Friday, 20 April 2012

“Librarians and Leviathans”?

It's my blog, so I feel like taking the occasional moment to post something other than storyline is fair enough. And it's not like it's a wild departure from form.

When I first, eventually, started roleplaying – or more accurately, DMing – our entire gaming group consisted of library staff, none of whom had ever played a pen-and-paper RPG before, and most of whom knew very little about it. I’d been hovering on the fringest of RPGs for years: I’d played CRPGs, read plenty of sci-fi and fantasy, knew people who roleplayed, enjoyed RPG webcomics and even read the odd rulebook. However, none of my close friends were RPers and so I’d never been drawn into it; it was something I thought would be fun, but being fairly shy I didn’t fancy looking for a random group of players, nor trying to push myself into one of my acquaintances’ groups. In more recent years, actual play podcasts appeared, which gave me even more vicarious fun from listening in to others’ games. The first one I encountered was the Penny Arcade D&D podcast, which not only stirred up my enthusiasm, but gave a handy introduction to 4E D&D. I moved on to a couple of others, most of which either fizzled out or lost my interest, but Chris Heard’s fantastic Icosahedrophila podcast sank its squamous tendrils into me and I’ve followed it ever since. Icosahedrophilia gave me more idea of how the rules and the game played out in practice, more idea how DMing worked, and another boost of enthusiasm.

Working in a university library service, I met plenty of other nerdy types, and eventually a conversation with a couple of friends turned to roleplaying. A couple of friends seemed enthusiastic at the idea, a couple of others more hesitant but willing to indulge us, so I said I’d be willing to have a shot at running a game if they wanted. And so it began.

After a bit of thought, I settled on 4E as the ruleset of choice. I actually had a better knowledge of the 2nd and 3rd edition rules, from extensive playing of the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games, and hopeful perusing of the 3rd edition books. 2nd edition I decided was not the best bet: it’s a fairly tough ruleset and has elements like THAC0 that seemed likely to deter new players, not encourage them (and make my life harder at that). Also, I didn’t have the rulebooks or any starter scenarios. 3rd edition offers a lot of flexibility and is a bit more intuitive and consistent. I also had the rulebooks available, and know the monsters, spells and so on rather better.

However, 4E had several advantages. For one, it was the latest edition, which is not something to sneeze at. For another, all those podcasts meant I had a pretty good idea how it actually worked in game, even if I didn’t have such a strong grasp of the details. Thirdly, though the powers system makes it quite complicated in some ways, they also provide a fairly straightforward set of options for new players. Fourthly, you end up with a game that’s superficially similar to a board game, which I felt might be more accessible for nervous new players who think of roleplaying as ‘geeky’ and want to avoid that label. At least one player, for example, doesn’t like to talk about gaming in public or want colleagues to know about her hobby.

Having bought myself the 4E rulebooks and read through them, I decided the way forward was to play the sample adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell (.pdf, there's no webpage any more with the push to "D&D New") since it was intended specifically for a first scenario. On top of that, that’s the adventure that the first Penny Arcade podcast series covered, so again, I had some idea how it might play out in practice. It quickly emerged that the podcast had skipped significant amounts of the scenario, and these I had to work out for myself – starting with the very first part of the adventure, which not only starred different enemies from the later sections, but had a very different feel to it, and needed to draw the players in to events. Thanks so much for leaving that out, Chris Perkins...

I quickly realised that I’d have to keep track of plenty of things, particularly as we’d have some significant gaps between sessions, and I decided to write up some of these notes in story form for the players to read, in the hopes that it’d keep them interested and jog their memories between sessions. The simplest way seemed to be adding a campaign page to my existing website – a bit of a departure from my usual fare, but never mind. Obviously the page needed a title, and the alliterative Xa&Xb structure is well-established, so given the composition of my group, Librarians & Leviathans was the obvious way to go.

That campaign was fun and technically lasted a couple of years, but scheduling and geography issues made it extremely occasional and punishing to run, and eventually it fizzled out without even finishing the first adventure. I’ll probably write a post or two about the campaign some other time. My current Pathfinder campaign is tied into it in a couple of ways, though. One major point is that two of my original players are members of the Pathfinder group, and take on the “grizzled veteran” role. The other is that, given all that downtime and players with enquiring minds, I actually built up a fairly detailed campaign setting around the adventure and the details I made up on the fly. It would be a shame to waste it, and our Pathfinder game is set firmly in the same universe – but a few countries away, and at an unspecified point in the timeline. So I’m missing out on the official Pathfinder world, but hey. Given the continuity between groups, I see no reason to drop a perfectly good name like “Librarians and Leviathans”, even if it’s a bit less accurate than it once was.

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