Saturday, June 27, 2020

Orcs Really Are People, Too, Now

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  Brands are dropping outdated imagery, making donations in show of support, or publicly affirming their positions on diversity and inclusion.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Caller and Modern D&D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 12, 2020

Malazan Book of the Fallen... and Your Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 6, 2020

In Praise of the Humble Experience Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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