Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month March 2016 – Ptolus, City by the Spire

Greetings all and welcome back. This month we are joined by GM UselessTriviaMan for an in depth look at Ptolus, City by the Spire – March’s Campaign of the Month! Whispers say this city is ripe with danger, intrigue, magic and adventure – so stay close and be ready for anything!



First off, feel free to tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do 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!

I’m a 47-year-old guy with a Master’s in Geekery *snerk*. I’ve been married to my (non-gamer) best friend for almost 12 years now, and our 10-year-old son will be attending Gamicon in Iowa City with me this coming weekend. In addition to my home game, I wear a lot of hats. I’m the current commander of my small-town American Legion post, a staff member of my hometown gaming convention (QC Game Fest), and I host trivia-game fundraiser events for good causes once or twice a year.


Many years ago, a friend jokingly declared that “Useless Trivia Man” should be my superhero name. It’s pretty accurate. I’m totally a trivia junkie, and I remember really weirdly specific tidbits. (I mean really, why would I ever need to know that in the Men in Black movie, Will Smith’s character’s full name was James Darrell Edwards III??)


You can usually find me hanging out at the Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast forums online. I blame those guys for the Gaming Monstrosity I’ve become. (Seriously though, it’s a fantastic podcast, especially for those looking for quality GMing advice. Hilarious too, though there is a well-earned NSFW language warning. Use headphones at the office.)


Tell us about Ptolus City By The Spire in a nutshell. How did it come to be and how long has the campaign been going on?

Ptolus actually has a pretty cool backstory. It was the home campaign setting of Monte Cook, and was literally the playtesting world where 3rd Edition D&D was born. He first published the Ptolus setting in 2006, and I have to say that it’s the most richly detailed and enticing setting book I’ve ever seen, bar none. The price tag may seem a bit painful, but you’re getting over 800 pages of awesome. It’s worth it.


My most successful RPG campaign ever (so far) was a two-year run through Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. I spent a lot of that time hanging out on Monte’s (now long gone) site forum, where many forumites sang the praises of Ptolus. I was intrigued.


I finally got my hands on Ptolus a few years ago, and almost immediately knew this would be my chosen D&D campaign setting for many years to come. I kicked off the campaign with my current gaming group last summer, and we’re nine sessions in so far.



How regularly do you play, and where do you play?

We play at a friend’s house in his Gaming Cave rec room. We’re supposedly scheduled to play every other Sunday, but we’re all grown-ups with lives that interfere with gaming. Realistically, it’s been closer to a once-per-month game.


I’ve heard good things about 5th D&D, how do you like it and what do you find to be its strong and weak points? Why did you choose 5th Edition over previous editions of D&D?

Truth be told, I would have preferred to run the campaign in 3.5E D&D! But the players really wanted to try out 5E, and I did like what I’d seen in my 5E dabblings at that point. So I’ve been converting the 3rd Ed stuff to 5E on the fly.


I’m very impressed with 5th Edition D&D. It’s a much more elegant system than previous editions, and the Advantage/Disadvantage system really helps simplify all those crazy-complex combat rules. Many would point to the lack of additional content release as a weakness, but I disagree with that. I don’t need tacked-on extra features to enjoy the game.


For those of us out there about to start a campaign of this style, we know there are a lot of places to draw inspiration from, but where do you draw yours from?

My inspiration comes from all around me. As someone far smarter than me said, “Good GMs borrow. Great GMs steal.” I steal a LOT. Tropes are tropes for a reason! I like to try to come up with interesting twists, but really I’ll just take elements from something I read 20 years ago and add something I saw on Law & Order last week, with a dash of Scooby Doo thrown in to make it funny. Or something like that.


Aside from 5th Ed D&D, I’m sure you play other systems too, which ones do you play most?

I run events at local conventions every year – Gamicon in Iowa City, and QC Game Fest in Davenport. I’m most proud of my one-of-a-kind recurring convention game called the Grindhouse Arena, where eight players slaughter each other mercilessly in a trap-filled, spinning 3D arena of carnage.


Aside from D&D my current favorite systems are the Dread RPG, Savage Worlds and Mongoose Traveller. I also run Fuzzy Heroes at conventions, because it’s fantastic for introducing kids into the hobby. And I’d love to get back into BattleTech one of these days, but I simply don’t have the time.


How did you get into tabletop gaming?

7th grade lunchroom. 1982. I spotted a kid several tables over, showing a crowd of guys this red box with an awesome dragon on it, and these weirdly-shaped dice. I was lured in by their siren song. I haven’t been the same since.


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

I apparently joined Obsidian Portal in 2011, but didn’t use it much back then. I dabbled a bit with rebuilding my old homebrew campaign world, but didn’t have players at the time. For many years I maintained all my campaign info in MS Word documents, but I was never satisfied with that format. It wasn’t until I found Ptolus that I came back to Obsidian Portal and started making my big campaign plans about a year ago.


More than anything, what sold me on Obsidian Portal was the ability to share secrets with individual players. All of the PCs in my campaign have secret information that only they know – some secrets are REALLY juicy, too! (Shhhhh!)



Your wiki customization is really slick, do you do all that work yourself?

I’m standing on the shoulders of the Obsidian Portal giants who came before me (and whose CSS/Textile formatting I totally stole). (I wish I could name them each individually and specifically, but I don’t know from whom I stole each piece. I apologize to you all, and I thank you all for supporting us newbies!) The campaign fluff is almost entirely (at this point) taken straight from the setting book, and is updated as the PCs interact with the world. But the basic formatting/design stuff, that’s all me. In a prior lifetime I built HVAC website graphics for a living, and I learned how to advantageously use cut-‘n-paste to crank out huge tables of info in one massive graphic. It has served me well here.


If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most? Do your players get involved on the wiki too?

For me, Obsidian Portal is a great site for organizing a huge pile of setting content and info into a well-organized and cross-referenced campaign management tool. It does that beautifully. (Actually, the vast majority of my campaign is hidden content that only I can see!) The ability to quickly navigate through all that info is unbelievably useful.


My players don’t really use the site much, to be honest. I’d love it if they were more active, but I don’t require it of them. I’m thinking about trying a prestige point system similar to those used by killervp, arsheesh, or gaaran, but that’s something I’ll bring up at the next game session. We’ll see.


How much time do you usually spend prepping your sessions, and how do you go about it?

I actually spend far less time preparing each Ptolus session than in any campaign I’ve ever run before. I spend lots of time detailing people, places and organizations in the campaign world; I’ve steered away from trying to guess where my players will go or what they’ll do. I’ve fully switched to the sandbox-style of GMing. I don’t have a planned-out story; I let the players steer the course of the game and give them things to play with along the way. This is a rather new concept for me, but I think it’s been working pretty well so far.


What would you say the single biggest highlight from your game has been so far?

We’ve had a few great moments (like when the party pulled a completely Leverage-style swindle on the bard’s rival in Session 3 , but by far the most memorable was the night we lost two PCs in battle, in Session 7. We’re still working through the repercussions of those events.



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

Even after 35 years of gaming, I’m still learning. I invite everyone reading this to expand your gaming horizons. Go to conventions or game days and play in someone else’s games. I’ve learned something, good or bad, from every single GM whose game I played. Support your friendly local gaming community!


Thanks for your time!

Thank you for this honor! I’m flabbergasted to be selected over some of the amazing other nominated campaigns, and overjoyed to be the first-ever 5E Campaign of the Month! Thanks again!


I’m afraid that’s going to be “all she wrote” for this month. But! April looms on the not so distant horizon. It’ll be here before you know it, and with it comes another Campaign of the Month. Where will that one take us? who knows… but stay tuned and we’ll find out together. Until next time!

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'

Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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