Hacking D&D 5e for a more cinematic experience

Is the name of an impromptu talk I gave at this year’s GameCamp. If you’re at all interested in games and their creation,  you should make sure to come along to the next one.

As it seemed to go down quite well, I thought I’d write it up here in case anyone else finds it useful.

First things first; it’s really more about a dramatic experience rather than a cinematic one. It’s about some of the techniques and house rules I used to make the experience of playing D&D align more closely to the dramatic experience of watching a TV series.

The game played was a level 1-20 D&D campaign using the 5e ruleset. I’d never run a 1-20 campaign before in any version of D&D and wanted to give the rules a thorough working out. The Obsidian Portal record of the campaign can be found here, in case anyone is interested, but it isn’t in any way necessary to read that to get some use out of this post.

As well as a decent dramatic experience the other thing I wanted from the campaign was to play through some of the classic modules. I wanted my players and I to experience the Tomb of Horrors, the Village of Hommlet, and the Red Hand of Doom. These are part of the shared experience of D&D, and I wanted to give that experience to all of us round the table.

The Campaign Setting

We started in the Village of Hommlet, and I had prepped (by which I mean written two paragraphs about each) half a dozen storylines about what was going on in the world – a civil war, an invasion from the north by goblins, an undead army, the rise of a lich, the exploration of a new land, and a power struggle among the Great Powers (The One, Asmodeus, and the Kings and Queens of the Feywild).

I also had a couple of themes I wanted to explore – what is it like to live in a world where the dead can be resurrected, and how do the Great Powers interact with a world in which there is incontrovertible proof of their existence.

Because I’d set these themes and storylines up, I could then present stories to the characters, and see where their explorations led them. And because I had various set-pieces and dungeons ready to roll (the classic modules), then wherever the PCs wanted to go I knew that I could have some story and a dungeon waiting for them.

So it’s sort of branching-story with a bit of sandbox.

It turns out no-one cared about the Civil War or the Exploration stories, so we ended up playing in the other areas; but that’s OK. The whole point of having several areas of story was that the players could choose the ones they wanted.

Construction

The game was constructed like a TV series, broken into several seasons, and generally ending on a big story beat. After about 8 or so weeks of play we’d take a break and play something else as a palate-cleanser for a few weeks before returning to the main campaign.

The vocabulary of television also bled through into the way that we described the game at table. We would cut to a new scene, or montage a journey, or fade to black. If I was describing a city I might mention the aerial tracking shot, or the huge pull-back.

This soon reached a point where the players would use the vocabulary too, talking about blowing the CGI budget and occasionally casting famous actors in bit parts. In one memorably plot-heavy and character-centred episode of the story we decided that it must have been sweeps week due to the intense violence and tastefully-shot nudity.

If nothing was happening I’d say “Who wants a scene?” and one of the players would say where they wanted to be and with which character (willing PCs or NPCs). When it looked like a dramatic scene was revealing nothing new, I’d ask the players if the scene was done. Usually it was, but sometimes they’d ask for a few more moments to finish the scene.

Because we were using the tropes of TV, we even had a Christmas Special.

As I knew I wanted to hit the Tomb of Horrors – famously one of the most deadly dungeons created – I wanted the characters and players to be aware of its reputation in-game long before reaching it, so I made sure to drop many hints throughout the story via many NPCs about how deadly it was.

When it came to the Tomb itself I allowed them to take in any of their characters, so they needn’t necessarily take in their beloved main. About half did so anyway. Because both characters and players were aware in and out of game about the Tomb, they were extremely careful and only one character died – even that was at the very end.

Soundtrack

I had a laptop and some small speakers, so I played music during the session. Soundtrack albums, mostly . At the beginning of each session I would start the music by playing a particular track – The Accidental Sea, by Michael Picton, which acted as theme music and a cue for the players to settle down from the pre-game chat and know that the game was about to begin.

Towards the end of the game, it had become obvious that some tracks were played more often than others, so I gathered them together into a soundtrack album on Spotify which captures the theme of the game.

Two seasons used a slightly different soundtrack. Because I knew I wanted the Tomb of Horrors to feel different to the rest of the game, the soundtrack to that section consisted purely of the Person of Interest soundtracks, and the opening music was the Person of Interest theme tune.

The other soundtrack deviation was the Christmas Special, which used the soundtracks to Doctor Who Christmas Specials and Westworld, which fitted thematically. It was bookended with the opening theme to begin and the Carol of the Bells at the end, which I cued up when I knew we’d hit the last 10 minutes of play. That soundtrack’s on Spotify too.

Rules Hacking

Necromancy Restrictions

Because I wanted the game to explore issues of life, death, and resurrection, no spells with the Necromancy descriptor were available at the beginning of the game; later on they were allowed as Necromancy was discovered by the world.

Multiple Characters

Players were allowed to play as many characters through the campaign as they liked, with the proviso that generally they could only play one character in any particular session. All characters started at first level, but whenever a character died in action or was otherwise removed permanently from play, half of their accumulated experience could be applied to any other character either in-play or new. This rule meant that a new character would generally come into play about two levels beneath the level of the deceased. It also allowed players to remove characters from play at a dramatically appropriate moment, or where they felt that the character’s story had reached its natural end, without feeling penalised about losing all their hard-earned XP.

Hacking the Experience System

Because I wanted the game to be concentrated on storytelling rather than about killing monsters and taking their stuff, I hacked the experience system to encourage this using the experience threshold chart on page 82 of the DMG to provide a baseline. At the beginning of the session I’d work out the average party level, and that’d be my basis for story XP.

At the end of each session after giving out XP for any monsters defeated I’d first give a generic story XP. An Easy award for every character in the session if nothing of note had happened, and a Deadly award if the session had moved the overall story on hugely, with the others awarded on a scale between.

We’d then go around the table and I’d ask each player how well their characters had achieved their goals – if they’d killed their mortal enemy, that would be worth the highest amount of XP,  while just turning up gets you the lowest amount.

After that, I’d ask the table to vote on best scene – each player with a character in that scene would then receive a Hard XP award.

Collectively, these two hacks meant that player focus was usually on roleplaying great moments, both with each other and with NPCs. The individual award means that they’re encouraged to pursue their own storylines while the best scene rewards them for style.

The other XP hack was to encourage posting on the wiki, which acted as a shared repository of knowledge about the game. If you had edited the wiki at all between sessions – even something as simple as a spelling correction – you’d receive an Easy award. At the end of every session each player and I also had two Medium awards which we could grant to what we thought was the best post that a player had posted on the wiki that week. You couldn’t award both to the same person though.

This encouraged all sorts of creative writing and art on the wiki to the point where it was a joy to read each week as players would post art or stories giving depth to the world.

Occasionally a player would write something which was untrue about the world – for example they might write something creative about gnoll society. In this case, rather than removing it or asking for an edit I marked it with an Alt-U tag standing for Alternative Universe – the creativity could still stand, but anyone reading it would know that it wasn’t the truth about the world.

Wiki XP could be applied to any character the player had, so it wasn’t unusual to save it up in order to give a new character a big boost when they entered the game.

Afterword

Anyway, hopefully some of this might be useful to some other DMs.

Games I lovingly ripped these ideas from:

  • Dungeon and Apocalypse World for Fronts.
  • Hillfolk for calling a scene.
  • Dark Sun for alt characters.

Emergency Proxy Voting: A Public Service Announcement.

You are a writer. You’re registered to vote. You have just realised that you won’t be able to make it to the polling station on Thursday.

Possibly your script editor or showrunner has given you a bastard deadline.

Possibly you may need to go to a TV Drama Writers Festival.

Either way, you want to vote, but don’t think you can, because you won’t be near a polling station.

Good news: If it’s a work-related call out, like either of the above, you can still apply for an Emergency Proxy Vote and get a friend or family member to vote on your behalf.

Step 1: Visit https://www.yourvotematters.co.uk/how-do-i-…/voting-by-proxy, which – while it does describe everything you need to do – doesn’t do it particularly clearly.

Step 2: Download the form at the section marked “Emergency Proxy for Occupation, Service or Employment (PDF)”. Here’s a direct link: https://www.yourvotematters.co.uk/…/Emergency-employment-or…

Step 3: Fill that fucker out. As a self-employed writer, you’ll need someone who knows you but isn’t related to you or in a relationship with you to co-sign it.

Step 4: Go to https://www.yourvotematters.co.uk and type your postcode into the bit marked “Enter your postcode to find: Your local electoral registration office” and hit return.

Step 5: Deliver completed form to the electoral registration office. This can be done at any time from now until 5pm on Election Day.

Step 6: Tell your proxy who to vote for on the day. They should then go to your local polling station – not theirs – and ask for your ballot paper. Again, putting your postcode into the front page of https://www.yourvotematters.co.uk/ will tell you which polling station they need to go to.

Step 7: And relax. Finish your bastard deadline, or have fun at your conference. And then keep your fingers crossed that whoever you voted for by proxy gets in.

Redemption Schedule

I shall be at friendly multimedia convention Redemption this weekend in Sheffield. Here’s the panels wot I am on, and the times wot they are currently scheduled to happen:

Friday 24th 

11am: Super Flashing Arrow Legends
Just why are the Berlanti DC shows so awesome? May include geekery about the late 80s DC comics universe.

3pm: Defending the indefensible
Light-hearted panel show.

It. Is. Defended!

7pm: Universal Monsters
Boris Karloff’s version of the Frankenstein Monster is the most easily recognisable – but with a new universe of Universal Monsters coming up, the panel takes a look at why they are so enduring in popular culture.

8pmFuture Fascism
We look at how fascism has been treated in SF. I intend to bring up The Iron Dream, whether you want me to or not.

Saturday 25th

11am: How to tame your panellists
If you’ve never moderated a panel before, how might you keep things moving along politely and without rancour? May include tips on how to deal with audience members who don’t have a question, it’s more of a comment really. A very long comment.

5pm: Artificial People
Cylons in Galactica, the Hosts of Westworld… what does it mean to be a person of non-biological origin?

Sunday 26th

2pm: Constructing the Robot cool wall.
Some robots are cool. Some are sexy. Others are… less so.

4pmMilitary Top Trumps
With the help of the audience, we will decide once and for all who the most awesome military force in all of science fiction are.  No backsies, this is it. Finally. For ever.

Seriously. If you’re not here and voting and you don’t like who gets voted in as our most awesome SF military pals, well, sucks to be you.

8pmThe Ideal Holmes Exhibition
Of all the incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, is there such a thing as a platonic ideal? Or does the canon trump all?

10pm: SF Westerns
Firefly, Westworld, Star Trek. You can’t move without hitting a Space Western. Why is the trope such an enduring SF phenomenon?

If you’re around, come say hi!

Monsters

The Jurassic Chronicles coverRawr!

Happy to be able to say that I have a story called Monsters in this very fine anthology of dinosaur tales known as The Jurassic Chronicles.

The book is being released on January 29th.

I lit a candle today.

I lit a candle today.

It was blue. The colour of a summer sky. The kind of sky that you lie on your back on the green next to your friends and loved ones with, and look up into, and know that it goes on for ever.

That kind of blue. The kind that comes for a few days or weeks every summer. The kind of blue that you can look up into and think: How lucky am I, that I can be here and talk about nothing of consequence and feel the warmth of the sun on my face and think about how beautiful and wonderful it is that of all the possible worlds, I am in this one, and I am happy, and it is so good to be alive.

I lit a candle today.

Because today a man with a gun and a knife decided that it was more important for him to hold onto his beliefs than for a woman to live. Because a woman did her job in the open. Helped folk to fix their problems. Tried to make the world a better place.

And then a man killed her for it.

I lit a candle today.

Because for the last ten years or more it has seemed as if few people in the world are capable of speaking the truth:

That the best of times feel further away now than they ever have.
That the world is a terrible and fearsome place.
That we don’t know how to make it better.

I lit a candle today.

Because the rage I hold inside right now has no outlet. Because I’m sick and tired of this fucking world, and the way it makes me feel. Because I’m scared. Because I think this may not even be the worst of it. Because there are people who preach hatred of the Other, and these people are not called out for being the bastards they are. Because the gap between the rich and the poor is the worst that it has been since records began. Because we’re told that it’s the poor people, the migrants, the people that aren’t like us that are the cause of our problems. Because those lies are being believed.

I lit a candle today.

In the summer, in the centre of the city, you can still lie on the green with your friends, and look up at the blue, and think how lucky it is that you’re alive, that you have friends, that you have food in your belly and a roof above your head.

But the day ends. And I’m scared of what the night may bring.

I lit a candle today.

Melting blue onto the stone by the side of the green, dripping melted wax there to hold it upright. A base. Something to stand upon, to hold it tight so it could burn. As the sky started to fade, a light to see us through the darkness.

I lit a candle today.

Because I knew that I needed to do something.  Even if I was scared, and enraged, and didn’t know what to do, I could still do this,  I could still say there is still hope, there is light, even in this darkness.

I lit a candle today.

 

I didn’t think they’d want to keep him.

A little over two years ago I wrote on this very blog that if Nick Clegg didn’t resign as LibDem leader before the 2015 election, the party would be destroyed as a political force in this country.

Well, that worked out pretty much as expected.

My other prediction in that short essay, though, was not borne out. It said, basically: “Nick Clegg is not a stupid man. He can see the writing on the wall and will resign before the election.”

I found out today that he attempted to resign a year before the election, but was advised not to.

So my respect for him has gone up, and my respect for Paddy Ashdown and Tim Farron has gone down.

Still shoulda gone. But at least now I understand why he didn’t.

The Simulation Interrogation

I recently finished a spec for The Big Bang Theory.

I know that writing specs for currently-airing shows is considered a bit passé these days but I a) needed a spec of a particular US comedy to put into the Nickelodeon Writing Program, and this was my favourite of the ones on offer and b) I hadn’t actually written a spec for ages and needed to get back on the horse. I like writing for other people’s characters, especially ones I love. It’s fun.

Naturally the one that went to the Nickelodeon Writing Program was the one with the typos and missing character names. Sigh. Never mind.

After a little bit of tidying up it’s been out to readers and had a table read before a quick rewrite and punch-up, and the general conclusion seems to be that it’s reasonably funny. Which is what you want from a comedy, really.

As I say, though, no-one in the UK reads specs for airing shows, and very few people in the US do these days either.

Should you fancy going against the flow and checking one out, you can read the first ten pages of my Big Bang Theory spec here, or drop me an email and I’ll send you the whole thing.

And to answer an FAQ: There are no scenes  F, G, or I; that’s the same way it is in scripts for the show.

The People Who Show Up

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The Hugo Awards are one of Science Fiction’s best-known trophies. Shaped like giant phalluses in the form of rocket ships (as opposed to giant phalluses shaped like golden men), the Hugos are the Oscars of the science fiction world.

Now, in the last couple of years, more diverse fiction has been being awarded Hugos. This isn’t a good thing, or a bad thing. It’s just a thing.

Some people, such as author Larry Correia believe that this is because the people who vote in the Hugo Awards – which is, essentially, those fans who go to or purchase a supporting membership for WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention – is composed actually a clique of people all voting for their friends, and does not reflect the tastes of SF fandom as a whole.

(Personally, I don’t believe that there is a secret clique of Social Justice Warriors, plotting in a dark room to ensure that only literary SF works make it through to the ballot. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” If this happened For Reals, we’d know about it. But anyway…)

To rectify this perceived injustice, Larry set up what’s become known as the Sad Puppies Campaign. In essence, it’s very simple. He encouraged you to

  1. Buy a supporting membership for WorldCon.
  2. Nominate works that you think should be on the ballot.

In that way, books that you like get to be eligible for the Hugos, and books that you don’t, don’t!

Huzzah, amirite?

This year, Larry and author Brad Torgerson went a little further, putting together a slate of works that they thought were deserving of the award, and encouraging people to vote for them.

All common, fair, above board. It had never been done before, and they were perfectly within their rights to do so.

Notorious asshat and genuinely terrible person Vox Day also got involved – think of him as the right-wing equivalent of Requires Hate, and you’ll not only be in the right ballpark, you’ll have made it to first base – with his own slate of Rabid Puppies, not associated with the Sad Puppies.

(Vox went ahead and put himself at the top of each of his list of suggested authors, which, again, is completely within the rules.)

The Sad and Rabid Puppies slates swept the nomination process this year.

Now, what this means for the Hugos is that many people won’t have the chance to vote for who they like, because the work isn’t on the shortlist. And the reason it isn’t on the shortlist, is because the Sad Puppies showed up. They organised. They voted. And they have a slateful of nominations.

Well, good for them. This is how democracy works.

There’s a lot of whining at the moment about how, well, it goes against the spirit of the Hugo Awards.

Bollocks to the spirit of the Hugo Awards. Care about this? Buy a membership. Vote. Vote for No Award this year, if you don’t think any of the works are worthwhile. Vote for works you do think are worthwhile on the slate. Encourage other people to do the same.

Just fucking vote.

Because if you’re not organised, you can be damn sure that people whose opinions you despise are.

Which brings me to the present.

Here in the UK, there’s a General Election in just over three weeks. If you’ve not registered to vote, you can’t. And if the shitbags get in? (Whoever your personal brand of shitbag is.) Then the result is on you.

Organise. Register to vote.  It takes about three minutes. You’ve got until the 20th of April to do so.

If you don’t like the way things are going, for the love of Christ make a difference. And vote.