Monday, October 31, 2011

Mythic Monday: All Hallow's Eve

The dead are on the  move!  That's the excellent story behind the Halloween holiday, and certainly something that can be pulled whole cloth into your D&D game.  The distance between the mortal world and the realm of the dead narrows precipitously on this day, allowing the souls of the departed to roam the night for a brief time and offer up warnings, omens, and glimpses of the future (plot hooks).

First, a brief survey of Halloween.  The Halloween holiday here in the US is a "complex", an amalgamation of various traditions, some ancient, some not so much.  The jack-o-lantern tradition comes from turnip carving in Ireland, brought to America in the middle of the 19th century (the story of Stingy Jack and the Devil, an Irish story, is a tale for another Monday).  I can't imagine turnip-carving would be as enjoyable as pumpkin carving.  Mummery (costumes) is an English tradition, along with the practice of children begging door-to-door on certain days of the year.

But the reason Halloween is associated with all the spooky imagery is the most interesting.  The Celtic season of Samhain was a time when the world of the dead were closer to the mortal world, and bonfires were lit in the night to ward off spirits.  I grew up associating Samhain with metal albums and Michael Meyers, but alas, there's nothing Satanic about Halloween's Celtic origins.  In the early church, the holiday was All Souls Day (also called All Hallows Day) and it's easy to see how the night before became All Hallows Eve / Evening, contracted to Halloween.  It's still celebrated as the Feast of All Saints on Nov 1 and All Souls Day on Nov 2 in Catholic areas.  I had a rigorous Catholic upbringing myself, and was indoctrinated in all that ritual and mysticism as a youth.

The reasoning behind the Catholic tradition for All Souls Day is a day to honor the deceased and departed; one of the Medieval ideas behind the feast is that souls in purgatory have a shot at slipping out and moving on to a better or worse place on this day (and a bunch of prayers from the still living folks can nudge them the right way).  The dead are on the move!  You've got to like how Mexico celebrates it as the Day of the Dead, with parties in the graveyards.

I'm sure if we did a survey of ancient traditions, we'd find lots of these days for honoring the dead when old souls can come back and mess with folks that are still alive.  The other one I'm familiar with is the May holiday of Lemuria, the Roman time for exorcising malicious ghosts and the restless dead.  The Catholic feasts themselves were originally in May, strongly associated with the feast of Lemuria, and were moved to November in the early Middle Ages.

The point of all this Halloween blather is to get you thinking about putting this kind of holiday in your game world.  Holidays are markers in the calendar year and identify the changing seasons.  They're important signposts.  If you have kids, you know how important upcoming holidays are to their worldview - when one holiday gets done, they start asking about the next one.  For gaming, I suggest looking at the underlying origins for real world holidays and creating a similar celebration for the folks of your game world.

Implications for Gaming
Have you given any thought to what happens to souls in your game world, after the people die?  I never liked the AD&D approach of the outer planes - each person's soul heads out to the proper outer plane after death, speeding through the Astral Plane to the Happy Hunting Grounds or Nirvana or Limbo or wherever all the like-aligned souls can chill out together in that nutty nine-fold alignment system.

The official 4E cosmology was a big improvement here; we may laugh at the name "Shadowfell", but having an entire plane of existence filled with the gloomy dead milling about in ruined mirrors of the real world is pretty dang cool, and much closer to the classic view of the Underworld you see in Greek myth, with all those depressed souls in drab funeral-wear trudging around the plains of Asphodel and groaning.  My approach to making this work without much effort in AD&D is to recast the Ethereal Plane as that  gloomy land of the dead, populated by lost souls and the occasional undead terror, sent back from Hell or the Abyss.

Most dead spend an indeterminate time malingering in the underworld before moving on to a final reward.  Some souls that are strongly aligned with the values of an outer plane do pass right into the Astral plane en route to a divine destination, be it the planes of ultimate good or evil.  (Even the Greek underworld had the Elysian Fields and Tarterus).

In the annual cycle of the mortal world, the Day of the Dead is that point of the year where the mortal world and the gloomy underworld are nearly coterminous.  The restless dead can sometimes be seen by the living through the veil.  There are many traditions across the mortal game world to honor this time; the holy church engages in prayer and ritual, believing that ceremony, prayer, and remembrance can encourage the departed to move on to a final reward beyond the underworld.

In places following the old faith, bonfires are lit to drive away the night time shadows and ward against haunts and spirits; in other areas, costumes and masks are donned to confuse the dead souls and avoid an unsettling encounter with a wronged ancestor.  Offerings, gifts, and adornment are brought to the graveyards during the day, to pacify the departed.

Conversely, if one wants the chance to speak to a deceased soul, this is the night to visit the grave or cemetery and hold a lonely vigil late into the wee hours.  But this practice of meeting a departed shade is not without danger, for just as the benign or indifferent haunts of departed souls can interact with the world of man on All Hallow's Eve, certainly undead terrors returned by the lords of ultimate evil can slip through the barriers easier as well.  Ghosts and apparitions are naturally ethereal, and All Hallow's Eve is the night when wraiths and specters are also sent back from Hell (if you've followed this column the past few weeks, you'll recall that most undead are either Abyssal or Hellish in origin, and most undead shades and spirits come from Hell).  Even visit from haunts are not without risk; statistically I would model the restless departed souls using the Fiend Folio Haunt, a neutral undead that can temporarily possess a living host to carry out some unfinished business.  The wise dead-speaker takes precautions before setting a lonely vigil in a graveyard on All Hallow's Eve.

For the Dungeon Master, this would be an excellent time to have the shade of a departed NPC or henchman come back and harass the PC's about something in the campaign, a wrong or slight that went unaddressed, or even a chance to give your players a vague omen or prophecy (ie, a plot hook) delivered in a suitably ominous or dramatic fashion.  Per Jacob Marley:

How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.  That is no light part of my penance.  I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.
--A Christmas Carol

Use a calendar, and put holidays on it.  Use the underlying beliefs from real world holidays as ideas for your fantasy holidays, but "Fantasy" them up to make them real - give them some teeth.  Go forth with these ideas, and be excellent.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Sage Advice: White Space

The emergence of the high concept setting was a natural evolution in our hobby.  1970's settings like Greyhawk or the Wilderlands, that previously covered less than a continent, were replaced by globe-spanning affairs tied to a strong aesthetic concept.  This post-apocalyptic world over here is about a pivotal war with the evil dragons.  In this other one, magic has turned the planet into a barren desert ruled by sorcerer kings, and there are no clerics or gods.  That world is all about gothic horror; this one over here is like pulp noir where magic has taken the place of high technology.

I used to love the high concept worlds; one of my favorites is still the 3.x era setting "Midnight".  The elevator pitch could have been something like this "What if Sauron had captured Frodo, regained the One Ring, conquered the world and enslaved the lands of man?  Players take on the role of survivors in a world where evil rules."

The problem with these high concept settings is the lack of design space to do something new.  The lack of space could be aesthetic - you can't have a story about divine intrigue, inspired by The Iliad, in a world with no gods.  Or the constraint could be physical - the whole world is already mapped, and there's no place to drop a new continent.

This version of myself that's been blogging for a year is (hopefully) wiser, and is beginning to value that white space beyond the edges of the current campaign.  Those undefined areas give you the freedom to put in something new.  When the wilderness hex crawl through the fallen lands is growing stale, it's nice to know there's space on the map to put your island of dinosaurs, or introduce a new continent with sophisticated cities where magic has replaced technology.  What you sacrifice in coherence, you gain in reuse and flexibility.

The popular image of fantasy authors is that they have reams of notes about their world; as they're writing, they're referring back to these meticulously developed histories.  Professor Tolkien really set the bar high.  Game setting designers soon followed, emulating the techniques in the fiction.  But consider how incongruent an island with a crashed space ship and a handful of alien technological artifacts would seem if it were placed just off the shore of Middle Earth?  Gandalf with a laser rifle and a few grenades would be totally awesome in a D&D campaign, not so much in The Lord of the Rings.  Even though the map is open, the aesthetic fills all the space.

Chris over at Hill Cantons had a fascinating quote last month from Fritz Leiber:  Making a World Up as You Go Along.  Mr. Leiber claims, tongue in cheek, that he only knows about the world of Newhon as his two protagonists tell him about it.  The first time he hears about new lands, distant islands, or undiscovered continents is when they first appear in the next tale, entering the setting as modular, but fully realized, new places.  The lands have always been there, the author just didn't know about them yet.

It's a powerful endorsement of "bottom-up" design.  Top down involves starting with an overarching vision, and decomposing the whole into the details; bottom-up involves creating those compartmental details first, and assembling them into the whole organically.  In top-down, you already know how big is the final solution, the boundaries are set.  There's no limit when starting from the bottom up.

There's valuable wisdom in bottom-up design for game worlds, particularly the old school approach of starting with a small sandbox area and slowly growing the circumference of the game world as necessary.   It's nice to see the author of one of D&D's most important early inspirations had the same idea.

Yesterday's post on mortal thoughts came out on the side of listening to your Gamer ADD once in a while; maybe that restlessness you're feeling is because the stuff you're currently playing is 'suckish' (it's my kid's word) and you know, deep down, you're wasting your time.

Gamer ADD is a risk that the work you've invested in a campaign is going to get tossed when a new idea comes along.  Borrowing from classic risk management strategy, I had laid out some ideas on managing Gamer ADD (Winter is Coming):  mitigation, acceptance, avoidance and transference.

Bottom-up design and "white space" is a powerful tool for mitigating your Gamer ADD by giving you the freedom to do something different without starting a new canvas.  When you absolutely need your group to go to the desert and explore a pyramid because you just saw The Mummy and immediately built a pyramid dungeon and desert area, it's nice to be able to add that desert realm to the bottom of the map.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Gamer's Carpe Diem

Food for worms!
Seize the day while you're young, see that you make use of your time... Because we're food for worms, lads!
--Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

I had the chance to see The Dead Poets Society again recently; I love that scene before the school trophy case - Robin Williams is like, What's the difference between you and all those faces looking out at you in the trophy case?  They're all dead, pushing up daffodils.  Now get out there and do something extraordinary before you're in the trophy case, too.

I'm one of those English and classics majors that backed into the information technology world from the other way, management first, technology later.  But I have that liberal arts background just under the covers, permeating my brain with two thousand years of thought.  And quotes.  There are many on this theme.  Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.  Had we but world enough, and time.  But lest you get deluded into believing the answer is to build something lasting, there are the words on the base of  Shelley's statue in the desert to remind us of the futility:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

If you could only play one more game, what would it be?

My concern with the carpe diem train of thought is drawing the right conclusion.  I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so why am I worried about a mortgage, going to work, credit card payments, or anything that plans for a long term future?  Hmmm.  That doesn't seem very practical.

I don't know that going out there and being a conqueror in your chosen arena is so worthwhile, either; impermanence is the order of the day.  Poor Ozymandias now rules a barren desert.  We are such stuff as dreams are made on, our little life is rounded with a sleep.

But the idea that time is precious - don't waste it because you're not going to live forever;  I can get behind that sentiment.  Sitting down to play your favorite game with your regular group of players, that's something to cherish.  Make the most of it.  There will be a day when not everyone will make it back to the table, right?

Why are you playing a game system you hate, or a boring campaign, or putting up with mediocrity?  Don't wait for the future to try something new.  Maybe the Gamer Attention Deficit Disorder that keeps derailing your ideas and pushing you to change up your campaign is generated out of these subconscious mortal thoughts:  My time is wasting.

My opinion of the Gamer ADD might be changing;  rather than unruly thoughts to be mastered, it could all be intimations of transience.  For myself, I've sold off tons of games the past few years, systems that I'd never run, niches that no longer appealed, or games that just weren't as good as original D&D.  You start to wonder as a DM, just how many more campaigns will I actually run?

This is why I'll never play an MMO, and gave up playing any kind of video game.  If I'm going to play something, it's going to be around a table, surrounded by friends, munching on chips, having a few laughs, a few scares, building a story together, and rolling some dice.  Making memories, transient though they be.

This is a good time for thoughts of the "Memento Mori".  The air is growing chill, the leaves are turning, horror movies are on the TV, and everywhere we see cemeteries, ghosts, ghouls, and the signs of Halloween and preparations for Hallowmas.

Happy Halloween!  Make sure your next game is excellent.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk, Game 44 - The Top Hat Man's Trap

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-6: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5 (1): Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6 (3):  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-4:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-5:  Z

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5 (3)
Serge, a Fighter-4
Donavich, Cleric-4

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

As forewarned, this week has a two-fer on game reports.  Last Saturday's game started auspiciously; we had a new guy sit in for the night, and Adam had to miss.  Adam has missed only a few game nights in the past four years; as players rolled in, they looked with surprise at the corner of the table where Adam usually sits and shook their heads in disbelief.  Nothing to worry about, dear readers, it was only a case of being under the weather.  The rest of the group soldiered on, Adam-less.

Play resumed in the crypts where the two halves of the party reunited after the defeat of the ghost; everyone was still in shock over Mordecai's grey hair and aged features.

With the defeat of the ghost, they had cleared all the northern crypts of evil dead; the paladin's evil detection allowed them to home in on evil presences, skipping crypts that seemed empty.  They spent the next few hours looking for loot in the empty crypts, found some small monetary treasures here and there, then returned to the main corridor.

Sitting in the middle of the main passage was a sheet of parchment surrounded by a couple of guttering candles.  The candles weren't there a few hours ago when the group first entered the crypts.

Leonidas read the writing on the parchment, scrawled in blackish blood.  "If you want the child back, you will come."  A simple map was drawn on the sheet; it showed a way out of the northern crypts.

Intense discussion followed; had the vampires abducted someone from the village?  Or was it a trap? I try not to listen too much during this type of table talk; I just know we had 5 players, and when the vote was resolved, they chose to follow the map to see where it was leading them.

They found a long passage out of the crypts to the northwest; Kobra noted it was newer construction with his dwarven aptitude.  The castle itself predated the reign of Strahd, but this passage was built sometime in the past century.  The group theorized the tunnel was built under Strahd's rule, and probably led to his crypt or a personal area.  Naturally, a vampire that sought to usurp Strahd's place would move into Strahd's demesne; they had it all figured out.

Halfway down the passage, a chute opened up beneath two of the fighters, dropping Leonidas and Shy down the slide.  There was a loud splash somewhere deep below, and then the lid closed.

The topside characters spent time tying ropes together, feeding Serge a Potion of Levitation, and coming up with a reasonable plan to keep the trap lid open, when Serge triggered the trap anew and slipped down the chute himself.  Armed with the coin coated in Continual Light, he descended the 80' chute and found Shy and Leonidas in a tight spot.

They were standing in neck deep, murky water, desperately trying to keep a wooden cell door closed - they were inside the cell, and monsters were trying to push the door open from outside.  Shy's crowbar was wedged into the door jamb creating pressure; Shy has 18 strength.  Leonidas was desperately jabbing the tip of his magic spear through the barred view window to drive the monsters back; a mass of undead things were outside of the cell, throwing their weight against the door and reaching through with clawed hands to touch any stray flesh.  The air was chill, and the evil red pinpoints of light in their skull's eye sockets convinced everyone the monsters were wights - a dozen or more.  One lucky swipe meant a level drain.

Leonidas was rescued first, while Shy kept the crow bar wedged in place.  The door burst open shortly after Shy disappeared up the chute, as Serge hauled him upwards with the levitation spell (they were further aided by compatriots at the top of the chute hauling on the rope tied to Serge).  Dungeons are fun.

Lestat's cameo in Ravenloft?
After clearing the chute trap, the passage ended at a stair case down; beyond a stone slab door was a chamber lit by a flickering fire set in a huge brazier.  On each side of the chamber were large alcoves; there was the impression of giant statues standing watch from within the shadows of the alcoves.  Standing on the other side of the room was the tittering vampire they called "Top-Hat Man".  Top-Hat Man had previously attacked them when Forlorn the Elf had used the ring of invisibility in the catacombs (the ring had the unfortunate side effect of attracting and enraging nearby undead).

Top-Hat Man was holding a child, hostage-style, across the neck, tittering and laughing in his squealing, lisping speech.  The child's features were hidden by a cloak.  "You're not welcome here, you've meddled too much, someone needs to step up and take care of you, it is I who will lead the night kin now", that was the kind of drivel he spouted.  But once the last party member entered the room, the door behind them slammed shut (magically) and metal screeched to life as the pair of iron statues stepped forward from the alcoves.  Top-Hat giggled.

Top-Hat threw aside the corpse of the child (for now they could see she was already dead and drained of life) and he made for the door out; Mister Moore was having none of it, and blasted him with the wand of fireballs.  Top-Hat hissed in rage, beating the flames off his singed cape and hat before giving  a slight bow, a wicked smile, and dissipating into mist form.

The fight with the pair of Iron Golems was violent.  The party quickly learned that only their +3 weapons could hurt the golems; they were in possession of three +3 maces from earlier in Ravenloft, so these were quickly redistributed to the front rank fighters.  Fire had no effect on the golems, but the group slowed them down slightly with a Web spell on one, and Lightning Bolts to each (which also had the effect of a Slow Spell).  Prayers and Blesses were piled on the group, and the clerics did their best behind the front lines to keep the fighters on their feet with healing; Kobra and Leonidas teamed up on one golem, while Grumble, Serge and Shy battled the other.

More Protection from Evil ambiguity:  A few weeks ago, I noted how PFE changed over time to block Magic Jar and possession; similarly, editions are inconsistent whether PFE hedges out golems or not - some versions explicitly include "created" creatures like golems and animated statues (BX, Rules Cyclopedia), whereas AD&D 1E doesn't explicitly identify golems as warded.  AD&D does mention "enchanted" creatures, however, and BX identifies enchanted creatures to include golems (I couldn't find an AD&D definition for enchanted).  Ah, the 70's, when you just had to make it up as you went along.  A feature, not a bug.  It didn't actually matter here, because the party started swinging at the golems first, which neutralized any PFE hedge, but I'll need to set a ruling for next week if they test it with the Paladin's 10' radius and don't initiate hostilities.

Iron Golems are dangerous; each smash dishes out 4d10 of hurt.  Serge was dropped to -14 hit points by a crushing blow, and died instantly.  The death toll continues to climb.  The adventure text explicitly mentioned that these versions didn't have the poison breath attack, or it would have been much worse.

Deciding they had enough, Mister Moore used Knock to reopen the same door the party entered.  They carefully retreated during a round when the golems were slowed by webbing and the lightning, escaping Top-Hat's putative death trap.  But the room was intriguing; there was an hour glass chandelier that counted out a certain number of rounds for the golems to attack, and there was an alluring brass chest in the room that the group wasn't able to investigate.

We had a new person sit in on this session (Mike S) and another new guy reached out to me just this week; we may be integrating a few new folks into the weekly game.  Our empire grows.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk Report, Game 43 - Ghostly Terrors

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-6: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5 (1): Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6 (3):  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-4:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-5:  Z

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5 (3)
Serge, a Fighter-4
Donavich, Cleric-4

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft
Last week's office chaos had me working some late nights, and I got behind on game reports; I'll post two this week to get on track.

Prior to the game, we talked about last week's ghost encounter and how I misinterpreted some of the guidance on running it (beware the ghostly clone); when the ghost hangs out entirely on the ethereal plane (beyond the ability of 99% of adventure parties) it's a pretty brutal roadblock.  They had few options on dealing with an ethereal monster.

Luckily, they had the foresight to raid the Count's library for books on the undead, and returned to the village with research materials.  They were able to learn that ghosts hate the sound of church bells, and they could bring blessed bells from the small chapel in the village and hopefully enrage it into materializing and attacking directly.  Protection from Evil would protect against Magic Jar possession (incidentally, this became explicit in 2E - I got a hold of some 2E books recently and saw the change there, thanks Stefan Poag!)  The characters also sought the aid of the wise gypsy woman outside the village, Madame Eva, who was willing to sell them an overpriced scroll featuring a pagan exorcism spell.

You may recall that I laud the use of a physical calendar (Happy New Year, Greyhawk).  I scratch notes on it each game night, and when events are scheduled for some future point, I have a place to put them and not forget.  Months and months ago in real time, the group had pillaged the tomb of a dwarf emperor and triggered a spirit of vengeance to start pursuing them (when we ran LOTFP's Hammers of the God).  After that caper, they dispersed their ill gotten gains around the dwarven stronghold, Stonegate, while keeping a few choice items for themselves.  For weeks of game time now, the dwarven spirit of vengeance has been murdering the possessors of its stolen items and returning them to the tomb.   I made a mark on the calendar all those months ago when it would finally catch up to the players in Barovia.

Tonight was that night.

As if on cue, the group decided the time was nigh for them to start finding personal living quarters in town; Mister Moore was moving in with his new lady, Ireena; the priests were staying at the chapel; everyone else had claimed a large home near the town square.  There was no shortage of property in the vastly depopulated village.

Phat Kobra had dwarven plate mail that once belonged to the foul emperor; the dwarf emperor's spirit attacked at midnight, the other characters waking in horror to see their companion held in mid-air by smoky tendrils that were draining his blood into a nebulous cloud.  A rage-filled dwarven face materialized in the smoke from time to time, "I will take back what is mine…"

The clerics and magic user were elsewhere, and too far to help; the non-magical folks needed to figure this out on their own - quickly.  The spirit was immune to weapons, but took some damage from holy water - imagine sleepy characters in their underclothes, desperately running up and down stairs to reach their backpacks, spilling out the contents while vainly searching for extra vials of the stuff.

One of the kids thought they should try a torch, but kept missing on the to-hit roll.  Meanwhile, Kobra was quickly nearing death.  Then the torch hit, and it dissipated part of the spirit.  "Quick, everyone get torches!"  It was one of those fights that came down to the last roll; Kobra was literally dropped to zero hit points by the monster's last bit of damage, and then the spirit was dissipated and destroyed by flame.

Not only did the kids discover fire was the way to defeat it, they remembered the room in the dwarf tomb with the howling spirits in the dark air above the tomb and immediately made the connection between this spirit and the time they plundered the tomb.  The adults were still scratching their heads.  Don't underestimate those young ones - they're sharper than we think, and remember everything.

So Kobra was saved, the clerics were roused and he received enough healing to be fine for the morrow; we'll skip ahead to the next bit of action.

The weather stayed clear in Barovia, and the group set out late the next morning for the castle.  Their ladder into the inner keep was booby trapped, dumping one of the characters to the stone courtyard when some of the lashings gave way.  "Damn vampires", grumbled the party members.  Nonetheless, they made their way through the castle to the crypts, relatively intact.

A select group of characters went through the twisting catacombs to the crypt holding the ghost; they only brought a few warriors to huddle within the paladin's Protection from Evil radius, while the clerics would do their thing.

The "ghost strike team" tore open the crypt door, and the ghost unleashed it's fury; even with Bless, Prayer, and the Protection From Evil effect, the sight of the ghost was chilling and risked 10 years of aging and paralytic fear.  One of the clerics was incapacitated, and dropped in terror (Donavich is now 55 years old, after seeing the ghost in consecutive weeks).  Serge was struck with fear as well.

The ghost failed at its possession attempt of the other cleric, Mordecai, because of the Protection from Evil, and grew enraged as the cleric chimed his holy bells.  It roared around the group to materialize before Mordecai and rend him physically.  Leonidas the fighters, Grumble the Halfling, and Kobra were still on their feet, and quickly shifted to start smashing the ghost with enchanted weapons - they have a sword against undead called "Ghostcutter" and Ravenloft's own "Sunsword".

The ghost grabbed Mordecai and they watched in horror as decades of his life drained into the monster - Mordecai went from a robust 19 year old youth to a 59 year old mature man right before their eyes.  The ghost was beaten back (and it failed a morale roll) but at a hideous cost.

His hands shaking with weakness, Mordecai pulled out the rolled parchment with the exorcism spell and began to intone words of power that would drive the ghost from the mortal world.  He made his exorcism roll and the ghost was compelled to enter the great beyond, shrieking in fury.

This was one of those massively memorable game sessions for me - the showdown with the ghost was cinematic, terrifying, horrible, and totally awesome.  My players did a great job; my campaign world doesn't expect or require them to be heroes, but they go out of their way to make heroic and selfless choices - good job, fellas.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Error Handling Routines

We all make mistakes when we run the game; what's important is how you handle it.  I tend to loosely break mistakes down into two broad categories:  For the Players and Against the Players.  You can further think about them as "material" or not.  Material mistakes warp the campaign in an undesirable way, or lead to a character death; those are the only ones I'm worried about fixing. Small mistakes I just note and hope to do better next time.

Mistakes in the Player's Favor
If a mistake is material and gives the players a significant advantage, I prefer introducing complications or natural consequences instead of something heavy-handed like a retcon or a take back.  Think of it as an opportunity to send the campaign into an interesting direction.

The most common situation is a Monty Haul - your low level characters end up with a powerful magic sword or exorbitant treasure; perhaps a random roll at the wrong time.  Instead of taking that magic sword away, think through what would really happen if someone got an item that was well above their means.  Their life could become very interesting all of a sudden.  In the case of the powerful sword, NPC duelists might flock to challenge the unworthy owner, or the king or lord might claim it for the realm through divine right.

If you talk out of game, a reasonable DM might offer a lesser item that better fits the power level of the campaign.  If you play it out, you can still reach that same end point, but it would happen naturally through consequences of play.  For instance, a worthier fighter might claim the sword in a duel and disdainfully leave the character his hand-me-down, or the king shows his appreciation for the character's "donation" by granting him a lesser weapon.  But now the players have an enemy and a grudge - the campaign is more interesting.  Even better, they might fight off all comers and build a legendary reputation for themselves along the way; your mistake is their opportunity for awesome.

Mistakes Against the Players
The DM is expected to be "impartial and fair" on behalf of the players; when the DM makes a mistake that materially affects their characters, there's an obligation to address it.  I try to let dice fall and avoid fudging, but when my mistake gets someone killed who shouldn't have died, I do what I can to restore the injured party.  For these types of situations, I suggest talking to the group outside of the game - usually at the end or start of the session.  Explain the mistake, how it warped the game, and then discuss some approaches to making it up to the player.  I still don't go back in time and retcon the situation, but strive for a solution that works going forward without changing any timelines.

A recent example for me involved the ghost encounter from a few weeks ago; I ran a version of the ghost from a retro clone (beware the ghostly clone) that was inordinately difficult to fight because some key wording was missing, so I ran it in "hard mode".  The AD&D ghost attempts to magic jar a victim from the safety of the ethereal plane, but when that fails, it materializes and starts wailing on the victim, physically.  My version hung out on the ethereal plane the entire time, frustrating most of their efforts to affect it until they retreated and regrouped to come at it with fresh ideas.

When we met again, I explained the mistake out of game; the resources they expended were still gone, but we agreed that their research in between sessions would turn up tricks that might compel this ghost behave the way the monster was originally designed, thus putting the game "back on track".  That seemed reasonable, and we moved on.  I'll touch on it in the next game report.

I was looking through the 1E DMG recently, and saw that most of the error-handling advice was fairly heavy handed - fix problems with bolts from the blue and other tyrannical measures.  Somewhere along my GM career, I settled on the idea that talking about mistakes and collaborating on a solution out of game maintained the integrity of the campaign better than 'acts of god' and 'bolts from the blue' within the game.

If you don't mind sharing, I'm sure other gamers would like to hear about your most egregious screw ups, and how you fixed them - post some in the comments for everyone to enjoy!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mythic Monday: More Hellish Spirits and Demonic Corpses

One of Fiend Folio's best monsters
Last week's Monday column (Hellish Ghosts and Demonic Vampires) illustrated how descriptions and references in the original Monster Manual created interesting associations regarding undead created by the forces of Hell or the Abyss.  Spectres, wraiths, and similar "haunting" undead are made by the devils out of evil souls consigned to Hell, and ravenous, corporeal undead like vampires, ghouls, and ghasts all have ties to the Demons.

The main value in establishing these relationships is that it gives the DM a strategy on using them in an encounter; they have built in motivations and goals.  Hellish undead tend to guard locations or perform assigned tasks, especially where it can corrupt or subvert a location of significance to the cause of good.  Demonic undead are rapacious and destructive; they seek to spread carnage, or create more of their kind by spreading the curse of undeath.

This week I'm turning my attention to the undead creatures of the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual 2.  The split between hellish and demonic undead is subtle enough that the writers of the succeeding monster books didn't always pick it up, so part of this exercise is seeing how they can be made to fit.

Hellish Undead
The Penanggalan is that female vampire variant of a detached head with trailing entrails, pictured above.  Vampires are chaotic evil and associated with the Demon Prince Orcus; on first glance it doesn't make sense for the penanggalan to be Hellish.  But the writer does mention the penanggalan returning to Hell after death, so the alignment and association was intentional.  The folklore of the penanggalan, Malaysian in origin, mentions the penanggalan as a practitioner of Black Magic arts that  is cursed after breaking a deal with the Devil.  The penanggalan appears as a normal woman during the day, so I would have the creature use subterfuge and trickery to carry out its hellish mission; this at least reinforces the theme I place on devils regarding silver tongued lies, trickery, deceit, and corruption.

The Poltergeist
The poltergeist fits in with the other unsubstantial undead; it haunts a specific area, the place where it was killed when alive.  I can get behind the evil soul, trapped where it died, rattling chains and harassing the living.  Early references in the folklore even refer to them as "invisible stone-throwing devils".

Demonic Undead
The apparition is an ethereal terror that causes massive heart attacks with a psychic choking attack.  Seeing as it got the Chaotic Evil treatment, I'm going to say they roam the astral plane indiscriminately, attempting to kill anyone they meet instead of haunting a single area like the Hellish spirits.  Chaos is freedom!  An apparition is essentially a destructive demon in undead form.

Coffer Corpse
The coffer corpse is the fake-out undead; it appears to be a dead body on a funeral barge, then it pops up and attacks!  ZZzzzzzz - kinda boring, I don't ever recall using one of these.  Maybe when funeral rites are incomplete, the disinterred body can temporarily host a demonic spirit; thus the coffer corpse wreaks havoc with murderous glee when disturbed, and reinforces the importance of last rites, blessings, and burial rituals.

Death Knight
Death Knights would seem to be loyal servants or tyrannical rulers that understand the power of Law, but the text explicitly says they were created by Demogorgon, Prince of Demons.  I'd use them as powerful and destructive lieutenants of nihilism.

I love the Huecuva, and they make perfect sense to me as demonic undead; their touch spreads disease, and the Huecuva of South American folklore is also associated with disease and misfortune.

Neutral Undead
Revenants and Haunts are both spirits that linger in the mortal world because of unfinished business; they have no ties to Hell or the Abyss.  The other new neutral undead were the Animal Skeletons and Monster Zombies, both created by Animate Dead.  The Juju Zombie isn't created by Animate Dead, but is made whenever a magic user kills someone with the Energy Drain spell; it's still a servitor.

Divine Undead
There are a few undead that are specifically tied to an unnamed evil god or demigod instead of demons or devils; they are the Skeleton Warriors and the Sons of Kyuss.  The Skeleton Warriors are powerful cursed servitors, neutral in alignment.  The Sons of Kyuss are pretty interesting though; they spread disease, and they have those hideous worms that infect opponents and burrow into the victim's brain.  That's just nasty stuff.  They're Chaotic Evil and would work fine as demonic undead.  However, anyone around during the 3E era probably remembers Age of Worms in Dungeon Magazine, and the adventure path dealing with the return of the elder evil, Kyuss.  In an old school game, I'd gladly promote Kyuss to Demon Prince trapped on the material plane, and use the 3E ideas whole cloth.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Gaming Reflections for a Sunday

Confessions of a 4E Survivor

Hill Cantons had a recent post about running a version of Greyhawk where the Archclericy ofVeluna was a repressive state, and the campaign involved pushing the players to foment a rebellion in Veluna; he was a bit apologetic (now) for working out some angst-ridden issues through the medium of the RPG.  But it's very honest, isn't it?  Running a game is expressive, and the DM can't help but to influence the game based on a wide range of internal factors - aesthetic tastes, political views, artistic influences, high minded goals.  I'm right there with you, Chris; circumstances this past week inspired me to reflect on my own gaming philosophy and how I got here after some rather forgetful experiences.

I started this blog almost a year ago after returning to old school gaming, the current Greyhawk campaign, after  a year long 4E experiment.  Prior to the Greyhawk campaign, I had been running a kid's game using Moldvay BX, and running an adult game using 4E.

When we returned to old school gaming, I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve - I wanted to run a game where the players could go anywhere; I'd just present an interesting world for them to interact.  The game would use lots of random tables and rulings on the fly.  It would heavily feature dungeons or site-based locations that encouraged exploration.  I was on Dragonsfoot prior to blogging and I really liked the maxim, "We explore dungeons, not characters". Of course, since becoming a member in this online blogging community, I've had the opportunity to classify and reflect on a lot of these techniques and identify what makes them work in terms of game theory.  I'm well along the path of having a personal philosophy of gaming.

While doing some reflecting this week, I had a bit of an epiphany; if our 4E game hadn't ended in such an ugly manner, we might still be grinding our way through it like Plato's cave dwellers, not remembering the outer world of the forms.  My philosophy was born like a phoenix out of the ashes of a disastrous campaign.

Apologies in advance to anyone who still really likes 4E; this may cross over into 4E hate, and I don't mean to wage any edition war.  My priorities in a game are just different than folks that still play 4E, and I have friends that do like it still.  First, let me take a moment and discuss how the DM's side of those games went:  prep for the following week started at the end of the previous session, where I'd quiz the players on their intention for the next game night.  During the week, I'd prepare the 2-3 encounters for the next adventure, building highly intricate and detailed encounters with all of the monster roles (skirmishers, brutes, artillery, etc), interesting terrain, and some hand-picked treasure based on what the character's needed.  In 4E, magic items are a necessary buff so players can make their numbers, and the DM is recommended to hand-select the items based on group need.  Prior to game night, I'd have the battle map pre-made in dungeon tiles, I'd have all the right monster minis pulled, and usually when the players showed up, we could practically start with the minis on the table, ready to fight.

Looking back, there's a world of difference between prepping the two styles; 4E involved lots of intricate planning to create those detailed encounters, and time spent doing all the physical props - the right tiles and the right minis.  It wasn't like preparing for a role playing game; weekly prep was more like army building for one of those warhammer games.

The tactical fights were complex and very challenging; skirmishing in 4E is tight.  However, all we had time in a game session was for a couple of fights (each encounter could be an hour or more).  There really wasn't much exploration, and only a modicum of story.  In between sessions, players would pour over their characters, looking for ways to tune their proficiencies and power selections.  Character optimization for the next week's fighting happened weekly.

We had this one guy who hadn't played D&D since 1E, we'll call him Darth K, and his expectations were all set by 1E games when he was a kid; every week he would bemoan the fact that there were no wandering monsters, that treasure wasn't randomized, that he couldn't go anywhere on the maps or do anything, that hijinks were discouraged, that every week was a scripted set of linear encounters prepared by me.

It reached a head one night when a patron gave the group the adventure for the night, and when the group retreated to plan how to tackle the mission, Darth K pipes up, "This mission blows.  Let's pass and take the next mission."  Jaws dropped.  "No, seriously, let's hire some other adventurers to do this adventure for us, we can offer them less money and pocket the difference.  Then let's head out of town and find something new to do.  Besides, my character has some role playing reasons why he'd skip this one - it might involve breaking a law and snooping around, so I'm going to pass no matter what".

That derailed the game for the night; we had a smaller crew that night, and they started arguing for and against doing the mission, and then I chimed in pointed out that they could do something else, but we'd break for the night because these were the only battles that were prepared; 4E wasn't good for improvising new battles on the fly.  It was a bad scene all around.  In the ensuing email discussion, it came up that each 4E night was a rail road from a role playing perspective, because only a single delve or mission was prepared, and the players had to do it or there were no battles; Darth K ended up calling me an inflexible dick, everyone else had no back bone, 4E was a shitty system, and we could all go to hell.  He quit.

In retrospect, I was indeed a crappy 4E DM; maybe someone else would have done better.  I didn't have the time or energy to build multiple adventures per week; most of the time I'd have a couple of different plots leading to the same adventure (hiding the rail road tracks a bit), but this particular time was a down week, and it showed.  Darth K was lacking in some social skills, and was insensitive to the amount of prep time I put in each week, but he wasn't wrong, either; there were material differences between how 4E was working and the kind of game he really wanted to play, and the need wasn't met.

Shortly after Darth K's blow up, the 4E game started to wane in attractiveness.  As mentioned, I was running a kid's game in parallel to 4E, using Moldvay BX.  I'd laud from time to time how free form the game was, and how much fun it was to prepare and run; I finally got the 4E adults to agree that starting a sandbox style campaign using Moldvay BX would cure the 4E blues and let the guys engage in a free form game, too.  It was a leap of faith, and a willingness to let go of all the monetary investments in 4E, but we haven't looked back.

I've had a rough week this week - I was away at a conference, and lots of fires blew up back at the office, requiring long hours in the evening and weekend.  It seems like a strange time, a midst some work chaos, to get all introspective about a personal gaming philosophy, but there it is:  everything our current play style represents is a direct consequence of those blow ups and personality clashes that derailed the 4E campaign.  Darth K was more of a gamer acquaintance than friend; if there was real substance there, it wouldn't have ended a friendship.  It's unfortunate, too, because he was a good gamer and he'd be absolutely delighted with everything about our current campaign; I've often considered dropping him a line.

Okay - that's a bit of cathartic navel gazing; I'm thankful for the experiences, because it sent us in a new direction, and the rest of the group is enjoying our return to D&D's roots immensely.  Back with regular posts shortly!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Deities and Demigods are for Killing

If it bleeds, we can kill it.  The gods bleed, don't they?

It's nice that so many folks in the OSR came together to discuss D&D's smorgasbord of religious influences, but let's not forget the most important side effect of putting various mythological figures in the Deities & Demigods Cyclopedia:  they have AC, and hit points, like every other monster in the game.  The gods are for killing.  We can't lose sight of Il Male's immortal mantra:

  • Gods are for killing;
  • Clerics worship gods, therefore are for killing;
  • If it's not human is for killing;
  • If it's human but a little weird, it's probably for killing;
  • Magic-users are for killing 99.9% of times;
  • Dinosaurs are either to ride or for killing;
  • ...and so on.

You may think Gary (or rather Jim Ward) left out any representation of the monotheistic deity so as not to offend the Christian masses (or other "People of the Book"); I'd rather think it's because he knew an all powerful creator is beyond mere statistics, whereas all the mythical figures of folklore are put there to be toppled by high level power gamers armed with vorpal swords and staves of wizardry.

With that out of the way, I'm going to return to the problem of why priestly Christian clerics in the 17th century would have anything to do with clerical spell scrolls written by Egyptian worshippers of Horus in the 2nd millennium.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Drifting from Looting

I've been thinking a lot about "back to basics" D&D lately and how the traditional adventure structures complement the game's objectives.  Characters advance by gaining experience; the most efficient experience is gained from the recovery of gold while exploring dungeons.  In Moldvay and similar versions of classic D&D, you get about 4-5 times more gold than monster experience when using the suggested dungeon stocking methods; you see this formula loosely followed in the published modules, too.

Hex crawls and multi level mega dungeons are exploratory by nature, and provide plenty of opportunities to recover gold.  Coincidentally, the hex crawl and the mega dungeon are the old school structures that support massive player agency and have gotten the most attention in the OSR as we rediscover these old forms.  They emphasize site-based exploration over combat.

It's a worthy issue to consider, because it raises the question - how closely should your game cleave to the strengths of D&D?  Or put another way - how much of your D&D game should be exploration versus fighting?  And to put a practical application on the question - as I consider something like the wide area sandbox - should the plot hooks and adventures be focused on plundering ancient sites and locations vesus monster hunting or cult bashing?  Here's a note from the boss on the question of drift:

The danger of a mutable system is that you or your players will go too far in some undesirable direction and end up with a short-lived campaign... Similarly, you must avoid the tendency to drift into areas foreign to the game as a whole. Such campaigns become so strange as to be no longer "AD&D". They are isolated and will usually wither. Variation and difference are desirable, but both should be kept within the boundaries of the overall system. Imaginative and creative addition can most certainly be included; that is why nebulous areas have been built into the game. Keep such individuality in perspective by developing a unique and detailed world based on the rules of ADVANCED D8D.
--Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master's Guide (Preface)

There's a steady trajectory across versions of D&D that's moved the game from an exploration model to a fighting model.  If Moldvay and earlier versions put the emphasis on exploration and treasure recovery versus combat, AD&D increased the value of fighting; AD&D 1E literally doubled the amount of experience gained from fighting monsters, compared to BX D&D.  By the mid-80's, we see things like Dragonlance, where XP for story rewards have crept into AD&D's twilight years.  2nd Edition had an alternate XP system as well (my memory is shaky here, but I remember class rewards); 3E focused on the combat encounter and CR (challenge rating) as the basis for XP, and 4E dispensed with XP for treasure entirely - 4E rewards are 80-90% tactical combat, 10-20% recommended for quests, and 0% for treasure.

Drift indeed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mythic Monday: Hellish Ghosts and Demonic Vampires

Most "mythic mondays" have involved looking at folklore to use in D&D; this week takes a look at some of D&D's folklore (specifically the 1E AD&D Monster Manual).  There's a curious divide in the AD&D 1E Monster Manual between undead monsters that have their origins in Hell, and undead spawned by demonic forces in the Abyss.  It leads to some interesting implications regarding how these monsters can be used in the campaign.

First, we need to start with the humble Manes demon and Lemure devil; Manes are the remains of evil souls that sink to the Abyss after death; Lemures are the souls of evil beings consigned to Hell.  In both cases, there's a curious sentence in the Monster Manual indicating how these evil souls can be transformed by the masters of the domains as undead in the mortal plane.  Manes can be  recycled into Ghasts and Shadows; Lemures can be changed into Wraiths and Spectres.

Looking closer at the various undead in the Monster Manual, we see that Ghasts, Shadows, Ghouls and Vampires are all Chaotic Evil undead, and they have ties to the Abyss;  Ghasts and Shadows are created from Manes.  Yeenoghu is the Lord of Ghouls, and commands the loyalty of an entity called the Ghoul King.  Orcus is called the Prince of Undeath and can summon Shadows and Vampires.

On the Lawful Evil side of things, we've already indicated that Lemures can be transformed into Wraiths and Spectres; the other Lawful Evil undead are the Wights and Ghosts (we'll bypass Mummies and Liches for now).

I'm also ignoring Zombies and Skeletons; they're mindless.  Since they have no self-motivation, they are Neutral alignment, and can be created through the Magic User spell, Animate Dead; no intervention by demonic or hellish forces is required.

Earlier in Gothic Greyhawk, I established that Ghouls and Vampires both owe their existence to demonic cannibal curses; the curse drives the monster to consume the flesh or blood of the living.  (Yes, this is even more reason to replace the energy draining vampire with the vampire of folklore that consumes blood).  Demons yearn for chaos and destruction, and demonic undead seek to spread their curses far and wide, consuming all in their path.  That's really the defining characteristic for demonic undead; ravenous and destructive hunger.  I really like the idea that ghouls, vampires and shadows can be used as plague monsters, overwhelming areas with their contagious curses of undeath that spread geometrically if unchecked.  We've seen plagues of ghouls in the pop culture zombie phenomenon (28 Days Later. World War Z, The Walking Dead); plagues of vampires are out there to be found as well (Salem's Lot, They Thirst, The Strain, 30 Days of Night).  Why have I never considered a plague of shadows?  This situation must be immediately rectified.

Hell is another matter.  What are the motivations of the devils?  In Gothic Greyhawk, Hell is a divine realm, like Heaven, and devils are fallen angels.  Where the inhabitants of the Abyss seek to destroy creation, the legions of Hell seek to corrupt, control and subvert it.  This gives us some insight on how to use hell-spawned undead monsters in the game.

Wights, wraiths, spectres, and ghosts most commonly haunt specific locations; they serve well as guardian spirits, corrupting or subverting the original purpose of the site they ward.  Wights infest the barrows and tombs of fallen heroes, mocking the cultures that sought to honor their heroic dead and turning the fallen hero's remains into vessels of evil.  Wraiths and spectres are placed wherever their presence will disrupt the efforts of the divine realm and the powers of good; they prevent the exploration and reclamation of ruins, the recovery of lost holy relics, or the cleansing and consecration of fallen shrines and churches.  There's something poetic about a ghost in the graveyard, or haunting the abandoned churchyard, that really captures the right aesthetic for me.  Thematically, I like that all of these undead wither the life force through one method or another, whether it's energy drain or aging.

There is another category of undead that is neither demonic nor hell-spawned; humans that willingly undergo the undead transformation to carry out their evil life's work after death.  The Lich and the Mummy would fall into this latter category; misguided human that undergo a horrible transformation to extend their lives unnaturally (in the case of the Mummy, I would say it's the evil priests performing the burial ceremony that carry out the ritual of mummification).

I've been spending more time than usual with various AD&D books lately; it's hard not to appreciate some of the depth in those amazing books from the 70's.  I have to think this "Vampires are from demons, Specters are from devils" was intended by the Monster Manual references; does anyone know if it was ever developed further, in Dragon Magazine perhaps?

I'll do a companion piece next week looking at the undead monsters introduced in the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual 2 and see how they relate to these themes.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Introducing Saturday Sage Advice: Random Tables as Setting Definition

There are a lot of smart folks blogging about games that have been at this a lot longer than me; as such, there's a lot of really good reading material, ideas, and inspiration out there.  An obvious problem with blogs is that an article has its brief day in the sun, and then drops off the writer's home page.  Finding old posts is like a treasure hunt.

When I see something that catches my eye, I try and snag the link and make a quick note so I can refer back to it later.  Then it struck me - it would be a cool feature to resurface these old posts, and add some commentary or insight on how the post has changed my approach at the table.  Thus - I'm going to start a Saturday Sage Advice piece, that encapsulates some piece of world-building advice or game master advice from my file.  I have fairly selfish motives; recapitulating these ideas will help me internalize them and also have a handy reference here on my blog.  I encourage folks that missed the original posts to check them out.

* * *

File Under Setting:
Random Tables as Setting Definition

I follow Kenneth Hite's work because he wrote Trail of Cthulhu, some Call of Cthulhu stuff, and a number of excellent Lovecraft books (readers may know him from GURPs horror and The Day After Ragnarok).  He's also a frequent guest on the HP Lovecraft Literary podcast.  In one of his live journals from last year (Setting is My Business), he was lamenting the traditional setting design approaches and identifying ways various RPGs have improved player engagement and DM engagement; here was one of the nuggets:

How do you get (the GM) to pick up the setting and wield it like a battleaxe? (Or a warhammer.) Gary Gygax gave us the answer... The answer is the Random Encounter Table, or Wandering Monster Table, or Random Dungeon Generator, and all those other wondrous time-killers in the back of the DMG. By stocking those tables, paying some attention to the probabilities, and adding modifiers here and there, you create an immediate, accessible method for GMs to understand your setting in the most visceral way possible: by co-creating it with you. They only have to read the setting bits they've generated, and they have a story and an adventure. This is an almost insanely powerful technology for setting design and presentation, and we've unaccountably left it back in its rudimentary Bronze Age form.

Inspiring stuff!  Over on the pornstars blog, Zak suggested a similar approach earlier this year:  How I Want to Hear About Your Setting.  Here were the main points; RPG writing is full of boring description; it's doubly worse because most settings just reskin real-world analogues that could be described in shortcut form; the setting description and detail should emerge out of the tools used to build the setting.

I was already a believer in randomly generated content prior to these posts, but it was a revelation to consider dropping the pages and pages of setting history, and telling the story of the setting through construction of the random tables. "Show, don't tell", as the writers say.  Details emerge organically through play at the table and no mind-numbing info dumps are necessary.  Players learn details only as they become relevant.  I love it!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Say Yes; Skill Checks in a Rules-Lite-System

The argument for and against skill checks in old school games typically involves orthogonal interests - creativity and power.  Creativity:  If its not defined as something I can explicitly do, I can't do it - versus - I can try and do anything a person can do.  Power:  Is the ability to perform an action defined mechanically in a player facing set of rules, or is it controlled by that black hat guy behind the screen making arbitrary decisions?

Let's take a simple example - starting a fire.  I mention it because I'm fairly sure "fire building" is in the Rules Cyclopedia; TSR fell in love with skills during the 2E period and they infected the various Gazetteers and Rules Cyclopedia as well.  I would also imagine everyone reading this believes they could start a fire; I won't argue, but I will point out that every season of Survivor starts with a miserable crew of cold people shivering under a tree because they couldn't get it done.  Let's assume that our fantasy characters are more skilled than 21st century Americans and can start fires when provided basic equipment.

Here's how the creativity argument works:  If a system has a fire building skill, its quite possible anyone who didn't take fire building will never try and make a fire.  "I don't have that skill".  Never mind that fire building is a mundane activity, and it's likely the skill is meant to cover fire building under adverse conditions.

The power argument involves issues like this:  we only need dice and rules to resolve actions where the outcome is in doubt; the game provides rules only for the most common situations of conflict (combat, saving throws against adverse situations).  Fire building is mundane, so the DM can just rule on it any way he sees fit.

Of course, you can start to push the situation a little… can you build a fire in the dark, or in the rain? (No Sam, I will not, will not, on a train).  How about without a tinderbox, or flint and steel?  I'll make a ruling.  And then out come the cries of DM arbitrariness and rules by fiat when the DM denies a success.

So here is a simple approach to encouraging player creativity and avoiding arbitrary decisions - it starts with "Saying Yes".

The idea of "Saying Yes" comes from improv theater; the concept requires figuring out a way to incorporate a new idea into the ongoing scene.  It's a way of channeling creativity and moving forward.  "Saying No" during Improv deflates the energy and takes the other actors out of the scene.   The key concept is understanding that you're actually saying "Yes, But…"  The "But" allows for complications.

"Can I jump the chasm?"
"Can we start a fire in this rainstorm?"
"Is it possible to climb that cliff?"

"No" shouldn't come out of the DM's mouth, unless the request is so far beyond normal experience it'd be unanimous at the table.  "Can I hold my breath underwater for twenty minutes?", is one of those times I'd say no; or more likely, I'd ask why the player thinks it should be possible.

How does Say Yes work?  It's simple.  If the action the player is requesting seems fairly mundane and you don't think there's a chance for failure, go ahead and say yes without further discussion.  "Can I start a fire, in the hearth, using my tinderbox, flint and steel, and all these dry pages of the old book?"  No one will accuse you of arbitrary thinking when the DM rules in the player's favor.

Once the DM decides there is a non-zero chance of failure, it's time to say "Yes, But".  "Sure you can try and jump the chasm, but let's talk about it a little".  Two approaches to the discussion work equally well - if the DM already knows what he thinks the chance of success should be, he can just lay it out for the player as the starting point; for instance, previous rules discussions might have set a precedent.  Alternatively, you can start a dialogue with the player or players and get them to suggest what they think are the chances of success.  Either approach creates a degree of transparency that will encourage discussion, and hopefully elucidate better problem solving from the players as they think through the situation to improve their chances.

Bad approach:  "Can I start a fire in the rain?"  DM:  "No, its just not possible".
Better approach:  "Can I start a fire in the rain?"  DM:  "Let me see, you'd be using wet wood, with water pouring down right on where you're trying to light fire?  You can try, but it seems like long odds".

If the players are new to collaborative problem solving, I would recommend that the DM  encourages them to discuss ways to alter the facts of the problem to improve their chances - for the wet fire example,  they might use cloaks to create a wind break or rain shield; they could rip pages out of a dry book from someone's backpack to provide something flammable.   The DM might point out the chance of igniting the wet wood has crept up from 10% to 50% by adding the rain shield and dry tinder; maybe dry fuel (like torches) would take it all the way to 90%, easily rolled on a d10 to determine success or failure.

The bottom line - the lack of defined skills means the players have freedom to try anything.  To encourage that creativity, the DM needs to learn to Say Yes; foster negotiation and discussion involving all the players, and reduce the problem to a dice roll when the majority agrees the chances of success are fairly represented by the DM's ruling.

I do lots of 'personality profile' type stuff through work - ongoing management and project leadership coursework requires it - so I'm consistently pegged as a consensus builder and someone willing to compromise to keep moving forward; it's no surprise I favor transparent approaches that lay the cards on the table for the players and let them decide if they want to proceed with a risky plan or not.

Note that I don't have a strong requirement for establishing any objective standard; it's quite likely that 5 or 6 gamers sitting at a table don't have a clear grasp on the actual chances of climbing a wet rope in a gusting wind with a heavy backpack; what's important is the process and the sense of empowerment it creates.  Usually, someone at the table has some relevant experience (army training, martial arts, Boy Scouts, whatever) to ensure the dice factors pass the sniff test.  For that matter, even when the DM is an expert in a given subject area and feels like he can rule without any inputs, I'd caution against it - once again, there's more value in a transparent process than being arbitrary but "right".

I also don't have any strong opinion on the actual skill roll mechanism; I try to keep everything linear and simple, so I use lots of d6's and d10's; Moldvay has an implicit d6 mechanic throughout, so that's where I go most often.  I'm not a fan of using d20 vs an attribute (it makes me feel dirty, like I'm borrowing something clandestinely from the 90's) and percentage chances are a bit too BRP.  3d6 or 4d6 against an attribute is popular, but understand the nature of the bell curve - I keep a bell curve chart handy in OneNote for the 3d6 curve so I can estimate percentages of rolling under a certain attribute if that's the way we go.

Gothic Greyhawk Report, Game 42

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-6: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5 (1): Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6 (3):  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-4:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-5:  Z

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Zeke, a Fighter-4
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5 (3)
Serge, a Fighter-4
Ireena, a Fighter-5
Donavich, Cleric-4

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

This will be a short post; I spoiled the major encounter with the ghost the other day:  Beware the Ghostly Clone!

Picking up after the death of Zeke, the group waited down in the village for the snow to clear, hoping for a nice day.  When the weather improved, they set off back up the mountain, trudging slowly through the snow to make a good path along the wagon track.

Their basic plan was to continue searching the catacombs and crypts; the catacombs were vast, and the group had left off about halfway through the northern section of the crypts after encountering a spectre; that's where they resumed searching.

They reached the northern extent of the catacombs, including a wooden dungeon door leading to a new section of the dungeon, and a portcullis blocking ingress to a majestic door - the inscription indicated it was the tomb of Sergei von Zarovitch.  They passed it by for now.

Meanwhile, the paladin found a crypt door that radiated evil.  While the group prepared their tactics, they noticed a veritable moving carpet on the ceiling above them; as they angled their light towards the ceiling, they saw hundreds of bats creeping into the hallway above them from all of the surrounding passages.

"It's a vampire", they quickly theorized.  "It's summoning hundreds of bats to harry us when we breach the crypt".  Not wishing to deal with spell casting while hundreds of bats fluttered around their caster's heads, Mister Moore spent a few rounds with the wand of fireballs blasting them off the ceiling.  Hundreds of charred bats dropped to the ground all around them, and the hall stank of burnt fur.

When they got back to the crypt door, a vampire was indeed on the other side of the sarcophagus within the crypt, hissing at them and threatening.  It was Gertrude again.  The fighters rushed in and started slashing her; it seemed like it would be a quick fight, but then the cleric decided to use Turn Undead, forcing the vampire into mist form and driving it away into the darkness.  Frustrated by the vampire's escape, the fighters spent a moment chewing out the cleric.

The next occupied crypt they found involved the ghost encounter; you can get the gist of it in Tuesday's post (linked above).  

The group decided that running from the ghost was the smartest choice, and they fled the scene.  Once the party was safely back upstairs, they considered options on researching ghosts and identifying weaknesses; remembering that there were books on the undead in the large tower, they retrieved a few of the books, then decided to head down the mountain and read up on ghosts, making it an early adventuring day.  They murmured something about visiting the gypsy wise woman for advice as well.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Threat Analysis in the Weird Setting

The traditional sandbox structures- the multi-level dungeon and the wilderness hex crawl - both support a degree of transparency in the player-driven game; when formulating their plans, the players know that the deeper dungeon levels are more dangerous, and the further one goes into the wilderness is also more dangerous.  There's a geographic correlation between distance and danger.

The use of standard Monster Manuals enhances that transparency; players learn that goblins live in the woods over here, but an ogre was seen beyond the river; perhaps the orcs on dungeon level 2 warn about the bugbears on level 3.  The Monster Manual provides a common yardstick, both for the players and the NPC inhabitants of the world, when sharing knowledge and describing the dangers that are out there.

With that foundation established, let's toss out a caveat:  transparency and threat analysis is really only necessary in the player-driven game.  A fairly standard style of play is where the DM determines the upcoming adventures:  when the players are 4th level, the DM builds adventures that threaten 4th level characters; the players don't hear about those 1st level opportunities anymore.  When they're 9th level, they're hearing about plot hooks that lead to challenges for 9th level guys.  The world conforms to the needs of the player party and the DM provides appropriate adventures for the point in time.

The player-driven game postulates a different approach; the world exists, and there are opportunities appropriate to both low level and high level characters at the same time; it's up to the players to gather information and plan appropriately. It's a bit like putting The Tomb of Horrors in the swamp outside the home base right from the beginning of the campaign; it's a legendary location the group will hear about early on, but they'll also know appropriate warnings about going there, too.

Let's turn our attention to the Weird Setting sandbox and how threat analysis is different in a campaign where neither geography nor a traditional Monster Manual provide threat transparency.  I've been musing about an approach I'm calling The Library of de la Torre; the character of Luis Diaz de la Torre is like a Spanish version of Solomon Kane, a wily adventurer priest that traversed Europe during the Thirty Years War, building a large occult library and a field journal of notes.  At the beginning of the campaign, the group gets access to de la Torre's journal, giving them possession of wide-ranging plot hooks around Europe.  So the question becomes, how does the group determine which plot hooks lead to In Search of the Unknown (a classic starter adventure) and which plot hooks lead to The Tomb of Horrors (a legendary killer dungeon)?  Ideas follow.

Flatten the Power Curve
The first thought is to build adventures that are less about combat and more about problem solving; fighting is possible, but still avoidable by low level characters if they'd be overmatched.  A rules system like LOTFP works well for this style, since all of the armor classes are in a narrow range and the combat engine doesn't require increasing to-hit rolls and increasing AC across all character classes.

Embellish the Hooks
The idea here is to provide enough information directly in the plot hook, or allow research, such that a group can rank the threat level of a given opportunity.  For instance, first level characters might read about a legendary vyrkolakas ruling over a remote Greek island; a modicum of research would identify that the vyrkolakas is a Greek version of the vampire; as such they might decide it's not a good fit as their first caper.

Use a Bestiary, Anyway
I can't help but think that adventures in and around a fantastic Europe would use some monster names common to folklore - ghosts, specters, vampires, werewolves, bogeys, goblins, and trolls; even if you're not using previously existing versions of these creatures from the Monster Manual, the "weird" versions can maintain a similar power level so a group can plan a sequence for their investigations.

Balance is Overrated
The simplest idea is to toss concerns about balance out the window; who cares if the group tackles the 10th level necromancer right from the beginning?  Once they see what the opponent is capable of doing, let's hope they run and plan to circle back later in their careers when they're better prepared.

*    *    *

By blending the previous techniques, I'm confident a series of plot hooks could be presented that would still let the players evaluate the risk versus reward of the different opportunities and develop a plan.  The traditional approaches to running a small area sandbox - either as hex crawl or dungeon - make the DM's job a little easier, but nothing worth doing is ever truly easy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

AD&D's Most Dubious Rules

I've gotten a little swamped with work and home the past few days and haven't had the chance to continue the dialogue about the wide area sandbox and the Monster Manual; hopefully tonight I'll get back to it.

In the meantime, some lighter fare for discussion; AD&D is oft criticized for rules that add complexity without making the game better; it's the rare grognard that plays AD&D 100% by-the-book.  I learned D&D with the Moldvay red box, so I mostly ran Moldvay rules with AD&D classes and monsters.

With that in mind, there's a new poll up on the right hand side - I've tried to list the rules that generate the most grief.  How many of the following AD&D rules do you ignore or modify with house rules?  Feel free to add more in the comments if I've missed one that is commonly ignored or overruled.

  • Weapon vs AC
  • Weapon Speed Factors
  • Melee Segments
  • Spell Components
  • Casting Times
  • Alignment
  • Firing Missiles into Melee
  • Helmets in Melee
  • Unarmed Combat
  • Morale and NPC reactions
  • Training Costs
  • Training Times
  • Psionics
  • The Bard
  • The Monk
  • Demi-Human Level Limits
  • XP for Magic Items
  • Magic Resistance

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Beware the Ghostly Clone!

The AD&D ghost

"I detect a foul evil emanating from the crypt", said the paladin during last game session.  "Well, we're here to kill vampires", was the general group consensus - let's pop that sucker open and get the stakes and garlic ready.  "This feels worse than usual, if that's possible… something more malign than a vampire".  Nonetheless, they pressed forward, breaching the crypt, and encountered their first GHOST.

Considering how common they are in real world folklore, ghosts are not very common in D&D; after long careers of playing AD&D and 3E, none of my players could recall encountering a ghost.  I couldn't recall ever running one in an encounter.  I had some vague concerns how the group would beat the ghost based on its peculiar abilities, but I let her rip anyway; players are resourceful and my group frequently surprises me.

You see, ghosts are ethereal, and can only be damaged by ethereal combatants.  Oh - and telepathy.  Ghosts are also effected by telepathy.  So how many different ways can your group current group engage in ethereal and/or telepathic combat?  (If you're like us, the answer is none).

I can think of two magic items that allow someone to drift into the ethereal plane - the lame "oil of etherealness" and the even lamer "armor of etherealness".  A few rare psionics disciplines allow ethereal travel and telepathic combat - except we don't use them.

Meanwhile, the ethereal ghost can magic jar with impunity, seizing control of a player character and using the possessed body to beat on his compatriots.

My players did their best, busting out their Potion of Undead Control (the ghost saved against the charm effect) and failing in their Turn Undead attempt.  After those failures, they Webbed their possessed companion, and when the ghost gave up the possession, they ended up cutting him free and running for it.

Castle Ravenloft has a library stocked with books on the nature of the undead, so they raided the library before the end of the night to come back at the problem with some fresh tactics after researching ghostly vulnerabilities.

After the session, I started thinking through how difficult is a ghost encounter, and started considering all the different ways they could destroy one without ethereal travel; Destroy Evil or Raise Dead (in BX/Labyrinth Lord) are the most straightforward, but both are 5th level spells.  I poured over the game text a little more to see if I should put in a folkloric element - destroying a fetter that ties it to the mortal world, or somehow driving it from the material plane (maybe via the 4th level Exorcism).  And then I noticed a key sentence - this is straight from the AD&D 1E monster manual:

Ghosts attack by two means:  Any creature within 6" of one is subject to attack by magic jar spell from the ghost.  Unless the ghost becomes semi-material to attack by other means, it can otherwise only be combated by another in the ethereal plane (in which case the ghost has an armor class of 8) or by telepathic means.  If the ghost fails to magic jar its chosen victim, it will then semi-materialize in order to attach by touch (in which case the ghost is armor class 0).

Aha!  The text implies the ghost picks a single victim to magic jar, and if it fails to capture them, it will materialize and continue to attack on the physical plane.  Semi-materialized ghosts can be swatted with magic weapons.  That's a pretty important implication - it saves the ghost from being an invulnerable road block.

The whole reason I got into a jam is because we're not actually playing AD&D 1E, we're using Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion, and the subtle language about a single target didn't make it into the text; the AEC implies the ghost's primary and usual attack is the Magic Jar; materialization is purely optional (and suboptimal).  So I'm putting out a cautionary note about the importance of cross-checking subtle language when it's imported into a retro-clone; clone authors are tossing the text to avoid infringement, and sometimes that original phrasing was important.

I do have a follow-on question for any D&D lore masters, however:  Does the Protection from Evil spell protect an individual from Magic Jar in OD&D or 1E?  I know it works that way in later editions (it's in the SRD, for instance), but I don't recall when it entered D&D - I was looking for a reference in AD&D 1E and couldn't find one.  I'm wondering if that entered via 2E AD&D or perhaps Dragon?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why the Monster Manual is Important

Picking up from yesterday's post on D&D's competitive advantages, to wit:  players have a clear mission (finding treasure), and simple accessible archetypes for character classes.  The level progression encourages campaign play.  The classic adventure structures push decision making on the players; the class roles encourage group tactics and cohesion.

Just an aside:  Through the years, I've seen folks here and there run story-heavy D&D games, where the players go off performing quests and dealing with villains.  Note how the first thing that gets overhauled and house-ruled in such a regime is the XP system, because the objectives of that quest-oriented story-game are no longer the same as Dungeons & Dragons as written.

Learning to love it again...
Aesthetically, I like the idea of unique monsters or re-envisioning D&D without the use of a published bestiary, but it misses an important point:  the Monster Manuals are part of the secret sauce.  There are two sides to using the hierarchical creatures, with their bundles of hit dice and special abilities loosely translating into a "challenge level":  first the manuals give the DM ready-made creatures for populating dungeons and wilderness, according the right level of danger the DM wants for that locale; secondarily, they give the players enough information to calculate their relative risk and reward due to meta game knowledge.

If you've been with me a few weeks, you know I've been posting here and there about a campaign idea (the Library of de la Torre) where the players inherit an occult library with field notes; the previous owner's journal is full of adventure hooks and the players have a number of adventure choices right from day one.  It's a way of front loading a lot of plot hooks (like a rumor table) and super-charging the player driven game.  Note the difference between the following two sets of facts and how they offer different opportunities for a group just starting out:

First Version
After reading the journal, the group learns that the mine outside the old town was haunted by tommy knockers, also called kobolds; there's a lot of silver left in the mine if it could be made safe.  The peasants near the old wood are afraid of losing livestock to goblin fairies that creep out of the woods at night.  Further north, it's said travelers between two towns often disappear along a stretch of road passing through the marshland, because an ogre lives somewhere across the swamps.  And just last week a giant was seen striding back towards Snake Head mountain after stealing a cow.

Second Version
After reading the journal, the group learns that the mine outside the old town was haunted by a foul demon from beyond; there's a lot of silver left in the mine if it could be made safe.  The peasants near the old wood are afraid of losing livestock to a witch that creeps out of the woods at night, stealing animals for unknown purposes.  Further north, it's said travelers between two towns often disappear along a stretch of road passing through the marshland, because a necromancer lives somewhere across the swamps.  And just last week a "dead thing" was seen striding back towards Snake Head mountain after slaughtering a cow.

My idea behind the Library of de la Torre is for a "weird horror" style campaign in the 17th century, so a set of facts similar to the second version is more in line with what I'm thinking.  But surely you see a flaw?  If you want the agenda to be determined by the players, the rumors need to be embellished with enough information to allow a meaningful analysis of danger.  On a larger scale, this is a critique of the whole line of thinking "monsters should always be unique and unknowable".

DM's with a strong hand on the steering wheel will ensure the adventure opportunities for the low-level group are appropriate for low-level characters; the danger scales with the capabilities of the group.  That's not the approach I want to take with the wide area sandbox - I'm still recovering from my time with 4E and the dictates of balance, thank you very much.

My platonic ideal these days is with sandbox play, and a lot of my recent posts have focused on pushing the boundaries of the sandbox to test the limits - whether it's been concerns with illusionism and moving content (the Shell game post that instigated the whole 'Quantum Ogre' discussion), the use of plot hooks as "leading the players", or now looking at how we can break out of the micro-setting and build a larger wide area sandbox without hex-by-hex minutiae.

I'll return with thoughts on whether D&D sans bestiary and the sandbox are reconcilable; the key takeaway for me was the revelation that published bestiaries are as important to players in the player driven game as they are to DMs, as they provide a means for gauging challenges.