necromantic powers. The outbreak forces them to deal with the Wrong Place/Wrong Time survival threat, getting the campaign started, but it also gives them powers which are going to make survivors in the ensuing Ghoul Apocalypse turn to them for help and leadership.

Obviously there are LOTS more kickoff setups you can use, but hopefully this short list will give you some options and help get you creative juices flowing.

Game On!

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 3

Third part of a series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

You can find Part One here.

You can find Part Two here.

Organization

Using an Organization for the setup of your campaign kickoff can make things extremely easy at first, but may come with hidden work for you later-on. The simplest form of Organization setup is that the PCs are all members of the same Organization, and it sends them on missions that create adventures. This can be a military organization, a knighthood, an NGO, Star Fleet, a mercenary company, adventuring guild, thieves guild, wizards guild, the Honorable and Holy Order of Sewer Guardians, SpecterBusters, a newspaper, the FBI, a Lady’s Sewing Circle, insurance claim investigators, doctors without dimensional barriers, CDC field team, the Imperial Diplomatic Corps, starship crew, space trucker union, Lamplighter’s Guild, Library Overdue Asset Network and Interdiction Team (LOAN IT)– whatever fits the genre and tone of the campaign, and that the players are all willing to be members of.

Of course just because you start a game with players as part of an Organization (or even just trying to get in — a first session that is the Admission trials of the troubleshooter’s Union could be a lot of fun) doesn’t mean they have to stay in it. Here in my experience the two most important issues are player expectation and current player satisfaction. If you have proposed that a game is the adventures of the Stellar Alliance Battlecarrier Valorous, and you plan to have the characters all cashiered out over something that isn’t there fault by session 3, you may have a lot of unhappy players who were excited to be part of a big starship crew. OTOH, if the players end up hating how Stellar Alliance regulations hamper their desire to help non-member citizens and want to go it on their own, forcing them to stick with the organization they dislike can also be a big problem.

One good way to subvert expectations in an Organizations campaign is to have sub-organizations, perhaps secret ones, that the players can find out about and choose to join (or not). If the Lamplighter’s Guild has a secret “Bump in the Night” department that handles horrific things their lights sometimes illuminate (an awesome idea I am stealing here from my friend Carl), the players can work with that group, or look to join them, or even work against them if they think the Bit-N are actually traitorous vampire spawn.

Patron

The idea of a Patron setup is that the PCs are working for, or at least aided by, a powerful Patron who can direct them to adventures, and help them gain access to resources and/or people when it might otherwise be beyond the PCs’ reach. A Patron setup can be a nice mid-point between Organization and Wanted Posters — the PCs need not be as wantonly mercenary as an entirely Wanted Post campaign might suggest, nor as beholden to a set of rules as is common in an organization-style campaign.

A Patron might be just a wealthy or well-connected individual, but there can be other interesting options to. A Patron could be someone unable to operate in society easily on their own — a sentient magic item, or a strong AI, or a member of a marginalized group the culture won’t take serious or treat with respect. Or they could have legal or societal limitations based on standing and position — Commissioner Gauthier can’t be seen operating outside the law, but instead makes a deal with a group of vigilantes that as long as they play by his much looser rules, he’ll feed them intel and not pursue them himself.

One common trope is for a Patron to actual be evil, and planning to betray the PCs, and/or destroy them. While this is pretty well expected in some genres (noir detective stories especially, and things inspired by those tropes), I am personally not a fan of that “twist” unless it’s actually a stated part of the game’s assumptions. I find it much more interesting to do things like have the Patron trust the PCs more and more, in time setting them up to be independent or even take over the patrons wealth and power, because betrayal is no fun in real life, and when it comes in my entertainment, I like it to not be a huge surprise or have a big impact. YMMV.

Mysterious Patron

The big difference between a Patron and a Mysterious Patron is that there’s some big element of the Mysterious patron the PCs aren’t aware of. Perhaps they only communicate through a speaker in an office, send coded messages through the bottlecaps of daily milk deliveries, or meet the PCs in the back of an abandoned opera house while wearing a all-concealing cloak that suggests they have a massive hump… or maybe wings and horns. In my experience it’s much harder to get players to trust a Mysterious patron (which can be fun), and they almost always want to Solve the Mystery, which means only use this setup of dealing with those issues seems likely to be fun for you and your players.

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 2

Part two of the series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

Family Ties

This setup is a lot like the Organization, but you may not have any choice about being part of it. The campaign is driven by PCs’ ties to a family, which they may all be members of, or may have some different connection to (such as all working for the same noble clan, or all having been infected as hosts to related strains of the same sentient fungus). At their simplest Family Ties can drive forward a campaign through familial connections, ranging from helping out other family members to working to expand and protect all family holdings.

Family ties can be little more than an excuse to be in the Wrong Place/Wrong Time, such as if the reading of a family scion’s will brings all the characters together into a haunted house (or onto a secret seabase, into an exclusive club, at the lost keep, in the big boardroom, or around the meadhall fire, depending on genre). They can also come with duties that are hard to refuse (such as being the nobles who oversee a territory, or being the only bloodline that can activate the planetary defense grid… or the bloodstone altar, or whatever). Family ties can also come with enemies who don’t care if the PCs want to be involved in family business or not, from demons sworn to end all descendants of a great champion (or great champions sworn to end all descendants of a given demon), to rivals for a familial claim to a throne–whether the PCs have any interest in claiming it, or not.

One great way to subvert this is to make it family of choice, rather than blood or marriage. In a session 0, players can all be asked to create one NPC that is close friend and beloved companion to them all, even if the PCs do not themselves know each other (or do, but don’t like each other much). This gives players power to help define their driving force, and no player will be a bit surprised if that group-generated NPC is kidnapped, or needs help dealing with blackmail from the wererat mafia.

Wanted Posters

At their simplest Wanted Posters are literal posters offering a reward for some deed to be accomplished, from bringing in known criminals to coming along on time travel expeditions. Players can all be told they are answering the same Wanted Poster, or get caught up on some NPC’s attempt to make good on on. The format can vary as needed, from the town crier to personals columns in newspapers, late-night public access shows, spraypainted messages on underpasses, online forums and electronic bulletin-boards, or Dark Curve InfoSphere Sites.

Many fantasy and scifi settings have formalized versions of Wanted Posters, and assume a self-employed persona can make a living answering one call after another. There may be a big Notice Board just outside the city’s biggest auction house where offers of rewards for quests are posted, or a Bounty Hunter’s Guild that passes out tracking fobs for specific freelance reacquisition jobs. If there are enough such tasks, an Organization may evolve to bond and insure the best adventurers to answer such offers, but it’s perfectly possible for individual middlemen, fixers, and “Agent Johansson” underworld figures to connect employers and for-pay-troubleshooters on an ad-hoc, if frequent basis.

The less common way to use Wanted Posters to drive a plot is for the faces of the PCs to appear on them, turning the mercenary community against the characters. This can be a subplot at any time, but if the PCs are all selected by some nefarious force to be blamed for a crime, it can kickoff a campaign to have the unknowning character all wonder into the new town on the same day, and discover they have a collective price on their heads, even though they’ve never met. This can become a variant of Wrong Place/Wrong Time.

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 1

Kicking-off a ttRPG campaign can be tough. You need a setup that gets all the player characters in the same place, working toward the same goal, and in most cases you want that setup to both not take a lot of time to explain, and have long-term impacts on the ongoing campaign so what time you take explaining the setup remains useful as the campaign moves along. Setup is connected to, but separate from, the plot, theme, and tone of a campaign. Some setups remain the backbone of the campaign for its duration, while others are mere starting points that are discarded once the PCs are comfortable working together and have their teeth in the meat of the game’s adventures.

Basically, anytime you think “That’d be a cool way to start a campaign!,” you’re considering a campaign setup.

Over the course of this week, we’re going to look at some common (and less-common) kickoff setups, including Tavern, School, Family Ties, Wanted Posters, Organization, Patron, Mysterious Patron, Event, Wrong Place/Wrong Time, Right Place/Right Time, and maybe a couple more.

The Tavern

It’s a well-known trope, and overused, but that doesn’t mean there’s no utility to it. The idea is that there’s a gathering place where you can go to get into an adventure. It may be the home of your Patron, a favored hangout of members of your Organization or the School, or the place where Wanted Posters get put up.

I actually think the most interesting idea for the Tavern as a campaign kickoff is to look at Lloyd’s Coffee House, which lead to the creation of Lloyd’s of London. What began as an effort to have reliable news for maritime patrons turned into a global insurance market. It’s not hard to see how a popular tavern (or meadhall, cafe, diner, or intergalactic truck stop, depending on genre) near areas that need adventurers might work to have news of potential adventures and people hiring same.

You can subvert this setup in a few ways. One is to lean hard on the Lloyd’s example, and have “taverns” have simply evolved over decades from primarily places to get drink and lodgings to primarily places to do adventuring-related business (or maybe the evolution of function means those places aren’t called taverns anymore, but Hire Houses or some other term you introduce to the campaign). Another is to make a tavern itself the primary site for early adventures–perhaps a famous and massive tavern was abandoned after some horrific tragedy, and now new owners need the stables cleared of dire rate, the stockroom cleaned of psychic fungus, and the zombies in the basement dealt with.

The School

Whether it’s Backrazor’s School of Berserking and Skulldudgery, the Starknight Academy, Eerie Indiana’s Stranger High School, or Miskatonic University, the idea behind the School setup is that all the PCs are students of the school, and that is what’s going to get them into the adventure.

If the school is training people to BE adventurers, or something similar (military academy, space knight squire class, witches and wizards community college, whatever), it’s easy to see how both minor adventures may be part of the standard class and exam methodology and lead to bigger adventures. For schools with less esoteric curriculum, adventure may come in the form of a locational threat (your school just happens to be at the center of the zombie apocalypse, or the hellmouth, or where the aliens land, or where the Queen of Love and Thorns sets up her fallback command post), or the secret headquarters of an Organization, or again as the home of a Patron.

School can also be easily blended with other setups. If the PCs are all AbHumans with superpowers, learning how to control those abilities at the Kenson Academy while participating as members of the Young Crystal Knights hero team, the academy is obviously also part of an Organization, and may even have a Patron in the form of Professor Kenson. If the school is ground zero for the Dragon Invasion, then being there put the PCs in the Wrong Place, Wrong Time.

One way to subvert this setup is to make the “school” something very different from a big building on a formal campus. Perhaps all young nobles of the realm must spend one full year with a touring knight-magistrate, learning about their lands and its problems. Maybe there is a specific starship for training cadets, and easing them into their final roles and duties. You could have a French Foreign Legion-like group that operated airships with sign-on-mercenaries (no experience needed) to patrol the Diesel Mountains, facing off against Sky Pirates, Wand-Runners, and Panzerdemons.

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Random Idea Generation Methods. 1. The Reverse and Twist

Sometimes, I just need an idea to play with. I may need a starting point for a new project, or some color and side-thoughts for a bigger ongoing work. Often I just generate new random ideas as a palate-cleanser when I need a break from something I am grinding on. Other times I want to throw ideas out to other people, either for fun or to jump-start their creative processes.

Now if I am lucky, a random idea just comes to me when I need it. Or, if one comes when I don’t need it, I can jot it down with just enough detail to come pick it back up later.

But more often than not, i have to generate an idea, and when i have to come up with dozens at a time, I have verious methods I use to do that. Here’s one”

Reverse/Twist The Starting Point

This is one of my favorites, and it’s a good way to use inspiration without turning everything into a pastiche (or rip-off). The basic idea is to take the core premise of an existing setting or story you like, and make a major change to it. Then, you follow the permutations of your new set-up.

For example, take Moby Dick. It’s a captain’s obsession with getting revenge on a whale. It’s compelling, but it’s also been done and redone hundreds of times. So, what if we reverse a number of elements.

Our Captain is still a whale hunter, but he has not a care in the world. The Red Demon, which may or may not be a whale but is certainly a sea creature, seeks to destroy the captain as revenge for the captain slaying the Demon’s mother. We still have stories of obsession and revenge, but now our focal human point is ignoring the risks, his arrogance convincing him that even if the Red Demon is real, it’s a brute animal, and he has all the advantages of human civilization and intellect to overcome it if it ever finds him.

Now, the inspiration for that idea are pretty clear. That’s fine–the starting place of a story, setting, or even writing prompt is only a small part of the work of making something. But once you have that nugget, you can twist and add/alter as you see fit. Instead of a whale-hunting captain hunting you could have a famous ivory poacher, clearly a villain and an up-and-coming local warlord–who does worry about human threats (and perhaps kidnaps a journalist to tell “his side” of his story, giving us our narrator), but ignores local legends of a Red Demon elephant out to get him, even when other poachers are slain by it.

The further we get from the trappings of the original idea, the more our end product will be clearly its own thing.

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