Dragons slumber in ancient halls, one day to wake and return to prominence; Barbarian tribes war with hordes of monstrous brutes for control of the untamed wilds; Meanwhile wizards toil high in their lofty towers, subsidized by the Kings, Barons and Lords they serve. It’s a realm of intrigue, danger, passion and adventure… are you prepared? Great! then come with me as we journey to Shimmering Kingdoms January’s Campaign of the Month! Our guide will be the one and only PhoenixMark, GameMaster of this far-reaching and awe-inspiring world.
First off, congratulations Mark on your second Campaign of the Month win! It’s been a little while since our last interview, so feel free to bring the newer members of Obsidian Portal up to speed about the person behind the GM screen.
Thanks, we were quite surprised to be notified about the award. About me… Well, I am one of those old farts that started Role Playing in the late 70’s, when there was only one kind of RP – Tabletop. I started with Chainmail graduated up the ranks through the Dungeons and Dragons iterations until I finally moved to Pathfinder. I’ve also played most every system invented prior to the 90s, and many after.
I’m from Sacramento CA, hold a BA in Theatre Arts from CSU Sacramento, and attended a bit of grad school, but gave it up when I got married. 5 years later, I owned my own brick and mortar gaming store, got divorced, sold the store and started a new career as a writer. I’m single, writing as my health allows, and gaming off and on, currently on. I’m unpublished with several works nearing the final stages of completion, and a ton of others in various stages of completeness. My genres are generally speculative fiction (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Cattlepunk/Weird Western, etc.). Check out my website, [or] you can read some of my short stories. While you are one of my sites, sign up for my newsletter for semi-monthly updates on my writing and other news. I am excited for 2017, as I plan to submit at least one of my manuscripts for publication, maybe more.
One of the great things about Obsidian Portal is the number of different gaming systems that it supports. Your previous winning campaign was Pathfinder, whereas “Shimmering Kingdoms” is based on the Fate system. What made you change and how did the newer system affect your basic design?
I love OP, and that one can customize it to fit different systems. I originally switched to FATE because I love the narrative approach to storytelling. FATE does that perfectly. I’d run Sactown Blues (a Dresden Files RPG) for a while and fell in love with the system. Shimmering Kingdoms had been a campaign I’d run using D&D 2.0, 3.0 and 3.5, then finally Pathfinder. It was easy to convert it to FATE, and I found that my custom world and it’s systems fit easily into FATE, being narrative control over the characters rather than game system limitations (such as wizards having to swear to a oath, and the tradition of Knights and others swearing fealty to their lieges).
I ran my first iteration of FATE for three select friends, and that game ultimately had to be put on hiatus. When I resurrected it last year, the game grew a bit, and with more players came more desire for customization. Alas, some members of my new group were uncomfortable with the fluidity and vagaries with the FATE rules, and as a relatively rusty GM, I decided to honor their wishes by going back to something more comfortable for all. So now I am in the process of converting the world back to Pathfinder, but using the P6 alternate rules, to demonstrate the limitations of power in my campaign world. You will find both iterations on OP, Shimmering Kingdoms FATE and Shimmering Kingdoms (Pathfinder). The campaign information is still spread over the two sites, but with time I will migrate all information to the non-FATE site. Sorry for the confusion. Also, Ignore the Shimmering Kingdoms TRUE 20 site, it never had momentum.
Tell us about Shimmering Kingdoms in a nutshell. How did it come to be and how long has the campaign been going on?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been running a campaign in this world for a long time. It has an ongoing storyline, with a scope that surpasses the individual characters. Yet each group of characters that have run through the campaign have had a significant impact on the world: saving a newly burgeoning frontier principality from the onslaught of the Great Horned Lord; Delving into the depths of the Ungarrd (the underdark) in order to free Kwyrth, god of the dead from his imprisonment (meaning that the spirits of mortals could once again pass into his realm rather than remaining bound to their lifeless bodies); Protecting a royal prince and rightful heir to the throne of the Kingdom of the Lake from those who murdered his father and usurped the throne. The current storyline involves the rescue of an Earl’s son (and brother to a PC priest of Kwyrth) who is being held hostage to influence the Earl’s upcoming vote from among the long list of possible successors to the throne). So as you can see, I have nearly two decades invested in this world (it is one of five fantasy worlds I have created, not counting two more for my novels).
How regularly do you play, and where do you play?
We play weekly on Sundays, in a 7 hour time slot. That gives us time to set up, have lunch, BS and still get in some good gaming time. We play at a local pizza place that has wifi. Wifi is crucial because so much information is on OP, plus I use a few other online DM resources during the course of the session.
Your current campaign is rich in themes and background information. Where did you draw your inspiration from and how did you go about implementing your ideas into the initial setup of your campaign?
The use of THEMES is straight out of FATE, influenced by the Dresden File RPG. In our initial session I told the players about the world and the political climate before they created characters. Then as part of the FATE generation, we decided what type of game we wanted to play and what they wanted to see as their current and impending issues. From that framework I created the trials the party would face. As they were originally all playing misfits, OUTCASTS WE became the theme, with THE ROADS ARE NEVER SAFE as the current issue and A MURDER OF RAVENS (ravens being the heraldic sigil for one particularly corrupt principality) as their impending issue. By the time we revamped the campaign and switched back to Pathfinder, we’d added several players and decided that the Outcast theme no longer worked as the theme, so it was changed to A KINGLESS THRONE to accommodate the increase the focus of the campaign’s scope from individuals to forces greater than themselves. My world is not static, but alive. History plods on, and may or may not have direct effects on the lives of the characters, and vice versa. I think this is one of my strengths as a GM, and seems to be popular with my player. The other, if you’ve seen the site, is my background detail. Every location, every NPC, every encounter has purpose within the narrative. Some of these were created years and years ago, some are made up on the spot. I don’t like “random’ encounters, so even if there is a needed combat, for instance, I will always justify the encounter within the narrative.
Your campaign is notable for its many design innovations, including custom navigation pages, hover links, and even a custom cursor. Where did your design knowledge come from and what advice can you give to new GMs wishing to improve their sites in similar ways.
OP, baby, OP. Before my Crimson Skies campaign, I had no clue what HTML or CSS was. I learned everything I know from other DMs and designers. I asked questions on the forums. Some have HTML examples on their OP sites, and I ate them all up. So with their help, I literally taught myself how to code (or code-lite, as it were. I don’t know enough, but I do no how to borrow from others and through trial and error make it my own). I have dabbled in Photoshop for many years and though I am no master, I am confident in my abilities to customize images to make them work with OP. Inspect element is awesome. Go to your favorite website and see what others have done. Make some hidden pages on your website, set them to DM only and have at it. Make mistakes, screw up, delete the whole page and start over. That is how I learned. It might be like cooking soup with a hammer, but eventually that hammer becomes a spoon, then a filet knife.
How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?
I think I joined OP back in 2011 or early 2012. I ran across it, thought it would be hand to store info about my campaign and have been here ever since, even through the dreaded reforge, which pissed me off, but in the end(ish) has been for the better. I am addicted to it, even though my time has diminished in the past couple of years due to poor health, and the focus on my other writing. I will keep coming back as long as I run games.
How often do you use the Obsidian Portal Forum Threads? How do you find the recent changes to the Forums?
I used to use the Forums much more than I do now. The new format threw me at first, but then as an old fart, change complicates things. I am sure that as time allows and I knock around in the Forums with more frequency, I will adapt and come to depend on them again.
What does the future have in store for the characters in Shimmering Kingdoms? Without giving the game away, is there anything you can surmise……?
As stated above, the Kingdom of the Lake has no ruler, and all the rightful heirs are presumed dead or had been banished. Petty nobles from all over the Shimmering Isle are turning up claiming some thread of legitimacy to the throne. Our heroes are currently enmeshed in but one small element, removing the Earl’s son as a pawn to influence his vote. With the winter thaws comes Spring Court in Glimmerdam, the city built by dwarves to create the great lake which gives this Kingdom its name. Court will not end until a new ruler has been chosen and invested. Once the child is saved, it will be up to the party to decide where and how to safekeep the boy until Court has concluded. Once the lad is safe, the group will decide whether they wish to pursue political goals, religious goals, or simply embark on adventure, making a name for themselves as heroes in the realms.
If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most?
Wiki Pages and the Calendar. OK that is two things. But they are both important. As I am the only one of the group that posts anything (their choice, not mine), I find the ability to post information on the wiki valuable. My players, and others of course, can look at say, the map and known locations of a city and choose their objectives between sessions, saving time during the game. It also allows me – the old fart with the crap memory – to easily find information that has slipped out of my brain like ethereal pudding.
What would you say the single biggest highlight from your game has been so far?
My maps. I am still organizing the custom maps, but in all that is likely the shiniest part of the whole thing. I spend quite some time making original maps (the regional maps) and customizing local maps. I borrow a great deal from Colombia Games’ Harn maps, and use Photoshop to make them my own in relationship to my world. I try to always site my sources and give links to the original projects.
My SK FATE site has examples of my maps, all of which are works in progress. I add to them as more information is discovered. I keep the files on another site so that I can swap them out with updated maps, which makes for a lot less work uploading maps all the time. I will be transferring all the data over to the SK Pathfinder site as time permits.
Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GMing pearls of wisdom.
Pearl 1: It is just a game – or – You can’t get your skivvies in a bunch if you’re not wearing any. Watch your expectations. Set your expectations early so everyone knows what to expect, yet be willing to let things go. It isn’t important, for instance, to stick with a system you love if your players don’t love it. I would rather have a table full of happy gamers than two who are the only ones willing to tolerate the system because they are your friends and feel obligated. The same goes for play style. I personally love role-playing over roll-playing. I would rather have something interesting occur rather than the old, ‘I rolled a threat, yay it is a crit, I do XX damage’. But I still give my players random-ish encounters to keep them satisfied.
Pearl 2: Let each character shine. Design encounters or events that show of the strenght of one or more characters, all if you are that brilliant. I am rarely brilliant. Players are most happy when a) they feel their characters accomplish things, and b) they get the limelight every so often. Get to know your players and what they love most about the game.
Pearl 3: Hard won victories are always more rewarding, but if every encounter is like pulling teeth for the players, they will soon become frustrated. Every once in a while, they need a win for the sake of the win. This does not have to be combat. It can also be role-playing, problem-solving or any other kind of challenge.
Pearl 4: Bend the Rules. Bend them for the PCs, and sometimes bend them for the NPCs. But as in Pearl 1 above, set the expectation that you will do so. I do it primarily to enhance the Narrative. Last combat, I rolled a random encounter that had 5 spider swarms. I decided that three would be a tough enough fight, as only 2 characters had answers to the swarms. And also, the weather for the day was very windy, so each round I reduces the swarms effectiveness to represent more and more of the little vermin being carried off by the winds. There are no rules for this. Fork the rules. Do what is right by the narrative.
Pearl the Last: Communicate, communicate, communicate! This is a very hard one to remember. Just because everything is clear in your mind as the DM does not mean that the players are privy to your private thoughts. They, just like readers of fiction, interpret your words and actions, and if you are not clear, then issues may arise, tempers flare, etc. (Refer to Pearl One). Just like the old adage about never going to bed with your better half angry, never go home from a session angry or upset. I try to always ask my group as we are packing up if there are any comments or suggestions about that day’s session. What did they like? What could I have done better? Listen to them. Don’t be defensive. You are more than just a rules moderator, you are a storyteller, and you don’t want your audience to figuratively set the book down and stop reading due to frustration with the author.
Each of these pearls have been learned the hard way. I’ve lost friends over games. I got defensive. I didn’t listen. I bowled through encounters with an iron fist, a stickler for the rules, just short of TPK. I’ve had times where the NPCs shone at the detriment to the PCs. I am a sucky DM. I still fail to live up to my pearls. But that is ok. I do better each time, or so I hope. Thanks again for electing Shimmering Kingdoms as COTM for January 2017.
Alright Obsidian Portal, that’s going to do it for us this month. Keep those great campaigns rolling, and the nominations for new Campaigns of the Month coming. Until next time, take care!