Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nentir Vale: The Unaligned

This is the first in a series of posts I'll write covering my customization of the setting included in the 4e DMG.

Those who know me know that I have almost always created my own campaign world and setting when running a game. Most of my players know well the worlds of Erghon and Farhold. For 4e, I decided to try a completely different route: use the setting provided in the DMG and the associated published adventures.

The Nentir Vale is presented in the DMG as a "points of light" setting -- meaning the world is generally perilous and dark but there are a few clusters of saftey and civilization tenuously linked together. Venture too far from safe areas and deadly dangers quickly appear. I decided to keep this overall theme. My world-building nature, of course, demanded I do some customization. My first effort was creating The Unaligned.

When I saw the diverse backgrounds my players had created for the characters, I decided I needed a way to bring them together that they could all be a part of regardless of their backgrounds. That's where the secretive organization known only as "The Unaligned" came in. I was inspired by a snippet of information in a review of the movie "Wanted". It simply mentioned a secret society of assassins, the Fraternity. My imagination took hold and a bunch of possibilities arose for the game.

First, since my players are all long-time D&D players, I felt that the standard dungeon romping could give way to adventures where a lot of information was given to the players ahead of time -- entire maps to dungeons, detailed information about an adversary -- such that the "hook" for the players would be in planning and carrying out a mission with a specific objective.

Next, I liked the new spin on alignment in 4e, especially the idea of alignment being "unaligned." I decided to use that term and thus "The Unaligned" were born. It's a secret society that operates across all the "points of light" but is beholden to none of them. Its membership and leadership are cryptic and occult (meaning hidden). For a given mission, the operatives don't even need to know each other -- they can be disparate and only know each other by a coded sign (one that is casual enough not to be noticed by the unaware, but also clear and deliberate enough to be recognized by those who know). This idea allowed for bringing the characters together with something in common even though they had different backgrounds and personal goals. It also allows players to create "alternate" characters which can be introduced completely logically into a new or existing mission without having to make up thin rationales for why a new character would join, or be allowed to join, the group.

The players don't know anything more about The Unaligned than the "code sign" and their main contact. Since we started the game, their contact has been Nimozaran the Green, a wizard in Fallcrest. Most folks view him exactly as written in the DMG -- only the players are aware of his membership in The Unaligned.

The Unaligned also serve as a way for the players to obtain magic and equipment they might not otherwise ever get to use. The organization makes level-appropriate equipment available for specific missions but the characters are expected to return anything they don't use as well as 'donate' to The Unaligned any extra magic items they find.

How has this played out? For the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure, they were told in advance that a sealed gate to the Shadowfell was in the Keep and there were concerns someone was trying to re-open it. Their contact in Winterhaven was a dwarf, Douven Stahl. The players decided not to take the direct road to Winterhaven, instead skirting around the Gardbury Downs and Gardmore Abbey and approaching Shadowfell Keep from the north. They managed to enter the Keep and fight their way down to the lowest chamber where they stopped someone (Kalarel) from completing a ritual to open the Shadowfell gate. They accomplished all of this without alerting anyone in Winterhaven as to what was going on in the Keep.

However, they soon learned that their contact, Douven Stahl, had disappeared. A second contact met with the group and explained that Douven had been excavating a buried dragon and recently sent word to Nimozaran that he'd discovered "something of great power." The only idea about his disappearance was that the Bloodreaver hobgoblins may have taken him. They had been reported as operating in the area, kidnapping humans, kobolds and other humanoids. The Bloodreavers were known to be based in Thunderspire and were believed to sell their captives as slaves to beings from the underdark.

This has led the players to their next mission: find Douven Stahl. They were given somewhat sketchy maps to the major halls in Thunderspire, along with some information about what to expect there. But The Unaligned don't appear to have many contacts there, so gathering new and more accurate information about the place is an additional mission objective.

So far, the players have enjoyed this approach. It's made for clear goals that keep them focused on where to go and what to do, while giving them plenty of freedom to decide how to accomplish their mission. It gives them enough information to work with, without spoiling either a sense of adventure or mystery.

Here are most of the original notes I made about The Unaligned.
  • a highly secretive organization with the lofty goal of keeping the world safe from planar invaders, power-hungry demigods, insanely mad horrors, apocalyptic disasters, and clich├ęd adventures.
  • The organization does not claim to exist and its members rarely know each other though operatives frequently work toward similar shared agendas. Occasionally, they may even work against each other without knowing it.
  • Some members are grouped together into teams, sometimes called a "band" or "company". The band is expected to follow the same constraints in all things as individuals.
  • Members are free to choose or accept "tasks" as they see fit. No one is forced into anything. Upon accepting a task, though, the member must do everything within their power to complete it. The member will be given as much information as possible, as well as equipment and tools to be successful.
  • Resources are not unlimited, but members usually do not have to worry about access to gear. At the same time, there is a distinction between a member's personal gear and "task gear". Most task gear is meant to be used/consumed on the task; some may be expected to be returned.
  • The organization does not have a "gear factory" and does not produce magic items "on demand" but it can help members as needed. It is a hallmark of a member, however, to be able to accomplish a task without any magic or highly powered gear at all.
  • Achieving a task's goal or mission obejctive in the most discrete way possible is the essence of the Unaligned. The definition of discrete in this case does not always mean "stealthily" or "sneakily" -- though that can often be the case. It is more about accomplishing the objectives quickly, efficiently, and before anyone even knows something has happened.
  • A member of the unaligned joins its ranks for neither fame nor fortune, but for the love of solving difficult problems, surviving against incredible odds, experiencing danger at every turn, and never having to answer to moronic and/or ego-driven nobles.
  • The true leaders of the unaligned are unknown. Even appeals to divine intercessors reveal nothing.
  • Members of the Unaligned are not known by any collective name. They may come from, and continue to be a member of, any profession. Sometimes the only sign that someone is part of the Unaligned is a casual and nonchalant act of aligning 5 similar objects (coins most frequently) then misaligning the objects, followed by another alignment of the objects but in a different way. For example, stacking 5 coins, then knocking the stack down, then absentmindedly rearranging the coins in a row. In fact, any five objects deliberately and precisely arranged in alignment is frequently, but not always, a sign that someone nearby is friendly to the Unaligned.
  • Unfortunately, members of the unaligned don't get any special treatment from the world -- in fact, it's usually the opposite. Their activities may anger both the law-abiding and the non-lawful, the corrupt and the just, the evil and the good. It is the hallmark of a member of the Unaligned to go neither rewarded for a "good deed" nor get caught or punished for a "misdeed". The Unaligned prefer to operate as secretly and covertly as possible. Too much fame or infamy prevents this. (However, both reward and punishment can be accorded to members of the unaligned if it prevents drawing unwanted suspicion or attention.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Keep - Campaign Manager (NBOS Software)

The Keep (version 1.0) is database-driven tool for managing all the collateral and ephemera a DM creates when running a campaign. It provides a single location for grouping and arranging all kinds of information -- from documents, to graphics, web pages, PDFs, and almost any other kind of computer file (sound, movie, etc.).

For me, campaign managment is a Holy Grail of sorts. In the early 80's, I used 3-ring binders and dividers to organize my campaigns, maps and adventures. Eventually, these gave way to file folders in filing cabinets -- not very practical for portability but plenty of room for expanding. Even once I started documenting via computer (word processing on a C-64, then PC), I filed printed copies of my work in binders. GUIs made virtual filing possible, but organizing the information was still challenging (arrange by topic? by file type? by adventure? etc.). And then came trying to find something after such extensive filing!

When Microsoft released Office OneNote 2003, I felt I was close to the Holy Grail. OneNote (now version "2007") was originally designed for Tablet PCs and intended to provide an easy way to take notes and add research snipped from web pages and documents. OneNote groups note pages into Notebooks, and pages can be grouped into Sections. Pages can be of any length and even have sub-pages. For me, it was an ideal blend that married the old 3-ring-binder system with computer technology and added (yes! finally!) SEARCH capability across all notebooks. Running on a Notebook or Laptop PC, a campaign becomes very portable. End of story? Not quite.

Earlier this year I received an email from NBOS Software announcing their new campaign management tool, The Keep, version 1.0. Curious, I checked out the demo and was soon hooked. The Keep uses a simple folder or tree-node model for organizing information. At the topic level you create "root topics". Each root can have sub-nodes, which can have more sub nodes. This allows for deep levels of organization which can be quickly expanded or collapsed as needed. Adding documents like a PDF or HTML page renders the page directly in The Keep (unlike OneNote). The Keep uses a database to store the information you create within it (external files remain external though some can be imported into the database).

I do have a few feature-wishes (it is version 1, after all). Rearranging sub-nodes is cumbersome, right-click menus could be better implemented, and having two pages open at the same time is only possible by opening two instances of the program.

Overall, though, I've been really pleased with The Keep. It has helped me 'keep' my fledgling 4th Edition game organized and I look forward to seeing how NBOS improves this already very good product.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

DMing a 4th Edition D&D Game

When 4th Edition appeared on the scene in 2008, I was initially both cynical and skeptical about it. The cynic in me said "WOTC just wants more money," and the skeptic in me added "How on Earth could any changes to 3.5 Edition of D&D possibly warrant a move to a 4th edition?"

Well, WOTC certainly must be making some money from 4th Edition (witness the recent appearance of the Player's Handbook 2 in the top 15 New York Times non-fiction bestsellers, and number 4 on the Wall Street Journal's list). I have no problem with a company making money from its products, despite feeling like I paid for 3rd Edition twice when I bought the 3.5 Core Books.

Once I got to look at 4th edition, though, I saw that it was not going to be a repeat of the change from 3 to 3.5. This was almost a whole new game. I was a little shaken at first. As a 30-year veteran of D&D, this was something unexpected -- a radical re-thinking of the basic mechanics and powers. But the more I read the more I liked it. My 3.5 game bogged down and became almost unplayable with a table of just 6 characters of levels 12-15. Too many options and details and special rules, along with juggling all the math during combat, ground the game to a glacial pace. I love that 4th Edition manages to have plenty of variety but streamlines the mechanics such that I have a much easier time DMing and the pace never bogs down due to mechanics. It's just out and out more fun.

In the late summer of 2008 I asked my long-time players to give 4th Edition a shot. I decided to run the current WOTC-produced adventures to cut down my prep time. This decision helped me focus on getting the hang of the new rules, while giving me plenty of latitude to customize the game world. I'm using the Vale of Nentir right out of the DMG. (In later articles on the blog I plan to discuss how I'm customizing it.)

I sent my players a great "10 minute" survey to flesh out their character's background and aspirations. Each player described 2 allies and 1 enemy for their character. They gave their character 2 secrets - one the character knows about, and one the character does not know about. (Each also has a third secret that only I know about.)

From their backgrounds, aspirations, allies, enemies, and secrets, I was able to weave together a societal framework tying the player-created content with the DMG's sketchy details of the Nentir Vale. There are 5 PCs and we play once a month. The characters are currently adventuring in the Thunderspire Labyrinth and recently hit 7th level. Overall, the group seems to enjoy the flavor of 4th Edition.

Next time, I'll write about "The Unaligned", a secret organization in the Vale to which the PCs belong.

This is another interesting and extensive character survey over on Dragon Avenue.

About Steve

Houston, TX, United States
...THE PHOTOGRAPHER: I find great enjoyment in getting outdoors with a camera and marveling at the beauty of nature. I'm currently a student in the New York Institute of Photography. ...THE LIBRARIAN: I'll soon be entering the role of 'Web Management Librarian' at the University of Houston - Downtown. ...THE DM: Easter, 1979. I first saw the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handboook at a friend's house. I asked him to teach me how to play. I've been DMing almost ever since...