Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ode to a Dead Halfling

I was a little sad the other night, when Brick, the party's Halfling, got turned into a Brickcicle by a freezing blast of dragon breath.  It truly was a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time; the player figured the halfling was out of harm's way down a hall, away from the fight, not realizing that dragon breath would travel some 80' down the passage.  It was one of those absurd D&D deaths that underlines the randomness of the game.  The guys that charged the dragon's teeth, banzai style, all made it through.  War is hell.

As the referee, it's important to maintain an impartial demeanor, but that doesn't mean we can't feel bad when something unfortunate happens to the players through poor luck.  In this case, the players just missed identifying the extent of the risk.  But there are truly selfish reasons why I'm going to miss that party halfling.  Consider the following a spirited defense of the class.

Halflings bring two important and complimentary elements to the adventuring party; world class Scouting ability and Durability.  This makes them the ultimate trailblazers.

Let's first look at the importance of scouting.  Most of my favorite moments as a game master are when the party is confronted with a difficult situation, a tough tactical challenge or tricky puzzle, and all the players are forced to lean in a little closer, hovering over the map, planning their way forward through difficult choices.  I can't count how many of those situations emerged directly from the halfling's ability to creep forward, stealthily, and return with valuable information about the disposition of the enemy (it seemed like that happened almost every game).  We've been spoiled, perhaps, by the LOTFP flavor of the halfling, which emphasizes halfling stealth even more than Moldvay's BX rules.

Information is the lifeblood of player planning and strategy; it cannot be overstated how valuable it is to have a competent scout, even though we don't normally view it as an important character role or niche.  Not only is the poor thief abysmal at stealth during the low levels, he is further saddled with poor saving throws and weak hit points, making him a tough choice for risky scouting missions.

Which highlights the other under-appreciated value of those 4' tall crumb-snatching halflings; their amazing saving throws and durability.  Part and parcel of scouting ahead is a willingness to put your character in mortal danger, particularly when you get jumped by something that forces a saving throw.  And nothing brings the game to a halt like haggling over who is going to test some risky dungeon element, like sipping the unidentified potion, seeing if the trap was successfully deactivated, looking at the scroll to see if it was cursed, or "touching that thing and seeing what happens".  The halfling is perfect for those risk-taking instigators in the party.

So this is my selfish confession as a DM; I like halflings in the game, because their scouting prowess gives me frequent opportunities to give the players insider information, and their hardiness emboldens the players to take risks and test more dicey situations during exploration.  Both are powerful net positives and important party roles.

Alas, the halfling love is not universal.  For instance, ACKS has omitted the halfling class.  Here's what Alex had to say on the matter back when ACKS was in development:
Halfings were created by JRR Tolkien specifically as an example of a race that was NOT good at adventuring. That's their whole point in the story; they are the unlikeliest heroes imaginable, the meek, the average, the overlooked. But because the Fellowship of the Ring was the original adventuring party, and it had halflings, every RPG since has riffed on Tolkien and made halflings one of the core adventuring races -- missing the entire point. When a game includes halflings, they are aping the trappings of our fictional sources without understanding their context. Thus I refuse to make halflings a core playable race in ACKS for this reason!!
-Alex, game designer and confessed halfling hater
I'm a big fan of those Autarch products, but clearly, Alex has it all wrong on the utility of the these guys.  It seems like a good time for a new poll.  Be a kind soul and let me know how you feel about the grubby, shoeless, little mugs in the latest poll.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

ACKS Player's Companion - Delivered

Pleasant surprise yesterday - the Player's Companion for the Adventurer Conquer King System (ACKS) arrived.  Wahoo. Looks great, inside and out:

Back when the Kickstarter backers gained access to the draft, I did a mini-review and survey of the preview contents - 19 new classes, templates (equipment packages and skill selections to speed character generation), 20+ pages on building custom classes, a large spell selection, and some supplemental rules  - new proficiencies, tables for generating followers for high-level characters, things like that.

If you're not familiar with ACKS, here's a quick overview:  I view it as the spiritual successor to BECMI, the Rules Cyclopedia, and the Mystara approach to expanding classic D&D play.  It uses the basic D&D chassis, with a  skill system that's an advancement over the Rules Cyclopedia; it adds domain management, economics, and campaign rules; quirky niche classes similar to the Gazetteer series for Mystara; unlike BECMI, it caps the class and level system around level 14 (instead of level 36 in BECMI); expecting a campaign to last to level 36 just seems nuts to me.

In my current campaign, now that the players have cleared most of the Transit Tunnels (in the Black City game), it's likely we'll get back to Gothic Greyhawk in the near future as I'll probably need a small break to design the deeper levels of the Black City below the caverns (covering play levels 4-5); with the publication of the Player Companion, I'm going to suggest we convert that campaign entirely to ACKS - we were already using ACKS to handle the economics and domain rules for the player's holdings, and I haven't been happy with using the AD&D 1E combat rules.  The new classes cover just about everything we have in the Gothic Greyhawk campaign.

Kickstarter Updates
Meanwhile, late Kickstarters are the order of the day.  Here's a bleak rundown on campaigns I've backed.  The ACKS Player's Companion Kickstarter happened almost a year ago - glad to see it over the finish line.  The woes of Dwimmermount are well-publicized (it was due last summer).  The LOTFP Hardcovers are still MIA, with slow but steady progress (due last fall).  The LOTFP grand adventures look like they'll be out late spring (due this winter); the guns supplement for LOTFP is probably going to be a year late.  I signed up for Sine Nomine's Spears of the Dawn; that looks like it's going to be the first project that's actually early!  Pelgrane's Drama System seems to be moving along right on schedule; Sense of the Sleight of Hand Man (for Call of Cthulhu) is delayed by a half year; although not technically a Kickstarter, MRP's Tales of the Sleepless City (a Cthulhu anthology of 1920's New York scenarios) is close to publication, but 6 months after preorders started.  Horror on the Orient Express had a year of lead time, so Chaosium could be on track.

Savvy publishers are learning a few things - either have a finished manuscript before launching a campaign, and use the Kickstarter approach just for polishing and capital, or heavily warn backers that an item is unfinished and/or unwritten, and rife with the associated risks.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rules, Rulings, and Conflict Resolution Theory

Message boards are great for people-watching.  Sometimes you might learn something here and there about gaming, but more typically, you learn about people's biases and the bad experiences that have made them bitter and divisive.  Take these nuggets paraphrased from a recent thread, criticizing the rules-light approach in various older game systems:

  • Arneson favored rules-light gaming so he could boss around the DM with his superior knowledge.
  • Gygax favored gaming  where the DM made up the rules so he could boss around the players with his superior knowledge.

These types of complainants typically want a comprehensive rules set to which they can appeal as a higher authority, somehow saving them from those know-it-all, arbitrary DMs and bossy players.  Let's leave alone whether the medicine (lots and lots of rules) actually cures the submitted problem (bossy people at the table).  There's no need to impugn an entire style of game just because some message-board malcontents can't handle bossy people.

So what's really going on in these situations?  Smarter folks* than me have loosely grouped people according to how they handle interpersonal conflicts, and given them tags like competitors, collaborators, cooperators, avoiders, and accommodators.  Check out this stylish graphic that charts the various positions:

When you have one those know-it-alls at the table, who speaks with the Voice of Absolute Authority, they're acting like those folks in the upper left.  I don’t want that person either as my DM or one of my players, assuming they don't have the maturity to reign it in.  They're not a good fit for my gaming, regardless of system.

A long time ago, I wrote about my approach to making rulings when playing a rules-lite game:  Say Yes,Skill Checks in a Rules-Lite System.  Looking back on that post, it's clear my approach to creating a ruling is either cooperative or collaborative (the center square or the upper right).  I present a ruling to the players for agreement, there's usually some negotiation on how they can improve their chances, and then we ask for a dice roll, if applicable, and move on.  Rulings in the older games are just as fast (and just as collaborative) as assigning Difficulty Class (DC) in a modern game and opening the discussion up to discuss how various modifiers might affect the situation.  But no game system is going to solve for basic social problems at the table.

*The main one I've seen and used is the Thomas-Kilman conflict mode instrument, a set of questions used to identify and graph your default style

Monday, January 28, 2013

Hopes for the Gamma World

I had an epiphany the other day, putting a game report together for the Black City.  Somewhere deep down, I clearly have a yearning to run a Gamma World campaign.  It's manifested through me stocking parts of the Black city with robots and mutants, lightning guns and techno-magic items, insane super computers loaded with psychic powers, and most recently, radioactive zombies.  Somewhere, maybe in the attic, or buried in the garage, I might even have a coffee-stained, beat up copy of the 1E Gamma World rules.

Most fantasy gaming is already post-apocalyptic… older civilizations, more advanced than the current age, have fallen, leaving behind their relics and artifacts.  It's just that in the traditional approach, those relics are the many magic items found strewn about dungeons.  Depending on your point of view, this might be a legacy of Tolkien's influence on the game, or a historical nod to the dark ages and the passage of Rome.  The dissolution of earlier civilizations plays a large role in the weirder inspirational fiction - Lovecraft's elder things, Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique and Hyperborea stories, or Vance's Dying Earth.  I've been enjoying the Marvel comics adaptation of Stephen King's Dark Tower, and that's a post-apocalyptic setting filled with gunslingers, robots, demons, and ancient magic.  It's a glorious mixed omelet.

Now that WOTC has lifted the embargo on PDFs of their games, will we see a high quality scan of the 1st or 2nd editions of Gamma World?  Why not, right?  Bring it on, WOTC brothers.

Have any fellow gamers posted reviews comparing Gamma World to Goblinoid's Mutant Future, or looked closely at Sine Nomine's Other Dust?  I'll have to take Mutant Future and Other Dust off the shelf and give them a thorough read, just to get a sense on how they differ.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Name is Beedo, You Killed My Dragon, Prepare to Die

I feel like the Rancor-handler in that Star Wars movie, watching his man-eating pet get crushed under the door, or the guys in the Conan movie that get all bent out of shape because Conan hacked the head off their giant pet snake.  You read the monster books carefully, looking for that special critter you just need to have, "I choose you, White Dragon", and then you make it a special home in the dungeon, plenty of food, water, you arrange for all the necessary comforts - like a giant pile of soft coins for nesting - and then *they* come along, and wreck it all.  Adventurers.

It's the day after the carnage; now the coffee tastes too bitter, the sunlight is weak, and I have this hollow feeling that used to be filled with joy knowing a monstrous white dragon was lurking in the dungeon ready to spring a TPK at any moment.  Now it's dead.  Sure, there will be other monsters, other boss fights.   There's more fish in the sea.  I get it.  The monster books are full of hideous travesties to challenge even the doughtiest adventurers.  I even told myself I wouldn't cry.  It's just hard to say goodbye, White Dragon.

So what did *they* do, to bring me to this low point?  I'm glad you asked.

Things started out well enough last game - the party was exploring some new areas in the southeast of the current dungeon, they stumbled on some rooms filled with Black City Radium (a glowing green poisonous rock), they fought a group of green, glowing, radiation zombies, and got exposed to a heavy dose of the green stuff - in fact, over half the group is going to start suffering from a wasting disease that will be fatal in like 1-6 months, losing charisma and the ability to heal, along the way.

The Patriarch of Constantinople, in far away Byzantium, has been at war with Himerius, the High Hermite of Constantinople, a known arcane dabbler and summoner, such that the Patriarch sent a higher level witch hunter (Andronicus Priscian) with a party of hand-picked clerics and a troop of Byzantine spearmen to track the party's Russian elves and magic users, who were all known associates and disciples of Himerius… these trackers followed them to Thule, and have been closing in on the party for a while, and finally accosted them deep in the dungeon.  Last night.  Then the party killed them.  (I should have called it a night then).

The players decided it was time to mess with the Ice Cave itself - besides, most of them were infected with radiation sickness, anyway, and that made them feel like taking risks.  The Ice Cave is down a long, 20' wide tunnel,  growing progressively colder and blocked with giant icicles and stalactites along the way.  Beyond these barriers is a misty cave with walls of solid ice, and an unimaginable pile of coins.  One of the recent items the party had recovered was a "wand of telekinesis" and they hoped one of the magic users (Dominicus) could weave his way through the obstacles, get close to the cave, and use the TK wand to surreptitiously lift a chunk of treasure out of the cave without breaking the giant icicles blocking the way.

It was a good plan, except that that they had a dozen characters tromping along with armor in their group, along with an over-sized robot that rolls forward on noisy treads which grind against the stone floor.  In other words, they're not exactly quiet.  The inhabitant of the ice cave, an adult white dragon, was awake.  The rest of the party stood a good 50' behind the barriers of ice, unable to see Dominicus, but they did see a horrible blast of cold spray plume out of the area.  Dominicus was flash frozen, brought to -40 hit points or so instantly.  The robot was sent to smash through the icicles and pillars of ice and engage the dragon, while most of the fighters and other characters ditched into a side passage, to be out of the line of effect of any more ice blasts.  A few (foolhardy) range-attack characters stayed in the main hall, waiting for a chance to shoot into the cave once the robot had cleared the way.

A dragon fighting a big robot is pretty cool.  I queued up Godzilla sound effects, and had the Godzilla theme music playing in the background.  90% of our fights are the quick and abstract variety, but for something like this, we'll put out the vinyl battle mat and get out the minis - using the "elder white dragon" miniature (pictured) was perhaps too dramatic, but the kiddo wanted it.

The dragon and robot smashed their way through the ice, and the dragon started tearing the robot apart with claw and tooth, while the robot punched it a couple of times.  It had the makings of a drawn-out heavyweight prize fight.  And then the players did something totally unexpected… they charged.

It went like this - Brutok:  "I'm charging the dragon.  Who's with me?"  Visin (who adores Agnar):  "I'll charge if Agnar charges."  Agnar:  "Hey, Agnar's not my character, I'm just running him for Mike, who had to miss tonight, so of course I'm with you, Brutok.  Let's go!"

The dwarf and two of the fighters rolled high initiative, and sprinted out from around the corner, taking up positions on either side of the robot and laying into the dragon with axes and spears.  In the LOTFP rules, a charge does double damage, and the players got it down into a manageable hit point range with a few fortuitous strikes.  Once it started using its last two breath attacks, it was far enough down that the breaths were no longer instantly fatal to everyone.  The robot was frozen and destroyed, two of the fighters (Agnar and Visin) were dropped to zero hit points, the dwarf is made of hit points and managed to weather a breath attack, Tribunas the magic user made a saving throw and dropped unconscious (but not dead) from half damage, but poor Brick the Halfling was in the line of fire down the hallway, and took a blast directly.  He died.

Then the next wave of characters charged, including the two female Norse clerics (queue Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries) and Mustafa.  Again, the dragon rolled a 1 for initiative and took a round of beats, dying when Mustafa landed a killing blow.  I was… stunned.

I have to give some props to the players, the idea to hide around the corner and charge out at a surprising moment was inspired.

I may need to go back to DM school, to refresh on how to play dragons well as opponents… on a serious note, I do have some observations on the fight I'll put together later this week, a regular post-mortem.  Good job fellas, they took down a dragon, losing their uber-Robot and a pair of characters.  The clerics had enough healing after the fight to save the three characters that were between zero and -2 hit points (-3 hit points and lower is irrevocably dead in the game).  We had to end there as we were already an hour past our targeted end time.

That was Black City Game 21, below is the new and updated "dead list".  Hopefully the players can figure out a way to get a half dozen or more Cure Disease spells before too much game time passes, or a lot of folks will get added to the list in the near future when the radiation sickness catches up to them.

  • Dominicus:  Tried to steal a dragon's treasure… alone.  RIP.
  • Brick Bunnycracker:  Shot in the face with dragon's breath.
  • Robbie the Robot:  Torn, crushed, and frozen by a dragon.  You served them well.
  • Bjorn:  Shot in the face during an ambush.
  • Gareth Bellringer:  Possessed by a ghost and marched into a death trap.
  • Seamus the Gallic Mage:  Died fiddling with the unstable Hyperborean artifact.
  • Dag the Unwashed:  Blown up by Seamus.
  • Uther the Orphan-Poet:  Shot in the neck by a bandit.
  • Falki Auldason:  Killed by a gjenganger.
  • Kolfina Ian Svarti:  Killed by a gjenganger.
  • Irena Edvards:  Killed by a gjenganger.
  • Molnar the cleric:  Lost his grip on a rope and fell into the abyss.
  • Arthur the Thief:  Killed by a gjenganger.
  • Hring the Twig-belly:  Covered in oil, burned alive while rats were eating him.
  • Herap:  Killed by a gjenganger
  • Agdi:  Possessed by the ghost and marched into the death trap.
  • Galm:  Infested by a devil wasp and turned into a villain, ultimately dropped down an 80' hole.

A few guys left when they failed morale checks in between adventures:

  • Ulf Skullcrusher
  • Visin Thorolfson

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Black City Game 20: Assault on Zoltan

Despite a nice east coast snow storm last night, the roads are clearing up quickly today and there shouldn't be any problems for the gaming group to make it tonight - so I'd better get a report posted for last game!

The most recent game session was essentially one long battle - a drawn out, tactical slugfest, where the party took on the minions and resources of a diabolical intelligence called Zoltan the Welder.  In many of the recent sessions, the party was teaming up with an entity calling itself "Odin", performing small missions for Odin in the course of their regular explorations beneath the ruined city.  Many of these missions have involved things like restoring energy to parts of the dungeon, or fixing "network connections' between Odin and the remote areas of the Transit Tunnels.  In this way, Odin is gaining more access (control) over the tunnels and is able to project his consciousness and power in more areas.  The players keep wondering if they should continue to cut deals with Odin, but the pay has been good.

(Odin, incidentally, claims to be a Norse god, trapped by the ancient builders of the city to watch over the earth from an orbital space platform.  The party traveled to Odin's realm from the top of a crooked spire in the southern part of the city.  They're beginning to cotton on that maybe Odin is a rogue telepathic super computer with delusions of grandeur.  I wonder if it’s a problem that some of their recent capers have armed Odin with ancient, earth-scorching, super weapons?  Muhaha.)

Zoltan was identified by Odin as a demonic entity trying to usurp parts of the dungeon under the city, a direct competitor to Odin's sovereignty.   In a previous game session, he gave them something called an "M-crystal" that would pacify Zoltan if the party could swap out Zoltan's existing M-crystal; he showed them a holographic image where Zoltan's crystal was located in a wall in the demon's lair.  The party has been scouting the most northeastern dungeon, the Ice Cave dungeon, for the past few sessions, looking for Zoltan's lair, and they found it at the end of the game session before last.

Zoltan's lair is a gigantic, dimly lit chamber obscured by tables, equipment bins, and wheeled conveyances in various states of repair.  Robotic arms and tentacles hang from the ceiling and whirled along on metallic track balls.  In many ways, these areas of the Black City are reminiscent of Gamma World; before the fall, Zoltan operated a robotic factory that built the train cars that ran through the undercity.  Now he vivisects elves.  I really have to run a Gamma World campaign some time, I think it would be great fun.

Zoltan himself appeared like a huge, empty, hockey mask stuck to the wall, with baleful eyes glaring about.  He projected an image of himself that floated around the room, hollow robes topped by the glaring hockey mask head, with boney hands at the end of the sleeves.

The assault itself was three hours of D&D tactical combat glory, intricate enough that it warranted busting out the vinyl grid and using miniatures and tokens to track the action.  The party activated their giant robot, and it charged in, tearing robotic arms from the ceiling and drawing heavy fire.  Zoltan countered by attacking with ceiling arms topped with claws, knives and cutters, and white hot torches.  Zoltan's avatar also floated around the room, using telekinesis to grab characters and fling them around, dark jedi-style.

The party fighters formed a strong front, headed right for Zoltan's giant face-in-the-wall and the location of Zoltan's vulnerable M-crystal.  Timur the Russian Elf made an impassioned plea to Zoltan's slaves, a group of Dokkalvir (Norse dark elves) that were cowed and tortured into serving the Welder, and the elves flipped to the party side, drawing some enemy fire as well.

Brick, Agnar's Halfling retainer, was the MVP of the fight.  While all the heavy combat was happening, Brick was given Odin's replacement M-crystal, tucked it under his arm like a football, and he picked and weaved his way across the battlefield, around bins, under tables, and skulking alongside the wheeled train.  It took a number of rounds, but eventually Brick was sneaking right to the base of Zoltan's giant head, unnoticed in the larger melee.  "Hey, what are you doing down there, little man?  Close that panel at once!", cried the face on the wall.

Brick was able to avoid the telekinetic grab attack (good Save vs Magic, duh), and slammed the new M-crystal home.  Zoltan screamed and his face eroded, shaking back and forth and finally morphing into the likeness of Odin, as his control over the area was usurped. The surviving robot arms went limp, and the battle was over.

"We just totally pulled the Lord of the Rings maneuver on Zoltan", called out Smitty.  "Full frontal assault while the little guy snuck into Mordor and blew up the ring".

We ended shortly thereafter; the ascendance of Odin into Zoltan's lair gave the party a safe place to rest, and they wanted to take a few days to recover while still in the Ice Cave dungeon and tally some experience.  After seeing the destructive power of their robot in action, they're even thinking about smashing their way into the ice cave this week, heedless if it's actually a dragon's lair, to see how much damage the robot can dish out.  Should be interesting.

Here's an updated schematic of the Transit Tunnels, showing the locations of the recent delves - the caves of the frost gremlin queen, where they saw the jotun head frozen in the ice, is plotted, and I've marked the last dungeon in the Transit Tunnels, which the party is calling the Ice Cave dungeon.

The pace of character death has slowed in recent weeks and they now have a bunch of level 3 characters - almost ready to revist the upper ruins near the glacier again, or head to the vast caverns below the tunnels.

Cast of Characters
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L3)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L3)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L3)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L3)
Timur, Russian Elf (L1)
Vitaly, Russian Elf (L1)
Dominicus, Byzantine magic user (L1)

Retainers with the party:
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L1)
Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling L2)
Bottvild (cleric L2)
Visin Thorsteinson (fighter 3)
Hunlaf the Saxon (specialist 2)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Building Lichtstadt City

I've had a ton of work traveling the past few weeks, which is bad for my blog, but excellent for my reading list.  Some things I spent some time looking at, during one flight or another, were different approaches to building a fantasy city.

The ACKS game (Adventurer Conqueror King) provides all sorts of guidelines for the size of cities, density, income generated for the lord, thieves guilds, and the demographics of high level characters.  There are other economic factors too, like the market type, equipment rarity, and trade factors that influence the cost of goods.

I read A Magical Medieval City Guide (a free pdf available at RPGnow) which provides a detailed walkthrough on the structures of real-world Medieval cities, both the power structures and the physical layout.  If you want to know how many buildings are standing in how many wards, or how many glove makers are in the craft's guild, this is the guide for you.

And then there's Vornheim.  Vornheim is a book designed to help you run games in the city of Vornheim, sure, but it's also a guide on how to run city sessions, on the fly, in your own sprawling metropolis.  Instead of focusing on developing background material, Vornheim is about presenting something interesting that can be used to create an interesting game situation RIGHT NOW.  Okay, that's more than just a little useful.  The funny thing about each of these city tools is there's virtually no overlap between them.

Lichtstadt is going to get the Vornheim treatment.

I also think the "tavern-trawling" rules from Backswords & Bucklers will see a lot of use.  Lichtstad is too big to be a home base, so making the starting place a seedy tavern offers a small-town experience in the big big city.

What's your favorite tool for getting a fantasy city ready for game play?  How about mapping - what do folks think of the Hexographer city tool, or the city builder for Campaign Cartographer?

I realize this is a bit introspective (nigh useless), so here's some flavorful background for the city of Lichtstadt for your troubles.  There are three vampire families that lurk in the dungeon depths below the city; Clan Metzger, the Machthaberkind, and the Draganov Coven.

Miscreants, ruffians, and common robbers are taken to the Doleful Keep for incarceration.  Very few criminals survive long enough to see their appointed trial dates.  Nefarious chutes and slides are rigged into may of the prison cells, dropping their inhabitants into the heart of an endless maze.  When night falls, the vampires of Clan Metzger enter the maze, assume bestial form, and ruthlessly run their human prey to ground.  Vampires of clan Metzger feature shape-shifting powers and beast-summoning.

The Machthaberkind have subtly warped all manner of social institutions, but none so great than the many hospitals that minister to the old and affirmed throughout Lichtstadt.  Black clad nuns, the Sisters of Mercy (heh), attend to the sick and dying, fitting hospital beds with clean linens and performing simple funeral rites for those who "pass gently" in the night.  Our Lady of the Blessed Slumber is the largest and best known house for the poor.

Vampires of the Draganov Coven are predatory loners, selecting victims through arcane prognostication and thaumaturgy before dragging them back to their remote lair for languorous feeding.  They're known to keep their prey alive as long as possible, incarcerating them as favored pets, thus postponing the need to consult the necromantic spirits anew and launch a fresh hunt.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Primer on the Undead of Lichtstadt

There are a few ideas to dig out of the vault regarding the nature of the undead living beneath the benighted city of Lichtstadt:  Hellish Ghosts and Demonic Corpses, and More Hellish Ghosts and Demonic Corpses.  The ideas there are pretty simple; in the old AD&D paradigm, there are Lawful Evil undead that are associated with Hell, and Chaotic Evil undead that are associated with the Abyss. Summarizing the ideas from those earlier posts, wraiths, ghosts, spectres, and similar spirit undead are lost souls consigned by the power of Hell to guard or haunt a locale; ghouls, ghasts, and vampires are all physical undead cursed to spread death and destruction.

Once these relationships are established (and don't take my word for it - they're right there in the 1E Monster Manual in the demon and devil sections) it becomes easier to place the different undead in the setting, and tweak their powers to fit the themes a bit stronger.

Spirit undead attack the soul, and their primary weapons are soul-blasting fear and energy drain attacks.  Corporeal undead destroy the body, eating and tearing the flesh, draining blood, and leaching away physical vitality and strength.

I've already used ghouls as the backbone of a zombie apocalypse (back in the Gothic Greyhawk campaign) so I'm going to take them in a different direction for Lichtstadt.  Vampires will lose their energy drain attacks and rely solely on blood drinking.  The demonic alignment gives me some ideas to mull regarding what lies in the depths of Lichtstadt Dungeon; perhaps there's a demon prison deep in the dungeon, or a portal to the Abyss; maybe the ancient progenitors of the different vampire bloodlines have different demonic patrons (and thus different vampiric powers) and the sleeping forebears of the lineages are deep in the earth (like the World of Darkness "Antediluvians"); it gives me a lot with which to work.

Factions and allegiances are important tools in the megadungeon for the DM to provide opportunities for politics, layers of intrigue, and strategic options for the players; just this small amount of background above suggests many factions among the undead.  At the cosmological layer, you have demons that wish to destroy the mortal world and wipe out life, and devils that wish to corrupt and control the world.  Then the vampires themselves will be organized into competing lineages or bloodlines (perhaps with competing demonic patrons); within the vampire lineages, there are groups that want to maintain as much secrecy as possible, versus those that want to rule openly as lords of the night, treating humanity as prey and cattle. There might even be a few rogues seeking to break their vampiric curse or discover how to regain their human souls.

Besides the strong Law and Chaos aligned undead, there are "The Stitched" - golem-like constructs built through forbidden alchemy.  I like the idea of some nasty free-willed Stitched, genius-level monsters like Frankenstein's Creature, engaging in their own grave-robbing to gather loose parts to make stranger and more gruesome aberrations as footsoldiers and champions to prevent their original masters from ever regaining control of their wayward creations.  Lichtstadt Dungeon is going to be an interesting place.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Benighted City of Lichtstadt

Ravenloft:  The megadungon

I hit a wall sometime last week; I've had some long days and work travel, the 6 year old is driving my wife nuts , and I got absolutely burnt out on reading history books.  I haven't had much time to write for the blog.   I switched over to reading some fiction, and I let my mind wander towards how my own "dungeon under the city" might look after ruminating over the last post.

Oh - before I forget - on the reading front; I motored through Jim Butcher's Cold Days in just a couple of days, and moved on to Chronicles of the Black Company.  It's super interesting, particularly because it's inspirational for how a tough group of D&D characters might operate if they were a mercenary group in a world populated with ordinary folks and a scattering of powerful characters.  It's not game fiction; you don't hear the dice rolling while you're reading.

With the oldest kiddo, we're halfway through the Earthsea trilogy (night time reading - I'm a good dad) with Elric of Melnibone lined up next.

Back to the dungeon under the city.

I'm envisioning the crumbling, central European city of Lichtstadt - home to corrupt guilds, blue-blooded patricians, and frightened peasants that cower from the things that go bump in the night.  Built on earlier catacombs and ruins, the city sits above a deep, sprawling dungeon where aristocratic undead vie for control of the various guilds and nobles of the surface world.  The sewers give way to catacombs and deeper dungeons where every figure from gothic horror gaming - stitched alchemical golems and undead, vengeful revenants; wrathful lycanthropes, and more vampires than can be counted, all scheme and lurk and wait for the sun to sink below the horizon.  Long have the erstwhile (mortal) rulers of Lichstadt turned a blind eye to the frequent disappearances on the streets after dark, and no one survives for long in the city jail.

The arrival of inquisitors from the great southern church to remote Lichstadt has upset the city's balance of power, and now manipulators meet in darkened halls to debate whether to move against the church overtly or marginalize it through politics and their human pawns.  But this much is true; the church has cast open the gates to the undercity, and it encourages any manner of cunning opportunist willing to risk life and limb in the sewers looking to pocket some gold while striking back against the night fiends.

Lichtstadt would require a serious overhaul to the standard D&D vampire.  Forget about the high level, energy draining monstrosities from the Monster Manual.  Lichtstadt Vampires drink blood through grappling and can die with a stake through the heart.  Vampires would fill a wide range of challenges in the dungeon, from bloodthirsty neonates that don't have many other vampiric powers (other than strength and toughness), to ancient vampire warlords and sorcerers in the depths that lead their own lineages and bloodlines.  Naturally, I'd raid the White Wolf catalog and create speedy vampires, shape-changing vampires, hypno-vampires, and so on.  There's something juvenile (yet funny) about taking all those World of Darkness archetypes and treating them as experience fodder for dungeon delving murder hobos.

If The Black City started out as Vikings: At The Mountains of Madness (before it went all sideways into gonzo sci-fantasy), then Lichstadt is Ravenloft: the Megadungon.  Parking this one in the The Junkyard for now, but my normal brainstorming notebook is quickly filling up with ideas for Lichtstadt.  It's almost too easy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Dungeon Under the City

The City State of the Invincible Overlord (CSIO) is one of those legendary publications from early D&D.  It describes a sprawling city, very much in the Sword & Sorcery mode, with numerous malign temples, shadowy cults, and nefarious characters and activities.  The sewers beneath the city were written up as dungeons in a product called Wraith Overlord.  (I never had the originals, but had the Necromancer Games versions that were updated for 3rd Edition).

Inspired by the CSIO, Scott posted this blurb as a kick-off to such a campaign:

His Incomparable Effulgence the Dread High Dingus of the Great City of Faz has decreed that the Underworld beneath the City is open for plunder, its denizens to be regarded as caitiffs and malefactors utterly without recourse to the otherwise boundless beneficence of the law.

You have consulted with a hooded figure in a soggy reeking tavern, the consensus being that information thus gleaned is unimpeachable in such matters.  His sibilant counsel is that one ingress to the maze lies in the Furtive Quarter, in the cellars of the ruined Temple of Ghonk.  And that is where you, suitably outfitted and girded, find yourselves.
-From Huge Ruined Pile

How awesome is that?  Now, fueled by my experiences running the weekly Black City, I'll point out some additional opportunities why this type of campaign strongly appeals - besides the short walk to the home base.

Human Mayhem
The BX bestiary is filled with human opponents:  bandits, acolytes, mediums, traders, veterans, berserkers, and more.  A dungeon beneath a city could be filled with smugglers, thieves, assassins, rival priests, and all sorts of malcontents and scoundrels.  Encounters with other humans are generally excellent for my game; NPC adventurers are muy deadly; humans offer excellent roleplaying; human encounters alter the equation of attack or flee more directly than monster encounters; every encounter can be a bit of a stand-off or showdown.  Putting the dungeon right under the city ensures a regular stream of human opponents and complications.

The transit tunnels below the ruins of the Black City are like a giant subway system, with 5 medium dungeons and another 5-6 mini dungeons separated by long hauls; spreading them out geographically gives me space to diversify the environments and create a sense of scope and distance.  I think the same effect could be achieved with a sprawling sewer dungeon.


Lately I've been reading HP Lovecraft's Dreamlands, a Call of Cthulhu setting based on the author's fantasy works.  I've added some more Lord Dunsany to my reading queue as well - I have a business trip coming up and expect to get a lot of reading done on the plane; plus, I always thought The Gods of Pegana were a Wilderlands influence.  The Dreamlands has plenty of sprawling cities, beneath which lie passages and ways to the many storied and monstrous realms beneath the ground, like the Vaults of Zin or the Vale of Pnoth, or the City of the Gugs.  Sewer dungeons leading to a mythical underworld are full of possibilities.

(Not saying that I'd use the Dreamlands other than as inspiration, although it does seem awfully ripe for a cool D&D campaign).

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Black City Game 19: Danger Will Robinson

The Black City is a ruined, alien city in the frozen north, on the shore of the island of Thule.  It was rediscovered a few years ago by Viking Northmen, who've built a small outpost, Trade Town, on the coast near the city.  Each year, more Northmen adventurers arrive in Trade Town to test their skills exploring the city and the ruined dungeons below it.

"Danger Will Robinson".  This game session was all about building the robot and taking it out for a cruise.  I want to see some mecha-versus-giant monster action.  Weeks and weeks ago, the party had collected the pieces of a large metal automaton in the Mist Dungeon, and then promptly hidden them in a secret room not far from there.  This was the session where they finally assembled the robot and rolled it into action.

But first, there's some ground to cover .  Last game ended with Mustafa dying of gremlin poison; taking advantage of the LOTFP spell repertoire, the clerics chose to take him back to a secure room, rest and pray for Delay Poison and Bless to improve the odds when the fighter had to make a roll to either recover or die (the poison incapacitated the character for 12 hours before killing them). The combination of spells was enough to save the fighter.

Returning to finish exploring the natural hewn frost gremlin lair the following day, the party found "the ichor pool", a nasty pool of icy water in a rime-covered cave where blue ichor dripped off a stalactite and swirled in the water.   The ceiling was solid ice and translucent, and they could see a large block-like item stuck in the ice… dripping.  The tunnel to the ichor pool climbed, and the dwarf guessed this was below the glacier on the surface (architecture).

There were lurid cave paintings in a previous room before the ichor pool, showing frost gremlins throwing cages with rats into the ichor pool and gremlins coming out the other side.  A severed head watched and lolled in the background.  The kids immediately remembered the dungeon graffiti about the severed Jotun head, and are now convinced that's the thing in the ceiling.  (I mentioned the Jotun Head graffiti and the uncanny memory of youth last game report).

It felt like we spent… a long time with the players debating whether to chisel the Jotun's Head out of the ice, and what would they do it, and what it could be worth if they dragged it back to town; should someone dunk themselves in the pool, or drink the blue goo; and what could they find in the dungeon to use as a test subject? In fact, sometime later, they were ambushed  by stealthy berserkers, big muscular bruisers who moved with utter silence, and when Domincus used a Sleep spell on them, the party trussed a survivor and forced some of the blue ichor down his throat.  The berserker convulsed and twitched and frothed, mutating into a huge lizard-like monstrosity.  Brutok planted his axe in the monster's skull before it broke free.

"No one drinks the blue ichor, is that clear?"

More and more humans were being encountered in the deeper areas of the Transit Tunnels, and the players worried their secret hiding room for the robot would not stay hidden; with that in mind, they decided it was time to assemble the robot and see what it could do.  Alas, it did not go berserk and attack them when it was turned back on; there was a chance of it.

One of the boys remembered the robot commands from the "new employee training video" (an alien hologram they watched back in the Mist Dungeon) so that character knew how to activate the robot with a passkey gem and get it to follow.  In this way they rumbled along to the distant Ice Cave dungeon, giant robot in tow.

A long passage lead into the heart of the Ice Cave dungeon, small candles burning along the way; the wicks were stuck in stone bowls filled with animal fat.  Primitive drawings on the walls displayed pictures of teeth, teeth, lots and lots more teeth.  Eventually, the hallway became rime-covered and icy, stalactites hanging down, and soon the way was completely blocked by ice.  The halfling Brick snuck ahead, weaving around the icy stalactites blocking the hall to peer into the chamber beyond.  Just past the columns of ice blocking the way forward, he saw piles and piles of treasure through the misty air - silver coins, copper coins, gems, jewels, and even rarer items.

Since it was all too good to be true, Brick worked his way back to the party and they retreated way down the hallway to where the robot was sitting, inactive.  (The robot had some kind of battery power indicated by an energy meter, so they would have it shut down and wait for them someplace behind).

Heading down a south passage, Timur the elf made friends with a "robot dog" in one room, Brick survived a pit viper attack in another, and the group discovered the large chamber that served as the lair of Zoltan the Welder and his dark elf slaves, a suitable cliffhanger.

Whew, now I'm caught up on game reports again. With a dearth of recent deaths, the roster has stayed like this:

Cast of Characters
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L2)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L3)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L2)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L3)
Timur, Russian Elf (L1)
Vitaly, Russian Elf (L1)
Dominicus, Byzantine magic user (L1)

Retainers with the party:
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L1)
Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling L1)
Bottvild (cleric L2)
Visin Thorsteinson (fighter L3)
Hunlaf the Saxon (specialist L2)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Man of La Mancha, starring Mike Mearls

I sit before the magic 8 ball with great anticipation.

Me:   "Will D&D Next be the type of game old schoolers like myself will enjoy playing?"
Reply:  "Reply hazy, try again".

Is this possible?  Mike Mearls is on the case.  His most recent Legends & Lore column claimed his primary goals are to "Create a version of D&D that embraces the enduring, core elements of the game", and "Create a set of rules that allows a smooth transition from a simple game to a complex one."  That sure sounds like the kind of D&D that should appeal to someone like me - with such lofty ambitions, how could this project possibly go wrong?

But I see a problem with that mission statement.  The fine print doesn't indicate what are the recognizable elements of each edition that are being "embraced".  Hmm.  Better tune in to the next column and see where this crazy train ride is going next.

In the meantime, the evidence is all over the place.  Character creation is a bit... bloated.  I had the chance to listen to some D&D podcasts from the past year - there are like 4 hours of Penny Arcade podcasts going through character creation.  Lots of time is invested discussing combinations of classes and specialties and backgrounds - so you can make a fighter bounty hunter defender, or a rogue guide skirmisher and similar amalgams of words.  4 hours.  I don't think they're using the word "simple" the same way as me.  Here's some advice - put some random tables in there so folks that don't want to read 20+ pages of options can just roll their combination of words and figure it out later, or even better, make that stuff totally optional and stick it in an appendix.

On the other hand, the Isle of Dread adventure has wandering monster tables!  It's a simple thing, but that implies an expectation that characters are going to wander around aimlessly, running into things.  Exploring, even.  Heck, all of the adventures look 90% closer to something from before third edition than anything that came out using the 2-page encounter and delve formats of the recent regimes.  People, that is downright heartening.  Modules look like modules, the strawberries taste like strawberries, the snozberries even taste like snozberries.  I'd like the bestiary even more if it had things like # appearing in dungeons and wilderness, maybe some outdoor encounter tables by terrain type, like the old DMG, Fiend Folio, and MM2.  The 1E DMG was all about world-building.

Question for readers, who else is paying attention to the D&D Next playtests and what's your latest take?  At this rate, I might just read through one of the packets seriously and even consider coaxing the Spitsberg Pirates to give one of the sample adventures a test drive, when we reach a Black City lull.  I've heard characters are too robust and super-heroic in actual play.

In the meantime, here's to you Mike - keep reaching for that unreachable star:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

BLACK CITY GAME 18 - The Defenestration Maneuver

I'm behind on a couple of weeks of game reports because of the short week last week, writing end-of-year reviews, moving offices - real world stuff.  With that in mind, let's not get right down to business.

Defenestration.  I'm not sure I can really call it "defenestration" when the party in question throws themselves out of the window.  (The boy reminds me that defenestration started the 30 Years War).  Please pardon my innocent misuse of the word hereafter.

The defenestration came up because the group didn't want to leave a giant monster behind them from the last game session.  They circled back to plan an attack on the monster, which I called the mega-shocker - since it was a giant version of the little shockers they'd been fighting here and there for weeks.  Listen, I know readers can't possibly remember the details of a game report from 3 weeks ago, so I'll recap a little - the average adult player doesn't even remember what happened last week.  Pretty much the only participants with fully functional brain cells are the 11 year olds.  They have an uncanny ability to recall the most obscure bits of setting trivia and discarded facts from old games.   For instance:  "The jotun's head is in the dungeon, and the body is in the ice - that was part of the dungeon graffiti back in the Well of Woe dungeon" says one of the boys.  Meanwhile, that bit of dungeon dressing was thrown at them in a game session from last June!

Kid's memories are awesome - or maybe they just seem that way when you're middle-aged brain can't remember where you left the car keys, or what you had for breakfast yesterday.  I'm beginning to think the best argument for rules-light gaming is that me and my cranky grognard peers don't have enough working memory cells for mastering weighty rule books.  Hah!  Enough digression.

In that previous game, the party was overlooking a large chamber from within a smaller control room with a glass window, and a massive serpentine monster (the mega shocker) had noticed them, ceasing its slurping of the power conduits and writhing its way over to their wall, smashing the glass with its stinger tail and sending the party retreating for cover.

Now they returned to the scene, having determined to deal with the beasty before going further.  Someone waxed wisely, "Let's not leave a dangerous monster behind us, since it's likely we'll run into something worse and have to flee back this way."

So now the halfling sneaked back to the control room, picked his way carefully to the window, and saw the giant critter curled up on the floor right below.  What followed was much wringing of hands and impassioned pleas for one strategy or another.  At one point, I remember saying in a smirking manner, "If you guys were real vikings, you’d stop deliberating and just jump out the window onto it's back and yell something manly."

Hey, that's not a bad idea, said one of the players.  Why don't we just jump out of the window onto its back and yell manly things?  Defenestration had been on the brain, because one of the players discovered the clerical "Command" spell and has been making lists of the most odd one-word commands he can muster throughout the session:  Defenestrate!  Equivocate!  Prosthelytize!  Capitulate!

"I can't wait until the day we fight a wizard, and the fight is high in a tower, and I have the Command spell memorized, and there happens to be a window nearby, and then he fails a saving throw.  Boy, that is going to be a good time for my cleric!"  Yes, I can hardly wait - now I suppose all my wizards in their towers need to be on guard for clerics with dictionaries.

So that's how we ended up with a half dozen player characters jumping out of the window onto the back of a giant worm monster, hoping to deal it lethal damage before it got too many attacks with its freaky electro-tail.  In the spirit of "rulings not rules", we talked through what this audacious tactic would buy them - double damage with a piercing weapon, a bonus to hit, 1d6 damage if you miss the monster and hit the ground, or a  save vs paralysis to avoid all damage for folks that land on the monster and hang on .  Somehow I got jedi mind tricked into giving everyone double damage for the jump, and not just the spears - bah, you weak-minded fool.  They ended up turning the giant mega shocker (8 HD, 39 hp) into a one-round speed bump.  Here is a sampling of their battle cries for their mad moment:

See you in Valhalla!
For Odin!
For Science!
For Agnar! (one of the NPC's has a serious a man-crush on Agnar the party leader)

After the mega-shocker beatdown, there was the walking, the exploring, more walking, then some resting - Mister T says, "I pity the fool that walks around the dungeon without any Sleep spells" - and later in the night, we concluded with a desperate fight in some ice caves against the clan mother of the Frost Gremlins.

Frost Gremlins are like goblins, but they only seem to have two concerns:  capturing mice and rats in little wooden cages, and killing everything else.  Down below on the floor of the cave, the clan mother was milking the venom from decapitated heads of furry pit vipers, while drummers beat a rhythm on little hand drums, fires danced in braziers casting jumping shadows against the cave walls, and bodyguards with spears chanted around the circle.  Again, it was the sneaky halfling that crept forward to the edge of the passage and overlooked the scene from behind a stalagmite, collecting vital intelligence for everyone else to plan another half-baked assault.  (Halflings are truly the most under-rated BX character class.  Knowledge is power, and no one delivers the intel like a good halfling scout).

The group ended up moving to the entrance and pelting the monsters below with arrows (when a pair of Sleep spells failed to knock out the whole room) while the bodyguards dipped spears in the poison and hurled them at the archers.  The elves were nigh invulnerable in their adamant plate, but Mustafa took a spear wound, and was incapacitated by viper venom.  The party quickly finished the remaining gremlins.

We ended there, on a cliff-hanger… would one of their original fighters succumb to the diluted viper venom when we rolled a save vs death the following week?  Tune in next time.  I'd say "Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel", but it'll actually only be a few days instead of next week since I have to catch up.  Besides, I don't even think the kids in our game group would know that reference, or how so many of those old Batman shows ended on a cliff hanger.  Anyone know if Batman is still on reruns somewhere?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Scions of the OSR

Yesterday's post presented a definition of OSR gaming - it’s about identifying the great bits about 1970's sandbox gaming, beyond just D&D, and applying what we've learned in 30 years of table top gaming to add improvements to that style of play.  Various DIY publishers have been leading the charge for a few years now.  So what kind of products have pushed the state of the art?

This megadungeon was one of the first OSR products I encountered a couple of years ago, and it taught me to love the 1-page dungeon format with minimalist descriptions, leaving a lot of room for DM improvisation.

LOTFP Adventures
The various Lamentations of the Flame Princess site-based adventures show complete contempt for game balance and will treat your home campaign with reckless disregard - long term consequences are thrilling and liberating.

Stars Without Number/Red Tide
Sine Nomine has developed a system of using simple descriptors, "tags", for quickly generating sandbox relationships and complications in a way I'd never seen before.  Plus, the publisher adapts a class and level system to some new genres (science fiction, post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk).

Hex crawls and dungeons are heavily dependent on maps and predefined content; Vornheim is full of alternative techniques for presenting fantasy cities on the fly.

Points of Light
The Points of Light supplements were born out of Bat in the Attic's step-by-step sandbox creation guides, and are excellent examples of putting theory into practice.

ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King) is a retro clone rules set that adds campaign rules and some 3E style feats and combat options onto the classic D&D chassis to extend old school play beyond exploration, into the character's long term career arc.

There are tons of high quality adventures, hex crawls, and small rules supplements that have been written using the OGL for the retroclone games; I'm not listing them here because most of them present their maps and content in a way substantially similar to TSR's content - there's more of it, and many of the books break out of the cliché settings (like Carcosa, or Anomalous Subsurface Environment).   I highlighted the books above because they're the ones that opened my eyes to totally new or different ways of doing things.  The OSR is more than mimicking the 1970's; it's about distilling what rocked in those early game styles and evolving it with appropriate ideas from the full spectrum of games.  It also means adapting modern technology and methods, like the G+ hangouts or the use of crowd-funding.

My list can't be exhaustive - I'm one guy, and clearly can't speak for all - what do you see out there that's been a game changer for how we run our old school games?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

What is OSR Gaming About, Anyway?

OSR gaming is not about nostalgia.  It's not about playing an old rules set just because it was old.  It's about updating or rediscovering a style of table top gaming that was left behind by mainstream game publishers, and evolving the style with the benefit of 30 years of experience.

You may have a different definition of OSR gaming.  There are plenty of primitive screwheads arguing on message boards whether a game that drops clerics can still be considered an OSR game, for instance.  What follows is my definition, and it explains much of the focus of my blog.

OSR Gaming:  The role of the game master is to act as an impartial referee and present a pre-defined setting, while giving the players complete freedom to make their own choices within the setting.  We shorthand it nowadays as "sandbox gaming".  To me, it's that simple.  OSR gaming requires giving the players the freedom to explore a setting, and using rules that facilitate exploration as the primary mode of play.  Everything else is just details.

(I like the word "setting", but I wonder how many times "milieu" shows up in the 1E DMG?)

Building hex-crawls, site-based locations, random tables for content, those are all tools and techniques for defining the setting.  Those are the kinds of things that are evolving by borrowing ideas from 30 years of game publishing.  Those are the types of things that are maturing through the efforts of the DIY publishers and the talented bloggers out there.

What about the choice of rules?  The simpler rules of early games make it a lot easier for a referee to create a sprawling setting for sandbox play than a heavy system - like those systems where a monster stat block takes paragraphs and pages.  But folks have certainly tried to play modern rules-heavy games in the older style, and there are plenty of Pathfinder or GURPs bloggers in the OSR blogosphere taking part in the conversations.

Games like early Dungeons & Dragons, where an over-arching objective is to recover treasure and level up your character, provide a strong incentive to interact with the sandbox regardless of the setting details or story.  But not all OSR games have a class and level system, either.

Conversely, just because a particular adventure or campaign uses an older rules set doesn't make it an OSR style game.  Dragonlance was published for 1st Edition AD&D, but the plotted nature of those adventures, and the use of pre-made characters, takes those adventures completely out of the realm of player-driven sandbox play.

My pocket is still full of opinions, but alas, the rest will have to wait until tomorrow.  I want to discuss some of the publishers doing DIY OSR games and why they get me all fired up with the sandbox joy.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

What's your Campaign Style?

After yesterday's post, I had a funny idea - I have an opinion about my campaign style, but how accurate is that perception?  We're not the best judges of ourselves - humans usually are not gifted with much self objectivity.  Looking for an external opinion, I asked the players to come back with their own rating of our campaign style, to see if they look at things the same way.  I highly recommend you try it out yourselves and gauge whether you and the players are on the same page.

Here are the top five descriptors I picked (remember, the whole list came out of Stuart's merit badges):

My game focuses on Exploration & Mystery.
My games are Gonzo and can include a lot of strangeness.
I roll Dice in the open and don't fudge the results in my games.
Players characters Death is a likely event in my games.
Players in my game should be prepared to Run when the odds are against them.

However, here's how the players rated the campaign (5 out of 7 players voted; I skipped the two eleven year olds since they're not on email).  I asked the adults to limit it to their top 5, too.

Death - 4
No Dice Fudging - 4
Improvisation - 3
Exploration - 3
Run Away - 2
Tactics - 2
Tells a Story - 2
Non-Combat - 1
Mirroring Ideas - 1
Gonzo - 1
Disturbing Content - 1
Player Skill Matters - 1

The two most agreed upon characteristics are the campaign is deadly and the dice matter - remember, all of these players were part of the group that gakked Strahd Von Zarovitch with a single well-placed spell during the Gothic Greyhawk campaign of 2011, so they've been on the beneficiary side of sticking with dice results, too (Die Strahd Die).

I don't think I improvise a lot, but the players indicated the campaign used a lot of improvisation.  (I'll take that as a compliment).  The votes that left me head scratching were the ones for "My game tells an interesting Story".  For me, "Story gaming" has a very specific connotation - a scripted series of scenes with a predictable climax and story arc, or a collaborative game structured to tell a traditional story with climax and denouement.  In other words, the exact polar opposite of the sandbox campaign we're actually playing.  I asked the players about those votes, and the response from the players was - "No, the interesting story is something that happens after the game sessions, when you look back at a character's survival - the story is pieced together through play over the campaign".  That definition is pretty much in line with emergent characters and the whole point of a sandbox game.  It's funny how elusive it can be to achieve a mutual understanding on even a simple definition.

Okay, that just explains the whole internet, right there.

Below are the reasons for my ratings.  The one thing I aspire towards is challenging the players and not their characters - but I don't feel like I do it consistently enough or well enough to call it out as a defining characteristic.  It continues to be my aspiration.

Exploration & Mystery
The Black City is a ruined, sprawling hex crawl, with a series of detailed surface structures, and a vast underworld dungeon beneath it.  It's all about exploration - and there are some deep mysteries around who created the city, and why did they disappear thousands of years ago.

We've got aliens, robots, plastic humanoid servitors, Vikings, Byzantine and North African sorcerers, ray guns and lightning rods, spontaneous undead, powerful inhuman intelligences masquerading as Norse gods, Hyperborean artifacts, Lovecraftian servitors, and a hefty dose of "dungeon madness" turning some of the explorers into berserkers.  I tend to think it's a bit gonzo, but apparently not.

No Dice Fudging
If it's worth rolling, it's worth rolling in the open.  The cornerstone of a sandbox game is "meaningful player choice", and that includes the good and the bad consequences.  No good can come from undermining the integrity of the game by lying about the dice results.

Character Death
There is a lot of satisfaction in survival when there's no safety net (dice fudging or otherwise) and the players survive (or not) based on their own planning, choices, and tactics - and a bit of good fortune.

Run Away
Encounter balance doesn't mean anything to me.  I balance the world - monsters are roughly equal to each others in terms of power when they're in the same area - but there are plenty of outliers that will overpower the player characters if they take on the wrong monster head on.  We had a party of 1st level characters run into a ghost, for instance (easily an 8th-10th level monster).   They haven't even run into the dragon yet!

I don't think I'm done with the merit badges - the list could be a useful tool to get insight from the players on what's important to them personally.  For instance, maybe they want more intricate, tactical combat from the game, or they want a bit more drama or non-combat roleplaying (such as politics, or domain management).

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Wanted: DM's with Charisma

Game masters need to develop the campaign setting, build the scenario, learn the rules - and they also need some decent social skills.  More and more, I've come to believe most problems at the table should be solved outside of the game, with a frank table discussion.  But it takes a bit of composure and a willingness to problem solve to lay it all out there and talk through a solution.

Here's some for instances:  you often see criticisms complaining about how players have sabotaged specific campaign styles and victimized their game masters - players that balk at adventure paths, because they want to go off the road; game masters that admit to failed sandboxes, because their players didn't know how to take control and everyone just sat there.  A competent GM needs to be able to discuss the parameters of the game up front, and then monitor when things are going sideways and take a time out to have an out-of-game discussion to get things back on track.

Negotiating skills are important.  Negotiation is about conflict resolution, and reaching a solution that works for everyone - it's like the art of getting to "yes" you hear about in the business world.  One of the big complaints about the older style of games is that they create arbitrary (authoritarian) game masters.  Maybe that's a problem for teenagers.  Good problem solving skills and negotiation skills allow the game master to deliver cooperative rulings that work for both sides - game mastering is another area where some life experience and maturity go along way.

Hey, I'm not just the president of the hair club for men, I'm also a client.  I've had a few irksome situations in recent memory, cementing my tenet that a DM needs to be able to talk to headache players, ie, confront the mismatch head on.  I've had the guy that wanted to treat the scripted, linear adventure path as an extreme sandbox, blatantly ignoring agreed-upon "missions" to hi-jack the sessions.  I've had the guy that insisted the only character he wanted to play was that neutral evil half-orc assassin, who promptly started messing with the other players as easier sources of XP than the dungeon.  I've had the guy that thought old school exploration was a quaint and interesting throwback to the ancient times; real D&D involved a fully laid out miniatures battle mat, with both sides set up on the table ahead of game time, so the session could always start with the first combat.

Most of these situations ended with the mismatched player finding a different game.

The indy-game term you see discussed about this whole situation is "social contract" - what are the implied agreements at the game table that define how the group is going to operate?  I'd go a step further, and say what's important aren't implied agreements, but tacit agreements.  Make those things verbal, express, and negotiated up front.  And be willing to part ways with players that want something different from a game, and can't reach a middle ground with everyone else.  A long term gaming group is like any relationship, and it's best to get those expectations out on the table right from the beginning.

One of my favorite lists of campaign and style preferences is still the original merit badges put together by Stuart a couple of years ago over on Strange Magic (original post here).  Here's the full list, and Stuart actually has some neat little icons over at his place for making a little merit badge sash.

  • Tactics are an important part of my games.
  • My games will tell an interesting Story.
  • My games will be Scary.
  • My games focuses on Exploration & Mystery.
  • There will be Player vs Player combat allowed in my games.
  • My games are Safe and you don't need to worry about content or character death.
  • I will Mirror back player ideas I think are interesting in the game.
  • My games use a pre-made Map and pre scripted content.
  • The GM is In Charge in my games and "rule-zero" is in effect.
  • My games rely on a lot of Improvisation rather than pre scripted content.
  • My games are Gonzo and can include a lot of strangeness.
  • Characters in my games are Destined for greatness, not random death.
  • I roll Dice in the open and don't fudge the results in my games.
  • My games include Disturbing content.
  • My games focus on interesting Characters and Drama.
  • Players characters Death is a likely event in my games.
  • I play By-The-Book and "rule-zero" is not being used to alter existing rules.
  • My games are more of the Social, Fun and "Beer & Pretzels" style.
  • My game is primarily Non-Combat in nature.
  • Players in my game should be prepared to Run when the odds are against them.
  • My game has Shared GMing responsibility with the other players.
  • I frequently Tinker with the rules of the game.
  • My game focuses on Player Skill rather than character abilities.

I should drop my own players a line and see how they'd rate our game on what seems important at the table.  I'll post what they say - it's a funny way to start the year.