2
Feb

Skies of Glass, January’s Campaign of the Month

We sat down with GM Planeswalker to talk to him about Skies of Glass recently, and we really think you’re going to like it. Pull up a chair by the hearth and read on fellow portallers!

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First off, feel free to tell us about the person(s) behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do both aside from gaming? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet, that sort of thing!

My name is Stephen Pool, I’m 24. I’m originally from Washington but I’ve lived in Moscow, Idaho for nearly seven years now. Because people get uppity when you don’t pay bills, I work as a research economist and occasionally continue my work as a graduate student at the University of Idaho. I predominantly do local area impact analysis work with a local professor, though I occasionally do cost/benefit analysis work for engineering firms or other businesses. As you can tell, my work makes for extremely interesting small talk. No wife or kids, though I have a husky that whines like a baby if she doesn’t get a share of my dinner. I don’t really have any sort of internet presence, aside from a few of my studies circulating out on the internet.

 

Skies of Glass is decidedly a collaborative effort, so it wouldn’t be right to go on without at least briefly introducing my players. We have Cayden, our lesser angel inquisitor, who’s currently in college studying computer science and does programing work for a local engineering firm. Ned, our shapeshifter wild mage, is currently in college studying wildlife resources and regularly works as our party chef. Finally, we have Reikhardt, our leonin paladin, who is a published fantasy author and works as a professional copy editor.

So…tell us about Skies of Glass in a nutshell

Skies of Glass started as something of a thought experiment a few years back. I’d just gotten back into a Pathfinder game after something of a break and was in a game that, while fun, had a distinctly “railroaded” feel to it. It got me thinking, “What if I made a world, instead of making a story?” That sort of freeform world seemed like it would be a dream for an advocate of Player Agency (the ability for a player able to control their own in-game destiny), and it seemed like it could be a mess of fun if done right. But, I needed the right system and setting to make it work.

 

I decided to dust off an old Magic: The Gathering Tabletop RPG I’d started working on years ago. The system was designed to bring Pathfinder’s core mechanics together with Magic’s Multiverse setting, giving me a rich assortment of worlds, races, and stories to draw from. The game itself runs much like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, but with a variant that allowed magic to be accessible to all players, rather than just a few specific classes. The five pools of magic replaced class spell lists, mana points replaced the old spells per day/spells known rules, and all classes now have at least a small amount of magic available to them.

 

With the mechanics for Skies of Glass in hand, I set to my first major goal – creating a free-form world that could surprise even me. After establishing the world of Creed and its major continents, nations, organizations, and the major players in the world, I set to creating a system of “controlled chaos” to help guide the story my players and I were making in occasionally unexpected directions. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of work done upfront to get the system running. I had to develop extensive reserves of major NPCs, unique items, and fantastic locations, create entire folders full of story seeds, mystical events, and, more importantly, hunt down the best random generators I could find for the secondary details in the world. I even adopted some excellent hex travel and random encounter mechanics to help keep travel and even day-to-day life in a city interesting and unpredictable.

 

When I started our game just a few months later, we ran a couple sessions of the party as children, touching on events in their lives as they aged, and ran their final tests before graduation. After giving them a few connections in the world, I set them free to do whatever they wanted to and set to work guiding the story they developed. Reikhardt, talking about our game, said “It’s the first and only tabletop game I’ve ever played that felt completely open-ended and packed full of stuff to do at the same time. Sure, I’ve played homebrew settings before or homemade modules that moved from one place in the world or worlds to the next, but none with the unbridled freedom found in Skies of Glass. We’re not just getting a ‘hero’ label slapped on us and pointed at the local marauding dragon. We’re in a living, breathing world and taking our place in it.” Cayden and Ned, the verbose fellows that they are, followed with a quick “Ditto.” Love these guys.

What do you enjoy most about D&D?

As a GM, my favorite thing about D&D 3.5, and Pathfinder specifically, is just how easy it is for me to build within the system. Skies of Glass has more than 30 base races, many of which are races fans of Magic: The Gathering should find familiar – flamekin, kitsune, leonine, loxodon, and viashino, just to name a few. We also have swaths of new materials, new items (over 200 unique items and counting), and a totally unique enchantment mechanic. Between the race creation guidelines developed for Pathfinder and the item creation guidelines developed in D&D 3.5, we have some excellent source material to work with. More importantly, it lets my players build within our world. It’s far from perfect, but it works within a certain margin of error, and I’ve found that a system that lets me and my players all design content for our game to be absolutely invaluable.

 

Regarding tabletop role-playing games as a whole, our group really enjoys them for two major reasons: cooperative storytelling and immersive role-play. As Reikhardt puts it, “It combines my love of writing with my love of theatre — the wonderful improv dialogue you get when good friends get together to tell a story is priceless, whether we’re invading a necromancer’s fortress, relaxing at some hot springs, or having a crisis of faith and being supported by your friends.”

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.)

We aim to play every Sunday, right here in my living room, though school crunch and family demands occasionally mean we skip a weekend here or there. North Idaho has this nasty habit of getting cold in the winter (shocking, I know) and giving us some pretty icy roads. So, during the winter, we usually call a hiatus until travel improves. During these downtimes we usually run short, vignette-styled games with what fraction of our group can still get together. These short story games allow us to explore other places and other times on Creed, letting us develop the world from a different angle without spoiling anything for the main game.

Who puts all of your wiki together?

By and large, I do the leonin’s share of work on the wiki. The world and its people, the mechanics and items – I either created or assembled most of that. I also write up the occasional message, report, newsletter, or vision my players receive using the Adventure Logs. However, since I’m usually putting up multiple new pages a week, I rely on my players to edit pages for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and occasionally fact-check to keep our wiki internally consistent.

 

Spells are the one part of the wiki we all really chip in for. Since magic is such a huge part of Skies of Glass and is much more accessible than in a normal Pathfinder game world, we wanted to carefully curate the list of spells we allowed. So, we’ll all sit down from time to time and burn through huge swaths of 3.5 and Pathfinder material to find spells we like, or edit them until we like them. We also take time to build new spells as needed, bonus points if we can base it off an existing Magic: The Gathering card. So far we have more than 1,200 spells approved for our game, with more being added from time to time.

Where do you draw inspiration from when preparing your game?

Skies of Glass is set in the Magic: The Gathering universe, so unsurprisingly some of the stories and characters call back to that origin. A lot of the monsters I use in the game are my own interpretations of MTG creatures, and a number of spells, items, or other mystical elements in the world come from that same source. Calling it incidental fanfiction probably wouldn’t be unfair, though I prefer to think of it as an elaborate love letter to Wizards of the Coast.

 

Beyond that, I find I draw quite a lot of inspiration from real-world stories and events. My players have interacted with the inspirational byproduct of many a Grimm Fairy Tale and more than a few fables and legends. Our communal experience with story elements from games such as the Legend of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Dark Souls, and even Monster Hunter have invariably influenced our game. Fortunately, we work aspects of famous and more highbrow stories such as Don Quixote, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the likes of Monty Python into our world to class up the joint.

 

How much time do you usually take to prepare for a session?

For most sessions I prepare fairly little, letting the events of the day develop naturally. Our system of “controlled chaos” forces me to regularly react to unexpected circumstances. I can make some predictions given how well I know both my players and my NPCs, but even then, every session to date has surprised me in one way or another. Most of the preparation for a session honestly takes the form of forum discussions about things like new spells or magic items, what Ned’s cooking for our next game, or any downtime events between games.

 

Music is one of the few things I find myself regularly working on between sessions. Since the beginning, music selection has been an integral part of our efforts to create proper tone and mood for Skies of Glass. Towns each have their own unique theme music, even some enemies and events have dedicated songs. We’ve all spent a chunk of time building a great library of music with more than 3,000 songs specifically for our game, and I try to add at least a few new songs to that list every week. As Cayden notes, “Music has helped our campaign feel so much more alive. It can help you feel the emotion of a scene, or foreshadow a sudden shift to something more somber and serious. The right music can absolutely make or break a scene – bringing you closer to your characters, creating a truly immersive experience.”

 

However, I do occasionally get the chance to run a good old fashioned, multi-session dungeon romp, and those usually end up taking a few days of free time to build. I still utilize randomization as much as I can, but I enjoy taking the opportunity to build bizarre environments, puzzling challenges, and some really cinematic battles. Similarly, I love the opportunity to build unique and thematic rewards for these adventures.

Aside from D&D I’m sure you have played other systems too, what are some others you enjoy?

Over the years I’ve predominantly played in and run D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder games. I’ve played a small amount of D&D 4th edition but wasn’t terribly thrilled with it. However, Wizards’ most recent system looks very promising — it feels like they’ve gone in a much stronger and more flavor-rich direction with 5th edition. Unfortunately, aside from devouring the books, my only real exposure to it has been watching the incredibly fun Temple of the Lava Bears podcast done by Loading Ready Run — hopefully I’ll get a chance to poke at those mechanics myself at some point. It’s very possible we’ll end up incorporating elements of 5th edition into Skies of Glass at some point; goodness knows my players have already been suggesting possible additions.

 

Other than that, my players and I have explored a handful of other systems – GURPs, Exalted, Shadowrun, Fading Suns, and a very unique homebrew system based on the Fallout games, just to name a few. Not too long ago, we began playing a Mage: The Ascension game, the only other game we’re actively running at the moment. First game I personally have played in the World of Darkness and I’m certainly finding it a unique setting to explore.

How do you know your players, how long have you been gaming with them?

Reikhardt and I have been good friends since 2008. We were both in the same dorm and we ended up getting to know each other at one of the first few tabletop games I was ever in, one he ended up taking over and running for nearly a year in fact. He and I have been in probably a dozen-odd games since then, playing with a handful of other local players over the years. I finally met Cayden and Ned when I joined a game Reikhardt was running in 2012 and the lot of us have been close friends ever since. We’ve all got our strengths and weaknesses, checks and balances against each others’ quirks, so gaming together has been a real joy over the years.

How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?

I’ve been using Obsidian Portal since late 2009…and wow that seems like a long time ago. I’d been playing D&D 3.5 for around a year and a half at that point and decided it was about time I tried creating my own game. I was looking at running a retelling of the adventures of The Weatherlight, but I was concerned that the depth of the Magic: The Gathering universe might be a problem for my players unfamiliar with the setting. When I found Obsidian Portal, I realized I’d found a medium I could use to easily record and share world histories, racial traits, and political bullshit – the small details that I felt were absolutely vital for the story I wanted to tell.

Now that the Reforging has been live for a little while now, what are your favorite parts?

The improved search function, without a doubt, was my group’s favorite addition. Skies of Glass has more than 1,300 pages in the wiki and it’s pretty easy to lose things in that jungle.

What’s been the biggest highlight of Skies of Glass so far?

When I asked my party to pick a “best moment” for me to write about, I wasn’t really surprised they all had the same answer, it was my personal choice as well. It was late last December and, through a set of unexpected circumstances, our paladin, Reikhardt, was dying. Having been knocked unconscious by the arctic breath of a rimefire dragon, he was freezing to death and slowly turning into a leonin-shaped block of ice. The party had teleported just outside the elven capital after fleeing the attacking dragons. But even as the guards were rushing to the academy to find a mage who could possibly undo the transformation, the players realized their friend didn’t have nearly that kind of time. Our wild mage, Ned, decided to use a powerful Object of Legend (what other settings would call an Artifact) that was bound to him and managed to save the paladin’s life.

 

Heading into the city, the adventurers decided to take some time off and enjoyed a day of excessive relaxation – at least, until midnight. Right as the town clock began to chime, a fae ally of theirs (a rarity in Creed) appeared in their room and told them, in no uncertain terms, that they were being hunted. A great enemy of the elves, the Fairy Queen, had been watching the city that day and noticed the presence of the legendary object – an object she greatly desired, as she believed it would be key in setting her and her children free from their Faewoods prison. She would be coming for it, with an army of fae at her back, and she would stop at no cruelty to have it, and the wild mage it was bound to, be hers.

 

What began as a completely random encounter — a thread into a minor story the adventurers could choose to pursue — became something completely game-changing that I never would have seen coming. Ned, having been right at the heart of the situation, perhaps says it best. “The natural chaos of the setting created a scenario straight out of left field, and the reaction was something I think every gamer wishes they could take part in. Watching our paladin cry out in frustration, powerless to protect his childhood friend, our inquisitor trying to logic out our options while working to calm everyone else, all while I got to immerse myself into my character’s mind as he was crippled by his fear of what forces would soon engulf him. It was an incredible experience, some of the most intense and emotional roleplay I’ve ever experienced and an amazing bonding experience for our group.”

Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GM’ing pearls of wisdom.

I think there are really four “key” elements to any truly great table-top game: make your players care about their world, make your players feel like they can engage with your NPCs, make your players care about the events transpiring around them, and make your players feel like they can affect those events in at least some recognizable fashion. I don’t think any of those are anywhere near an original thought, but I’ve seen a lot of GMs overlook those core fundamentals. A handful of well-developed NPCs that your players love to interact with and a strong feeling of Player Agency are the real seeds of a great adventure.

 

Beyond that, I’d encourage other GMs who desire a cohesive and friendly party to spend time developing early-on reasons the characters would want to stick together and care about one another. Skies of Glass spent our entire first session with the characters as young children, becoming friends, and growing together. When you have a party that rallies together through thick and thin, not for wealth or power, but because they’re friends and really love each other — that resonates in a very powerful way.

That’s all for now everybody, keep those CotM suggestions flowing straight to my inbox! Until next time, game excellently with one another!

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'


Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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