Greetings, wastelanders! I’m the Level One Wonk, and today it’s the end of the world as we know it. The end of the world has captivated authors for centuries, and also left a strong mark on film. Whether it’s anxieties about where society is going or fantasizing about being a sole survivor, post-apocalyptic novels, movies, and games have been popular for quite some time. The post-apocalyptic genre works very well for tabletop RPGs, too: an unexplored world full of dangers, potential treasures and traps existing from the old world, and driving motivations that are simple and strong make for a huge palette of potential games. A post-apocalyptic setting conceit can be layered on top of many other genres, and the resulting games can range from a brutal struggle for survival to a gonzo trip down Fury Road. What’s important is not the particulars of any given game, but rather how to choose and write those particulars to best serve your desired play experience.
A few years ago, I played in my first (and currently only) GURPS game. It was set in the early Age of Sail, using GURPS rules for tech levels where we had to find a new heir to the crown in Tudor-era England after an explosion kills Henry VIII. The game was, in predictable fashion for my group and the system, a little wacky: the leader of the sailing expedition had neglected to put points in either sailing, swimming or leadership. The doctor was a manic depressive pyromaniac (aboard a wooden ship). Our priest was actively planning to betray the party, and the rest of us learned it, leading to each trying to out-scheme each other. The game never finished, but for all the craziness, I still have fond memories of it.
Two weeks ago, a group of ragtag wanderers and students of the road met in the basement of the Widow’s Walk Inn in Port O’Rock. Run by a group of fearful elders, Port O’Rock did not open its gates to travelers very often, and warned against leaving the few times that it did. When two smugglers, Alstern and Renard, offered passage out of the city, there were seven who paid their fee.
Jethro was a farmer from the area, and a bit provincial (maybe more than a bit). After his Pa’s passing, he felt compelled to open his grandfather’s chest…and now he felt compelled to get out of town. It didn’t take much for the others to realize there was more going on.
Elliot had been cooling his heels in town for a while, serving as a bouncer at another tavern. However, he didn’t truly belong here, being a literal giant from the fey realm. The suspicious folk of Port O’Rock only tolerated his presence, and he had the legacy of his clan to carry on.
Hugh was a man, practiced in the healing arts. There wasn’t much for him in town, though, and like many tallfolk, the wanderlust struck.
Hrive was the most exotic looking of the group, not only an Eladrin but also carrying ceremonial weapons from his family. They had been struck down, and he crossed the realms looking for justice.
Ander was a member of an obscure order, the Order of Ending. One of the more tolerated cults of Dommus, God of Death, the Order of Ending presided over funeral rites in much of the Folk lands. For Ander, the whispers of unnatural monsters and dead spirits walking the Earth aggravated his human wanderlust even further.
There were two more, Boer and Paelias. They stayed quiet through the first meeting and boarding the ship. That didn’t make it less troubling when they disappeared.
After leaving the harbor of Port O’Rock during the New Year’s celebrations, the “favorable winds” Alstern and Renard saw quickly turned into a storm. What was supposed to be a quick sail down the coast turned into hard fight, and the boat eventually capsized, snapping the mast against the shallow ocean floor. The boat and five adventurers washed up on a sandy beach…two adventurers, two smugglers and much of the trip’s extra supplies were gone.
It didn’t take long before their arrival had attracted some unwanted guests. Six undead shambled across the beach, quickly dispatched by the adventurers with bows and other ranged weapons. As everyone got their bearings and as Hrive retrieved his terrified mule, three others appeared on the beach…three gnolls. Not all gnolls are evil, however. These three, lead by one named Rom, were Dogs of War, servants of the Nether Realm sent to shepherd the souls of the dead to their final destination. Apparently, the zombies that the adventurers just killed were Witherlings, cursed gnolls who had been cannibalized by those who turned their back on their mission and indulged in pleasures of the flesh. And also apparently, there was a large cult of former Dogs of War who had done just that. The Dogs helped the adventurers burn the bodies, and explained that a large detachment of these renegade gnolls had taken up refuge in the otherwise abandoned keep of a nearby city, a city that the smugglers had referred to as the former Kavish capital of Glebhavern. These gnolls were under siege from masses of undead in the city, and had not eaten in weeks. Renegade gnolls only eat the flesh of sentient beings, so the smell of the adventurers on the wind meant the gnolls would be looking for them. And indeed, a hunting party of three gnolls showed up soon after, giving the adventurers only a little time to prepare. The group exchanged pot shots, using their scuppered boat as cover. After the gnolls fell, it was clear there would be more coming.
The adventurers consulted with the Dogs and came up with a plan. After the gnolls sent out their next hunting party, they’d sneak into the keep, and see if they could deal with whoever remained. The Dogs would use the distraction of fresh game to begin their mission, shepherding the undead out of the city and to their final resting place. Knowing there was no time to lose, the two groups bade each other farewell and headed towards opposite ends of the city. The adventurers found an old corroded sewer gate and made their way through foul water to the bottom of a privy, fighting rats along the way. Fortunately, by going through the sewer and climbing up the privy, the now filthy adventurers had masked their scents to the many gnolls within the keep.
Elliot led the adventurers down dark corridors until they came to a heavy door, with gnolls speaking on the other side. Thanks to his knowledge of Abyssal, Hugh was able to make out the conversation. Apparently the adventurers were not only on time, but early…the “master” was about to send out the hunting party. The two gnoll hunters were heading for the door…the party quickly retreated behind a corner. As the gnolls walked towards them, Elliot gave a count and the five jumped out and quickly dispatched the surprised gnolls. The door was no more than ten paces ahead, and it wasn’t clear if the “master” inside had heard the commotion. No time to lose. Elliot and Ander stacked up against the door, with Hrive, Jethro and Hugh following.
When they pushed the door into the gnoll on the other side, they were surprised to see that he hadn’t bowled over, or even budged, really. This gnoll was a Fang, a powerful cult lieutenant. However, stripped of his underlings, he was weakened. The adventurers might have a chance. The battle was fierce, but after exchanging blows and inspiring Ander to rage, the fight ended with the adventurers victorious. They quickly barred the door and searched the room. The chamber had mostly been ransacked, though Elliot found a signet ring with a magic signature, apparently belonging to the Kavish Emperor. This city was definitely Glebhavern, in that case. Looking around, there was a sense of unease. The Fang’s death almost certainly created alarm among the remaining gnoll cultists…they were coming. It wasn’t clear how long the adventurers’ temporary fortifications would hold, but for now they had a chance to rest, prepare, and get ready for a fight.
One of the biggest challenges in a game is starting it, and this is doubly true if you’re doing something new. I have GMed D&D Fifth Edition before, but this was the first time I was running a sandbox, in any system. I spent a lot of time poring over my setup, but now it was time to put it all to the test. Would the players go for my hooks? Would they find the world interesting? I wouldn’t know until I tried.
The inspiration for the first hook came from reading the chapter on gnolls in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. I wasn’t a huge fan of what was there, honestly. The idea that gnolls were driven by an evil god and were irredeemably evil didn’t sit well with me…it implied things about free will that either stated that no one had it, or that intelligent monsters were inferior to equally intelligent player races. Since goblins and kobolds are player races in this setting, I needed to make sure that there was some revision there. And that’s where my idea for good gnolls came from. Gnolls still served a god, but one that other races knew about. And gnolls could still be driven to evil just like anyone else.
My players took this all in stride as part of the world, which was great. They also jumped on the hook, as befitting characters in a strange new place, looking for adventure. The mini-arc of the gnolls would only last a couple sessions, but it provided exactly what I wanted it to: something for the characters to jump in immediately, and a concrete goal that would take them places where they could find out about the world and later make their own decisions.
At the end of this session, the characters present had all gained enough experience to advance to level two, helped by the challenging encounter at the end as well as the total number of encounters. This was the first session where I realized that 5th Edition might move faster than what I had remembered, but minimizing the time spent at level one is immediately helpful for party survivability as well as getting to some of the core class abilities quickly.
All things considered, session one was a success. The party had a short-term goal, and was already being introduced to setting details that they would be able to return to later. In the near term, I was getting ready to face our inconsistent attendance issues head on, as well as figure out unobtrusive ways to dole out setting information. Those challenges, though, will come later.
The party has made it to the throne room of the dark lord, stumbling from wounds and shepherding the last of their spells and strength. As they enter the lord stands up and boasts of how outmatched they are, and it’s hard to argue with him as minions lurk in the shadows. Still, the cleric steps forth to rebuke the dark one – only to gurgle as the tip of a short sword emerges from his chest. As the body falls and party members turn to face the culprit the party rogue holds up his bloody blade and swears fealty to the dark lord. Around the table players turn themselves to face the rogue’s player, voices starting to rise, as he shrugs and says “It’s what my character would do!”
“Welcome to the Halcyon City MegaMall. We are currently experiencing a metahuman event. Please evacuate. Welcome to Halcyon City MegaMall . . .” The standard prerecorded warning announcement echoed through the wide corridors and plazas of the MegaMall, abandoned packages here and there on the floor. The only person in sight was a single extremely bored-looking security guard sitting at an information kiosk, idly flipping through a magazine, apparently heedless of the warning announcement. Aside from the lack of shoppers and scattered goods there was no sign of what sort of event might be going on – until the glass storefront of a shop exploded outwards as CryptoHertz and Spitfire were sent flying backwards through it.
It was a normal enough day at Arasaka Base, a hobby and game store located in one of the suburban areas of Halcyon City. Prospective buyers walked the aisles, a few gamers were trying out a new card game, and proprietor Chase was manning the front counter and reading a magazine. A breaking news report on the counter’s television caught his eye, though: the Vespamancer was apparently attacking the Halcyon City Eastern Bank. Somewhat half-heartedly looking around to see if anyone would be able to hear, he reached over and picked up a landline phone: “Hey, guys, think you’ve got some work to do.”
The cargo hold of the Sleight of Hand looked more like the mustering area of a troop transport than a light freighter or smuggling vessel. Nearest to the rear hatch Lt. Averre’s small SpecOps team were professionally checking their gear and charging weapons in a small circle, mostly quiet. Most of the deck was taken up by the infantry squads that had come from Bolthole Station and trained with Shikte and The Wookiee; they were either playing cards, sprawled out sleeping, or working on a blade or a scope depending on their mentor. The recruits from the Sullustan Resistance were mostly checking and assembling grenades, Dohl Che’qy’to overseeing it from a tall crate while eating a piece of fruit. Meanwhile, up in the crew area and the bridge, the so-called crew of the Borrowed Time tensely waited through their journey to the Mustafar system.
Welcome back! I’m the Level One Wonk, and today we’re throwing things at a wall to see what sticks! Most popular games out there exist within the framework of a genre or existing setting, and use those constraints to create interesting stories. In Dungeons and Dragons you have magic, monsters, and an underlying battle between good and evil. In Star Wars you have the Force, liberties taken with the laws of physics, and…an underlying battle between good and evil. At the end of the day, though, sometimes you want to mix chocolate and peanut butter and get something else. What if your D&D setting was invaded by aliens? Who were actually Force Ghosts…who actually came from the world of Exalted? What if they were all psychic? Why stop there? Sometimes you want everything and the kitchen sink.
Welcome back to Level One Wonk, where new campaign day is every day! Starting scenarios run a huge gamut in role-playing games, but it’s the tropey tired ones that continue to haunt the institutional memory of this hobby. “You all meet in a tavern” has steadily been replaced by “you all wake up in prison”, but the fact remains that establishing a campaign introduction without player input makes you vulnerable to these and other contrivances. There is of course a time and a place for every kind of campaign introduction, but sometimes you want to both get into the stuff your players care about as well as make them care quickly. This is when you want to run a Session Zero.
Cole Strutter coughed and spit, grimacing. Almost miracle-grade healing aside, the taste of bacta in the back of one’s throat after needing to heal internal injuries was nastier than the worst rotgut he’d ever had, and that said something. Plus, he still had one less leg than he remembered. But the real reason for the grimace was that Verjylla, Nak, and Caleb had been there to greet him when he got out of the tank in the Rabblerouser One‘s infirmary, and the Bothan had handed him a bottle of the finest Whyren’s Reserve the second he’d been sat down by the medical droids. He eyed the bottle and his comrades suspiciously before taking a swig, and then asked the obvious question. What had gone wrong while he was out?