Sunday, August 16, 2020

LOTFP Review: Fermentum Nigrum Dei Sepulti

 

A strange stone, tumbling through the void of endless space and into the secret history of the world… the cursed legacy of a doomed witch’s family… a terrified abbot whose desperate plea has gone ignored by Rome… a vile conspiracy of whispers, visions, and delusions among drunken, stumbling brothers… and a black secret, black as the bubbling foam that gushes forth from the ale-barrels and the corpses of the fallen alike…

That's the evocative blurb from the dust jacket on LOTFP's recent book, Fermentum Nigrum Dei Sepulti (Black Yeast of the Buried God).  The adventure is site-based, and kicks off when the adventurers are staying at the inn near the monastery; an overnight massacre happens within the monastery walls as the monks devolve into armed conflict with each other, and fires break out in several buildings.  As the adventurers respond to the chaos, they get drawn into an unfolding horror, which ultimately leads them into exploring the catacombs beneath the monastery.  I should warn you, like any review there's the risk of spoilers if you are a player.

Fermentum is written by Gord Sellars, supported by some recognizable names on Team Raggi (Alex Mayo, Jacob Hurst, and Gonzalo Aeneas as the artist).  Like every LOTFP book I own, it's A5 sized, and the production values of Fermentum as an artifact are impressive.  It has a textured, foil cover (although it does look like on my purchased copy, the foiling didn't reach the bottom cover text.  Jim!).  The pages are heavy weight and feel good to touch, the spine is stitched, the layouts and text are all well done.  I look with dismay at my shelf of falling apart 5E books, broken spines and pages falling out, and wonder why a small publisher in Finland can figure this out but Hasbro's quality is trash?  These LOTFP books are meant to last.  Naturally, they are a little pricier than disposable mass published books.

Here's a view with the layout, art, and feel of the text.

I'd never heard of Gord Sellars; the wise Google indicates he is a professional writer and teacher, not a professional RPG author.  As such, he makes different choices than what you'd see in a traditional dungeon crawl.  (There have been a few cases where Jim Raggi went with non-traditional RPG writers for his books, they don't always work out, but Gord has done a great job with Fermentum).  There's a cinematic quality to the adventuring party exploring the devastated monastery, walking in the wake of the carnage, as the knowledge they gain ratchets the tension like a horror movie plot.  Furthermore, as the adventurers reveal the secrets of the monastery, they become embroiled in the mystery themselves - they become infected.  The central twist is the monastery is the site of an alien infection, and as the players piece together the horror that befell the monks, they risk falling victim themselves.  It's a spectacular premise for a horror story, and works equally well here in a site-based exploration adventure.  Incidentally, the monastery locale covers about 50-60 keyed areas (the above ground monastery and underground catacombs), some new monsters (the Garünger), a rival adventuring party, a couple of unique magic items, including a cursed grimoire, and new rules for managing the rising infection afflicting the characters.

I was intrigued by Fermentum because it revolves around a Medieval monastery, with brewing monks and a nearby tavern - the kind of locale you should be able to drop unobtrusively into almost any fantasy campaign (and certainly the early Medieval home brew, pun intended, I've been building out for myself).  LOTFP's adventures frequently take place in a pseudo-historical early 17th century milieu, but you could easily change place names and religious institutions to reskin this for a standard fantasy realm.  Furthermore, the monastery and nearby inn make an excellent locale to put into your sandbox early in a campaign, so it's a well-known and safe stopping point for your players.  This would create even more contrast with the terror during the night the monastery falls.

The book is written for the LOTFP rules.  It's been a while since we talked about them much here, since I've been running the 5E for my gang, but LOTFP is basically a customization of the old BX 1980's rules with stylistic updates.  You could run Fermentum with BX or similar old school rules sets.  In LOTFP, the spell lists are curated so magic is less flashy than core D&D (no fireballs or lightning bolts or raise dead).  It has a solid d6 skill system, an improved thief (the specialist), and strong niches for the core classes and demi-humans.  Stylistically, the LOTFP rules assume a setting like early modern earth, with a silver coin standard, and equipment you'd find in the 16th or 17th centuries, including simple one-shot firearms.  There's definitely a market niche for class-based adventuring rules (D&D style) but using adventures that deliver into horror and weirdness, borrowing from the Call of Cthulhu color palette.  LOTFP fits that niche well and this is an adventure that hits the right notes of D&D style exploration, lots of opportunities for roleplaying and combat, and mounting dread.

If you can't tell, I enjoyed the book a lot and look forward to running it.  This is a great little horror-themed exploration and dungeon crawl, with escalating tension as the players hope to discover a resolution while facing rising infection and loss.  The beer and brewing theme is fantastic, and I can imagine unnerving the players with Guinesses or stouts all around as we sit down to play this one (except maybe sodas for the kids).  Cheers!  Salut!  (It's available here at the LOTFP web store).


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

What Are Your Favorite Blog Posts?

I am not a particularly deep thinker; my gaming is more about applied science rather than theoretical science.  But there have been many deep thinkers in the blogosphere through the years, and I've sopped up ideas like a sponge and made them part of how I run games.  My best games are the product of inherited wisdom.

When I was thinking last week about participation in the OSR blogosphere, I couldn't help but remember posts that had a lasting impact on my ref style.  Here are a few that come readily to mind, although this list is only scratching the surface.  If you have your own favorites (and wouldn't mind linking in the comments) I'd be greatly appreciative.  There are tons of D&D blogs, and I personally only see or read a narrow subset.

Back in the early days of the OSR, Grognardia was massively influential, and James Mal frequently posted multiple times per day!  We embraced randomness as we returned to old school gaming, and it's been an important part of my make up ever since - random tables for encounters and content creation, sure, but it's just as important for things like reaction rolls and morale checks (which modern games have mostly left behind).  Give yourself the chance, as referee, to be just as surprised at the direction your game goes as the players by allowing ill fortune or serendipity to intervene.  Plus a little randomness lets you flex your improv muscles.

Back to Grognardia, I'm fairly sure that blog coined the phrase "Gygaxian Naturalism" - the idea that random tables becomes a short hand descriptor of the game world in the "show don't tell" vein.  Furthermore, if those monster listings also contain randomization (number appearing, and percentages of also appearing) you begin to create a deeper picture of the world through tables.  I'm firmly in the camp that random tables for encounters help put the world in motion and support the simulation of a fantasy world.

In the early days of LOTFP, James Raggi was a prolific blogger.  A lot of it was promotional but there are thoughtful essays here and there; discussions of the "Weird" and using horror in D&D, for instance, and "I Hate Fun" - a polemic against modern D&D's predilection for putting the game on easy mode (and this was in 2008 !!  Long before the elimination of Save or Die effects and massive healing).  D&D is a casual beer and pretzels game for the majority, but that doesn't mean *you* can't run your game to challenge your players.  My players are firmly in the modern camp of "winning is fun" but even they'll admin prevailing against challenges with real consequences is the best.

Rogues in the Sandbox
Long before the Zakpocalypse, you could find jewels over on PDNDWPS.  The one I remember is the idea that super heroes are reactive, defenders of the status quo, like firemen in the station waiting for an alarm to go off.  The villains are the ones that initiate action and make plans; they make the first move; they upset the status quo.  In fantasy gaming, this has implications for your open world sandbox game.  Are your players Conan-like scoundrels willing to plan capers?  Or are they more like the police and firemen that want the local lord or patron to dole out missions smiting malefactors?  I always thought this conceit did a good job of illuminating why some groups are better off doing guided adventure paths and not sandboxes.  One thing I carried forward from 4E was the "points of light" setting concept, because it imagines a world that's almost entirely hostile surrounding small islands of civilization - allowing your sandbox to potentially appeal to scoundrels and do-rights alike,

This wasn't exactly a blog post, I believe it first showed up on En World.  For the combat as sport crowd, the encounters in the game are the end in themselves, and players in that style of game want a good, balanced fight between their characters and the monsters, highlighting the way their clever tactics and play skill lets them win during combat.  For the combat as war crowd, encounters are obstacles to their real goals; they see a balanced encounter as a strategic failure; proper play is about tilting the battle field so the odds heavily favor your side.  Good game play is about creating a plan so you never have to fight a balanced encounter, and can get on to the real goals with resources intact.

Matt's quick primer for old school games is a free PDF over on Lulu.com, but I encountered it through lots of blogs.  Although it's called "the old school primer", I'd say most of it could just be called "good game mastering advice".  It's about making your games interactive and not dice-rolling bore fests.  Things like challenging the players, not their character abilities, and advice on narrating the game so it's evocative and descriptive and engaging.  It's solid gold for referees.  The primer holds up well across editions (except maybe the advice of keeping the game heroic, not super heroic... both 4E and 5E eschewed gritty "zero to hero" starting points for player characters.  Otherwise it all applies just fine for 5E.)

I've clearly landed firmly in the camp of "no dice fudging" but can't remember any landmark posts laying out an iron clad argument.  For me it comes down to integrity and unforeseen results are the most interesting; if that means my dice are on a cold streak and the monsters get smoked one night, good for the players; if the dice are on fire and they can't catch a break, well you need nights like that too, to appreciate when you actually have good fortune.

I've also stayed committed to resource management.  Much like the combat as war crowd, where the planning is the game, so it is with managing resources.  Not exactly "OSR-era", but here's a cool post I came across recently that had an insightful twist on the resource sub-game:  If Your Torches Burn for only One Hour your NPCs will be More Important.  Dealing with logistics forces the players to engage with the game setting - visiting towns, villages, markets, and worrying about henchman, hirelings, and ordinary people.  I felt it.  Looking through this new lens, I think this is why I love the domain game in old school play so much; it forces engagement with the game world because the players have to interact like fellow citizens of the fantasy realm, and not just unconstrained super powered tourists.

That's enough for this time.  As requested, would love to hear some of your favorites.  What's the saying, when you talk (or blog) you're only sharing stuff you already know, but when you listen (or read other people's stuff...) you get the chance to learn.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Reflections on the OSR

The recent chatter in my spheres regarding Lamentations of the Flame Princess has me reflecting on the OSR movement and its lasting impacts.  Outside of the blogosphere the OSR seems to have a poor reputation on the larger discussion sites these days.  Fifth Edition is a game industry force of nature, bringing lots of new gamers and occasionally breaking the surface of main stream media.  5E books are regularly best sellers on Amazon (not game industry best sellers, but overall best sellers).  Just based on new players, growth, and movement in the gaming hobby, why couldn't there be a second flourishing of the OSR as newer gamers pick up 5E and eventually explore the hobby's roots?

My journey towards the OSR starts with one of my players, late 00's (maybe 2008), metaphorically flipping our game table over, dice going everywhere, papers and pencils flying, as he storms out in a huff.  We were experimenting with 4th Edition at the time, and this one player, Kaus had enough of it.  "Why are we wasting time with this pre-planned balanced encounter bullshit?  I just want to wander the world!  Whatever happened to 1st Edition where you could go anywhere, roll up random shit on random tables, and maybe get an awesome random treasure?  This whole game is bullshit!"

These days I remember Kaus's mad moment as if he was the Comedian from the Watchmen (from the 80's graphic novel.  There's a scene where the vigilantes, calling themselves the Crimebusters, are huddled in a room, planning their street-level patrols to 'fight crime' and stand up for justice.  Comedian calls them all morons and lights their map on fire, telling them none of these efforts matter because "inside of 30 years, the nukes are going to be flying like may-flies".  As he stomps out, he tells their thinker, Ozymandias, he's going to be "the smartest man on the cinder".  Sometimes we need a Comedian to burn our plans to the ground and get some clarity on the big picture.

That was my departure point for the journey back to earlier editions of the game.  We dusted off Moldvay BX and 1st Edition, and I started to see how places like Dragonsfoot or Knights and Knaves Alehouse still had active communities centered around older games.  A lot of people just never stopped.  I saw how the OGL (a 3rd edition open games license) allowed the creation of simulacrum rules sets, like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord (clones of 1E AD&D and Classic D&D respectively).  I discovered the OSR blogosphere, started reading influential voices of the time like Grognardia, and ultimately decided to start my own blog as well (this was 2010).

When I look back at the period in the OSR and what it meant to me, I view it broadly through 3 lenses - a literary book club, a symposium on game theory, and a crucible for do-it-yourself (DIY) products.

OSR as Literary Book Club
Dungeons & Dragons drew heavy inspiration from the fantasy novels of the 50's, 60's, and early 70's.  An important element of the OSR movement was a rediscovery of the game's origins and roots - a re-evaluation of the roles of Gygax and Arneson in the inception, tracing the evolution of the publishing history, and analyzing styles of play.  An off-shoot of this re-examination was a desire to read the Appendix N books identified in the 1E DMG (Gary's list of inspiration) supplemented by Moldvay's list in the 1981 red box, and tracing source literature's impact on the game - classes, monsters, spells, that kind of stuff.  I loved that the OSR included a community of like-minded book readers exploring not just the Appendix N literature, but related authors.  I greatly enjoyed Poul Anderson, Leiber's Lankhmar books, Zelazny, the Lovecraft Circle (Lovecraft, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith), Vance, Lord Dunsany, Moorcock, AA Merritt, and De Camp and Pratt's "Compleat Enchanter" series.  That's a heady group of fantasy authors!  I also got introduced to great adjacent authors, like ER Edison's "The Worm Ouroboros", Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast", and modern fantasy authors like China Mieville.

What a big contrast to the contours of the modern tabletop community.  Granted, COVID has most people playing online, but computers were already taking a prominent role in the hobby - virtual table tops, computer RPGs, and the rise of celebrity Twitch streaming and celebrity gamers.  Modern D&D has embraced a high magic, fast moving, cinematic, over-the-top action style and moved pretty far from the literary roots.

OSR:  Rediscovering a Past that Never Was
In the intervening 30-35 years since D&D's creation, an entire language around game theory and analyzing what was transpiring at the table-top emerged to facilitate discussion.  It was only natural that a throughline of the OSR was to apply more current understanding of game theories to the older play styles to identify how and why they worked so well.  I called this "a past that never was" because we (OSR folks) sometimes assumed our preferred styles were the only way (or best way) to play the game, when in reality the publishing history shows there was a lot of experimentation.  But overall the OSR collective aligned around the premise that the best game styles were exploration-based games (hex crawls and dungeons), and this matched up well with game theory.  The hex crawl and the dungeon were the platonic ideals of the old school style adventure.

This "OSR as game theorists" element of the online community helped me articulate why 4E failed for us.  Older games relied heavily on procedurally generated content (random tables) that helped the referee run a dynamic setting in real time; random content is also a vehicle for communicating knowledge about the game world without all the exposition.  Experience points and the class/level system are strong default motivators, beyond the game narrative.  Agency theory of play, sandboxes vs paths, dice integrity, emergent story vs planned story, all of this helped us characterize the strengths of exploration settings.  Lots of great insights came out of that time period.

OSR:  A Forge for Products
The first waves of OGL retroclones were focused on trying to be faithful copies of the original games, with modest improvements.  The succeeding waves began to re-envision old school games and adjusted them to fit a different aesthetic.  The two rules sets I spent the most time with were Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LOTFP), a version of BX with strong class niches, a solid skill system, lower powered magic, and a weird horror aesthetic; the other was Adventurer Conquer King (ACKS), another BX clone that really leaned into the economic and domain building side of campaigning.  However, I mainly remember the OSR of that period for the adventures.  I loved the early LOTFP products (see last post here), and ran several memorable LOTFP campaigns.  There were also several published megadungeons from the period we enjoyed:  Dwimmermount, Barrowmaze, and Stonehell, come easily to mind, I'm sure there were more.  We ran an ACKS Dwimmermount megadungeon campaign for quite some time with all the neighborhood kids - great fun.

***

As a mostly 5E referee these days, I do miss running the OSR rules sets, and we've been trying to get 5E to play like an older game.  5E is mostly good!  I bang my head against the power level of the characters (and of course that's the player's favorite thing, to be powerful), but I'm not ready to go "Kaus the Comedian" on our 5E games (yet). I prefer how the lower-powered characters in OSR rule sets feel more literary and grounded.

Perhaps the most lasting impact the OSR has had on 5E, beyond pulling the rules towards simpler core mechanics, is the way the 5E fan base has embraced the DIY publishing ethos.  There's a not insignificant amount of DIY game content for 5E either being published through the OGL (and showing up on DriveThruRPG) or following the WOTC guidelines to land on the DM's Guild - and the very existence of the DM's Guild, WOTC's proprietary DIY channel, seems like a result of hobbyist pressures.  However, other than some offerings by major third party publishers, I haven't seen anything in the DIY 5E space that rivals the iconic publications of the OSR DIY space.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Rally for the Flame Princess




Apparently my LOTFP book collection was not small

James and the Lamentations of the Flame Princess line (LOTFP) are in business trouble.  He recently announced some new products but at the bottom of the post (here) walked through the company's financial woes.  LOTFP has been a lightning rod for gamer controversy the past few years, but I'd hate to see them go under, particularly with COVID and convention cancellations being the last straw.  Some of my group's best campaigns have been with LOTFP rules.

My first campaign here was called "Gothic Greyhawk" and some of the earliest blog posts from 2010 kick off that setting.  It took place in Greyhawk's Sterich, re-envisioned like Eastern Europe with the valley of Barovia (Ravenloft) nestled in the mountains nearby.  While the campaign eventually lead to Strahd, the early going was a greatest hits collection of LOTFP's early stuff - Tower of the Stargazer, The Grinding Gear, Death Frost Doom, and Hammers of the God.  I can't recommend that particular quartet of adventures enough; they take standard fantasy adventure tropes and subvert them with a heavy dose of weird or horror or both.  They are adventure gold.

We would go on to run my Black City megadungeon campaign with LOTFP rules as well; the Black City put the players into the role of Viking explorers, plundering a frozen alien ruin on an island near the Arctic circle.  Life happened, and we never finished the lower levels of the Black City (so I never finished that particular campaign) but people greatly enjoyed the write ups.

After those campaigns I parted ways with running LOTFP for a bit.  We ran Dwimmermount using the ACKS rules, while LOTFP pivoted towards producing materials heavily rooted in 17th century Europe.  James should have stuck with subverting traditional fantasy tropes with the Weird, it cast a much wider net for an audience.  Anyone running a fantasy campaign could drop the four adventures I called out above into their campaign and it would become instantly better, or something like Broodmother Sky Fortress by Jeff Rients.  If Goodman Games can profitably make mediocre 5E updates of classic adventures (I'm looking at you, "Original Adventures Reincarnated") there's definitely space for someone like LOTFP to take classic tropes and infuse them with dread and horror.

It's sad to hear about the recent struggles with the company.  I've never had print copies of a few of the classics, so I'm going to pick up his Adventure Anthology: Blood to round out my print collection.  That's ultimately what motivated to make a post about the publisher; if this really is the swan song for LOTFP, there are some good books to snag before the bow of the ship sinks beneath the waves forever (and if enough people also get that book they wanted before the going-out-of-business sale, maybe there's no going-out-of-business sale at all, yes).  Unfortunately, to get print copies of the adventures identified above, you'd need Adventure Anthologies Blood and Fire and the standalone Death Frost Doom.  LOTFP is not cheap but the hard covers are extremely well done, with stitched bindings and quality print production.  By contrast take a look at this picture of my crappy 5E Monster Manual with the pages falling out (my player's handbooks are right behind it in terms of binding "quality" and several adventures have followed suit).  It's a wonder any of the WOTC books have held up to even light use.

pages falling out of the Monster Manual

(Just an aside, my collection of 1E AD&D hard covers have held up extremely well for 40+ years, just showing that at one point, TSR/WOTC did know how to publish quality books, built to last.  5E book quality is a disaster - I've wondered if they make them poorly so you have to replace them every few years.)

Writing this post, I realized I have a ton of LOTFP stuff on the game shelf.  In recent years I've limited myself to getting a few PDFs here or there because my group hasn't been drawn to the whole 17th century campaign thing (and if we did, it would have to be pirates, definitely pirates).  Good luck LOTFP, hope you make it through.  We've had a lot of fun with your books through the years.



Thursday, July 16, 2020

Setbacks in the Tomb of Annihilation

We're a year into our Tomb of Annihilation campaign, and the players are closing in on the final level of the actual Tomb of Annihilation (after previously exploring the jungles of Chult as a hexcrawl, and the ruins of the Forbidden City).  Past installments of the campaign reports are here (Tomb of Annihilation recaps).

Last update involved character deaths at the hands of a Beholder.  The Tomb isn't done with our heroes, and there is more death in today's update.  This update covers sessions 40 through 46 of the campaign, in which the intrepid characters plumb the level 4 "Chambers of Horror" and the level 5 "Gears of Hate".

First, some new faces appeared to replace the fallen.  Emporo was petrified by the Beholder (and ultimately disintegrated) and Reed the Halfing was also disintegrated.  Their respective players returned to the game with Vera, an inquisitive rogue, and Zook, a gnome trickster (rogue arcane trickster).  Vera in particular proved to be a godsend in the Tomb of Annihilation, with a ridiculous +12 or +13 perception score; her passive perception is high enough to notice most secret doors.  I let them start new characters at 9th level, the suggested minimum for the Tomb.  This rounds out our group, which includes survivors - Stompy (dwarf forge cleric), Osric (aasimar hexblade warlock), Woodson (aasimar sorcerer / celestial warlock), and Prisim (human evoker wizard).  By the end of these vignettes, most of the group is 10th and 11th level.

Rather than recount a dreary play-by-play of every session, here are recollections of some high and low points from the past two months.

Can I Get a Hand Here?
A section on level 4, Chambers of Horror, includes a maze of death.  To enter the maze, you raise your hand and mirror an otherworldly shadow figure etched on a stone block.  The block descends allowing passage into the maze.  When the trap at the heart of the maze triggers, the block raises and the party is sealed in.  The malign figure on the reverse side of the stone block also shows a raised arm, except the hand and forearm are missing.  Who would be willing to maim themself to mirror the figure on the block?

I'm getting ahead of myself.  First the party discovered the Opal Crown, a rare treasure at the heart of the maze.  The trap was sprung, and a pair of Bodaks slithered out of the mouth of a Green Devil Face, playing cat and mouse with the characters in the maze, allowing their death auras to whittle the party down at range.  Everyone avoided their deadly gazes and the Bodaks were destroyed.  It was at that point they discovered they were completely trapped.

The mouth of the Green Devil Face was a black void; they experimented and learned it acted like a Sphere of Annihilation.  Forlorn there was no other choice, Prisim volunteered to thrust his arm into the mouth, disintegrating it above the elbow and forcing them to bandage the stump.  Now he was able to mimic the figure on the stone block, maimed arm and all, and the block retreated, allowing the party to escape.

He's now the One-Armed Prisim.  No one escapes Acererak's Tomb unscathed.

The Saga of Woodson
In order to understand Woodson's plight, you need to know a bit about the 9 Trickster Gods.  They were 9 "false gods", actually just powerful jungle spirits, that masqueraded as gods to the citizens of Omu during its twilight years, before it fell and became the Forbidden City.  Each trickster is associated with a specific alignment and a totem animal.  They were slain by Acererak and imprisoned in his Tomb of Annihilation.

Each trickster's spirit inhabits a signature magic item where it lies imprisoned in the dungeon.  Picking up the magic item gives the spirit an opportunity to possess the person touching the item.  Once inside, the spirits coax their host into certain actions, and grant special abilities.  If a host touches another possessed item, the two tricksters fight for supremacy over the host.  Over the course of the campaign, all of the characters have managed to become hosts, in some cases gaining amazing abilities and acting symbiotically with their trickster spirit.  In other cases the alignments of spirit vs character are opposed; several of the good characters have been hosting evil spirits and treating their minds like a prison, suppressing the spirit's urges with grim resolve.  The trickster mechanic has been great for roleplaying opportunities.

Woodson had spent 9 months as a nervous, asthmatic, scholarly sorcerer lurking timidly in the back of the party.  He accidentally became the host to the bold and courageous spirit of Kubazan, whose totem animal is the mighty Froghemoth.  Now puny Woodson has strength 23, strong as a frost giant, and he leaps into the fray, "Get out of my way, weaklings".  "Let me get that door for you".  "Lift the heavy portcullis?  Don't mind if I do".  The other players have been calling him "the Hulkson".  To top it off, he gained a temporary charm that made him immune to sharp weapons for several days.

After traversing a dangerous elemental gauntlet and almost dying in a vacuum, Hulkson was teleported into a burial chamber where dozens of terracotta warrior statues silently observed a central tomb.  Pottery shards littered the floor.  Hulkson doesn't do stealth, nor any quiet magic.  You can picture him trying to take a careful step but crunching down on pottery shards, the noise echoing in the hollow chamber.  50 clay warriors came to life and assaulted him with hardened clay swords.  They should have massacred him.

Imagine Hulkson's glee to discover his charm made him impervious to their weapons.  Programmed only to attack and strike, the clay warriors swung with increasing futility while growing mounds of broken pottery shards piled up around Hulkson.  The scene ends with him practically moon-walking to the center of the tomb after wrecking everything in the room.  "That was awesome", remarked the other players.

Sometime after looting that particular tomb, the players were feeling their oats and yearned to revisit the Beholder on level 3 that dealt them such a great setback a few months ago.  They prepared methods to detect invisible monsters, as well as ways to alert them to the anti-magic field.  Osric now had True Seeing, too.  The Beholder would not bedevil them with its invisibility this time.  They also ditched their metal armors; it's giant magnetic ball wouldn't nullify their frontline fighters, either.

The battle was one-sided and quick.  The party slaughtered the Beholder in just a few rounds.  (What a difference a few levels of experience and a cohesive plan made!).  One of the treasures the Beholder claimed off the dead characters last time was the staff of Moa, the item of a trickster god.  The instant the fight was over, Hulkson's player called out, "Woohoo, I'm grabbing my staff of Moa again!"  (We all have a player like that, right?  I grab the magic sword before anyone else can react).  The problem is that Hulkson forgot that the Moa staff was actually inhabited by the spirit of Moa.  The hulking sorcerer thrust it into the air above his head, and then reacted in horror as the two trickster gods began to battle for supremacy.  Kubazan was driven out, and with it, the gift of frost giant strength was completely gone.  Hulkson was no more.  Wheezing 8 strength Woodson was left in his place.

Furthermore, Kubazan's receptacle was destroyed, disintegrated by the Beholder.  After being ejected from Woodson, the spirit had no place to return, and wailed as it went into the void.

Woodson's story eventually turns happy again.  He was able to coax the spirit of Shagambi to drive out Moa.  Shagambi grants an extra attack action, and with Woodson's ability to cast 3 eldritch bolts per attack (as level 11) this has become 6 bolts an attack with Shagambi's help.  He's gone from Woodson to Hulkson to the Machine Gun-son.  Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

(5E is a little nutty, more like a super hero game much of the time.  Dungeons and Vigilantes, or Villains and Dragons, one of my players calls it).

Mission Possible
The next level, Gears of Hate, has a very challenging layout.  Several of the rooms are pentagons with limited ways in and out.  However, the players noticed some of the hallways between the rooms have gaps in the sections, as if they were modular tunnels.  The players caught glimpses into a larger cavern outside the tunnel junctions where they didn't align perfectly.  They squeezed a familiar through the gap and into the surrounding cavern to fly around.  The pentagon rooms were sitting on giant gears, apparently floating on an underground lake in a vast cavern.  The lake stank of putrid slime, it's viscous water twinkling with strange phosphorescent globs.  From above, using the familiar as eyes, the party was able to see that there were other tunnel connections around the lake.  If the gears beneath the pentagons could be rotated, the rooms would re-align and grant access to new places on the dungeon level.  Eventually the players would find the control room, and through trial and error, begin to gain access to these unavailable tunnels by learning how to manipulate the position of the gears.


One of the more dangerous locations they discovered involved a long sloping hallway.  At the high end of the hall, a rolling Stone Juggernaut lurked behind a concealed wall.  Of course the players triggered the trap that released the rolling construct and got promptly flattened, although a few made it out into the side passage before being crushed.  Vera was able to roll aside as the juggernaut rolled past, and quickly looked up the slope where the juggernaut had been lurking.  A glorious spectacular jewel gleamed on a shelf in the juggernaut's hiding place. 

Vera sprinted to the top of the slope as the juggernaut rolled back into position, swiping the jewel, and then climbed up and out of reach before the juggernaut got her.  It was a cool bit of maneuvering, and earned the party the fabled Eye of Zaltec jewel.

Death of a Hero
One of the new areas they were able to reach after rotating the "gears of hate" was a trap room with a golden mastodon.  The room was an homage to a Chultan hero who had harried Hell itself.  When the trap was triggered, the room sealed shut, hellfire raced across the floor, and the players were assaulted by escalating waves of devils - starting with spiny devils, then bearded and barbed.  The fight started to feel desperate when a pair of horned devils joined the fray, topped off by the Erinyes.

Several of the characters discovered they could fight from the back of the giant mastodon statue, and avoid the hellfire on the floor.  Stompy, the cleric, had a gift (from his trickster god) that let him walk on walls and ceilings; he cast an aura spell called "Spirit Guardians" to damage the devils, and one of the wizard characters made him invisible so the devils couldn't disrupt his concentration.  In this way, he could wander the walls invisibly, positioning himself above the hellfire, while inflicting maximum damage with the spirit guardians effect.

The party was holding their own until the horned demons materialized.  They are fearsome, over-sized enforcers. the Malebranches, and the devils quickly started dropping characters to zero hit points, threatening to make them fall off the back of the mastodon and immolate in the surging hellfire on the ground.  Other characters would use their reactions to grab their fallen comrades before they slid into the flames.  Several characters were beginning to do the 5E yo-yo, dropping to zero hit points and unconsciousness, then healing and back into the fight, but the party was being ground down by the devilish onslaught.

That was when the erinyes made an offer.  "Hello boys, you're all going to die, but we could make a deal.  One of you could give up your soul, and I could call this whole thing off".  A gruff voice called out from nearby, where the invisible dwarf had positioned himself near the big devils.  "I'll do it, lassie, to save my friends".

And that's how Stompy the Dwarf died.

Full disclosure, Stompy's player, Mike, is about to move, and needs to miss the next 4 weeks of the game anyway.  It was clear we were headed for a near-TPK or full on TPK if nothing changed in the devil fight.  So he made a rational calculation; by the time he's ready to return to gaming, the Tomb of Annihilation will be done or wrapping up and we'll be off to the next thing anyway.  He sacrificed Stompy so the rest could live.

In the aftermath of the devil battle, the players took stock of the party composition without their cleric, and how they'd manage healing without their cleric.  It all seemed manageable until they considered rations.  Food and water.  Stompy had been reserving a daily Level 3 Create Food and Water to supply the party for as long as they could remember, their walking commissary.  "Exactly how many days of rations do we have left?"  One.  Without Stompy, the party has enough food for one day.  They get one more "long rest" to finish the Tomb of Annihilation, and then they begin starving.  Next week should be interesting.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Managing Your Alignments

Here's a restatement of the last post, regarding alignment and cosmology.  The position goes like this - as the modern D&D community re-evaluates the use of categorically evil humanoids, people are questioning whether the game actually needs alignment at all.  I'm not invested in using alignment at the player character or behavioral level, but alignment is hard-wired into the cosmology of the game world.  The outer planes, deities, and extra-planar races like demons, devils, angels, and more, are all predicated on cosmic conflict.  We need to account for that if we're going to tear down the old monuments.

Today's post is a survey of approaches for managing alignment.  I'll include how I like to do it these days, tackling both the player behavior question and the cosmology questions.  I prefer to minimize the behavioral aspects of alignment while preserving alignment as a cosmological factor.  I don't like adjudicating Alignment as Morality because I play D&D as a beer-and-pretzels casual game and we have better things to debate at the table.  Players are ill-equipped for ethical arguments.  What is an evil act?  Is torturing the bad guy in order to save the city okay?  Does Lawful Good mean turning in the hungry waif who stole bread to feed her starving brother?  D&D's simplified definitions are inadequate to tackle these types of questions consistently.  If no two tables can adjudicate a "rules" question the same way, it probably shouldn't be a rule.  5E has eliminated most of the punishing mechanical impacts of alignment for the player characters.

Here are some different ways I've encountered alignment through the years, plus my current preference.

Gygaxian Morality
1st Edition AD&D has detailed descriptions of the nine alignments, laying out the Law vs Chaos axis and the Good vs Evil axis, and then providing a description of the behaviors for each alignment.  The best I can say about the 9-fold alignment system from 1E AD&D is it launched the cosmology of the game, with all of the outer planes, deities, and beings tied to the different alignments, incorporating classic elements from folklore and religion.  As a tool for guiding player behavior, it's a bit of a mess.  Consider Lawful Good:

"Lawful Good creatures are convinced that order and law are absolutely necessary to assure good, and that good is best defined as whatever brings the most benefit to the greater number of decent, thinking creatures and the least woe to the rest".  Does this help us answer questions about whether torture is okay in order to save lives, or whether the waif stealing bread should be turned in to the sheriff?  If ever there was an alignment that calls for black and white rules for behavior, it'd be Lawful Good, but this definition sounds awfully utilitarian and subjective.  Furthermore, there were significant mechanical penalties in 1E for not living up to your alignment, so the answer very much matters!  Paladins would lose their status, clerics lost their spells, druids stopped being druids, and other characters could lose a character level.  Very painful.

The "Neutral" alignments drove me nuts.  Anyone that wrote down Neutral (especially Chaotic Neutral) was basically signaling, "hey I want to do horrible, evil things, but don't actually want to come out and call myself evil".  Of course players would also try the classic dodges, such as "Hey Petro the Paladin and Carl the Cleric, can you two go into the next room and start setting up a camp?  The rest of us just want a few minutes of quality time alone with our new prisoner..."

Alignment as Attitude
I prefer the BX system from the 80's as a rules set in most contexts, including alignment.  BX simplified alignment to Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic (which I believe was the original approach started back in OD&D) but also presented it more as an attitude or tendencies.  Lawful characters tend to support rules and civilization.  Chaotic characters tend to look out for themselves, act on sudden whims.

5E kept the 9-fold alignment system, from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil, but alignments are just attitudes and tendencies like BX, not moral straight-jackets with punishing mechanical penalties.  The one exception I've seen in 5E is related to paladins and oaths.  Although there are no specific alignment restrictions on Paladins, the oaths strongly signal a direction, and the game hands the referee discretion to remove a paladin's powers if they're ignoring the tenets of their oath and not seeking atonement.  It's fairly subjective, but does hearken back to the Medieval romance and literary roots of the paladin and is somewhat similar to the 1E paladin.

5E does explicitly recognize that beyond the prime material plane, alignment is a cosmic force that defines the outer planes and defines the existence of fiends and celestials.

Alignment as Ethical Philosophy
Sometime back I dropped a review of Alexander Macris's Arbiter of Worlds e-book here.  It covers a range of topics about running a tabletop game or building a campaign setting; the appendix covers alignment and describes an approach to apply classic ethical philosophies to the 9-fold system, from Kant to Mills to Nietsche.  If you're a fan of philosophy and want a system to deal with ethical problems and alignment, this is a good place to start.  For instance, Alex defines Law as rules-based (deontological ethics) whereas Chaos is consequential or utilitarian.  A Lawful paladin would never murder, under any circumstances, because murder is against their rules; the Chaotic character is willing to rationalize "the ends justify the means" and focus on the consequences or outcomes of their action (robbing from the rich is okay to a CG character but not to a LG character, for instance).  Anyway, my players would firmly be in the camp of "alignment as attitude" anyway, and not interested in getting the calls ethically correct, so this isn't an approach I'd use - but it was a super interesting read.  If you've ever seen the TV show "The Good Place", it covered similar ground regarding judging "goodness" and highlights the difficulty applying a scoring standard to behavior.

Alignment as Allegiance

One of my favorites aspects of the early OSR was the re-examination and discussion of the D&D source literature from Appendix N.  By reading Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, Moorcock's stories of Elric, and Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber, I saw where these ideas of a cosmic struggle between Law and Chaos originated.  They're well worth reading!  Plus Poul Anderson introduces the D&D style troll, the paladin, the holy sword, Chaos - if you like the origins of things, it's a must read.  In a Law vs Chaos regime, the ethical considerations of Good vs Evil are less important than being on a side - standing for Law and civilization, or Chaos and destruction.  Alignment as "picking a side in the cosmic struggle" harmonizes closest to the BX and OD&D approach of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic and the war game roots of the hobby.

How Do I Do It?
The theme I'm most concerned with is the world building aspects of alignment, and how it defines the cosmic struggle.  For a heroic fantasy game like D&D, I like the idea of powerful forces struggling in the background, whether it has immediate impact on low level play or not.  It's not about grading player behavior; if they're jerks to NPCs, for instance, I'd rather let the setting express natural consequences (or not) rather than smashing down with an alignment hammer.

Therefore, in my homebrew settings, I use the term "unaligned" to described people.  Alignment of Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, is reserved for supernatural entities, or characters who have embraced supernatural powers.  There is a cosmic conflict between Law and Chaos, with Law representing powers of creation and order, and Chaos the forces of destruction.  Angels, devils, and similar Judeo-Christian elements fall on the side of Law, and demons and Cthulhu-monsters are Chaotic.  Planets and habitable worlds have nature spirits that embody the Neutral alignment.  It keeps the Monster Manual intact, and lets me explain why angels and devils might team up to stop the flood of demons from the Outer Dark.  I tend to put all the traditional pantheons into Law because of their divine nature.  Alignment is about power sources and which side of the cosmic conflict.  Odin and Zeus would team up to thwart Cthulhu and Demogorgon on the cosmic scale, but in the absence of Chaos, have no issue throwing down with each other.

Humans and similar character races only display an alignment if they embrace supernatural forces, most commonly by being a spellcaster.  Clerics are Lawful, magic using classes are Chaotic, and druids, aligned with the world spirits, are Neutral.  By embracing other-worldly forces, they've permanently changed their aura (detectable by an Alignment spell).  Everyone else is unaligned, and their morality is up to their personal code and beliefs. It's really simple, and very close to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess approach to alignment.

How many of you are still using the traditional 1E AD&D alignment, complete with level loss, alignment languages, and class restrictions?



Sunday, July 5, 2020

Alignment Doesn't Need You


Wizard of the Coast's recent announcements regarding changes to humanoids and alignment have spawned a fresh discussion of why we even have alignment as a factor in the game.  Orcs used to be categorically evil; the new WOTC position is that all humanoids are basically unaligned (although they could certainly belong to an "evil" culture and play the roles of villains).  For that matter, the 5E version of the game has dropped all of the player-character facing restrictions around alignment - paladins don't have to be Lawful Good, druids don't have to be Neutral, Assassins don't have to be Evil.  What's the point of alignment in this new regime?  Is it just a set of guidelines to roleplay your character?  A mere descriptor of the character's attitude?

Here's the thing - regardless of how meaningless you think alignment is at the table, it is hard-wired into the cosmology of the game.  Alignment describes the objective reality of the game universe.  Each outer plane corresponds to a specific alignment and is home to a set of deities associated with that alignment.  There are extra-planar races such as demons, devils, and angels that strongly correspond to outer planes and the alignments of those planes, too.  Furthermore, when a mortal dies, their soul goes to the plane where their deity resides.  Take a look at this picture of the 1st Edition Cosmology - although there have been tweaks here and there through the years (with 4E representing the biggest departure from the classic scheme) 5E has basically returned to the 9-fold alignment system and corresponding outer planes.



The 5E DMG goes on to say, "bringing someone back from the dead means retrieving the soul from that plane (the plane of the soul's deity and/or alignment) and returning it to its body".  Regardless of how the individual players or DM fold, spindle, or mutilate alignment at their table, alignment is the basis for the transcendent reality beyond the concerns of grubby mortals.  Players and referees may ignore alignment at the table, but it's there in the core assumptions of how the multiverse works.

Of course this is all governed by rule zero.  You are the master of your campaign and game world, the creator of the cosmology.  Your cosmology might deviate from the default assumptions and the rules as written.  I get the impression many of the referees discard alignment as a relative matter, without considering that alignment has this objective game existence.  At least if you're going to jettison alignment, replace the whole cosmology and redefine the objective reality of the game universe, too.

One can argue alignment is just a descriptor tag with no inherent meaning - a player calls himself "lawful good", acts arbitrarily, and the players and referee agree this aberrant behavior is actually what lawful good looks like for this particular cosmology.  You've seen the argument, "I'm a viking, and lawful good to a viking means murder and pillage, amiright bro?"  The important thing, from my point of view, is the relationship between the game objects - the "good" plane exists, there are "good" deities there, there are "good"-aligned extraplanar beings, some player characters pencil the word "good" on their character sheets, there's a recognition they're going to the "good" place when there's a character death.  Ideally there's a common understanding of what is good or evil, law or chaos, too.

Alignment has bedeviled referees and players, but also sets D&D apart from almost every other RPG because of these behavioral guidelines and game universe tie-ins.  Thus we grapple with questions in-game of what constitutes law, chaos, good, or evil and put on our ethics hats from time to time.  My position is alignment is important mainly because of it's relationship to the broader multiverse and game fiction and less about managing behavior; but next time out let's look at some common approaches of dealing with how alignment can work at the table.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Blog Roll Update

I'm going to do some maintenance this weekend and clean out some old blogs I used to read that have gone dormant or belly up.  Let me know if you have any favorite blogs that are still doing the good work, I'll check them out and give them an add (including you're own, if you're a new blogger).  For the state side folks, safe holidays everyone!  See you in a few days.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Orcs Really Are People, Too, Now

America is having a moment.  We're emerging from weeks of protests in the streets regarding matters of race and equality after the public murder of George Floyd.  Many corporations are taking a stance on how their products or services will change to reflect new attitudes.  Brands are dropping outdated imagery, making donations in show of support, or publicly affirming their positions on diversity and inclusion.  The NFL made a statement recognizing they need to support their black players.  Even the publisher of D&D came out with their own statement on diversity in Dungeons & Dragons, as the shifts happening in the larger culture will be reflected in the game, too.

No limits: Elf dentists, Orc wizards.
The Wizards of the Coast press release recognizes the world has changed in the near 50 years since the game was first created.  It lays out actions they're going to take with future publications - changing the depictions of humanoids, updating problematic depictions in 5E era books as they get reprinted, and offering more options for character customization in upcoming works.  In follow up discussions on social media and at their recent live event, more details emerged.  Going forward, anything designated "humanoid" will now be depicted as having "any alignment" rather than being shoehorned categorically into evil; ability score adjustments will no longer include penalties to intelligence for non-human races; players will have more flexibility in choosing cultural backgrounds.  (Your elf will no longer be typecast as a forest-loving archer, you'll be free to optimize that elvish dentist you always wanted.  Your formerly 'monstrous' humanoids will be free to choose new destinies as well).

Historically, the game has had a strange relationship with the concept of race.  In the versions I learned in the 1980's, elves and dwarves and halflings were "demi-humans", and all the "monster" races were humanoids.  It was implied humanoids were "born bad" and had fixed alignments in their monster stat blocks.  After 40+ years of gaming, player preferences have shifted away from the underlying source literatures.  There are game worlds where the halflings have been re-imagined as horrible little cannibals, and others where goblins are a mischievous player character race.  Orcs are popular in video games and also as a playable race in some D&D game worlds.  With the new Wizards of the Coast position, all character race options are now defined as "humanoids"; they can be any alignment, and players will have some flexibility on ability score increases and cultural backgrounds.  Time for an orc wizard?  These changes seem fairly benign, but there are interesting implications for world building.

Here's a thought experiment - consider a human-centric game setting, something like Game of Thrones, with your faux Viking culture (Ironborn) and your faux Mongols (Doth Raki) and your horrible western knights.  There was no dearth of conflict, drama, bloodshed, or violence, to support a rich fantasy campaign world in GRR's setting.  You can create interesting villainous cultures and also have sympathetic characters and engaging stories involving members of those cultures*.  Where there is irrational antipathy and prejudice - for instance, the way the Westerosi and Night's Watch view the Wildlings from beyond the wall - we (the readers and viewers) are given a broader view and see the Wildlings as a multi-dimensional and admirable group of people.  (I'd be on Team Tormund Giantsbane, that guy is legendary.)

To the extent future game worlds will begin to put the various humanoids on the same footing as humanity, I can see myself drawing on sources like Westeros for inspiration on both presenting adversarial cultures, yet having sympathetic members of those cultures.  I like making elves into the awful ones in my games, they're ripe to be cast as haughty villains, and let the player characters be the exception if they pick an elf.  I'm looking forward to developing an orc culture on one of the continents and casting their values in orcish terms - they embrace pragmatism and common sense - a smart orc looks after themself!  If a player wants to be an emigrant from one of the humanoid cultures in the broader world, it'll be great fun.  Games are more interesting when there are grey areas around allegiances and alliances, and the players need to make choices about parleying with opponents instead of attacking everything on sight.  Dust off those reaction rolls and morale checks for a change (or add useful ones to your 5E game... they're a bit lackluster in the 5th).  For humanoid-style monsters that you want to keep as "kill on sight" I'd suggest changing their designation from humanoid to something more alien or monstrous.  Gnolls, for instance, are supposedly descended from hyenas who ate demon-tainted corpses and mutated into bi-pedal ravagers; since they're practically demon spawn already, let's just tag them as "fiends".  I think one of the designers already mentioned this might be in the offing.  In one of my settings, goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears will be recast as evil fey, servants of the Winter Court, who sneak into the world to cause mischief, collecting infants for David Bowie.

I didn't see much commentary on the blogs about the WOTC announcement or its implications.  The again, I don't know many 5E blogs, and there's not much reason for OSR gamers to pay attention to the mothership.  For me. there are some intensely personal reasons to be sensitive to race depictions in game worlds.  My youngest son is adopted, a proud African American 13 year old kiddo, and it's been a journey to learn to see the world through his eyes.  (I'm certainly not there yet).  He relates to Black Panther, Nick Fury, Luke Cage, and the Falcon a whole lot more than Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, or anyone else from Tolkien's bunch.  Part of our "Living Covida Loca" has been family movie nights where we've watched Lord of the Rings, all the Marvel Universe movies, and now working our way through Star Wars saga, so we've talked about which characters he likes quite a bit.  The phrase I've heard online is "representation matters" - people want to be able to see themselves in their entertainment media.  That could mean human characters that look like them, or humanoids that are more relatable than bleached European elves.  I support this new approach by Wizards of the Coast, and plan to work these ideas into upcoming settings.


*I'm aware Westeros is not entirely without problematic depictions, particularly where the Mother of Dragons is concerned.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Caller and Modern D&D


Somewhere along the way, Dungeons & Dragons dropped the "caller" role.  I learned how to play and run the game from the Moldvay Basic Rules back in 1981, and the caller was prominently featured - for each dungeon exploration session, the players were expected to pick someone to map, and someone to "call".  Moldvay defines the caller as "the player who normally tells the DM what his or her party will do, based on what the other players tell him or her".  Here's a description right from the introduction:

To avoid confusion, the players should select one player to speak for the entire group or party.  That player is named the caller.  When unusual situations occur, each player may want to say what his or her characters is doing.  The caller should make sure that he or she is accurately representing all the player characters' wishes.  The caller is a mediator between the players and the DM, and should not judge what the player characters should do.

When I've seen the role mentioned on the modern discussion boards, it's usually disparaged with that charming anti-establishment attitude that makes us 'Muricans so likable.  I don't need a leader.  No one needs to speak for me, I can speak for myself.  Don't tread on me.  You can't make me wear a COVID mask.  You're not the boss of me, and I certainly don't need a caller.  (If alignment was real, sometimes I think a sizable portion of our society would be "chaotic neutral".)

I now recognize I've been keeping the caller as a vestige from an earlier instance of the game.  I no longer have any 3rd or 4th edition books lying around, so I can't go see exactly when it dropped out of guidance on playing the game.  My sense is that as D&D shifted from 6-10 (rowdy) players to much smaller groups, it naturally fell out of vogue.  The 5th edition ideal is 4 players.  Nonetheless, I still see value and practical benefits in the role.

As noted by Moldvay, the caller is not a tyrant.  The role is a facilitator, to lead discussion among the players when group decisions need to be made.  It's more of a scrum master rather than a project manager, if you happen to be in the tech world and can appreciate the analogy.  Since I mainly run exploration games, the players need to spend time at the start of each game session aligning on a course of action.  The caller is the one who frames the options and collects feedback from the other players, soliciting opinions and votes and bringing the group to a consensus.  When discussion and planning have ended, they signal to me play is ready to proceed and the caller relates what they're doing.  During combats, where the 5E initiative order is based on the individual, the players narrate their actions in order, but even then, the caller might kick off a discussion about major tactics and coordinated actions if the players are conflicted.

My home games have involved dads and kids for well over a decade (although now the "kids" are all graduating from high school) and being named party caller puts a player into a spotlight role and gives them the chance to develop group leadership skills.  By shifting the role each week, it ensures even the quiet players get a chance to be the center of attention.  This was particularly useful when the kids were younger, so the dads didn't dominate all the decision making.  It made the dads act more as advisors.  So although the caller role is a legacy feature, it still maintained its utility.

Finally, it gives the referee a break.  I rarely need to ask the players "which way are you going at the dungeon intersection, or what are you doing next" because there's a caller there already doing that for me! "Guys, looks like we can go left or right at the dungeon intersection, let's figure out what we're doing?"  It takes a lot of energy to run a game, and it helps you stay a step ahead of the action when one of the players is expediting the group decisions.  It gives the referee a breather to get the next set of descriptions right or consider some upcoming dialogue, or reflect on how to adapt the situation due to player activities.

I'm ending this post with a a thought triggered by dusting off the Moldvay book.  That Basic Red Book from 1981 is still arguably the best way to learn how to play D&D, run the game, and build dungeons.  Like so many people involved with the basic D&D line, Tom Moldvay's influence is really underrated.  In another 15 years when I'm considering retirement, I'd be happy to run classic D&D with my fellow geezers somewhere using nothing but those Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Rules.  While I've got several personal copies stashed away for the future, I'd love to see WOTC make them print-on-demand or republished when D&D turns 50 - I guess that's 2025?  Probably too early to start a write-in campaign for it.  

Friday, June 12, 2020

Malazan Book of the Fallen... and Your Campaign

There are bright spots to the pandemic lock down and switch to online remote work.  I'm saving time by not having to don corporate America's "casual business attire" every day and migrate to the office - time that's being redirected to hobbies and hanging out with the kids.  From the perspective of self-improvement, I'm trying to get better at chess, learning a little Spanish, and reading more books.

My wife's been working through a series called The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss, and she says they're quite engaging.  The first one is called The Name of the Wind.  I picked up a lengthy series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  It's been languishing on my reading backlog.  It's a 10 books series, clearly not for the faint of heart, and so far I've only read the first two books - Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.

The world of the Malazan Empire started as a shared roleplaying campaign world in the 1980's.  The referees each went on to write two entire fantasy series in their shared campaign world - the two authors being Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont.  It sounds like they dabbled in Dungeons & Dragons but ultimately landed on GURPS as their preferred system.  Curiously, wasn't Westeros also based on an early GURPS campaign?  Unlike George RR Martin, the Malazan guys don't seem reticent about discussing the gaming roots of their fantasy creations.

Here's a brief overview of what I've observed, 20% of the way through the series.  The Malazan Empire, which calls to mind Imperial Rome or similar pre-modern empires, sprawls across multiple continents, with armies deployed far and wide to conquer new cities in the name of the Empress, or garrison distant places and stifle revolution.  Most the main characters are military people, and the books very reminiscent of Glen Cook's The Black Company - fantasy through the lens of soldiers on the march.

Erikson has integrated magic into the everyday life of the army, very much taking what we'd call a "high magic" approach to world building.  It's common for army units to have a "cadre mage" if not an entire unit of spell casters.  Battlefield communications through magic is a thing - telepathy between mages or warlocks, or the Malazan equivalent of "sending stones".  There are demi-planes called "warrens", from which a mage draws power, that can also be used for limited forms of fast travel.  There's an element to each battle where enemy mages face off and attempt to neutralize the magic on the other side, before the grim work of the foot soldiers can take place.

There are gods and clerics in the world - both elder gods and "Ascendants", humans who have used magic to transcend to a demi-godlike state.  I'm not familiar enough with GURPS to know if it had options for apotheosis, but BECMI certainly did - all of the "immortals" of the Mystara setting were transcended humans, great heroes of the past.  A Malazan-like setting could be done well with BECMI.  I'm greatly enjoying how Erikson works the machinations of the Ascendants into his series - although some of the Ascendants have recognizable goals, their appearances are mysterious and terrifying.

The world of the Malazan empire is ancient, with a history going back hundreds of thousands of years.  Both Erikson and Esslemont have backgrounds as archaeologists, and it comes through in the way secrets related to ancient, inhuman races emerge to trouble the current age.  There's not an elf, dwarf, or halfling in sight.

One of the most gameable concepts I plan to lift is the maxim "power attracts power".  The idea is that in a world with ancient and powerful entities, a certain "low profile" should be maintained because powerful forces attract powerful opponents, like a natural law.  In a game like Dungeons & Dragons, where player characters inexorably rise in levels, the maxim "power attracts power" provides a rationale why your epic characters attract high level trouble as they move around or create domains.  "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, the Queen of the Demonweb Pits walks into mine."  Play it again Sam.

Not Elric or Drizz't... it's Anomander!
The series has a staggering number of characters.  Each book has several pages of "dramatis personae" to help keep track of all the factions and minor characters as the narrative jumps across globe-spanning events and military campaigns.  There's even a fanfic character!  Anomander Rake, the Son of Darkness, and scion of a decadent, elder race, wields a soul-stealing sword called Dragnipur.  He zips around in a giant floating tower called the Moon's Spawn.  But Erikson manages to pull off the Elric homage, and I'm looking forward to Rake returning later in the series.  I'm only on book two of ten, and the hardcore fans all seem to say the series "really starts cooking after book 3", so I'm already committed to keep going.  The second book has been principally concerned with a 1,000 year old prophesied "Whirlwind" in the southern holy deserts, and a vast uprising by desert tribes and nomads who rise up in support of the Apocalypse.  The classic adventures Master of the Desert Nomads and Temple of Death in the X series trod similar ground.

There's much I've been appreciating as a gamer and world builder.  I usually have distant or absent deities in my settings, but Erikson strikes a good tone with meddlesome gods and machinations of the "Ascendants", as well as his portrayal of priests and clerics as agents of their respective deities.  Because many of the gods were recently mortals, they have scores to settle with human empires.  I also like the portrayal of how ordinary soldiers and people get caught up in events with these terrifying immortals or ancient powers - they enter a scene, wreak some havoc, and take their struggles elsewhere.  It's almost like getting the view of New York City from ordinary folks after the Avengers have had a giant battle in the city - but a fantasy world equivalent.  There are techniques to be learned here on presenting your high fantasy, high powered gaming setting.  Here's my list of game-able elements gleaned from Malazan, that have kindled my imagination:

  • Meddlesome gods and Ascendants
  • Clerics as divine instruments
  • Magical healing as a military resource
  • The importance of warfare and political scheming
  • Mages in the military, and practical magic
  • Horrifying pre-human cultures and ruins
  • Orders of assassins - the Talons and Claws

Has anyone else read this series?  Would love to hear whether you borrowed any of Erikson's ideas, or perhaps Glen Cook's Black Company, for your game world.  (I can't speak to Esslemont's writing yet).  It also makes me want to look at more contemporary fantasy fictions and see what else is out there.  Erikson's approach is so transparent with tropes taken from the world of gaming, it raises a new question - have forty plus years of Dungeons & Dragons so thoroughly influenced fantasy literature the genres are betimes indistinguishable?

Saturday, June 6, 2020

In Praise of the Humble Experience Point



America is having a tough week.  Actually it's been a tough year.  We've got the COVID, the protests against brutality, the escalating police violence against said protesters.  We've got murder hornets.  We're all personally affected by the stuff going on to one degree or another - here on the east coast, I know many people who have lost loved ones to the virus.  I sat down to write something cranky, but figured we've got enough negativity going around.  Let's talk positively about something I do like - the humble experience point.  And heck, maybe there's a way to make friends with the milestone approaches, too.

I had a terrible experience with 4E back when it was fresh and new, and that's what pushed me and my gaming group back to 1st Edition AD&D. We learned what the OSR folks were up to, and embraced the modern analysis of what made those earlier styles of play so much fun.  In fact I'd say the project of my blog has become how best to run 5E in a style that leverages lessons from the heyday of the OSR and early D&D.  Our weekly Tomb of Annihilation game is really close, but I'm not satisfied with the approach I took to managing experience.  That's a story to tell sometime.  So the larger work continues.

Let's step back and distill the essence of this play style I'm praising.  Those early legendary 1970's dungeon masters ran megadungeons, sprawling multi-level complexes.  Game structures were primarily site-based (dungeons or hexcrawls) and featured exploration as the principle motif.  Whatever story is bolted on top the underlying exploration chassis (such as stopping the rampaging giants, discovering the secrets of the evil temple, finding the lich's treasure, pursuing the evil Drow to their underground city) is almost secondary to the exploration.  Players are principally engaged with testing their wits against a hostile dungeon full of challenges, collecting experience points, and increasing their power.  This mode of play maximizes the amount of choice and agency to the players.  The players plan what they want to do each session, including resource planning.  (Ideally the referee collects their ideas at the end of the current session to better prepare for next time).  The game needs to telegraph enough information about the relative risk and reward opportunities so the players can incorporate that into their planning.  This is simple in dungeons, where each new dungeon level down has more dangerous monsters and more wealth.  In the hex crawl, distance from civilization is usually the barometer of danger.

Experience points are a complimentary game mechanic to site-based adventures.  They let the players keep score on how well they're doing in the game.  They're earned, not awarded.  The exponential nature of those early experience charts motivate the players to seek out greater challenges to maintain the same upward momentum.  Note that XP for Gold yields slightly different results than 5E's approach, XP for Fighting.  XP for Gold is an abstraction - all the effort that went into finding treasure - fighting monsters, casting spells, disarming traps, solving puzzles, and so forth, are all assumed to be part of the effort of recovering the treasure.  It's not meant to be realistic, but it is simple, transparent, player facing, easy to track, and non-arbitrary.  XP for monsters defeated isn't horrible, but it does emphasize different behavior.  I've found XP for Gold encourages craftier play, and games better reflect the Sword & Sorcery roots of D&D's earliest literary influences - Conan, Lankhmar, The Dying Earth, those types of tales.

With site-based adventures, the referee can mostly dispense with level-appropriate game balance.  The ref might populate the local area with the goblin mines, the ogre caves, the vampire's tower, and the dragon's lair in the distant mountains.  Or if the principal locale is a sprawling dungeon, you have level 1, level 2, level 3 of the dungeon, and so on.  It's important to telegraph to the players, through rumors, talking to people in the setting, and similar information gathering, which adventure opportunities are going to be more dangerous. The players choose what to go after - it's on them if their first adventure is to go knock on that vampire's tower door.  The creation of these sandbox locales or dungeon levels is really about seeding the setting with experience point opportunities.  It's both art and science calculating how much of a dungeon level or wilderness area you expect a party to encounter before heading on, and populating it with appropriate experience opportunities.

There are challenges with sandbox creation.  First, they can seem like a daunting amount of work - I think of prep time in terms of the sandbox triangle (you can have a lot of detail, but it takes a lot of work; or you can build out a bigger area with not a lot of detail for the same time investment).  Older editions put a lot of emphasis on random tables, both wilderness encounters and dungeon wandering monsters, to create a sense of a living world and give the referee some help creating content on the fly.  Finally, while there will be story reasons for various lairs and dungeons in the setting, and "plot hooks" that may motivate the players to go explore them, sandbox games are less about scripting an intricate story-line in advance, instead turning the keys over to the players and seeing what emerges from their activities.

I love site-based settings and exploration based play, and I strive to turn as much of the decision making and planning over to the players.  Incidentally, these are still the most popular adventure styles with the 5E crowd, too; go to any ranking list on the official 5E adventures and products like Curse of Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, or Lost Mine of Phandelver, are consistently top of the lists, along with Tales from the Yawning Portal or Ghosts of Saltmarsh.  Hint:  they all feature exploration-based dungeons and open world sandboxes.  I've been wondering how it would look to shift from having the players bean-count their experience points to using something even more abstract like milestones.  Below are a few recent attempts.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage
When I was running Dungeon of the Mad Mage, the gigantic 23 level megadungeon for Waterdeep, I dispensed with experience points.  Mad Mage's levels are calibrated to where a 4 person party needs to literally clear (as in fight, kill, or drive off) every single monster on a given level in order to collect enough experience to level up.  It's tiresome to even think about, and way too much of a slog to be enjoyable.  Nope.  Instead I made the discovery of each new dungeon level into a milestone - the idea being the effort to explore a sprawling dungeon level, overcome traps, challenges, monsters, and so forth, represented achievements worthy of advancement (either a full or half level gained).  Mad Mage's staircases are geographically remote on each dungeon level, requiring a party to negotiate large swaths of the dungeon level before descending.  Normally I'd consider that a poorly designed map, but in this case those remote stairs became a feature, supporting exploration-based milestones.  That campaign went on the shelf due to COVID, so we only got through the first few levels, but it was going exceedingly well.  The players focused a lot more on scouting, negotiating with monsters, and using wits and guile to find those staircases in lieu of slaughtering every last monster.  In this case, milestones worked well as stand-ins for experience points - they were player-facing, transparent, allowed the players to keep score, and influenced player planning.

Mad Mage is not popular with the vocal part of the 5E crowd.  People look at 23 dungeon levels without an overarching scripted story, and they don't know what to do with it.  I'll add a discussion of Undermountain to my backlog on posts I'll get to at some point - what we did to make it more engaging.  Its not hard, but the dungeon master does have to do some work to overlay interesting story goals onto the megadungeon.

Dragon of Icespire Peak
Icespire Peak is the starter adventure in the second 5E boxed set (the Essentials Kit).  On it's face, it describes a sandbox type area of the Sword Coast, with 12-14 adventure sites.  There's a loose story in the sandbox - a white dragon has moved into the nearby area, and this has created some ripple effects that have put the sandbox in motion.  The dragon has displaced a mountain orc tribe, and the mountain orcs have descended into the valley, attacking places or displacing other monsters that are now encroaching on the villagers.  It uses a quasi-milestone approach... gain a level for each starter lair completed, then gain a level when completing two mid-tier sites, and so on.  I'm running a new Tuesday night game with some of the adventurer's league guys via Zoom, bi-weekly, so we're getting some experience with this one.  The adventures are presented as quests from the town master; the next 1-2 quests become available as the players finish the prior ones and level up.  The fetch-quest approach isn't awful; the players have been able to collect a couple of quest ideas at a time from within town, map them out, and plan efficient ways to go tackle exploring 1-2 locales on an excursion out into the wilds.  It's still enabling player-facing planning and decision making.

The village and Town Master is lackluster, and I'm finding it's critical there are interesting and engaging NPC's so the players learn more about the sandbox region.  There are cool places on the map to explore, not tied to any quests, and the players need to hear about them from NPCs.  As written, the quests and locales don't telegraph to the players the level of danger at each site.  That's an element the referee needs to work into the player-facing aspect of Icespire Peak.

Neither of these approaches to merging milestones and site-based adventures left me completely satisfied.  I suppose the Mad Mage approach was closest.  Listing out the attributes I like about experience points - they're simple, transparent, player-facing, easy to track, and objective (ie, non-arbitrary) - the Mad Mage approach comes nearest to meeting the requirements.  Unfortunately it puts a heavy constraint on how you construct your dungeon maps, and doesn't translate equally well to lairs or the hexcrawl space.  Might just be easier to maintain using experience points, as they apply equally well in most situations.  Would love to hear if any readers have successfully ported milestones into their exploration-based dungeons.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Is 5E Becoming a Cargo Cult?


Yesterday I was catching up with my blog roll, and Feedly, and some synergistic posts revealed themselves.  I came across Justin Alexander's discussion, The Decline and Fall of D&D Adventures, shortly followed by the Wandering Gamist's (final) review post of "Five Torches Deep", a rules set that tries to port "OSR styles" into 5E.  Justin's post about the Decline of Dungeons is signaling that 5E never really provided a strong tutorial on how to build or run a good dungeon adventure, and now he's seeing published attempts that wildly miss the mark on what's required in terms of information and presentation.  John at Wandering Gamist points out that as Five Torches Deep over-indexes on elements around resource management, they ignore the most important elements of an OSR style of dungeoneering - actually building a good dungeon and having strong procedures to manage dungeon exploration.

So let's get this cargo cult question out of the way.  The idea of a cargo cult goes back to World War 2; pre-industrialized people encountered modern technology when airfields were built on remote islands during the Pacific campaign.  They saw that airfields and airplanes and radio towers meant awesome stuff coming onto the island via cargo boxes.  When the armies moved on, the people built wooden mock-ups of the planes and towers hoping the good stuff in the boxes would come back some time.  I've seen the term used in the corporate world - people that go through the motion of following old processes or procedures, no one even knows why they exist any more, but we keep doing it hoping for our cargo - a box of K-rations or something.  Our office spaces are full of this mindset.

Both my blogging colleagues are touching on instances where they've encountered modern gamers attempting to follow older styles of play, but missing the mark by pursuing form over function.  Doing things without understanding them - how to actually draw and key a dungeon, and why, or how the point of planning and resource management isn't for the resource part of the game to be the primary challenge, it's to support the actual goal - dungeon exploration balancing time and resources.  In both cases you don't have a good game without high quality dungeon - plus a well made map, a good dungeon key with compelling story, and sound procedures for managing the exploration by the players.

I had no idea procedural dungeon exploration was even a gap in the 5E PHB!  There's a loose discussion about time intervals and movement, but the book never puts it all together into a coherent example for the new players.  Nor is there any sample dungeon in the DMG or an example of actual play.  Those were prominent components in those older rule books! The Tower of Zenopus, Koriszegy Keep in Moldvay BX, Bartle's dungeon in the Mentzer Red Box, even the monastery dungeon in the 1E DMG were all prominently featured to transmit how play works.  Who can forget Black Dougal's death scene?  Those actual play examples demonstrate how the Q&A interaction between the referee and players advance the game state, how a mapper or caller fits into exploration, when do you roll for wander monsters, that kind of stuff.  I had no idea any of that was missing in the Fifth.  I just carried along working procedures from the old games into 5E and kept trucking.  Upon my fresh reading, I did see that the PHB allows characters to explore in a single minute more than older editions would let the players cover in an entire turn (10 minutes).  Apparently none of my players read the PHB and caught that, either. 

Why would WOTC omit sample dungeons and examples of play?  Maybe they figured 5E players are already players from older editions, or new folks would join existing groups and receive institutional knowledge from their surroundings.  Maybe they expected new players to head out to YouTube or Twitch and learn how to run a game there.  YouTube is my go-to for learning simple home repairs - repairing drywall, or fixing a leaking faucet.  Why not how to build or run a dungeon?  Possibly WOTC didn't think it's that important in the modern age - lots of people seem to have eschewed dungeons for scene-based adventures.

I would imagine everyone who checks out my blog would have started gaming before 5E, and already have a good grasp on building and running dungeons (or at least exploring them as a player) from an older edition.  (If you are that one new person who never played D&D before 5E and happens to see this place, please drop a hello in the comments - and welcome!)  But I also see evidence there are segments of newer gamers that don't understand how to finesse the site-based or dungeon exploration format.  For instance, referees either love or hate Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, a 23 level megadungeon for 5E.  The haters see a giant dungeon, no scenes, no overarching plots, and they're not sure what to do with it.  Hard pass - I'm moving on to the next Adventure Path.  And now wonder - neither 5E (or the adventure itself) has fully prepared them.  Dungeons, especially megadungeons, require more and different from the referee.

Anyway, while I'm waxing on old knowledge, here's one that cracked me up - I came across a group of "grognards" who started playing in the old days - you know, during 4th edition!  Or maybe 3rd.  Out here in the real world, grognard means 1970's D&D, accept no substitutes.  (Except the real grognards, the ones that painted the Napoleonic miniatures in the 60's and 70's and used sandtables for their war games, would poke some fun at we roleplayers, I'm sure).  Don't take yourself too seriously, I guess is the message.