The End of Times

Slightly shorter post today after putting together all that stuff about The Idealizer

Things are starting to draw to a close in my D&D campaign. It's been a good run, but things are wrapping up. There are a handful of sessions left, and I'm not entirely sure how we're going to end it all. Looking back on it, I'd say this has been a pretty good campaign. Two big changes came with the start of this campaign; 5th edition, and the evil alignment. 

We started this campaign up right after I got my hands on the Dungeon Master's Guide. I'd run a few sessions from the Starter Set. It's fantastic, and if you're curious about D&D it's money well spent. The adventure was a nice way for all of us to dip our toes into what 5th edition was going to be like. It convinced me that I'd be happy with the early levels, though I was happy with 4e's early levels. The lightness of the rules was comforting.

Having run a campaign for nearly 18 months, I'd say that 5th edition has held up very well. The characters are getting more complicated, but I don't feel like the game is bogging down because of it. Encounters can go by pretty quickly, and the big ones stick around long enough to feel important. It's a great system that I'd run again after I stretch my legs a bit.

I also broke down and agreed to run an evil campaign. I wasn't sure it would work out for a whole campaign, but it's been pretty fun. Adventurers tend to be slightly awful people, and taking away their morality was entertaining at times. Our campaign never got weird, and I can confidently say it never got terribly dark.

Not like that time in our Achtung Cthulhu game. Nope, not even close.

The end is coming, perhaps we'll have a dramatic death to rival Snails' noble sacrifice.

The Idealizer - A Numenera Adventure for Two GMs

Last week I posted about the two GM and six to twelve player Numenera adventure I put together and ran with Troy Pichelman. This week I'm bringing you all of the notes, encounters, character sheets, and table tents that we used to run the game. If any of you run this, or put something together that's inspired by it, tell me about it. I'm really curious to see if anyone gives this a shot, and I'd be more than happy to answer questions and chat about it if anyone wants to.

You can download The Idealizer to get all of the character sheets, table tents, and text. You can also read through it here.

The Idealizer

A Numenera adventure for two GMs and six to twelve players. Created by Dave Hanlon and Troy Pichelman.

Running The Idealizer with two GMs

This adventure is going to be different than most other adventures you may have read through in the past. We put this adventure together with the intent of having two game masters and two groups. The two groups represent two different versions of the same characters, and they are from different dimensions. During the course of the adventure, characters will be swapped, the groups will get mixed together, and they will ultimately face a difficult (or not so difficult) decision.

We recommend having at least six players, and topping out at twelve. You’re also going to need another game master with whom you can work with. At times you’re going to be running the game together, so it’s good to have an understanding of who will be running what.

This adventure will be broken out into two sections which will be referred to by their appropriate group. One group will be the flawed characters who are kind of dysfunctional; this group is referred to as the Flawed Group. The other group is the better version of those characters and are referred to as the Ideal Group. At times during the adventure the groups will interact. Those interactions will be noted and located in their own section of the adventure.

We’ve structured this like the Instant Adventures, but with far less detail. Our GMing style is to roll with what the players are into, and make difficulties up as we go along. We’ve used the structure here to guide things along, and the Dimensional Shifts as the events we need to get to.  

Setting up the Groups

Split your players up randomly into two groups. Send one of your groups to their room, then have the other group select their characters. The characters that are selected are the characters that will be available for the other group to choose from.

For example, you split your six players up into two groups of three then have the Ideal Group select their characters. If they choose Bird Staco, Veland, and Xyzzy, then those are the only characters the Flawed Group will be able to choose from.

Dealing with an Odd Number of Players

If you have an odd number of players, there’s an easy solution for you. Split the groups up randomly, then have the group with the extra player select their character first. Those will determine the characters the other group can choose from, as normal. The character that is not selected will then be dead for the small group. When somebody notices that their dead friend is alive just tell the group that the character had died on one of their previous adventures and let them fill in the details.

Table Tents and Character Portraits

The table tents have character portraits on them, as do the character sheets. This is specifically to help players assume that their characters look the same as their counterparts in the other group. When you start doing the dimensional shifts this visual cue will help the players roll with the change rather than getting hung up on it and getting paranoid.

The Flawed Group Adventure

Brief Summary

An ancient facility is activated and begins replacing the characters with better copies of themselves from another dimension.

Details

The Idealizer is an ancient facility from a previous world that has a very peculiar function. It is able to comb through countless parallel dimensions, locate someone’s perfect version in one of them, then bring that perfect version into this reality and replace the flawed version. Over the millennia the facility has fallen into disrepair, though it is still functional.

The group found their way into the bowels of the facility and one of them managed to activate it. The Idealization process was started and the adventure picks up with the group realizing that things are beginning to activate around them. There is a massively powerful creature stalking them through the facility, and they witness its power in another dimension. This threat should sufficiently motivate any group interested in self-preservation to find their way out of the complex.

The flawed group will make their way through the abandoned complex via maintenance tunnels, or empty corridors. On their way through one of their members will change subtly. They will also get ahold of information that helps them understand the purpose of the facility.

Eventually, the flawed group will encounter their ideal group in a security room. Once the groups activate the security protocols they will be able to exit and enter an escape pod. Once half of the group enters the pod it will jettison and potentially leave the groups mixed.

On their escape pod the mixed Flawed Group will meet Hebd, a Jack who has been trapped in the facility for a long time. Hebd is more than happy to talk with the group, but if there are any pairs together in the group he will be rather apprehensive. Before the pod ride comes to an end, Hebd will produce an artifact he has been using to avoid the creature in the facility. If he isn’t stopped he will activate the artifact and slip into another dimension, though he will eventually get pulled back to this one.

The escape pod takes the group to a security scanning room where a Dimensional Husk created by Hebds from other dimensions is waiting for them. This is a mostly mindless creature and will attack the party.

Once through the security room, the Flawed Group will once again be reunited with the rest of the characters. This final room is the last defense against allowing paradoxes to escape the facility. There is a capsule in the middle of the room that is large enough for one person to enter. Once inside, the capsule will scan the person to make sure releasing him or her won’t allow a paradox to leave. If the scan succeeds a button will light up which will complete the process and teleport the person out while their copy will begin to fade away.

Salient Points

  • The Idealizer is working on replacing the Flawed Group PCs with the Idealized Group PCs.

  • Hebd can provide the PCs with information about the facility if they need it.

  • The creature shows up to keep the PCs moving forward. Don’t have the creature fight, use it as a GM Intrustion to have bad things happen.

  • The facility in this dimension looks like an abandoned high tech structure.

The Ideal Group

Brief Summary

The PCs are exploring an ancient ruin when they start running into copies of themselves.

Details

The group is exploring the depths of an ancient ruined temple that has fallen into disrepair. Deep in the facility they find a large device that one of the activates that seems to cause things to start falling apart. They escape into the tunnels under the temple.

In the tunnels under the temple the group might encounter robots, or perhaps swim through a strange wall of water. Eventually they get to a room filled with mirrors that don’t reflect, but rather provide glimpses of themselves in other dimensions.

Strange things start happening as the group realizes one of them has changed slightly, though it’s hard to determine why.

Eventually, the ideal group will encounter their flawed group in a security room. Once the groups activate the security protocols they will be able to exit and enter an escape pod. Once half of the group enters the pod it will jettison and potentially leave the groups mixed.

The tram ride is cut short as it crashes at a broken part of the tracks. The group has to traverse a chasm the ruined tracks used to span. Strange creatures harry them as they try to make their way to safety.

Once through the ruined chasm, the Ideal Group will once again be reunited with the rest of the characters. This final room is the last defense against allowing paradoxes to escape the facility. There is a capsule in the middle of the room that is large enough for one person to enter. Once inside, the capsule will scan the person to make sure releasing him or her won’t allow a paradox to leave. If the scan succeeds a button will light up which will complete the process and teleport the person out while their copy will begin to fade away.

Salient Points

  • The Idealizer is working on replacing the Flawed Group PCs with the Idealized Group PCs.
  • The PCs get a glimpse of other dimensions in the mirror room.
  • The facility in this dimension looks like an ancient broken down temple carved from stone.

Dimensional Shifts

These events are what make The Idealizer tick. At various points during the adventure the groups are going to get mixed together. Things start out slowly, with just a single character getting swapped between the groups. After that, the groups will get put together and subsequently split up. These dimensional shifts require a bit of coordination between the GMs running the games, but we’ve put recommendations as to how to time the shifts. We also found that sending a quick text message was an easy way to prepare the other GM for a shift.

  • 30 minutes – Do Dimensional Shift 1 when both groups are out of the opening room.
  • 90 minutes – Have Dimensional Shift 2 happen at about the half way point of the game.
  • 120 - 150 minutes – About 45 minutes or so after Dimensional Shift 2, have Dimensional Shift 3 happen. This is going to wrap the game up, and you’ll probably want around 30-45 minutes for the final scene.

Dimensional Shift 1

Once both groups have gotten out of the first room you should have this shift happen. This is a very simple shift, and nothing terribly strange should be noticed by either group. The GMs should select one of the characters and have the players playing that character in each room switch.

The key to making this work is to tell the characters they don’t really notice anything different. The characters look nearly identical, though some of their equipment might change slightly. The characters may act differently, but that will come out in roleplaying. Give the players time to investigate this if they are interested, but make sure you get them moving. If they seem to be getting too hung up on the switch have some disassemblers show up, or the creature that’s chasing after the Flawed Group.

Dimensional Shift 2

At about the half way point you’re going to have the groups get together. They’re both going to stumble into the same room. It’s not terribly important how they got there, and you can have the weirdness of the facility cause them both to enter from the same door. Groups will usually find this shift pretty entertaining. Encourage them to talk and discuss what’s happened. You can generally just sit back while they players talk about what’s been happening.

Once the excitement starts to die down you should tell the players what’s going on. There’s a door leading out of the room, but it’s not open. There’s a control panel that can open it, but it’s locked out. The nanos will probably get started on this problem. Once the device is activated the door will open and there will be a hazy field in the entryway. The field does nothing, but it makes most people cautious. Through the doorway is a cylindrical room that has six seats inside, each with its own harness. Once half of the group has gone through the doorway, the door will close and reopen to an identical looking room, but the characters who went in will be gone. Send those characters out and they can continue on with their adventure. Once the rest of the group hops on you can move into the Tram Ride encounter.

The result here is that both groups could be totally different. It makes for an interesting series of encounters as the players learn about how the characters are different from one another.

Dimensional Shift 3

This is the final encounter of the adventure. The groups will be reunited here, and enter the room in a manner similar to Dimensional Shift 2.

This room contains the final defense against letting multiple copies of someone get out. Doing so would lead to the creation of paradoxes, which the facility is setup to handle, but the outside world would not be able to.

The room is full of devices that look to be long dead and in disrepair. There is a capsule in the center of the room that is made of an extremely hard and translucent synth material. The capsule is round and large enough that one adult human could stand within it without problems. It extends from floor to ceiling and the only notable features are an exterior handle fixed to what looks like the faint outline of a door and a button on the interior that would be at about chest height.

If the capsule is unoccupied it opens easily. While occupied the seam of the door and the handle itself melt away and a handle on the interior appears and the button becomes opaque and milky white. Pressing the button will teleport the occupant out of the facility, but only if their copy has not already done so. If a copy presses the button the door will reappear and open so they may exit back into the room. Once one of the copies of a character is teleported out the other version will start to fade out of existence. If that fading character attempts to press the button it will do nothing.

If the groups need some more information here, instructions could appear on the door which read:

“Close door and press button to complete normalization process”

It is also really helpful to come out and tell the players what this room is here for. If the nanos decide to investigate the devices here and get a really good roll telling them that this room prevents paradoxes from escaping is great. Going even further and telling them that the facility considers pairs of characters to be paradoxes and it will only let one leave is also really helpful. The players have to make a big choice here, so give them enough information so they understand what’s happening.

Show 'Em A


The Idealizer - My Two GM Numenera Adventure

Let's pretend there exists a machine that can make you a better person. Just imagine, all of your shortcomings and flaws could be erased. All you have to do is push a button and you'll become an ideal version of yourself. Would you push that button?

This is the question that turned into a Numenera adventure I ran with my friend and fellow GM, Troy Pichelman.

Developing the adventure

I played in a Call of Cthulhu game at Gen Con 2015 that was run by two game masters from the MU Skulls. It was a fantastic game in which the two groups started out at separate tables, got mixed together, broken apart, and then placed at odds with one another. Time and reality became questionable and fractured, and eventually looped back upon itself. It was the most memorable gaming experience I had at Gen Con, and I really wanted to replicate the excitement I had for my gaming friends.

The two GM game rattled around in my head for a few weeks, but I wasn't coming up with any good ideas. I nailed down a few things without coming up with any good story ideas. First of all, the system and setting should make it easy for players to buy into the idea of weird things happening that would cause their characters to fall through time and reality. Numenera is a perfect fit for this kind of thing. Numenera explicitly tells players to expect weird and inexplicable things to happen. Second was finding another GM I'd be able to run the game with. Troy was an obvious pick since the two of us share a lot of opinions about how to run games, and we had half an hour every Saturday to talk things over while our daughters ice skated. Finally, I knew I could get enough players together at either of our gaming weekends, which were coming up in just a few short weeks.

Inspiration for the adventure finally struck a few weeks before Troy's big board gaming weekend. I was feeling really terrible about a lot of stuff and got an idea stuck in my head. When everything feels completely miserable and there's no clear path back to normalcy, it would be nice to just have a switch you can flip to make everything better. This thought evolved over the course of about a week, and I knew I had my double GM Numenera adventure.

Troy and I worked through the details of the adventure over the next few weeks. It was rather informal, and outside of the short discussions we had during our daughters' skating lessons I would jot down ideas for it from time to time. We had a bunch of little ideas and a few big things put together, but neither of us really likes to plan out too much. 

The start of the Numenera adventure that I put together was that the player characters found an ancient facility from a previous world and activated it. This facility, which I refer to as The Idealizer, was able to search through countless parallel dimensions, find the best version of you, then replace your dimension's version of you with the better dimension's version. The facility has fallen into disrepair over the countless millennia, so it is no longer very efficient with the whole replacement process. 

The adventure then follows two groups, the ideal group and the flawed group, as they make their way through the facility. One group of players would play with the flawed characters, while the other group had the better versions of those characters. For example, the flawed group had Veland the Dishonorable Jack who Needs No Weapon, while the ideal group had Veland the Honorable Jack who Needs No Weapon. The Types and Descriptors of the Cypher System allowed us to make characters that seemed very similar, but were very distinct. The groups will get mixed together, certain members will get swapped out, and they will ultimately get to the final defense the facility has to prevent potential paradoxes from escaping into the world.

Running the game

We've run the adventure twice and it's been a lot of fun. The first time around was a bit rough, but we revised a few things and the second run was much better. Now that all of the local players I'd be running this for have gotten through it, I'm not terribly concerned about spoiling it for some of them anymore. I've learned a lot from the two sessions, and will be keeping a lot of this in mind the next time I start putting together a paired GM session.

The most important thing is flexibility from both GMs. You need to be able to adjust things on the fly, either by extending your time, or cutting something short. We had a few moments that we wanted to hit at different times during the session. About thirty minutes in, we would swap a character between the two groups. Once we got about five to ten minutes from that point we'd check in with a quick text message. If one of us needed more time, then the other would have to start filling in the current scene.

Another thing that I have taken away from the games is that players need more information. No matter how much information I give them, they can always use more. This was something I'd changed after the first time we ran it, and Troy stepped in at the end to provide the groups with just the right amount of extra information to get them to where we wanted them by the end of the game. My pacing of getting the information to the players was much improved, and they were curious the whole way through, but there was just a bit more at the end they needed. As a GM I think that secrets are intriguing, but I forget in the moment that divulging those secrets is what makes them exciting and memorable.

The biggest change we made after the first time we ran the game was to concretely define what the characters looked like. Since we had two groups of players playing essentially the same characters it lead to a lot of questions about how they looked when they started getting mixed together. I hadn't wanted to strictly define physical appearance, since some players really like making up those details, but for the case of this game that open endedness lead to more confusion than we wanted. When Bird Staco got switched in the second session and the players came to the tables with their name tents that had the same character portraits the other players were able to buy the change more easily. Rather than panicking when once character who had been a man turned into a woman, the players were able to focus on the odd and subtle differences that had occurred to Bird Staco after they entered the tunnels of the facility.

Memorable Moments

There were a lot of great moments that arose from the two sessions of The Idealizer.

At one point during the first session, after the groups had been mixed up a bit, my group got into a fight with some creatures. Darcy Ross, a veteran player, was helping some of the newer players out by going over some of the mechanics. She told one of the players, who had been swapped into the group, to use a specific power which she had seen on the other version of the character's sheet. However, since the character had a different descriptor he didn't have the power she'd advised him to use. The look on her face when she realized that the pairs of characters were slightly different was memorable.

In the second session, we swapped Bird Staco as my group was making their way into the maintenance tunnels of the facility. After the switch the group spent the next ten minutes or so freaking out about how Bird had slightly different equipment, while Bird freaked out that her friend Bowe was still alive. When we had odd numbers one group would have a character the other didn't, and that character was long dead for the other group. I was able to sit back and just watch the players do all of the work.

Near the end of the second session one of the players gave me the greatest look. It communicated so much anger and shock because she realized what we were asking the groups to do. I knew at that point the decision we were asking them to make was understood, and it was difficult.

I knew we got the revisions correct, because after the last session the players were all talking about what had happened very excitedly. They were comparing stories, looking for the differences between the two adventures, talking about all of the cool stuff they had found.

I'm sure that Troy and I will be coming up with ideas for another dual GM game for our gaming weekends. For now, I'll be trying to clean up the adventure and actually do something with it. I'd rather not let it rot on a hard drive somewhere.

Rolling With It

I had a great plan.

That's probably what every DM says after more than a few sessions.

I had a great plan.

And then my players did something I hadn't thought of. Years ago, when I was getting back into DMing, this would have been devastating. The session would have been all messed up and I'd be scrambling for something to handle the way my group tackled a problem. These days? Not so much.

I actually didn't have much of a plan. I don't make plans that account for small details in a session. Here's what my plan consisted of for the last session.

  • The group arrives in Ghastenhall, skipping ahead a few weeks.
  • I prod them into taking some sort of action. I have no idea what they want to do when they get to the city. I know their ultimate goal, but I don't know how they'll start.
  • We mess around with the stuff they are interested in and see where it goes.
  • Eventually the group will track down their current nemesis and try to infiltrate his fortress.
  • The group will go on a bit of a dungeon crawl to get something very important.

Everything went as I was expecting for the first part of the session. The group found a decent house where they setup their operations. They ran into their operative from Farholde, Anaxibia Ghostfinger, and brought her into the fold. They started tracking down where the Cardinal's tower could be in the city, and eventually find it. The group has Anaxibia stake out the tower and she gathers some good intelligence on the count who lives there. Finally, the group decided they were ready to sneak in while the count was out on business.

This is where I'd done some planning. 

I had put together some information the group could have found out about a vault in the sewers under the tower (sorry, Jim, this is slightly a spoiler, but we'll address it pretty much immediately in the next session). This would have led to a sneaky way into the vault. I had also put together a little bit of work if they decided to storm the front doors. I had characters, and had anticipated what would happen if they tried to muscle their way through.

My plans didn't include Teleport.

Oh well.

The group teleported up to the balcony they had once been killed upon and walked into the tower untouched. I threw my plans into the garbage and just started making stuff up and it all worked out well. And now the group gets to march around a dungeon that I'm constructing with Dwarven Forge tiles, thanks to Mark. Those tiles are pretty awesome.

Organizing My Campaign With Trello

I forget where I initially ran into this article, but Easy Dungeon Master Preparation by Michael Harrison on Geek Dad is pretty great. Give it a read, as it's full of useful information and has some great ideas on how to get your campaign organized. He ended up putting all of his index cards into Trello and hooked into donjon to make it easy to come up with stuff on the fly. This was all great stuff, and since I was in the middle of setting up for my next session I figured I'd give it a whirl.

I'm terrible at getting organized. I've tried putting things together on index cards, but I'll lose them after a few sessions. I've done the whole "campaign in a box" thing, but I'll usually forget to put something back in the box and that'll be the end of that. I've got notes in Evernote, One Note, in text files on Drop Box, and notebooks that are scattered all of my house. Ultimately, I've not found a solution that works for me during the session. I'm hoping that I'll get some use out of putting my notes together in Trello and hooking into the donjon tools.

I've put together all of the stuff I think I need for the next session, and the nice links into donjon should help me pivot when my players obviously break everything. Perhaps my favorite thing is the random names and NPCs that I've put together. I can never come up with names on the fly, but this will give me a nice place to go to when it comes up.

Perhaps my next post will be about how this is changing how I run my sessions for the better.