First off, feel free to tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do both aside from gaming? Alter Ego’s? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet? Let us know if you feel so inclined!
My real name is Tony and I’m currently living in central Iowa, though as a Navy brat I traveled all over the globe in my youth. I’m married and have four high-energy boys, so as you can imagine I lead a pretty busy life. Aside from gaming, I’m usually working – look at all those mouths I have to feed! But seriously, my boys are in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts (and I’m involved in that with them), and sports too. I even find time to practice some fairly obscure combative art forms a few times a week. From my wife’s perspective, my biggest hobby (literally!) is also my daily driver, a partially restored candy-apple red 1966 Ford Galaxie 2-door fastback.
Tell us about Heroes Unchained in a nutshell. How did it come to be and how long has the campaign been going on?
This is really a continuation of an Earthdawn campaign that ran in the early to mid 90’s. In very early 2011, a conversation started between me and NinjaFlashX about getting our old college crew back together. Social media and tools like Skype had evolved to a point that we felt that even though we were scattered across the country, an online game should be viable, and we knew the crew would jump at the opportunity. I investigated virtual gametable options, and settled on MapTool. I’d also played briefly with a competing RPG content management site, but NinjaFlashX drew my attention to Obsidian Portal as a more robust solution to our needs. Neither of us could have anticipated just how integral to this campaign OP would truly become.
Back to Heroes Unchained itself… The old gang was 100% onboard with doing this, and they set the tone. Options I laid out were Shadowrun, Earthdawn, or Pathfinder. They wanted to really re-live the glory days of my old Earthdawn campaign, so the course was set. I decided that this would be set roughly 50 years after the events of that old campaign, with the great deeds of their previous characters felt in the world I planned to craft. I use quite a bit of published source material and weave my stories from there. Without giving away too much, I intend for it to address some interesting themes from books like Steven Erickson’s “Malazan Books of the Fallen” series – ideas of crumbling civilizations and grand machinations of divine beings – and craft that into a series of story arcs that use our core group of heroes as the protagonists. Earthdawn represents such an ideal engine to fuel what is truly my most ambitious undertaking for an epic-level campaign. And we’re not even into the second act!
My players have been very consistent with the journal entries, and in looking back I see that the first entry was my campaign opener, and I wrote that on 3/26/2011. We played that first session maybe a week later.
How regularly do you play, and where do you play? (If you play online, do you use any certain tools to accomplish your gaming such as Google hangouts, roll20, etc.)
The frequency of our sessions varies with the seasons, I’m seeing. For a few of us, family activities seem to spike in the summer. But on average we’re playing a full 6+ hour session once every 1-2 months, and we get together occasionally during weeknights for a few hours at a time for “housekeeping” or metagaming.
Because all of us struggled with Java errors, we grew frustrated with MapTool and I looked for alternatives. Roll20.net is our new VTT, and while there are feature trade-offs, as a truly cloud-based application it was an obvious choice, and we made the switch early this year. We started our audio conferencing with Skype and continue to do so to this day.
Where do you draw inspiration from when preparing your game?
Music is a huge inspiration while I prep, and I’m usually listening to early Black Sabbath, Rush, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. Because Earthdawn has lots of dark themes, if I’m crafting a nasty Lovecraftian nightmare encounter, I might put on something like Glenn Danzig’s “Black Aria”.
Aside from Earthdawn I’m sure you have played other systems too, if so, which ones?
Lately, I’ve played in a few Pathfinder games, including the Skull and Shackles adventure path. One of my friends is game designer Matt Snyder, and I’ve helped him playtest “Nine Worlds”, “44”, and a new upcoming game he’s working on. I’m also looking forward to another friend starting up a FATE-based Mass Effect/Firefly mashup game! Oh, and I’m running the Pathfinder “Carrion Crown” adventure path for a smaller group of players. It’s on OP too, as a private campaign.
Shadowrun was always a staple in my gaming, and I got my start with the incomparable Greyhawk setting with AD&D 1st ed. In all I’ve played and run too many RPGs to name, and I am what my friends refer to as a “gaming whore.” I’ll play anything (once).
How did you get into tabletop gaming?
My Obsidian Portal bio has a bit more on my history, but my first game session ever ended within an hour and my character being eaten by a Tyrannasaurus Rex in the Isle of Dread module. Amazingly, I was forever hooked!
How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?
Heroes Unchained was my first experience with Obsidian Portal, and the best part about it really depends on who in my group you ask. For me, I’ve always struggled with creating and maintaing a list of NPCs, including not only their bios but also their motivations. And any longtime gamemaster will agree that to breathe life into your campaign, your stable of NPCs plays a critical role. So I’d have to say the easy reference of the NPCs (and the fact that I or my players can create them at any time) coupled with the GM-only portion available on every page. I use that feature heavily!
Your wiki looks amazing, who does all the customization work?
Special kudos here go to NinjaFlashX. I would say that the site design is our mutual brainchild, but the heavy lifting is almost entirely his work. I’m sure he groans out loud every time I start a message with, “Hey, what if we tried …” He also designed our animated GIF banner, which I think is a key feature of our site. On top of that, he’s my co-GM for the game, and the Heroes Unchained rules arbiter. He REALLY helps me to keep my focus on telling the story and keeping things moving along in-session.
I see our biggest improvement being in the main wiki page. It was starting to really become a sprawl, and NinjaFlashX re-organized the content there into three main sections, and it really helped the players get to the information that mattered most to them. I was suprised to hear some of our fans even comment about that.
Do your players get involved on the wiki too?
Contributions to the wiki varies. One player, Stilicho, has taken a strong role in creating a broad backstory for his character, and has expanded our wiki a bit around that. Skram has done a bit of that too, more organically as his character’s legend has grown. Where I feel like we really shine as a site is in our adventure logs. I incent the player characters with Legend Points to journal game sessions as perspective pieces, and the characters can even turn in their journals to the Great Library of Throal to earn silver and gold.
How much time do you usually spend prepping your sessions, and how do you go about it?
This question is harder to answer. With my life as hectic as it is, I really plan game sessions “in the margins”. Often this means brainstorming during my morning commute to the office, then adding some GM-only notes to our active quests wiki page once I sit down at my desk. Also, I solicit feedback from players around their and other player character motivations, and use that to flesh out the story arcs. I work best in the crunch, so consistently spend around two hours before the session ensuring all my preparation is complete. Obsidian Portal has really cut down my overall prep time since so much of what we’ve already created is so quickly and easily referenced.
What would you say the single biggest highlight from your game has been so far?
One scene in particular stands out, captured in the adventure log “Dying of the Light”. Because it had to be managed so carefully, I leaned on my co-GM NinjaFlashX heavily to help me plan it. It could have been a solo adventure, since it centered solely on the character of Stilicho, but I wanted it to be a powerful piece, and so invited all the players to join that evening. I had been using the classic “Hero’s Journey” cycle, and had decided on a particular method for the revelation (death/rebirth) aspect in a very literal – and brutal – sense. In that adventure, an assassin stalks and ultimately murders Stilicho, and a supposedly long-gone Passion (deity) ressurects him. Once it became clear what was happening, you could have heard a pin drop on the audio channel, and I ended the session with everyone wondering what had just happened.
Are you excited about the upcoming changes to Obsidian Portal?
I am thoroughly excited about every listed upcoming change. So much so that I jumped on the Kickstarter as an Ascendant Reforger. Two changes I look forward to in particular are natural editing of wiki pages and the expanded map features. We use the Heroes Unchained site pretty fully, but the Maps portion hasn’t seen much use as of yet.
I like your use of music in each of the different sessions of your campaign, would you say that those encompass the overall feel of the session, or are they a certain character’s theme song?
This was another of NinjaFlashX’s ideas, and we’ve both gotten a kick out of it.
They are definitely intended to reflect the feel of the session, and we usually choose a song after the session has ended. The humorous ones are NinjaFlashX’s doing, such as “Welcome to the Jungle” for session 13 – where the Unchained spend the entire session running from Invae spirits manifested as mantis-men – or “Another One Bites the Dust” for the Bartertown Interludes where Stilicho is murdered. Ouch, right? I guess you couldn’t expect sympathy from him; after all – he helped me premeditate the murder of said character.
Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GM’ing pearls of wisdom.
A couple of things I’ve learned over the years, and they’ve improved my games hugely.
Solicit feedback – the best way to know if your players are having fun to to ask them. I used to see metagaming as a distateful thing. Everyone needed to stay in character, and I rewarded those that did. Now I see it as more important that we as a group create a great story. I may hold the reins, but every player has the opportunity, whether in public or private, to provide input to their own story arc or those of another player. I would say that the times we get together to talk about the game are as equally important as game night itself. And this includes your enjoyment – if you’re not having fun, it’s undeniably affecting all your players’ enjoyment levels. Use the cues your players give you to increase your self-awareness.
Tailor your game – I touched on this in one of your earlier questions. You may want to run a particular game, but more importantly – what do your players want to play? If Heroes Unchained has been successfully, it’s because my group mutually created the framework for what the game would be. I asked very intentional questions about their desires, habits, playing styles, etc. Too often in the past, I missed the mark by making bad assumptions. I also solicit feedback between sessions to see if it was too hurried, too slow, what worked best, etc. and then use that to further tailor the game to what they tell me they enjoy most. On a character level, try to incorporate at least one story hook for each player character into each session. This can be tough to do, and some players’ styles make it easy to heap plotline at their feet, but do that too much and you may frustrate other players. This is part of the tightrope that a good GM walks. One that I wholeheartedly enjoy!
That’s it for this month folks, keep on nominating the best campaigns you can find out there on Obsidian Portal, and in the meantime, game on!