Category Archives: The Great School of Magic-campaign

#RPGaDay2015 – Day 24: Favorite House Rule

rpg-a-day-2015Today the challenge in #RPGaDay2015 is favorite houserule, and I will pitch in with a few thoughts on my own. Houserules are interesting but sometimes also controversial, but to my mind most controversies around house rules are related to how they are broadcast to the group, and the purpose of houserules. To some a houserule is used to mend a perceived flaw in the system, whether there is a flaw or not, and careless applied houserule might in such instances make the game less appealing for the other players thus hurting their game experience and creating a controversy.

Day 24 – Favorite Houserule

I like houserules, and we use them a lot. We usually play with two kinds of houserules: 1) Campaign house rules (tailored rules) and 2) Houserule of the day.

Tailored rules are houserules, that are added to the campaign to make the rulesystem help focus on certain aspects of the game. In a Mystaran D&D Glantri campaign, where all the characters were wizards attending The Great School of Magic, all XP were gained from passing courses in magic, not from killing and looting, which forced the players to divide their time between attending classes and going on adventures.

Houserule of the day is a favorite among my players. In this instance a rule is introduced, that only applies for one session (unless it becomes such a succes, that it becomes a permanent feature of the campaign). Houserule of the day is a specific rule introduced to support a certain event or feature during a session (just as when an episode of a tv-show is filmed entirely in black/white or as a muscial). One such houserule during the wizard campaign was A Night at the Opera, where the wizard students when to a yearly major opera and the action alternated between the story of the opera and the backstage intrigues among shady wizard nobles.

In this case the rule was: Everytime you want your character to do something at the opera (a clandestine meeting, conspirering, gaining intel etc.), you must play a scene from the opera, and the scene must last two minutes.

This meant that the action alternated between the play on the stage and the intriques behind the stage and among the nobles on the balconies at at opera house, and we had some great fun at seing the players act out the different roles of the opera struggling to keep a scene lasting two minutes (this required a lot of repeating the same lines “I love you … I love you … I looooooooooove you …” giving the events on the stage a feel of being an opera play).

So the opera house might have been a favorite, but mine would in this case be the following:

Play a scene, gain a bonus

This is the most basic version of the scene, but we use it in a variety of ways. In The Great School of Magic campaign, the rule was formulated as follows: Play a studyscene with another play to gain a bonus to pass an exam.

Passing exams was the source of XP and thus levels, and the players would do their best to gain as many bonuses to these rolls as possible – and one source was studyscenes. In a studyscene the player’s character would be studying together with a secondary character belonging to another player, and what happened during the scene was open, and was mostly being used to develop characters and explore aspects of their personalities. It allowed the players to shine, and was important for the development of the characters.

We use this kind of houserule in many different versions, and it works great to put a focus on the small things, but stille those that develop characters and settings.


A New XP-system: Exploration-based Rewards

Recently I noticed, that Erik Mona does not like the experience point system – and thus have created his own system – and it reminds of how I have been doing XP myself.

On the good old pre-2000 days, you killed an orc and gained some XP. You might get 50 points or so, and only needing a few thousands, then that was ok. Unless you played D&D becmi, where an orc gave 10 points, and your first level fighter needed 2000 to go up a level. Then collecting treasures became really important.

But even with the increased XP values of monsters in AD&D, once you needed 10.000 or even more XP, killing a few monsters granting some hundreds XP or so resulted in bookkeeping XP just felt meaningless. This also began being reflected in scenarios, where you huge sums of XP were being granted for reaching the end of a module, and in some cases whole levels were granted (making it even less meaningful to collect XPs for killing a few orcs).

With this slowly deteriorating system for granting XP became still more useless, many began developing new ways of granting XP, and when 3rd edition came around a new shiny model were introduced, and an even shinier one with the 4th ed rules.

Since XP is such a nice thing to drive the game, as it quite literally is an award, you can use it to tell the players, what you want to reward them for. Kill monsters and bring home treasures! Complete modules! Use your class based abilities! For surviving encounters (as Erik Mona suggests)! Spending your money at the inn between adventures (as I saw suggested years back)! Roleplaying! (An always nebulous one for who is to gauge “roleplaying”, and you might end rewarding extrovert or charismatic players or players for ‘reading’ their GM?).

Attending Class, Gaining XP

I just recently ended an eight year long campaign about a group of teenage wizards at The Great School of Glantri. Xp were not granted for killing monsters or picking up treasures, nor were they granted for ‘good roleplaying’, but instead for attending classes and passing exams, and everytime you had enought to level up, you had to pass a test. Failing exams also gained XP, as you still had learned something.

The system worked great. It gave the game a good focus – we are at school and need to balance fun and adventuring with actually attending class, and what to do, when a great adventure presents itself the night before exams? It also gave us space to explore, what happens at wizard schools and how does it feel to attend one?

Exploration-based Experience

For my D&D retro-clone the focus is on exploration. I have been reading and playing a a bunch of the old, really old modules, and one thing that separates them from the 90’s modules is absence of the detailed narratives to draw the PCs through (especially thinking of the Ravenloft and Planescape modules here), and from the 3,5 material, where you go from encounter to encounter. In the older material you explore areas. You map dungeons, you fight monsters, avoid traps and meet weird things, ancient things and strange things. There are plenty of empty rooms, and sometimes there is a room with a large bed and a lady’s hat for no other reason as to pique the players’ imaginations.

So for my D&D retro-clone (previous design posts part 1, part 2) I want an XP-system, that rewards the players for exploring dungeons, for poking their noses into the next room and the next room and the next room again.

This is what I came up with.

The Adventure Points System

For each room investigated the party gains 50-100 Adventure Points (50 for fairly harmless dungeons, 100 for average dungeons).

For each wonder and mystery encountered the party gains 50-400 points. Mysteries can be an enchanted lake, an illusion covering a room or some other supernatural effect. Wonders are the wonders experienced in the dungeons, as finding an ancient wallpainting made by a long forgotten artist, whose art touches your soul, or it may be a natural rock-formation in a grotto of great wonder.

For each trap encountered is gained 50-400 points – and half that much if the trap is avoided or otherwise not triggered. So if you find a pittrap, but never activates it, or disarm a crossbow-trap before it is triggered, you gain less, than if you fall into the pit or get shot at by the crossbow-trap. The basic idea is to entice the players to touch the red button, knowing they will only get half, if they disarm the red button instead of triggering it.

Adventure Points for exploring, for wonders and mysteries, and for traps are rewarded, when the PCs leave the dungeon and have time to rest briefly. Each PC present gains the full amount (four characters exploring eight rooms each gain 800 adventure points).

For treasures brought all the way home, the players each gain a share of adventure points equal to the treasure brought home. The four characters have borught home treasures equal to 500 gold, so each character gains 125 adventure points, however one of the characters hid a gem (value 50 gold) for himself. That character gains additional 50 adventure points, as he does not share the treasure.

The adventure point table

  • Level      Adventure Points
  • 1                             0
  • 2                     1200
  • 3                    2400
  • 4                    4200
  • 5                    6000
  • 6                    8400
  • 7                 10800
  • 8                 13800
  • 9                 16800
  • 10              20400

So far

I have tested the Adventure Points with several groups, and the great thing is that it works as intended. It makes the PCs open every door and stick their head into every nook and cranny. Since monsters don’t reward any Adventure Points, and combat with them generally slows exploration down, the PCs are just as willing to negotiate and use trickery to avoind fighting monsters, as they are to pick fights, and plenty of things are left alive, as long they grant access to more parts of the dungeon.

The extra points for mysteries, wonders, and traps also ensures, that the PCs are less likely to avoid set-ups and potential dangers, as being exposed to these, grants more Adventure Points. The players are eager to explore and map dungeons, to push on and take just one more room, because they are certain to gain points (every room grants points, whether or not any monsters, traps or any other things are present, so picking just one more room is a calculated risk).

Life and Death – How I Threatened Their Lives

Recently Level 30 Yinzer described her attempt at offing a character, and how she found that difficult. This caused some thinking about my own approach to killing off PC’s, and how I go about it or don’t.

Targeting a specific character for death


But I do sometime warn my players, that I have planned something deadly for them for the evening. It builds expectations, which is good.

Problems with Continuity

The main reason why I am not fond of killing off PCs is that it ruins continuity in the events, plots and stories the characters are tied to. I have often experienced that a story arc lost its momentum once a central character died off. Recently in one group three fifths of the characters were eliminated, and shortly after that three fifths were eliminated again. This means that all the dynamics between the characters has to be rebuilt. It is kind of like, when they start a new season of a tv-series with the replacement of almost all the characters. For instance X-Files changed a lot, when Mulder was replaced, and even more when Scully were put on the sideline. So character deaths annoy both me and the players.

Player-Controlled Story Arc

In my Delta Green-campaign we have lost two characters, and that really changed the dynamics of the group. One character was offed by a fellow character, and the other ran out of luck or fate or the equivalent. However, it did fit into the story, and both characters had a chance to end their story before dying off. That made it feel right, when the characters died, even though it did influence the continuity in the group – and this will get a lot worse, when the two remaining veterans bite the dust, and that will happen sooner or later.

The exit of the characters were controlled by the players, but that it occurred were forced by the game. To control the exit the players have Decline Points, which allow them to survive the onslaught of the mythos, but once they run out, the characters will very soon be eliminated by bad luck, random chance or a mythos related incident.

The first character lost happened shortly after he ran out of Decline Points. The player had up to this point (that is before losing the remaining Decline Point) slowly revealed to the other players, that his character had become more and more unhinged and he had foreshadowed the characters attempt to assassinate the loved ones of another character – and when he ran out of Decline Points, he asked if he could set up the end of the character. Of course. So we played out a scene, where he lay hidden with his sniper rifle planning to eliminate the loved one, when his trusted ally (another player character) stepped out and confronted him. As he would not change his ways or his plans being too caught up in his madness, she placed a bullet in his head. That was the end of the character.

The second character was loosing his Decline Points quickly, and in order to gain more he was becoming alienated from his friends and family (to gain more, you must burn a relation), so he began to plan his legacy (a secret storeroom mostly), and on the next mission he lost his remaining Decline Point, and got kidnapped by Mi-go. However, after the traditional placing the brain in a machine, I allowed the character to present a final goodbye to one of the other characters (in part as an homage to Lovecraft’s short story). Afterwards he was lost forever to the Mi-go.

Not always Life At Stake

Tough choices can be as interesting if not more interesting that risking the characters life. After all you have to live with the consequences of your character’s choice, but a dead character is just replaced with a new one.

So sometimes I simply replace combat to the death-situation with something else, a hard choice.  Save villagers or defeat the monster is almost a hard choice, but not really. More oomph should be added, it should be personal. Then it is proper hard choice, for instance promotion or saving your best friend from humiliation? That makes it hard, because you can’t go kill things to avoid the choice.

Things Worse Than Death

Once the characters in my Wizard Campaign were exploring the mansion of the Grand Grandmother of one character. The Great Grandmother was/is a powerful necromancer bend on living her life through her descendents using Magic Jar-spells, and she may actually be a lot older than the Great Grandmother.

Thus the mansion was filled with powerful, magical traps, and in older versions of D&D quite a few would have drained levels or instantly fried unfortunate characters. This mansion however trapped its victims in pocket planes – thus becoming the victim of a trap, meant that the character was lost for the rest of the exploration of the mansion. Instead of rolling up new characters, the trapped characters would each play out a scenario trying to escape their prison. In each scenario the other players would play NPCs (fellow prisoners or guardians), and luckily the three trapped PCs succeeded in escaping, returning to the normal world weeks or months after disappearing.

Safe or Die

Now in the good old D&D Dungeons – such as the ones I am currently playing – there are several monsters, that can kill with their “save or die”-attacks. Since we are playing with the 4th ed.-rules, there are no ‘save or die’-attacks left, but I did keep some peculiarities when playing Rahasia, such as the “Turn to platinum”-trap and the “Possessed by a Witch”-trap. The first one is without a save – as it is an obvious trap, and the players did guess it with no problems (things however went wrong, when they decided, that they wanted to test a potential loophole, and the rogue got turned to a nice platinum statue. This effect is lifted, once the scenario is successfully completed) – and the second was sort of kept as a ‘save or die’, and one character got possessed, but once the great evil was defeated, the character would be safe and sound. unfortunately the players failed, and two characters were therefore lost.

Otherwise I do not really use ‘save or die’-effects, and especially not for random monsters. How this brings me to the following:

The Obvious Death Trap or “If You Fail the Roll, Your Character is Lost”

Not long ago one group had to cross a deep gorge. There was a bridge, but it had long since broken down, and only the pillars supporting the bridge remained. The players planned and prepared, and their characters spent some resources in order to have a rope suspended between the pillars, so they could slowly climb across. Then I told them, that it would require a certain amount of checks to successfully cross for each character, and if once was failed, the character would plunge to his death. The chances of failing were low, but once you have to roll more than once, the risk increases significantly. Every rule and every trick the players could think of were employed, and there was a lot of tension, as they began to roll. Luckily they all succeeded, otherwise characters would have been lost. alternatively the players could have chosen to go back, or to search for some alternate route.

We had an episode in my wizard-campaign of a like nature. One of the wizards was under the influence of an “ethereal leech” sucking her life-energy causing her to fall asleep all the time. The solution was to use an enchanted scalpel to remove the monster, however this would risk opening a gate to the ethereal plane, where the entire leech would be confronted (and what looks as a tiny leech in the material plane is a huge beast in the ethereal plane). A roll is failed and the gate opens, and I warn the players, that the gate will make one attempt to suck each character through stranding them on the ethereal plane. If the save was failed, the character would be lost. As with the other group, the players began prepping and employing all known tricks in order to handle the save, and it gave us a series of rather exciting dice rolls, where they all ended up being succesful.

Note that when the players employ all the rules, it includes rules such as The Art of Doing it Cool, Plot Points, and Background: City/Countryside. The result is, that we actually get to play in-character the prepping and planning in a much more detailed manner than otherwise.

So the threat of death of character can be handled in many ways. It can be a dooming die roll, a fate worse or alternate to death, or it can come about as a result of a count down allowing the player to plan the end of the character.

The Art of Whining

This is a peculiar rule. In part it is inspired by annoying teens in popular media, like Harry Potter in book 5, like Angel’s son the Angel-tv series, and Buffy’s sister in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. There was nothing more irritating than the pouting teens complaining the injustices of the world. However, since the wizard-campaign is about a teens attending The Great School of Magic, we of course had to have a rule allowing the players to whine in the same manner. If pouting teenagers are part of the parcel, we had to have it too.

Before the rule were implemented we had a series of sessions, where the group was split up, and the characters were stranded in strange and dangerous realms, where time moved in a different manner, so what were days or weeks in the prime plane were months in the outer planes. These imprisonments gave them good reason for having something to whine about.

The Rule of Whining

Here is the first part of the Whining:

  • The rule is valid until summer (in campaign, that is about half a year)
  • The character’s can at any time choose to whine. The whining must include references to the harrowing experiences in the outer planes.
  • After whining the player earns a Dark Plot Point (and they are cool!).

Yes, this means that the players can earn lots and lots of Dark Plot Points, and yet there is a hindrance. Actually there are two hindrances

Notice that the rule introduces a new kind of Plot Points. These are not the same, as the basic Plot Points (covered in this post), and the Dark Plot Points exists besides the regular ones.

The Price of Whining

One hindrance is a side effect of the Dark Plot Points, the other is the nature of whining. It is rather simple, the players can’t stand it. At first it was fun for them whining about the harsh reality of teenage wizards, but at length it became exhausting for the players to whine, and thus they toned down the amount of whining. It is quite fun to see a rule limited mainly by how draining it is to use. The other hindrance is covered below, and it comes from possessing Dark Plot Points

The Reward for Whining

So let’s tak a look at Dark Plot Points. They are used next to regular Plot Points, that I described only in the most basic terms earlier. Dark Plot Points also last one season and they are part of the same theme as the whining rule.

Dark Plot Points

They have two effects. One is activated, once you posses the point and the other, when the point is spent.

For possessing Dark Plot Points

  • For each Dark Plot Point possessed the character have -2 CHR. This represents their glum and dark outlook. At 0 CHR the character is unable to act due to his or her depressive mood. Charisma is regenerated 1 pt a day after the point is spent.
  • With 1 or more points, the character have -4 on all social skill checks involving children or animals (this includes familiars). Combined with the charisma penalty the character is easily estranged from his familiar and any other pets.
  • With 1 or more points you gain +1 caster level, when creating magic items (yup, magic items become more powerful, when created by an emotionally charged wizard)
  • With 2 or more points, the caster gains +1 caster level with spells (yup, they become more powerful spell casters) [remember this stacks with Thing’s My Master Taught Me and The Art of Doing it Cool]

Dark Plot Points can be spent for the following effects

  • Magic of the Darkened Mind (cost 1): Add a Fear Effect to a spell
  • Prophetic Dream (cost 1): GM creates a prophetic dream, the player suggests theme and/or subject
  • Networking with the Underworld (cost 1+): The PC gains a contact in the criminal underworld
  • Contraband (cost 1+): The character acquires an illegal or restricted product (drugs, poison, holy symbols – since religious practice in Glantri is forbidden).

Two of the options have a variable cost. It is a difficult to set the exact price for various substances and contacts, so they are based on a negotiation between player and GM. The player informs the GM, what he wants, and GM presents a price.

The Right Amount of Whining

As the points work right now, it is an advantage to have at least two Dark Plot Points, as this adds a caster level, but this also means the character have -4 CHR and additionally -4 on social checks dealing with e.g. his familiar. Of course it is even better to have more points, so you both can have the extra caster level and spare points to spend, but will you pay the price in glum looks and whining?

Why oh Whine ?

Now the purpose of the Dark Plot Points is to play a bit with the conflict between mastering dark powers and being an empathic person. How much will you sacrifice for power? The other purpose is to point ahead in the campaign. The prophetic dreams allow the players to choose subjects, they have an interest in, and then the DM can create hints of what is to come.

Likewise the opportunity to gain a network with the underworld represents the characters’ growing involvement with the intrigues and dirty tricks, that is a part of their world. Few wizards are above employing thieves, smugglers and others for their intrigues. When all your opponents master’s magic, you need alternative resources.

Finally it allows us to explore the whiny aspects of teens, and the idea of estrangement as the price for power. We are having fun.

Exploring the Setting while Partying

In connection with the two previous posts about using romance as a plot device and using historical cultures as the basis for the setting, I will be exploring how to use real world festivals as inspiration and how to use them in the campaign to expand the setting.

One way to explore a setting is build the exploration around cultural events such as festivals. In modern Western society the everyday is structured around the seven day week with five workdays followed by the two day weekend. This structuring of the calendar is not set in stone, but the result of specific historical events. In other societies and in other times things were done differently. The year round was filled with festivals at irregular intervals celebrating gods, rulers, seasons and important historical events.

A few keywords

Looking up Perchtenlauf, Tomato festival, wild man parades, Day of the Dead, Mummer’s Play gives some very interesting results about modern and medieval festivals. Ancient Rome have long list of interesting festivals worth stealing for a campaign.

I use festivals in my campaigns both as a way to present the setting, as a way of creating interesting roleplaying-scenes and as a way to present plots and mysteries in different contexts. Investigating a murder is one thing, doing it during a harvest festival is an entirely different thing.

Using festivals in my campaigns

In one of my present D&D-campaigns (The Wizard Campaign) the characters are all students at the Great School of Magic, and there are no such things as weekends. You have a seven day work week and instead of weekends, you have festivals from time to time at irregular intervals, celebrating either national, local or ethnic events. Events in the campaign are tied to the festivals – these are the times, when everybody is scheming and planning, because everybody will be there, and they are important public events, when struggling to gain social status.

In other words the festivals frames important events in the campaign and provides a reason for the PCs to be there. It also provides me with a chance to present the setting to the players.


Festival de Toros

During the Festival de Toros students chase monsters from the canals into the harbor, where they are captured (the chase with the bulls through the streets is in the capital replaced with students in gondols chasing monsters). The monsters are the results of accidental summonings, escapees from labs etc., and they present me with an excuse to use weird, out of place-monsters.

In the campaign the first year the PC’s witnessed the races, and they became involved an murder attempt during the race, where one wizard decided to use the chaos of the races to eliminate a rival. He threw a spell on a monster as it was being chased thorugh the canals of the city passing the rival. The PC’s came involved in the struggle against the monster.

During the second year the PCs created a team and went sailing around the canals in their own gondol competing against their favorite rivals. During a struggle with a weird para-elemental monster, they accidentally knocked a hole in building giving them access to some of the mysteries of the setting, which would otherwise be inaccessible.

During the third year two of the PCs were picked to be captains of their own teams, and suddenly the PCs were competing against each other. They had to pick their own team among the remaining PCs and NPC-allies. Both captains had to win in order to make their mentors proud, especially since their mentors had a bet on.

The Fire Night

The Flaem-people marches round in the night dressed in yellow cloaks with torches and instruments chasing away evil spirits. The same night is used by radical members of the Flaem-people to burn people, they don’t like.

On the first year the PCs are participating in the peaceful parades, when they discover that some of the participants are not really part of the parade. They have infiltrated it in order to eliminate an enemy and then blame the murder on Flaem radicals. Chase scenes thorugh a parade, where everybody is dressed in a identical manner and only the smell of garlic would reveal the false participants.

During the second year the PCs were invited to private parties taking place on the same night celebrating the event. At one party the PC suddenly realized he was among radicals wanting to hurt another ethnic group (the Alphatians), they considered an arch-enemy, and he had to keep a straight face. At another party the PCs were assaulted by various fire-elementals summoned on the night to kill the forementioned Alphatians.

Other Festivals

On the Night of the Dead a mysterious alliance of wizards ressurected a dead wizard and the PCs had to battle ghosts and the Headless Horseman. At the Wintergames everybody goes skating on the frozen canals and at a great outdoor opera-show on ice one of the PCs is going to be married. At the Vyonesse nights everybody, who is something attends great balls in costumes etc. etc. etc.

As shown above the festivals are arenas for plots, for scenes depicting the setting and they are a tool to involve the characters, and to tie plot and setting together. And the parties are great.

Using historical cultures in for your setting

One reason I am such a fan of the good old Mystara-setting is because it uses historical cultures for each setting, which makes it easy to sell the basic part of the setting to the players. Another fun part is, that the history in the setting is quite the puzzle to piece together and a favorite sport among many Mystara-fans is to construct the setting’s history from bits and pieces. A bit like writing history or working with the history of the Indo-European languages.

Let me demonstrate with two of the campaigns:

Night’s Dark Terror

The campaign takes place in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. About a 100 years ago the Traladaran communities were leaving their dark ages and at the same time they were conquered by the Thyatian Empire. The Duchy is the westernmost province of the Empire and it is ruled by the benevolent Duke Stephan, who gained the lands by selling his ancestral lands and through his personal friendship with the Thyatian emperor.

Imagine Poland and Transylvania in the 10th century conquered by the Roman/Byzantine Empire. The native Traladarans are the Polish, and their conquerers are the Byzantines. There are two churches in duchy, one, where the pantheon of Thyatians are worshipped, and one, where the Traladaran pantheon is worshipped. The churches are vaguely modeled upon the medieval Catholic and Orthodox church. Notice how easy it is to create a society that is both alien and yet recognizable by combining and recombining historical cultures. At the same time is very easy for me as the GM to quickly explain the setting to the players.

The Wizard Campaign

The Principalities of Glantri lies to the north. It is mountainous region divided into several principalities that each are tied to noble house. Each region is populated by it’s own ethnic group. We have the Boldavians, the Flaems, the Krondaharians of Ethengarian origins, The Alphatians, the Aalbanese etc. Each group has it’s own customs, language and traditions. The capital is named Glantri, and it contains several gates to the Elemental Plane of water, which feeds the channels of the capital.

However it can also be described in this manner:

Imagine planting Venice in Switzerland. Streets are replaced with canals and traversed by gondoliers. Imagine that each canton in Switzerland is populated by a historical culture. The Flaems are the Flemish people specialized in fire magics (yes, corny wordplays are a part of Mystara), the Boldavians are Transylvanians, they are plagued by Vampires and superstition (and incidentally the Boldavians are descendants of the Traladarans from the Grand Duchy of Karameikos mentioned above), the Aalbanese are 13th machine building Holy German-Roman Empire citizens. Among the others we find decadent French, necromantic Scotsmen in kilts, mongols as the descendants of the horse riding Hungarians (aptly named Ethengarians, warned you about those names) etc. etc.

Using all these stereotypical historical cultures it becomes very easy to have the players understand the differences in the society, and we can easily have the campaign handle several different cultures without much work. Basically I can communicate the society very quickly to the players – even when we play – and it allows us to dive into the diverse cultures and let their diverse customs shape the game. Often the customs in themselves can become whole scenarios in their own right, as a festival to scare off monsters – The Perchtenlauf for instance – becomes quite different in a magical world, where monsters abound:

Love, devious plots and complicated schemes

Well, this post – What’s Love Got to do with It –  at Geeks Dream Girl got me thinking. How had we used romance in the campaign? At first I considered writing a reply at her post, but quickly the answer grew and grew. In the end it came out as a separate post instead.

Love and Marriage in the Wizard Campaign

The main element to keep in mind is that, the campaign focuses on a group of students at The Great School of Magic. All the characters are human or elven wizards, and they acquire XP from attending classes and passing exams (The campaign and a series of it’s house rules are detailed here).

Embarrassing Moments at the Opera

One character was a fine young noble lady and like her parents she is a wizard, though still just a student (at level 5). In one session it was planned to create an embarrassing and sticky situation. The character had been courted by a bumbling, rich merchant, who wanted the joys of noblesse by marrying a noble lady. Our character hadn’t the slightest interest in the NPC but tolerated his presence. However one night at the opera, he had hired a wizard to create the perfect moment. During the romantic climax of the opera, he would propose in full public to the young lady. We had a hilarious scene with the character turning down this inappropriate character in full public embarrassing both him and her (and earning her an enemy for later).

Your parents want you to date…

Her troubles however were far from over. As the daughter of a fine noble family, her parents had arranged an alliance with another fine family. The basis for the alliance would be the marriage of their children. I had the parents appear and demand their daughter – the character – to go on a date with the son in the other family. We played out a series of amusing scenes with the two teens truýing to date, neither being very interested and the boy being a nervous wreck, who were assisted by a butler hiding in the bushes whispering him advice on to say.

Since the dating didn’t work out and since the character protested gravely to her parents, they ended giving up on having the two kids to date. However as the GM I wasn’t quite finished …

The Kid has a Sister

Months later the aforementioned kid’s older sister returned from a journey abroad. She is a popular girl with powerful friends and an accomplished wizard (being a year ahead of our characters in school, she was a higher level spellcaster). Now nobles being nobles she felt slighted that the character had refused to date her younger brother, so at a great ball she approached the character and demanded, that the character assumed dating her younger brother or she would face the character in a wizard duel.

Now the players were worried. The older sister was a formidable opponent. Beating her on the social arena was next to impossible were her allies, and in a duel she would be more powerful, than the player character.

The character being a proud, young noble lady refused to date the boy, and a devious scheme were planned by the players. They looked around at their NPC-friends and allies, and found a promising young wizardess of a minor burgher-family. The acquired two Philters of love and held a party where both the kid and the young wizardess were invited. During the party the characters slipped the two vials into the two youngsters drinks, and made sure they fell in love with each other. Since the younger brother now was interested in another girl, there would be no need for him to date our player’s character, and therefore no risk of having to duel the older sister. Thus they solved the problem of the involuntary dating.

Yet our character ended up married, and not to someone she loves …

A New Diplomat in Town

Much later a new character entered the campaign. A young (in Elvish terms) diplomat from the Kingdom of Wendar arrived at the capital in the campaign. His situation was quite complicated, as the post were originally considered a joke at the court back at home in Wendar, and he had received the post without knowing that it was a joke. Things however changed when the nation, where he resided, The Principalities of Glantri, suddenly were at war with a distant empire. Suddenly the local nobles wanted him to entreat a military alliance, and what had earlier been a joke suddenly became a very serious thing and another noble were sent from The Kingdom of Wendar to replace him. This the character had no intention of accepting, and the player began planning on securing the post as the diplomatic representative.

The plan was simple: Create a military alliance between the two nations. However a marriage was necessary to finalize the treaty, so he had to find a wife – fast.

Enter our young noble lady, who had no interest in getting married. The two players negotiated and they planned, that their characters would enter the political marriage and keep it loveless (as the treaty did not stipulate any heirs between the married).

Other Romantic Events

Love, dating and marriage plays a great role in the campaign:

One of the characters got her hands on a powerful magical item, but it could be activated by three drops of blood from her true love. As such it was no great challenge – he would gladly give the three drops, but it required the player to choose someone in the campaign to be her character’s true love.

Another character met a fine young and rich lady, that he decided to date. She fell in love with him, and on a journey to her fathers estate – where the character got to meet his fiancee’s three huge brothers – he was almost forced into a magical shotgun marriage, but he succeeded in talking himself out the instant marriage, but he had to be careful, as he discovered that his coming father-in-law were none other than the magister handling the taxes of his parents domain – and tax-fraught in the magical wizard nation is a capital crime. He had to make sure, he insulted no one and avoided being married faster, than he had planned.

Another character discovered that his beloved had another suitor, who was a young and dandy nobleman allied to enemies of the characters. He had thusly a powerful and troublesome rival, that he had to oust.

At the Heart of the Love Story is the Character

The romantic plots all share the fact, that one of the player characters are in the center of the plot. Sometimes love or marriage is demanded by the surroundings, sometimes it is the character looking for a partner only to find new trouble. These challenges easily lasts one or more sessions and they are the result of much mirth among us. The above mentioned stories can be summed up briefly and in a more generic sense, so that they can be applied in other campaigns.

  • The challenges are rather simple in their nature, and it is the context that might make them sound complicated:
  • Rich merchant asks noble woman for marriage in public. Accepting or turning the proposition down will generate embarrassment on behalf of the one or the other
  • Magic item only works with true feelings
  • Parents wants to engage their child in a political marriage
  • Older sibling wants you to date their younger sibling or they’ll beat you up
  • In order to keep your position, you must negotiate a deal, and the deal can only be finalized with a wedding
  • The girl you’re dating is the daughter of man, whose political power can tumble your parents position.
  • The girl you’re dating haves the attention of another, whom she may not like, but remains a problem until properly ousted

The Art of Using Magic – a house rule for terrifying commoners

Here is an another house rule from the Wizard campaign, whose purpose is to add an extra dimension to spells, both making them more flexible and to reflect the difference between mages and commoners. Think of Gandalf’s imposing figure, or the effects of wizards upon their surroundings in Ars Magica. And you can think of M:tG, where spells have a minor secondary function.

The rule

Against non-spellcasters a spell can be converted to a bonus to a social skill. The bonus is +2 pr. spell level of the spell converted. The duration of the effect is dependent on the situation, and in most cases it covers one skill check, but there may be situations, where the spell covers multiple checks.

When converting the spell it is still considered cast as normally, but instead of applying the normal effect, the spell is instead used to support the spellcasters social skills (bluff, diplomacy, intimidate, sense motive).


A wizard uses his Burning Hands spell (lv1) to terrify an innkeeper. This grants +2 on the Bluff check, as he wants to fool the innkeeper in believing he is a powerful mage.

The Sorcerers spends her Hideous Fanged Mutilation-spell (lv2) and gains +4 on her intimidate spell, when trying to stop the mob of angry villagers.

Dealing with diplomat the enchanter spends his See Invisible spell (lv2) to gain +4 to Sense Motive as he becomes more sensible to tiny gestures and otherwise hidden motives.


The player chooses the spell and converts it to gain the modifier. The net result is, that even if the players memorized all kinds of offensive and defensive spells, they can get some extra mileage from them. The spells also boosts areas, where the wizards are not very skilled, and this enables them to function more easily. It is ofcourse important to remember, that this does not apply to other spellcasters, as they are aware of what is happening.

Why my players enjoy the rule

For my gaming group the benefit of this rule has been, that it emphasises the difference between wizards and commoners, which is an important difference. It allows the players to use their spells in social situations of which there are many, and yet they have to be careful. The fireball is good at intimidating commoners, but perhaps you’ll be needing it for some other things later? In addition it makes it easier for the players to use their offensive spells without worrying about killing innocents, e.g. the Hideous Fanged Mutilation-spell is a terrible spell, which easily kills your average commoner, but there are times when the wizard just want to chase the commoners away, not kill them [also in this campaign no XP is gained from killing opponents, so you’re not tempted to kill everyone you encounter].

Gossiping Ladies – a house-rule about gossiping

This started out as a Rule of the Day and was afterwards changed to a house rule due to its popularity. The rule is being used in the wizard-campaign:

The scenario takes place in the Principalities of Glantri consisting of several principalities ruled by wizard-princes. Only wizards can become nobles, and they do not tolerate divine spellcasters – they are burned at the stake – but when it comes to arcane magic, no sort is forbidden.

In the capital, Glantri City (formerly Braejr, but when the principalities were formed under Lord Alexander Glantri, it was renamed in his honor), is the Great School of Magic, which is one of the great centers of learning in the Known World (ofcourse this claim is staunchly opposed by Glantri’s rival, The Alphatian Empire).

The campaign takes mostly place in the city of Glantri around The Great School of Magic with a few excursions to other parts of the Principalities or the Outer Planes.

Fashion, status, membership of secret societies, noble rank are all important elements of the modern Glantrian, and therefore it is important for our characters, how their reputation is. Rumors play a role in all of this. So here are the rules:

Gossiping Ladies-rule

  • Each player creates one or more gossiper: housewife, nanny, maid or the equivalent. With creation is ment name, profession and a few words on her background.
  • There can only be two gossipers present in each scene (the same two players can’t play two scenes in row)
  • Each scene must take place in a new place (at the well, the market, by the kitchen door, the sewing room etc.)
  • One or more gossiping-scenes can be played in between the regular scenes
  • In a gossiping-scene the gossipers can talk about an existing rumor, introduce a new rumor or combine two rumors
  • Whenever a scene is played both players earn 50 XP (this rule were only applied during the first session – the characters were 3rd lv at the time)

This is how it works

The players take turns to gossip about what is happening in the city. It is assumed, that whatever they talk about is public knowledge and also knowledge that the main characters posses, even though we don’t know how they exactly got the knowledge (it was picked up off-stage).

GM can introduce rumors in the scenario by using his own gossipers. Usually we do it by me setting a gossiping-scene with one of the players, and then that player often chooses to set the next gossiping-scene right after and continues to gossip about the rumor and so on. News rumors are added, old ones are modified etc.

Most of the time I don’t introduce rumors at all. The scenes are played solely by the players and I don’t interfere at all. It is not uncommon, that three or four gossiping-scenes are played in row. The first at the market, the next outside the butchers, then down by the well etc.

Now here’s the trick

The players use these scenes to comment on the play and what is happening in the fiction. The commenting is useful as a GM since it gives me more tools to challenge the PCs with. Additionally the rumors add to the reality of the characters. So if a rumor runs rampant about one the PCs, it does mean that this is part of how people view that PC and the player needs to practice some rumor-control. Sometimes the players adds rumors about themselves, and at other times they add rumors about the other PCs.

In one case a PC was attacked by a werewolf, while he was barefoot. The fight began inside, but soon continued outside on a frozen channel. The PC chased the werewolf off and returned inside, since it was freezing outside. Later the event was commented upon by the gossipers, but quickly the events were changed from battling the werewolf while barefoot to running about the channels naked. Later the PC had to answer some concerned guilders about these rumors, since they could not use a spokesperson known to run about naked.

To sum up

The players takes turn playing gossiping-scenes (often 1-4 scenes) in between regular play. Each scene is brief and is generally completely under the players control.

The players gossips about what is happening in the fiction. They can introduce new rumors or gossip about existing rumors, and they use this to comment on what is happening in the fiction. They can speculate, add or adjust what happened – or at least is publicly perceived what happened.

Everything gossiped is public knowledge, and sometimes the PCs need to react to the knowledge. For the GM the scenes can be used to introduce specific rumors.

It can be an advantage with some sort reward for the first session to temp the players to use the mechanic.

After out first session the players were so pleased with the rules, that they asked to keep the rules, and so we did. The gossipers sometimes appear in the background of events, where the PCs are present. Some of them might be in the kitchen, where the PCs are dining or among the staff at a galla.

The Everburning Tavern – when characters meet

Recently one of my players playing a wizard, who needed some spare parts from a monster, so what did she do? Well, her character went to a local inn, which was known as popular hangout for members of the Monster Hunting-guild, and here she hired a group of NPC-adventurers to go on an errand for her. This was not the first time it happened. The first time was when another wizard in the group needed somebody to investigate, who was threatening local guilders. The player had deciced, his character hadn’t the time to do the footwork himself, and he therefore hired a bunch of adventurers to investigate.

This is actually the closest I have been in years to a scenario, where the characters meet and/or are hired in the inn for some job. Instead I look for alternate approaches or simply skip the tavern-start. Reading the post Burn Down the Tavern and One More Round, burn this tavern to the ground I was reminded how rare it is, that I use the tavern approach.

The Three Musketeers

This story was a great inspiration for me as to how you gather your party for the first sesssion. The story begins with the young d’Artagnan, who sets it all off, when he meets one the central foes of the story with whom he exchanges insults, afterwards he arrives in Paris, where he has a series of encounters that each results in a duel taking place at more or less the same time, and once they all meet for the duelling, d’Artagnan and his fellow duellers, the three muskeeteers, wind up in new trouble and from this they form their party.

Now that is a fun way to start your party.

Most recently

When we started playing Night’s Dark Terror we met and created characters and we spoke a bit back and forth as to the composition. We ended up with warlock, who grew up among poor weavers, a halfling rogue from a big in family of rogues, a fighter from a small lumber-village, and a dwarven priest, who was a former goldsmith.

We decided upon the following backstory: The old dwarf priest (and he is old, almost 400 years) have decided to raise the three youngsters by showing them the world. On to this I added that they had reached the regions of the city of Kelven, where they met a horse-trader, who hired them to move horses to an elven village, and now they were traveling with the trader to meet his brother and pick up the horses.

So no inns, no negotiating hire and no getting to know each other. It had already happened and we skipped forward to where the story begins.

After the first session another player joined our crew. He created a wizard from a family of river gypsies, and he was visiting the horse-traders farm, when the remaining party arrived, which happened to be during a goblin assault, and from then on they joined forces.

The Contract

With this kind of campaign-start we have also agreed, that this is how the party members are gathered. The players are supposed to end up traveling together. This for example means that when the party met the wizard, we all knew that they would form a party and travel together. It is part of the agreement, and it is not unspoken agreement.

You broke it, you pick up a new one

In our long running wizard-campaign I started one session with describing the PCs falling along a gigantic pillar of ice spanning kilometers in length floating through the empty air with no of nether a sun or the ground.

Then we skipped back in time. I instructed the players, that this session covers the episode, where one of the characters obtained The Book of The Apothecary (according to the House Rule: The coolest magic item ever – I will describe that rule later), that we will cover the reason for the PCs being where they are through flashback-scenes and that for the session we had a Rule of the Day allowing the PCs to define facts.

Then we played the first flashback: “While picking up The Book of the Apothecary you have broken a glass bottle containing the rare essence pure elemental ice belonging to powerful noble wizard.” Any suggestions as to who, that would be? The players came up with a fitting explanation and we played the scene. We skipped back and forth in time, establishing the reason for the PC’s to end up in the Elemental Plane of Air near a gate to The Para Elemental Plane of Ice.

The Contract

I lay out the ground work for the players, and I inform them of which special rules apply for the session and if there any specifik narrative tricks, that will be applied, such as flashbacks. Once the players are informed, we begin playing, Because the players are informed, they know what way to push the game, even though they have no idea, what is going to happen, e.g. just because they know, that we are using flashbacks does not mean, that the players have nothing to explore, neither does it mean that the characters are safe, far from it.

The Pupils Meet

When the wizard-campaign the players created wizards from all over the Glantrian principalities. Their characters all came from different regions and only two of them knew each other vaguely being distant noble cousins of Alphatian stock.

We agreed that the campaign is about a group of teens going to The Great School of Magic, and that the campaign were about their time at the school, so during the first session, they would meet and become friends. I then presented them with small scenes, where they met each other and they met enemies (some of the other students), and through these brief scenes, they got to know each other and became friends, much like any other story about school life.

The Flying Ship-campaign

This one is easy. All the characters are the crew on a flying ship on a diplomatic mission. Each session begins with the captain sending a team on a mission. The captain is played by the GM, and after he has presented the mission, each player chooses which of his three characters, he wants to send on the mission (technically it might make more sense, that the captain picks a team, so we pretend that he does that, but the players decide on the characters).

Other Media; Skip, Borrow and A Little Trust

There are many ways to both new and old groups on to a new adventure, and no need using an inn for such. Take a look at books, tv-series, comics and movies and notice how they gather the adventurers and set them off. For me the most important trick is to have the players pitch in on how and why, and then establish an agreement on how, the PCs become a party.

Also don’t be afraid to skip things, that are not really important. Is it important, they meet in an inn, that they negotiate their hire and that they take the hook at the beginning. Many stories in other media skip this part, because it is not that important. And don’t forget the episode of Firefly, that begins with a naked Mal sitting on box in a desert musing, that things went well.

Perhaps one more thing should be mentioned. A part of using these alternate introductions is about trust. I don’t use these kinds of starts to take equipment from them, put them in situations, their characters never would choose to be in, or otherwise violate their character concepts.