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.