Game: Common Ground 1
Publisher: Bard’s Productions
Review Dated: 2nd, July 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 4/10 [ Just shy of the mark ]
Total Score: 4
Average Score: 4.00
Common Ground may be the first book to come from Bard’s Productions but it’s not the first RPG offering I’ve read from them. Earlier this year work from Bard’s Productions appeared in Gaming Frontiers and it was rather good. Common Ground starts on good ground; on the premise that the players do something unexpected and the GM faces the task of quickly throwing together a temple, merchant’s store or inn on the fly. Common Ground is 32 pages of gloss and colour; but the colour is restricted to some tiny thumbnail style maps in the centre of the booklet, the glossy pages and covers are flimsy and the last bunch of pages are taken up with rather similar worksheets (one for inns, one for stores and one for temples) and even a full page advert for a forthcoming product.
Since I’d come to expect top quality writing from Bard’s Productions I was prepared to put the book’s (or booklet, perhaps) shaky start aside and concentrate on the core contents; after all, I do like the core concept.
The design of the quick generation templates covers tiny, small or medium inns, stores or temples. I like the way the book quickly points out which size of location would be suitable for locations of differing populations. If you want to know just how many people a hamlet needs before it’s a village then it’s also useful. I’m not sure why the guide stops at the medium size though. The way the information is succinctly presented means that it would have been easy enough to include the stat summaries for clerics, merchants and commoners of higher levels than those actually included. It would require a few paragraphs more of text but that space would easily be available if the next to useless colour floor plans in the middle of the book where taken out or the record sheets morphed into one.
Why do I think the colour floor plans in the middle of the book are next to useless? They’re too small to be used as floor plans, although I suppose the staple binding of the book makes them easy to remove and they don’t really serve to provide the GM with very much. If you’re winging an inn on the fly how likely is it to suddenly matter whether the tables in the main room are half a hex from the south wall? I’ve decided that the red circles that I thought where tables when I first glanced at the miniature maps are actually rugs.
The sample NPCs are far more useful for the GM. These are the NPCs that will quickly be generated from the stat blocks attached to each of the inn, temple and store templates. These blocks include a list of possible names for these NPCs as well as basic stats and are divided up into level based categories. Having a list of name suggestions nearby is just the sort of thing a GM needs when whisking up an inn out of nowhere and is just the sort of thing I hoped to find in Common Ground. Dividing the stat blocks up by level means that the GM can take one NPC from category A for the cleric at a small roadside altar or two NPCs from category A for assistants and one from category E for a head cleric for a medium sized temple. This system has merit; if I had to vote Yes or No when put on the spot then I’d vote for it. Mind you, I dither on some points; if you’re winging a church on the fly and your PCs are talking to the head cleric then do you care how many assistants there might be elsewhere in the church?
I’ve used the church in this example but the very same sets of rules are repeated both for inns and merchant’s stores – the names and stats changing as required.
There are some other useful bits of rules tucked away in the book. There’s an easy to generate price range for working out the availability of equipment from stores in rich or poor, little or large, locations. There are summary effects for clerical domains on churches and although basing the index on alignment does tend towards stereotypical encounters it is probably a wise idea given that the GM is supposed to be creating the church as quickly as possible.
Does Common Ground actually allow the GM to quickly generate a church, inn or merchant store? I suppose so – but not quickly enough, not if you follow all the steps suggested by the book. Bard’s Productions website says it’ll take less than 5 minutes. That’s too long, the GM will still need to suggest a coffee break or draw out the first step of the encounter by suggesting (for example) that there’s a strange carving on the church/inn/store’s front door and then madly scribble behind his GM screen while the characters inevitably pause to examine the carving. I think Common Ground would have benefited from including some suggestions on delaying tactics like that. The website also gives you access to downloadable copies of the quick reference sheets too and that’s an undeniable bonus.
I think Common Ground will appeal most to novice GMs who just want to get a look at how a more experienced GM might think about quickly generating a location for his players. I suspect even the notice will tinker with the core suggestions in the book and I suppose that’ll help them learn the system too. If you’re not a novice GM, if you’re a Level 3 GM say, or unless you’re one of those people who really like to have access to this sort of quick list generation systems then I doubt you’ll find more than snatches of insight from Common Ground.