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Reclaim Riverbend: Early Run

This past weekend I was honored to attend CarnageCon as a special guest. It's a wonderful con held this year in Killington, VT and previously at Lake Morey. I ran 12 hours of a D&D Next version of Reclaim Riverbend. Now, because it was a con, we didn't run with any crunchy rules for the exploration section, but we played with the premise of rebuilding after a war, playing in a sandbox, and having player driven stories.

I think it was a great success. A couple of the players played the whole 12 hours, and a number more played 8 hours worth. As a DM, I was really happy. Here's a picture from the second 4-hour slot.

Reclaim Riverbend: Carnage Con: Picture by Geoff Duke (@gcd)Reclaim Riverbend: Carnage Con: Picture by Geoff Duke (@gcd)

So the first thing about the game is that the set up really helped ease play. I started by giving each player character one NPC character they could bring with them. As an example, the cleric chose an underling acolyte and the rogue chose to know the military commander in the town. This helped in a number of ways. First, I think it helped the players feel like they had a bit of the world that they knew and could interact with. Additionally, as they played, they had someone else that they could also make up stories about. The cleric, for instance, named his acolyte Ned and would add flavor by talking about the types of sermons Ned was making and the reactions of the townspeople to them. He also set up Ned in the church after they cleared it of the undead and a dark priest. He even decided to create his own sect, the Order of the Radiant Heart.

In addition to the one NPC to start, each PC had 10 commoners each who came with them. These would be the people who did the basic chores of the town. They also served another purpose. As the PCs cleared out areas, one of the commoners would often step forward and take over a job. So, after they had cleared one of the small forests, one of the commoners stepped forward to become a forester. Likewise, when they cleared out the brewery, one of the townspeople had skills as a brewer and stepped forward.

Also, having a map helped them figure out where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. I used the map from Village of Hommlet, and just described how every place except the Inn of the Welcome Wench was more or less rendered uninhabitable. They were concerned about where the villagers and decided to check out the old cottages first, which turned out to be a good thing because one of them was haunted by the ghost of any angry former inhabitant who had been killed in the great raid. Likewise, they often would balance where they went with the needs of the town. They cleared out the cottages and the docks (so people could be come fishermen) but also decided they needed better ale and cleared out the brewery. Then it was the mill so the town could grind flour.

Obviously I have a bunch more to do before I can make it a thing and I need to develop my own town map if I want to publish it, but being able to run 12 hours of gaming on this premise was a great confidence boost.

As a note, we played mostly theater of the mind style. I used the Noteboard product to draw rough maps to help the players visualize areas. This worked well with D&D Next but obviously might not work well for every game.

The main thing I'd love to work on before I did it again would be interactive environments. The setup worked well in showing the players that what their PCs did had an effect on the town, but I wish I had more traps, rituals, other interactive elements (like a complex arcane machine), and maybe some friendly NPCs in various areas that the PCs could interact with. More food for thought.

Finally, a tweet from one of the players after the game:

Also, I had the honor of being the first DM for a young boy and we had three other teenagers join in. That felt good too.

Reclaim Riverbend: Some Examples

I wanted to give some more concrete examples of where my thoughts around Reclaim Riverbend are currently. Since it's a well known module and fits pretty well, I'm going to use The Village of Hommlet as an example.

Destruction

© 2012 Jenna Fowler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2012 Jenna Fowler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licenseVillage of Hommlet is great because it lays out an entire village complete with a village map as well as maps of a few of the buildings. My thought is that much of the town would have been destroyed by a combination of neglect by the evil forces that inhabited it (they did not agree that cleanliness is next to godliness) and the battles for control of the town. I think I would set everything except either the walled manor house (27) or the Inn of the Welcome Wench (7) as being in some state of being too broken to be immediately useful. I haven't figured out the mechanics of repair, but it would be something like filthy, cosmetic damage, structural damage, and beyond repair. Filthy buildings could be repaired without access to resources beyond labor. Cosmetic damage would require access to wood, either from other homes or a forest. Structural damage might require a carpenter. Beyond repair would require labor to remove the rubble before it could be built on again.

A nice thing about using something like Village of Hommlet as the underpinning is that we can tell the story of that village through this game even if we don't use everything from it. The people still existed and we can tell their story in the background elements and in the items left behind.

Repair

© 2012 Juan Santapau, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2012 Juan Santapau, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
Let's ignore the ability to harvest wood from the forest for now and only rely on reusing materials found in the town. Let's say each destroyed house provides 10 wood. Cosmetic damage requires 1 wood, structural damage requires 3, and new construction of a modest cottage requires 5. (I'm not sure how fine-grained I'll be when I get further along, so take this all with a grain of salt.) Repairing buildings with cosmetic damage doesn't require specialization and takes less wood. The issue is that the building the group really wants might not be one of the ones that are the cheapest to fix. Do the players focus on fixing the easiest to fix buildings first? Do they try to adapt the building to a different use than intended, costing them perhaps a few more resources and more time? Or do they focus their resources on the buildings they think would best serve them?

These are decisions constantly being made after a catastrophe. What do we have? What can we save? What is the cost of saving it?

Trade

© 2013 Kaitlynn Peavler and Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games, created for Conquering Corsairs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2013 Kaitlynn Peavler and Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games, created for Conquering Corsairs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
One of the issues after war is that many of the trade routes are disrupted. A village like Riverbend couldn't expect regular deliveries of resources from other places. First, the area is still far too dangerous for all but the least risk averse merchants. Second, many towns and cities need goods after a war and Riverbend isn't exactly a thriving place full of coin. It needs to make itself better known for that. So currently, the town can except a visiting merchant only about every month or three. I might increase the frequency if I specialize the merchants though. Additionally, costs might be higher for even basic goods that have to be imported from elsewhere. For now, let's say that there is a 50% rise in prices.

The Village of Hommlet module works well for this because it faces trade issues. In the case of the module, a bunch of bandits have been attacking trade caravans. They are holed up in the ruins of the moathouse, a complete adventure already written for DMs. Since Reclaim Riverbend is a post war game, I might change some of the bandit characters to fit into that theme better. Maybe they deserted during the war or they grew cynical from their experiences and decided to live for themselves after the war. They also could be left over enemies who didn't want to go home.

Defeating the bandits would improve trade through Riverbend in addition to potentially giving real items as treasure. So after they are dealt with, let's say the additional cost of goods gets reduced to 25%.

Forgotten Lore

An additional benefit to The Village of Hommlet is that it's tied to the Temple of Elemental Evil. I might have in one of the buildings some writings from one of the evil clerics or wizards that mentioned ruins in the area of the town. By this point, between the overturn in inhabitants and the amount of time that has passed, it's quite possible that none of the current inhabitants remembers the temple. This diary could talk about how the cleric or wizard wants to find the legendary ruin and increase their reputation. The PCs might decide to see if the other side was unable to uncover the ruin or decide that they don't care, they want to see it for themselves.

You could even run Temple of Elemental Evil as a flashback before they discover it in the present. You could then modify the ruins to take into account the decisions of your group and, who knows, maybe the past adventurers left something behind that could be used by those in the present.

So that's my thought on how the concept of Reclaim Riverbend can be used to tie together published adventures in a way that reinforces the core story being told and organically changes the world around the characters. I fully acknowledge it might not be for everyone. Obviously, if I were to create my own Reclaim Riverbend for publishing, I couldn't use Village of Hommlet as a base but it's a perfect fit as an example of what could be done. Additionally, the framework doesn't need to be limited to D&D as a resolution mechanism. Other games, such as Fiasco, could be used for certain types of adventures or scenes and still have an impact on the world. For instance, perhaps the players want to convince a wizard to take up residence in the tower but he wants the PCs to prove that they are worth his presence. A Fiasco-style playset could be a fun way of determining if they succeed at the task of wooing him.

Note: The first two images are from the game Farewell to Fear by Machine Age Productions. The third is from Conquering Corsairs. All are part of the Prismatic Art Collection.

Reclaim Riverbend: It's about the People

Now that a big writing project is done, I have more time to focus on this again. As a refresher, Reclaim Riverbend is my idea for a sandbox adventure that concentrates on the PCs building their community. In this particular case, a long 25 year war has ended and Commander Blackwell seeks to reclaim her ancestral home. Players build the town as a result of their adventures. Collect enough objets d'art and the town creates an art gallery or museum. Uncover enough gems and gain a jeweler. These NPCs in turn, provide benefits back to the PCs.

© 2012 Susan Knowles, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2012 Susan Knowles, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
A reason I started with Reclaim Riverbend is because I want to explore concepts of colony building and exploration while minimizing the issues of othering. This was their land. Absent the past 25 years, it had been in their families for generations. I haven't figured out what to do about the invaders yet, if they are going to be some concept of true evil or if they might seem that way at first but overtime become more understandable. I think for the first version, they are just going to be evil.

I've also been thinking a lot about how to do the community building. Some people pointed out the Pathfinder downtime system. I like the system and will draw inspiration from parts of it but, to me, it still seems a bit too distanced. It's also focuses a bit on the individual's influence where I'm not sure that fits with what I would like.

The other inspiration point I know about is Flatpack. This game features a lot of what I want, it's about overcoming obstacles and fixing the future. PCs go out, find flatpacks, and bring them home. These flatpacks provide resources to the town. They are buildings that you can put together and give the PCs access to specialists. In some ways, that's part of what's going on in Reclaim Riverbend but there's a bit more that I'd like to accomplish. I know sometimes DMs sometimes struggle with players who keep killing their hirelings or assume an unlimited supply of things. My thought is that this setup can address those issues. You can gain unlimited supplies of some things, but it requires building the town up enough to gain them. Likewise, you can kill as many hirelings as you want, but you might not then have enough people come harvest time. There are choices and those choices have consequences.

My thought is that players would start off with their initial expedition party. This will include the PCs, a number of unskilled laborers, and I'm thinking one or two skilled laborers per PC. I contemplated making these families instead of individuals but that might work better as an optional rule. Since the entire kingdom is in a rebuilding phase, it will be a while before they get reinforcements or more supplies. So they are pretty much on their own for at least 3 months.

In looking at the D&D Next rules, many of the backgrounds fit in naturally with this. Commoners form the lowest level and most plentiful type of human resource. They provide most of the raw resources for the town such as food, lumber, animal skins, and the like. The Artisans form the next level. They transform the raw materials into products and they require a certain number of Commoners to support them. So, we might not get a carpenter until we have 10 foresters because otherwise there wouldn't be enough lumber.

© 2012 Susan Knowles, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2012 Susan Knowles, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
I might make one change though. You can't gain access to certain types of Commoners until you have the natural resources to support them. One way to unlock natural resources will be to explore the hex map. So, explore enough forest squares and you can unlock a forester. Your exploration gives the forester confidence that the woods will be safe for him and his crew. Likewise, want fishers? Explore the waterways and determine their level of safety.

Gaining these more experienced laborers can happen in a few different ways. They can be part of the adventures. For instance, maybe you uncover a humanoid trafficking ring run by orcs that passes through the territory. As a result of raiding it, the PCs might gain a skilled laborer from the captives. Another way is inspired by Terraria. If you have an available storefront and uncover enough gems, either through treasure or as a result of uncovering a mine that has a vein of them, a jeweler might be enticed to live in your town. Or, if you uncover enough forest land, a laborer might decide to become a forester. Finally, as the town grows, the PCs might be able to pick particular types of skilled laborer that they would like to see more of and gain benefits from.

Another thing I'd like to focus on in this is that everyone has a role and is necessary for the functioning of the town. Food production is just as important as being a silversmith, even if it doesn't pay the same. Additionally, when the town suffers a catastrophe such as a natural disaster or a siege, each of these people are your resources for defense and recovery. My hope is that this would be closer to the reality of life in the middle ages. Adventuring brings great rewards but at a cost. You can decide to not teach the women basic defense skills but when you are attacked, you might find yourself at a disadvantage.

To summarize, here are some basic details and principles that I'm confident about.

  • Hex exploration uncovers resources to use, both general ones like wood and adventuring areas where more specialized goods and advanced technology can be found.
  • Simulate in a general way the hierarchy of resources and the people who refine them.
  • Resource limitations are tied to the town and its inhabitants, making people the most important resource.

More info soon!

Edit: The art comes from the Prismatic Art Collection and originally appeared in Farewell to Fear.

Con Harassment: Rape Culture and the "Silence is Sexy" Script

[TW: Sexual Assault]

In my previous post, I published the results from my harassment policy survey. Among the group that responded to the survey, they overwhelmingly felt these policies were important or very important (228 out of the 319 total responses). Twenty percent had witnessed or experienced something that made them wish there was an anti-harassment policy, and 15 percent had felt harassed or assaulted at a con. It's important to note here that nearly 72% of the respondents identified as primarily male/men and out of the 49 people who responded that they had felt harassed or assaulted at a con, 15 of them identified primarily as male/man.

As I pointed out in the last post, I can't extrapolate too much using these results. This wasn't a random survey. People shared them among their friend networks, starting with my own. People had their own reasons for deciding to click on the link and responding, sometimes because they were already in favor of the policies and sometimes because they were firmly against them. However, I have to say I'm not surprised by the responses. At the very least, I think it points to the fact that among some communities within the larger gaming umbrella community, this is a real issue and their lived experience.

Whenever we try to have a conversation about why these things occur, the topic of "rape culture" inevitably comes up along with it the numerous misunderstandings and misinterpretations, many of them based on little more than defensiveness. So, I'd like to talk about my experiences with rape culture a bit and my understanding of it.

Those who don't really understand the phrase often like to take the words as separate items, look them up in a dictionary or rely on their own knowledge of the meanings, and try to deduce the meaning of the term from there. This makes things really difficult. Rape culture encompasses far more than a culture that promotes rape. You can exist in a rape culture and never rape or be the victim of rape.

Like many academic terms, rape culture is rather abstract and can be difficult to identify in the real world. There aren't hard and fast boundaries. Here's a definition from Transforming a Rape Culture via Rape Culture 101 on Shakesville:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

That seems really abstract to some people and I get that. Here's an extract from a recent fantasy (as in the genre) novel (not a book meant just for adults) by a mainstream and well known publisher. The woman in this scene is the trainer of the "younger" man. I say younger because while his body is relatively young, he was reborn and had lived a rather full previous life and kept all the memories from that life. So, yeah. During a previous training session, the woman had kissed him, seemingly to distract him and win the fight. We also have hints that she is unsure about her feelings for him but seems to like him. R is the male character and D is the female one.

Why did you kiss me?"

She started to answer, but R's expression turned dark and he continued, "What did you hope to gain from it?"

D fell back another step, but then came forward aggressively, dropping her blade and putting her hands on her hips. She stood barely inches from R staring at him coldly.

"You cannot be mad at me!" R insisted.

"You have shown me-- you have taught me! You have taken me to those noblemen's grand parties and shown me how to use your charms to mainpula--"

D's hand came up faster than R could react and slapped him hard across the face.

She huffed and swung around to run away, but R caught her by the shoulder and tugged her back around, throwing himself at her. And when they crashed together, he hugged her tightly. He saw the moisture in her pretty brown eyes, and kissed her.

She twisted to get away. She pulled her mouth back. But R pressed in harder and rejoined the kiss and D's tension gradually melted away, and then she was kissing him as passionately or more.

"Do you doubt me?" she asked, and she twisted suddenly, dropping them both to the floor, her atop him.

"Have you never kissed any of them? Isn't that part of the game you play?" R asked.

This is an example of rape culture on at least two levels. Obviously, it sexualizes violence. The whole thing is violent from her slapping him to him being willing to gamble on committing sexual assault. If you want to quibble with that statement, reread the passage again. He doesn't know when he kisses her whether or not she's going to be ok with this. In fact, she has given plenty of signals that she says she is not ok with it at that moment.

Secondly, even after giving all of those signals. Even after all the "not being sure," she in the end gives in. Of course she does. Because that's a frequent rape myth, that, in the end women really want it.

Once I read this passage, I had to force myself to finish reading the book and I only did that because of other commitments. It sickened me and I couldn't believe that an author who often talks about the things he won't put into his books because he's mindful of his younger audience would put this in.

The hard part for me is I've lived this. I've been held hostage in a room because I wouldn't pay a kiss a toll to be able to leave the room. I've woken up with a male friend on top of me, kissing me, because he thought I really wanted it. At a dance, I had another man take my hand and put it on his erect penis not once, but twice, even after I said no. The second time, he forcefully held it there until I could pull myself away. I've had men, dozens of them, tell me that I don't have the right to tell people not to bother me because their right to try to bed me superseded my rights as a human being to live my life and network with my professional peers.

And this life imitating art imitating life reinforces that. This scene in the book, didn't need to be written this way. It didn't add anything to the story except that R is a complete idiot because after they have sex he has this realization:

He felt the fool for ever doubting this amazing halfling lass. She was playing no game for him; her feelings were honest.

*facepalm*

What scares me is as I looked through the reviews for this particular book, many of them glowing, not a single person pointed this out. And that's the problem with rape culture. There's an acceptance that this is the way romance is done. That acceptance, in turn, is what allows sexual violence to happen at the high rates we see. It's why some try to differentiate between "forceable rape" and lack of consent. They don't know how consent works.

And among a portion of the people who commit harassment and assault at cons, this same lack of awareness holds true. After a well-publicized assault at a tech conference and the harassment and blame the victim received when she came forward, O'Reilly decided to look into the problem at their conferences. They noticed that among the people they found had done these things, had even admitted to doing them, a large percentage of them had no idea what they were doing was wrong. No one had ever questioned this behavior around them. Nothing they read had ever caused them to question it either.

That's why we need more stories like Saga, Sex Criminals, and Rat Queens. Take these panels from Sex Criminals #1:

Enthusiastic Consent - Sex Criminals © Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. & Chip ZdarskyEnthusiastic Consent - Sex Criminals © Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. & Chip Zdarsky

Checking In - Sex Criminals © Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. & Chip ZdarskyChecking In - Sex Criminals © Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. & Chip Zdarsky

In the first panel, the male character checks in to make sure everything is still good with the woman. She gives her enthusiastic consent. I find that pretty awesome. In the second, they are about to do something they haven't done before. He again checks in. Super sexy!

In this panel in Saga, two of the main characters are having a disagreement.

Going Off Script - © Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona StaplesGoing Off Script - © Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

As couples often do, Alana tries to us sex to distract. Marko breaks our typical narrative by pointing this out and turning it down and continuing to work through their issues.

Why do we need more of these? Because we use all of these ideas, regardless of their source, to figure out our own ways of interacting with the world, especially at a con. Think about how many times you've repeated a line from a movie or book that you thought was freaking awesome and smooth. Now think about the number of lines that follow the "silence is sexy" script rather than the enthusiastic consent one? That doesn't mean no character can ever be the former, but it would be nice if the work was self-aware about it.

I've only scratched the surface on this one, I know. But I'd like to ask you to consider how at a con centered around a genre, the way that genre presents and deals with romance and sex might have an impact on how the people act at that conference. Let's create some fantasy characters we can actually aspire towards when it comes to sex and sexuality.

Con Harassment: Survey Results

Back in August, I asked people to complete a non-scientific survey on their experiences with harassment at conventions and conferences. Since I go to both gaming conventions and tech conferences and personally feel there are a lot of overlaps with the issues, I didn't restrict this to one community or the other. I also knew that given my history and the people likely to hear of it, there was a good chance of there being a polarizing response. But I thought it still might be useful nonetheless.

By the time I pulled the answers on August 8th, I had 319 people respond to the 10 questions. I put seven of those questions into an infographic. All of the questions along with the responses can be found in this spreadsheet.

I had expected this to be at least slightly polarizing however I actually didn't get more than a few responses that seemed more intent at attacking me than discussing the issue. I also think the data shows some interesting information for the group who responded. For the respondents, anti-harassment policies were important or very important (228 out of 319 responded this way) and since 229 of the respondents identify "male/man" as their primary gender, this isn't just a gender issue. Of the respondents, 64 out of 210 experienced something that made them wish there was an anti-harassment policy in place. That's 20% of the respondents. Fifteen percent felt something happened to them personally, either harassment or assault. Finally, fewer than half of the people responded that they have never witnessed or been the target of unacceptable behavior to the question about reporting unacceptable behavior to con staff. Of those who did report, 72 percent found the response from the convention acceptable at least some of the time, although 56% also reported it was unacceptable at times and 18 percent didn't have the data to respond one way or another.

Now clearly this isn't a scientific study. I didn't do a random sample of all con goers, I advertised this using my social networks which means that it's likely to be polarized. Many of the people who read what I write care about this issue in an affirmative manner, they would like to see more anti-harassment policies at conventions, and a few will be very against them. This mixing of groups is evident in the freeform responses to the question, "Do you have any questions about anti-harassment policies at cons?" Here are some of the responses:

  • Is there any evidence, other than ancecdotal, of draconian anti-harassment policies actually ever existing?
  • Has there ever been a problem with having one that not having one would have prevented/stopped?
  • Only "Why would any con choose to not have an anti-harassment policy?"
  • Why don't all cons have anti-harassment policies?
  • I find objections to anti-harassment policies on "free speech" grounds to be dishonest and loathesome. This is not a question, but I wanted to say it anyway.
  • I want to know why cons are hesitant to implement them
  • Are they really required? http://sushee.no-ip.org/opensourceisnotawarzone.txt
  • Shouldn't you start suing these conventions until they shut down?
  • Why won't organizers protect fans? I can't think of a good reason
  • How do you ensure the accused is treated fairly? They're expecting to enjoy their time at the Con too
  • Jesus, stop trying to make a story where there ISN'T one.
  • Why are they not as plentiful as the "soap is your friend" snarks in con policies?
  • Why doesn't evey con already have one?
  • No. Why are you creating a new class of victims? That's so American....
  • I think harassment should be handled by law-enforcement, not con staff .

So what does this mean to me? Well, I think it says that in some groups, a significant number of people have personally witnessed or experienced harassing and/or assaulting behavior and that a significant number of people would like to see cons do something about those who are perpetrating these offenses. I think there's also a small, but vocal community of people who are dead set against anything that might address these problems. In the end, I hope this points to the need for better and more widely distributed surveys, perhaps with the backing of some conventions.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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