New on Desk #108 — Egalitarian Prepwork

Darn, I’ve been spending a lot of time this week chatting about our D&D campaign in Discord. So much so that it’s now my feature topic.

We have a new thing in chat

My tabletop rpg framework is generally very classical: rhetoric and dice, weekly sittings, GM-coordinated sessions. I do take pride in being fairly avant garde and ambitious in depth, but I don’t push the ritual space of the activity into strange pretzels.

Here’s a recent exception to that, though: our Coup de Main D&D campaign has developed a vicious chat habit where we plan coming exploits together with the other players over the week. This is, perhaps surprisingly, not normal in roleplaying in my experience; you’d think that it would be fairly commonplace for a gaming group to coordinate outside session time, but in the classical format that’s specifically something you don’t do. It’s a pretty basic thing, not like the games even have anything for the players to do, prep-wise: the GM does all the preparation for a traditional tabletop roleplaying game.

Coup is a full panoply old school D&D sandbox campaign, though, so things aren’t quite so straightforward. It hasn’t happened instantly, but over the years, starting long before the current campaign, we’ve started to get into the habit for more egalitarian prep work with the gang. I’m delighted myself, because damn do you realize how difficult it is to get players to do anything even while the game is in session? Getting creative activity to happen outside playtime is borderline magic.

Here’s the two kinds of prep topics that seem to dominate the campaign discussion:

Session planning: This is very logical for a wargamey D&D campaign, and I think it’s immensely useful for us in improving the quality of our play. There’s no good reason why the group would need to hold lengthy strategic deliberations over the next actions to take during playtime, when we can instead create what I like to call the session agenda paper in advance and then just give it to the GM at session start. Gets the actual session off to a flying start, and improves the quality of decision-making a lot, I believe.

Deep lore excursion: The game is structured with long-term exploration and discovery in mind, both in game mechanics and setting lore. While we do sometimes talk about obscure topics like downtime martial arts training or ritual magic mechanics during playtime, the most natural approach to handling deep interests of individual characters seems to be taking them up as correspondence topics between sessions of play. Everybody has better time for teaching, learning and inventing material then.

I would say that a real time net chat is a fairly significant aid in producing this dynamic where the players of a roleplaying game actually end up talking about deep issues of the game over the week. Lightweight enough, and if you happen to have time with another player simultaneously, it’s quick to exchange ideas.

Not that chats are particularly new as technology, but for some reason I haven’t had similar interactive campaign chat experiences in the past. I think it has to do with the game itself being in online video chat here; that naturally gathers the players into the same chat environment, which then makes it easy to continue talking over the week. Our tabletop campaign fork does far less weekly planning, for example.

This week the chatting has been particularly intensive for some reason, and because I love the campaign, I’ve sure been putting in the time. We’ve talked about all kinds of things over the last week, like let’s see, I’ll pick out some arbitrary highlights of how the discourse has wandered…
How Shamans and Clerics are different?
How mid-tier Cleric magic works?
Just generally let’s review the Cleric rules, we have a new Cleric coming in.
Pelor’s nature as a sun god in Oerth, the implications of being his Cleric.
Being a Cleric of Wenta, this obscure Oeridian harvest goddess.
I need to create some outlaw NPCs for this new bounty hunting adventure, so let’s brainstorm some.
A Barbarian is getting close to a spiritual breakthrough, so we need to design their Spirit Flare.
Also, the party Elf-Friend Weredeer needs some charop work.
And we should review the magic item rules to make informed choices in the care and maintenance of.

And it goes on in that vein. Enjoyable creative work, and we couldn’t hope to put as much time into it if it all happened during play time, but I should probably look into pacing myself a bit more. It’s very easy to summon me into the chat to babble in length about whatever vaguely campaign-related.

Sample strategic planning

For readers not familiar with this style of play, a quick idea of what the strategic planning stuff that happens between sessions typically involves: the last session has typically left us with some question of strategic direction, namely what the adventuring party will do next to advance their goals. Sometimes it’s very obvious, while at other times not so much. So the players debate and weight the options in chat over the week, and ideally we’ll be able to talk and vote ourselves into a consensus on what the smart moves to make are.

For challenge-oriented D&D this kind of thinking is basically similar to how you would be trying to make the best moves you can in a boardgame: the question is not what would be interesting to see in the game next, or how your character “would” act if you roleplayed them accordingly. The question is, what is the best set of maneuvers to make next to win instead of losing horribly. The game just occurs in an imaginary world instead of a framework of boardgame rules.

I’ve come to think that the ideal outcome of the between-sessions planning work is an agenda memo, a short summary of what the players decided to do, in a condensed format that can be used to cue players and GM during the actual session. Bonus points for organizing the memo in a way that makes it easier for the GM to process.

You do not of course require player consensus to create such a planning memo; an individual player could whip up a plan and then present it to the group at the start of the next session. But getting more people to brainstorm in chat over the week does get bette results.

Here’s an example of an agenda memo, I thought that the one we came up with for last Monday’s session was pretty nice. This was for campaign session #74, so it’ll be a couple of weeks before I’ll get to talking about how the plan panned out in practice in the newsletter, but I imagine it’s good enough as a demonstration of this play technique as it is.

So, a draft for the session agenda, in suggested order of presentation and resolution for the GM:
1) A side party splits for Illmire, travels there. Kermit, Bard, maybe Elfstone, couple of ‘lings.
2) Meanwhile, Trumhal + men scouting the environs, looking for relevant geography and architecture.
3) Meanwhile, Sven + Artemur + Rob + the rest form up to ambush anybody coming out of the dungeon during the day.
4) Once that’s all done, resolve the town actions in Illmire: the two main goals are to investigate the mace and to find out how much the town can help with the siege.
I guess that’s the agenda, right? We’ll work the further branches of development out once we see how those start panning out.

I summarized the memo out of the pre-game discussion we had, and we then used it to launch the session, possibly saving a bit of work in having to talk the plans out again during playtime.

Sample deep lore diving

I guess I might as well offer an example of what kind of material comes up in those long, convoluted discussions we seem to use for long-term campaign development. This came up when we were discussing a new PC’s interest in an obscure harvest goddess. The material is entirely about obscure Greyhawk setting stuff, so as geeky as it gets.

[5:45 PM] Eero: Her primary theological aspects, for summary:
— She’s a daughter of Procan, so right in the middle of the “Procanic problem” of the Oeridian theology; I can discuss that further if anybody cares.
— She’s one of the four wind gods, so associated with a direction and a season.
— She happens to be the goddess of beer for the Oeridians, but I think this is more of an aspect of her seasonal godhood than her primary concern. The beer is a symbol and a bounty of her domain.

[6:00 PM] Olorin: I’m slightly interested. Pushing into a thread incase no one else is. 😅

[6:03 PM] Eero: Very good.

[6:07 PM] Eero: So, my basic problem with the way these gods are laid out is this. It’s fairly concrete, maybe even simplistic. If anybody has good explanations, let me know:

The Procanic Problem

The Oeridian people originate deep in-land on the continental land-mass. Basically the Caucasia-equivalent, thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. Despite this, the god lists indicate that there exists an Oeridian god of the seas, Procan. Procan is a Chaotic Neutral Greater God, sort of like the Poseidon of Flanaess. He’s not a Flan god or Suloise or even Baklunish as far as I know; he’s specifically claimed to be Oeridian, despite these being people who never saw the oceans before the Migration Period. So a thousand years ago the Oeridians lived deep in-land, and then ~500 years ago they settled to live in Flanaess, considerably closer to the oceans. Arguably they are still primarily an in-land people, though. Despite all this, Procan is extremely important in the mythology as the progenitor of the Velaeri, the four wind gods that seem to have an important and traditional role in Oeridian agricultural lifestyle. So what’s up with that?

[6:09 PM] Eero: Here’s one possible explanation: if the Oeridians only started worshipping Procan during the Migration Period, that would explain a lot. The wind gods would be either old gods newly revealed to be his off-spring, or they would have come in at that time as well.

[6:11 PM] Eero: The latter solution might seem a bit unlikely, but consider this: the Oeridian homeland would not have had pronounced seasons, being more akin to Central Asia in its weather patterns. So either the wind gods were originally more associated with the cardinal directions and the seasons thing came later, or the wind gods were also adopted during the Migration.

[6:11 PM] Eero: The Migration was a period of great turmoil for all of these peoples; I’ve discussed the changes the Suloise pantheon underwent back then in some length. It’s possible that the Oeridian pantheon got resorted fairly heavily at the time, too.

The campaign process is fairly productive, this sort of stuff gets verbalized well by the on-going dialogue. I imagine that I wouldn’t be nearly as productive if the campaign didn’t involve several other people also considering these things with me. Much nicer to GM and play when the communication is so active.

AP Report Pile: Coup in Sunndi #45

This was a few weeks back, in mid-January… hey, this was the session where I got that flu! We were playing at Sipi’s home, and it was a direct continuation of last session’s exercise in plumbing the depths of Quasqueton, the mysterious bunker-castle apparently excavated by orc slaves for the mad amusement of Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown, two adventurer bros whose sanity and good taste we come to doubt more and more as the sessions sweep by.

As I discussed over the previous session, this adventure B1, In Search of the Unknown, is crazy easy. It’d be appropriate benchmarking for a “0th level” adventure. No idea what that’s about, but at least the treasure is likewise slim pickings. The second session in Quasqueton involved a few random encounters (of the “two crazed madmen decide to attack your party” caliber) and massive amounts of mostly empty hallways.

My big innovation with B1, and the reason that I finally decided to actually put it into a campaign, is that I’m rolling the monster and treasure distribution in real time. B1 is an incomplete unprofessional piece of shit above all for the reason that while it has lengthy room descriptions, it intentionally leaves “keying” the rooms with monsters and treasure to the GM, supposedly as some kind of learning exercise. So there’s this list of monsters, and list of treasures, and you’re supposed to be the kind of autist who worries about color-coordinating the bedrooms and kitchenettes of Quasqueton with the stylistically appropriate monster and treasure to match the decor.

I might be on the spectrum (who isn’t), but I’m not that kind of autist, so fuck that noise; 2/6 on approaching each room for monters, and a second 2/6 for treasures, dropped in there in order listed. If you don’t care when writing the adventure, kinda fantastic to think that I’m going to care when wanting to run it.

The real-time dicing has actually a kinda curious effect in how the GM doesn’t know where the monsters are either before stuff gets rolled at point of entry. Unfortunate how the dungeon is so easy that I might pretty much just not bother for all the difference the monsters make. I guess they provide atmosphere, and opportunities for hate crimes on the part of the adventurers, who seem to think that anybody living in Quasqueton deserves to die.

But that’s the generalities. The actually significant events in the session revolved around the party finding the “trophy room”, one of the more colorful and significant rooms in Quasqueton. Said room is number 24, but with the room description entries numbered in Roman numerals, I accidentally read entry XXIV when trying to read entry XXXIV, so the trophy room ended up being in a different place from where it’s supposed to be. No big deal, and I only noticed it like a week later, but still annoying; wouldn’t have happened if the adventure used either Roman or Arabic numerals both on the map and the entries instead of switching between them seemingly just for the giggles.

I feel like I complain a lot about B1, and it kinda deserves it for being so weird and sad, but to be clear: the play itself has been fun, basic dungeoneering. We’ve had somewhat patchy gaming schedules lately, so nice to get the people to the table on occasion.

But as I was saying, the trophy room: while Quasqueton in general doesn’t have any treasures, it does have valuable furniture, which is almost as good for our purposes. The trophy room had various valuable-seeming items, such as fancy swords and horns and rugs. One of the PCs insisted on lugging out an entire rune-carved door; high Constitution, so they carried that door quite the ways before being convinced that it wasn’t particularly magical.

The party camped again outside Quasqueton, conscious of their dwindling supplies; they would be forced to go seek more food next, before coming back for more of the empty halls and barely profitable petty treasure. There was a minor random encounter with forest refugee children during the night, which only served to emphasize the sullen, low-key atmosphere of Quasqueton.

State of the Productive Facilities

Well, the thing is, see that feature topic? What with the two Coup sessions I had on Monday and Tuesday, and all that campaign development chit-chat on the server, I haven’t quite yet gotten to executing my Muster finishing plans from last week. The late week is my best time, though, so I’ll get to it! Nothing says I must answer all the interesting D&D questions in Discord the moment they show up, I’ll just need to be conscientious about prioritizing the writing work.

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