It’s been over six years since my Year of the Zombie (YOTZ) role playing game came to a close. I served as the game master, or emcee, for five other players who attempted to survive the zombie apocalypse — in Disney World.
Fast forward in time. I live in Minnesota now, and we have established a much larger local gaming group. I ran YOTZ virtually using Fantasy Grounds, but it was time to get a bunch of people together and play around a physical table.
Some of us had tried to fire up a D&D 4th Edition game before, but I really disliked 4E. Some of our players were masters at it, and some of us were complete novices to it, and some of us were new to role playing in general. This was a bad mix, and it meant that we either went too fast for half the group to understand what was going on, or too slow for the other half to remain interested. There’s a LOT of shit to keep track of in 4E, especially during combat. I also think it’s really template driven and formulaic. Some people like my pal Wurmr really like that aspect about it, but I don’t.
I was involved in a three-plus year D&D 3.5 campaign when I lived in the Washington, DC area. It was great, partly because the system was flexible and unpredictable, and partly because we had a great group.
I wanted to recreate that communal storytelling experience.
Choosing a system
I sent out a SurveyMonkey poll to the group. They decided to play a fantasy game. I sent out another poll, and they wanted to play a heroic adventure in a style similar to Conan the Barbarian, with a touch of the exotic and weird, ala Krull.
This meant I couldn’t go back to 4E. I didn’t want to anyway, but I also felt that it was too rigid and mechanical for how the group wanted to play. I didn’t want to limit them to an “ideal” party composition, or restrict the number of players to 5, the standard number 4E is based on.
Our group was going to be made up of a spectrum of RPG playing experience levels: two newbies, two people who hadn’t played in years, and two people who were actively playing in other games. I wanted something that would be easy for the active and “rusty” players to pick up so they could help me coach the new players along.
Most of us had experience with 3.5, but none of us (that I remember) had ever played Pathfinder, the spiritual successor to D&D 3.5.
Custom campaign arc with pre-built modules
Ever since my Year of the Zombie group destroyed about a week’s worth of research by eschewing my game plan and going to Disney World I’ve tried to be a more fluid game master. I didn’t want to design a huge campaign with major plot points that were contingent on the players doing A, B, and C in modules 1, 2, and 3.
For this group I decided to have a very high level, over-arching campaign that I created myself. It is not dependent on the characters completing any modules or achieving any objectives per gaming session. The heroes and villains they will encounter along the way are the tendrils that will draw them closer to the game’s higher level storyline. Pre-built modules will serve as the structure, with important NPCs providing the path to the campaign’s conclusion.
This provides a good defense for when the players want to do something odd and off-plan, like find riding dogs for the halfling characters.
Did I have a plan for this? No.
Did I care? No.
My session wasn’t dependent on them getting mounts or not, or meeting the completely made up on-the-fly trainer with a history of head trauma.
The same goes for the team deciding to steal a cursed gem from an altar or doing a number of completely weird and unscheduled things. What if my adventures were planned on them taking the gem or not taking the gem? Plot points that hinge on character events are brittle, and brittle games get shattered by free-thinking players.
Onward to adventure!
The group plays every two weeks. We just played our second session, and instead of the scheduled six hours (including dinner) we played for almost twelve. That’s a good sign. As we enter the cold, unfriendly Minnesota winter and spring I anticipate us getting in many sessions before we venture outside again.