Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month August 2018 – The Praise of Old Men

Welcome to Sel-kai my young friend. It’s okay, you can look; I won’t judge. The Warbirds certainly are an impressive sight. Especially the first time. So, come to make your fortune have you? No better place to do it. Spend enough time here, work hard enough, and you might earn more than just that, you might come to earn The Praise of Old Men – August’s Campaign of the Month! Now, wipe that tourist’s look off your face, and follow me. I’ve got just the person you need to see, they call him Ancellus, the GameMaster.https://db4sgowjqfwig.cloudfront.net/campaigns/196368/banners/868178/ShadowWorld-Obsidion-1440x288-3-1.jpg?1528130236

So, to start 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 Egos? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet? Let us know if you feel so inclined!

I am a 54 year-old married Biology teacher from the UK, our son also plays rpgs as did my wife for a while when we worked in the US; we were research scientists at Cornell.

How long have you been a tabletop roleplayer? What was your introduction to the hobby like? And what is it about this hobby that makes it the one for you?

I started with the “red box” that was Basic Dungeons and Dragons back in 1980, after a couple of years my brothers and I had moved on to AD&D – and I still have my Dungeon Master’s Handbook with some very delicate and well-thumbed pages! For weeks, my brothers and I just created characters and then one weekend I ran the first session and from then on I’ve pretty much only ever DM’d games. Initially, I think our mother just wanted something to keep her three highly competitive rugby-playing boys quiet on a Sunday. What she could not foresee were the arguments we’d have about “Alignment” and various spell effects! My overuse of Rot Grubs in AD&D caused a massive fallout; I can still remember Mum pleading with us to “just go outside and hit something!” Over the years I’ve pretty much played every iteration of D&D and pretty much every “major” RPG but aside from AD&D, back in the 80’s, we pretty much played Iron Crown Enterprise’s version of Middle-earth (using the Classic rules) to death. Fenlon’s maps just hooked me and even now, when I select a new fantasy fiction book, if the map inside is poor, the book gets put back on the shelf.


Why did I keep playing? I think at the time it was so different and for a while in the UK it was genuinely the sort of almost “subversive” activity that any teenager finds alluring. As a DM, it was just fun and when I realized how easy it was to craft your own campaign setting, well, who doesn’t want to create their own world and play using their rules?


Now, as a teacher, I can really see the value of these games. The boys and girls that are in the club I run twice a week after school work as a team, the achieve goals each session that they often set, they overcome problems, think through puzzles, carry out rapid min/max number crunching. Listen to each other, take turns, recognize strengths and weaknesses, plan carefully what to do … oh, and a lot more. Sometimes, we even slay dragons!


What about the gaming group, can you tell us a bit about the troupe and how it came together for the campaign?

This group came together via Fantasy Grounds and their “LFG” forum.

  • Cran “The Boulder” Craddock is an expat Brit living in the US – his character is influenced by Joe Abercombie’s “Logen Nine-fingers”.
  • At the same time as Cran started, we had “Ugnan”, a healer with a mysterious and rather sad past – that, I’ll confess, I have not tapped into yet. Ugnan is a Brit like me but clearly loves roleplaying and his improvisations have really pushed me at times!
  • “Cheryl The Red” started off as an NPC but after the first session when the street-thief was introduced we were lucky enough to recruit an Australian who was happy to play her.
  • “Sharna Maen-gal” was also one of the first recruits. Anybody who has read the more recent Shadow World rpg books will instantly recognize her as she appears in the Eidolon and Sel-kai setting book. Her player is actually the chap who does the artwork for the newer books so “Sharna” is clearly a very important character! He has also helped with the artwork for the site and given the players custom tokens – he’s based in Wales… but I don’t think it fair to hold that against him!
  • “Sylke” is a highly inquisitive “elven” mage and is played by a Canadian who was also with us from the start/ Like Ugnan, Cran and Cheryl – his roleplaying has really meant that as a group we spend more time talking than we do rolling dice. Totally refreshing though my voice-acting needs to improve; I have a very limited repertoire of voices!

I note that you’re a newer member to the site. What brought you to Obsidian Portal, and what made you stay? Is there a feature that doesn’t exist that you’d like to see?

Using Obsidian was actually Cran’s suggestion – we had created loads of different channels in Discord to log NPCs, Places etc etc Genuinely, the site has helped me hugely! The story and plot (there is one, I promise!) is all “homebrew” and I’m of “that age” where galloping senility is just around the corner and I forget all sorts of stuff. This, like many homebew games, has a sandbox feel. That means the players always have lots of “options”; I wanted them to explore a castle, they headed for a watchtower instead …. So, like a pen and paper game I scratch down ideas and make things up as we go along. We’ve all done this at some point but then, you have to a) remember all the stuff you made up on the spot (and Ugnan has really made me work at times) and b) refer back to it to make it important. Nobody likes playing a game where from week-to-week what happens

does not in any way depend or link back to what happened in the previous session. Being able to list out my NPCs and then add details and, for me, make a note of what ridiculous voice I gave them, really helps. Also, I love maps … being able to upload them and have characters use them to plan strategically or look for clues is great.


Do the players help with the campaign site? And if so, to what degree? If they do, how can other GMs out there get their players more involved do you think?

Cran and Sharna make my own site “sing” – Cran makes sure everything links correctly, checks that pages etc are in the right place and thus I just have to throw new items, maps, plot devices and a synopsis of each session on the site – Cran does the donkey work! Sharna’s artwork means we look good and for all of us, that’s actually quite important. I guess we feel that what we contribute is important and worth looking at and working on. If you want players to help run a site, they have to feel that there is information there worth looking at. The map I have put up recently that shows the location in Sel-kai of the “Cruciform Murders” is an example. The players will soon have access to the map and will need to study it closely to advance one possible plot line.

Switching gears now, can you tell those who might not yet follow your campaign the basics of The Praise of Old Men? How long has the campaign been going on? What’s the premise of the story?

The campaign has been run via Fantasy Grounds and it started in March – we play on a Friday and August 3rd will see our 10th session. Holiday’s work schedules mean we play roughly 3 times a month. The game is set in Terry K Amthor’s Shadow World and the city of Sel-kai (with the magical city “block” of Eidolon floating overhead). The party were initially asked to investigate the theft of some stolen crates but this has spiraled into a plot involving pirates, a Merchant House and slavers. As part of the first “chapter”, the players have investigated an abandoned asylum known locally as “The Shudders” and begun to realise that “The Honourable Guild Of Spice Merchants” that was rather abruptly dissolved many years ago was a “front” for something else. The true nature of this Guild is what lies behind what I hope will keep Cran et al busy for the next year or so. They are about to explore the dilapidated manor house of a fallen Merchant Family and will discover more about the Guild and a nasty little cult whose extermination will be there next mission … I hope.


How close to the official Shadow World material has the campaign setting been staying? What made you choose this setting and what additions or personalizations (if any) have you made?

I wanted to do something with the Rolemaster rules and ruleset in FG – I was one of the team who put the ruleset together in the first place and the whole ruleset was my idea; I pitched the idea to ICE and was delighted to have got permission to crunch the books etc into a digital version. So, to see the ruleset stagnate was really sad. I’m hoping that the people at FG will look at re-skinning and updating the ruleset. Shadow World uses the rule system and has so much background that it both makes it very attractive as a campaign setting but also quite daunting. The game setting has a ton of historical events that can be weaved together and essentially centers on a number of huge occult groups who are trying to either rule the world or destroy it. These groups are so big that players have to start small and then grow as their characters become more powerful.


I’ve not deviated from the canon at all but, where possible, I’ve leapt on a few features in the official time-line (which is immense!) and embellished them. The appearance of a dragon in Sel-kai in 5704 is a key point and a plot driver in my own campaign (it is the same date that the Honourable Guild of Spice Merchants is disbanded) but in Terry’s books there is little made of it and he has, I suspect, deliberately left it “open”. As for NPCs – like any campaign setting, the “big cheeses” in the city are as they are in the published material but all the rest are my own.

Do you have any inspirational material (books, films, music, etc..) that you would recommend for others who might be working on (or considering working on) a campaign of this sort?

There are so many good fantasy books available with brilliant characters and scenes it is truly difficult to pick just a few. I’ve read a few books that focus on “world building” but frankly, they don’t really tell me anything new after running games for the best part of 40 years. I’ve run some truly cringe-worthy games and campaigns and probably still will but I’m now happier to lean on the expertise of Tolkien, Abercrombie, Feist et al.


Peter Morwood’s books (out of print for years) have left a lasting impression. The Magician series by Raymond E Feist has a resonance of course. Tad William’s books gave me a different look at “elves”. Joe Abercombie’s are so gritty with so many memorable characters that this has to be my next campaign setting.


Are there any spoiler free hints that you can drop as to what might be coming up for the party?

Well, 5704 is an important date. There is a link between the fire that gutted the Spice Merchant’s Guild and the fire that also gutted the Hadeshill Asylum. The party might want to brave Sel-kai bureaucracy and visit the “Department Of Evaluations” and look at the background of The Old Sword Inn … its location is quite intriguing and might explain the odd windows that give them all headaches and odd visions. The party will recall hearing a voice in the inn and the asylum that whispered, “Unkissed, unloved, unwanted, unremembered, forgotten” – they will hear the voice again, it belongs to “She Who Waits” who is not Old Mother Cloot. This venerable old lady should be high on their list of “knots to untie”.


I think that’s enough for now. Sandbox games, why have one world-ending plot when you can have four?

What would you say has been the biggest highlight of the campaign thus far for you? Why does it stand apart for you?

The biggest highlight in terms of a “session” is probably the one that saw the party grapple with the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Sel-kai. I had this idea of a hideously complex and ridiculously form-obsessed set of government departments that the party would have to deal with to uncover information they needed. Dice rolls, and sword swinging was going to be of little help, they had to talk and interact with pompous and obsequious staff. They did so brilliantly and along the way made me create some new NPCs and “contacts”. Half of the players I meet via Fantasy Grounds are min/max MMO players who use rules and a maxed out dice roll to demonstrate how good the player (not the character) is at combining rules to get a huge “plus” on a dice roll. To GM a 3 hour session where no dice rolls were made but the plot advanced and players had to resolve problems and conflicts by their wits was really refreshing. Old School is still “Good School”.


Finally, give us your best GM pearls of wisdom. What have you learned from running campaigns that others could benefit from?

I think the DMs who use Obsidian all know what the pitfalls are but these are things that I wish I’d got my head around 20 years ago.


A Role-playing or Roll-playing game?


I’ve had a number of campaigns that have “gone bad” and when they have I think it’s been because my expectations of what I wanted were totally at odds with the players. If your campaign is an “out of the box” published game then don’t expect method acting from your players and any real interest in your own laboriously added “subplots”. If you are going to serve pizza, serve pizza and don’t worry about appetizers. On the other hand, if you want a game where the plot (a typical Cthulhu game for example) is everything and a session is not about knocking over the next batch of DM pawns, make that clear to the players outside the game. Inside the game, put on some funny voices, ham it up like James T Kirk! If you detect your players are not interested in your clever plots and subplots, either close the campaign or change gears. Don’t force the players to play your game but equally try not to get frustrated and lose heart if they simply don’t care that Great Aunt Cordelia was savaged by a duck when she was at finishing school even if you know that this singular event explains the loss of the Vorheeze War in 1753.


Neglected Character Syndrome


Once you have your players and their characters – are any of them being left out? Do they feel useful? There is a reason why Clerics are rarer than hen’s teeth in the majority of 5E games, and that’s a shame. If your game is homebrew, the neglected character is easy to fix. Rewrite part of your next session so that their unique skills are needed and show them some TLC. When their dice roll comes off, ham it up a little: “Tarn’s mellifluous voice soothes the angry merchant and he relaxes. Blushing, he apologizes to you all and smiles at Tarn. ‘I’m sorry miss but you see, that scoundrel and I have, well … history y’see. Look, the wagon you are likely wanting is …” OR “Yup, 17 is good enough, the merchant tells you all where the wagon is.”

Well, that’s all folks – as they say. We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of Shadow World as seen through the lens of the featured campaign. Next month, we return with another great feature, and we’ll once again whisk you away to a whole new campaign world. If you have or know of a campaign that you think should be showcased here, let us know about it in the nominations thread on the community forums. As always, we thank our friends over at Modiphius Entertainment for their support of Campaign of the Month.

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