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Another week and another intriguing installment of Titansgrave to enjoy and brighten up my Saturday morning. As I shall discuss, one of the reasons I really enjoy this game is how Wil continues to give his players numerous opportunities to build upon his world and the way it is set up. The dictator like imagery and 1984 like “Big Brother is watching” theme of this sprawling city built in the ruins of the Saurian empire was a pretty big chance of pace and tone.

We begin this week with the players actually gaining experience and leveling up a bit. Obviously I haven’t seen the system they are using, so I can’t make many comments on how this process occurs, but I was very happy to see S’lethkk upgrade to the infamous “lightning bolt!” spell. If you’re wondering why that was funny to a bunch of RPG geeks, you should watch this video for the context behind it. My main comment on this was that I like the way leveling was treated, in that Wil assumed their experiences and such weren’t really adding new skills – but instead “reminding” them of things they could already do. This is in contrast to a system like Shadowrun, where weeks (or even months) of in game time are spent picking up new skills or stats.

Now, I’m not going to say that one of these is directly superior to the other, but I personally prefer the more handwavy “soft” approach that Wil takes here. Needing periods of in game time or trainers and similar is very verisimilitude building, giving leveling up a very tangible feel to how players characters progress and grow. Unfortunately it’s also very deadly for building momentum in the games plot, because you’re naturally (and inherently) slowing up the players progress to force them to do other things. It can also be problematic if one player is doing something simple, taking only a week, while another character needs to spend 2 months. This can lead to an adventure happening where players actually have different “degrees” of leveling up between them – simply because some haven’t had enough time to develop their character.

So there is a clear trade off here between the approach of just saying “You guys have remembered or mastered skills that you’ve always really had” versus the training/time based learning approach that’s more grounded in realism. As the GM when you’re approaching how to do this, you should consider how your plot that you’ve written is paced. Do you want a faster paced game like the one Wil is running, where you move from plot point to plot point quickly? Then you probably want leveling up to be a quick and painless process to get that plot speed you desire. Are you thinking more of a sandbox type game, like Westmarches, where it’s not so important that you have an breakneck high plot pace – if indeed there is a plot at all? Then you can probably add more realism into the game, which in that case probably dramatically increases the fun by making the world feel much more coherent.

In any event, we move onto the actual goal of the PCs moving towards the next part of the adventure in the city-state of Nestora. Of course just before this part we have one of the players, Kiliel ask a terrifying question of the GM: Why are we doing this again? It’s important to bear in mind that most people can’t remember absolutely everything at once, especially after a few hours, days or for many games – maybe a week or two – have gone by. Unless what the “goal” actually is has been strongly emphasized a fair bit, people tend to forget it and I was actually quite happy she asked the question because I had forgot! Turns out they are in Nestora to find a sage, who they are going to direct some inquiries about the orb like artifact they found in the first (or possibly second) chapter.

Presenting a city in a roleplaying game can often be a tough prospect, because they are so massive and often have so much to see. It can be very intimidating and so in order to avoid players getting choice paralysis or being confused, one of the first “kludges” you should find is an excuse to give them a map. Due to the settings magic/science bend Wil was basically able to give them an electronic GPS map to the character. Warming my heard in real life of course, was when he pulled out that magnificent printed map and put it on the table in front of the players. Now that was terrific, because I personally think using as many physical props as you can is a fantastic way of doing things.

It soon turns out that Nestora is basically a fantasy 1984 city, with monitors and cameras everywhere. Propaganda lines the walls of the city, which is controlled by a series of guilds and there seems to be some kind of rebellion brewing against them (from the Autonomous Front). Naturally the players here rolled with Wil’s description of “Voting by Blasters” and were able to find a helpful NPC directing them towards where they wanted to go. Here is again a smart thing to do as a GM: When you want the plot to move in a certain direction, in this case this rebellion, tie it into an existing goal the players already have – in this case finding the sage.

Similarly the players initially entered the city all wanting to go to the marketplace. Instead of making them trudge all over the city and possibly against where you are wanting them to go initially, you can just make their objective the most likely place they will go. A good example for Dungeons and Dragons is if you’ve really mauled your party, usually the first thing your PCs do when they go to a new village/town/city is go to the inn. If you make the next relevant interesting plot point, meeting with an NPC or similar in that inn and it just happens to be the first one the PCs find you accomplish two things: You do no extra work figuring out a new place or NPCs and you tie the players desires directly into the plot more easily.

It does not take long for Wil to give the players a direction in the story, as a guilder caravan is attacked and badly damaged. The driver was badly injured and Lemley then set about trying to rescue him, with some difficulty. Interestingly while Lemley doesn’t manage to succeed the first time at breaking him out, Wil does a couple of things here that give away something important: He’s betting on the PCs rescuing the character. You can tell this because after rolling (and failing) the first time, he suggests she might be able to use a specialty to improve the situation. When this doesn’t improve things much, instead of saying “The flames and smoke finally overwhelm the driver as he takes his last breath” he lets her do it again, getting him out this time.

Obviously this was a fairly plot important moment and so he wanted them to succeed, but another couple of ways of doing this were: A) Don’t have them roll at all and just assume it succeeds. This is basically my default for anything I want to happen. Alternatively, just assume the roll is at the minimum possible difficulty, so only something ridiculously unlucky like triple snake eyes fails. B) Allow the other players to cooperate with the player rolling, adding a substantial enough bonus that mechanical failure is basically rendered impossible. In this situation it doesn’t make a huge difference, but in something that seems rather dangerous or problematic, it could be quite an issue if the player “fails” the roll.

Unfortunately the guy did die, but not before they got an important clue off his body and then the truck completely exploded behind them. The drama in this scene was largely coming from the players efforts to save various wounded NPCs, at least until the authorities began to arrive. However, this almost caused the party to nearly split apart somewhat as two of the characters ran immediately and the other two wanted to stay to save the NPCs. Those saving the NPCs decided to just drag away the people who were hurt and then fellow along.

Either way, it was evident to me with all the imagery of the cameras and similar that this encounter was important. Wil made this clear to the PCs with the subsequent loudspeaker basically saying “We’ve recorded what you did and what you look like!”. This is always important to communicate to your players that there might be consequences in future, especially after a major scene like the exploding trucks. It gives them an exciting expectation for what might be coming along in future and some foreshadowing.

I won’t go into too much description of the shopping, but I will say that Wil made Kiliel’s stealing of the dead bird from Chapter 2 really great and pay off hilariously. You’re just going have to watch it for yourself.

Lemley also used this time to ask about her own character and the locket that she had. What I want to focus on here is the physical roleplaying that Wil does, where instead of just going into a description of what the NPC thought of the locket he physically performed using his body. Picking up a pad and piece of paper, drawing the locket on it, the then used that as basically a prop to “perform” what the NPC was doing. Aside from being an excellent way to sell to your players that you’re “In character”, it also has a very tangible effect in making the players curious abut what the NPC is doing. The NPCs strange reaction at the end only added to the mystery of what the locket is about! Some kind of clue was given to Lemley, but he obviously isn’t quite ready to give the full purpose of it away just yet.

Again, I don’t want to go too much into a scene by scene description of everything happening here – but there is a lot you can learn about roleplaying from how Wil runs these scenes. All of the players get a moment to roleplay and just do things in the market that they want to do. This IMO is the best kind of roleplaying, where you just let the players do what they want to do and you go with whatever they suggest. There is no impending plot pressure or need to really advance the story, so taking the time in the game to do this can be really important. If you constantly push the players from one plot scene to another, which is fine if you are needing plot momentum/short on time, they will quickly become frustrated or they might feel like you are railroading them.

Don’t underestimate the importance of allowing the game to slow down and just give characters individual moments to roleplay!

None the less after shopping with its individual character moments we return to PLOT, with the players running into the shop the sage they are looking for runs. Lemley’s obsession with buying a strange beetle set the scene initially, especially the sage Varkyia (?) strange speech mannerisms and refusal to answer any questions straight up. Wil nicely tied this sage into the previous NPCs and experiences the PCs faced by showing she knew the Beer Baron. Then it was time to work out what this mysterious orb like artifact they had found was about. Interestingly it turned out to be hollow and have something strange inside of it.

If this was me, I’d be running in the opposite direction as fast as I possibly could. Nothing that is a strange magic artifact, with a hollow interior and something clearly inside could possibly be good…. right? Contrary to my expectations – I was betting on drooling tentacled monsters – there were some interesting and powerful glyphs inside of the orb. Even more conveniently, one for each of the different party members and apparently the characters were those who could make good use of each glyph. I suspect there is something a bit more to these glyphs than just a mechanical bonus to the players. Certainly very eager to find out!

Concluding this excellent chapter was the PCs discovering that their characters were being hunted by the authorities in the city for various crimes. “TERRORISTS” was being flashed up on the screens at this point and it was getting tense, with some civilians recognizing them. A certain familiar dwarf turning up right at the end of the chapter and then a mystery NPC telling them to follow ended this chapter off very nicely, with an excellently weighted cliffhanger.

Really intrigued to see how this continues to develop next week!