Sunday, May 21, 2023

How'd We Get Back to Greyhawk?

I won't spill a lot of ink on our decision to put 5E on the bench.  It had gotten a bit boring for me, the players weren't challenged, and complex battles had gotten tedious.  We don't play long game session, just a few hours, so it wouldn't be uncommon for intricate 5E battles to stretch over multiple nights.  I missed the fast and furious nature of OSR gaming.  They're all solvable problems, but at some point it's just easier to use rules that already lean into the style you want.  WOTC's attempts to revoke the OGL was the final trigger - I decided I'd either play games we already own or put my money behind the independent publishers of the industry.

We had some discussions and took votes, both on a choice of setting and campaign inspiration, and then which rules to use.  For setting and theme, we discussed a LOTFP style horror sandbox, an OSR megadungeon, or AD&D classic hits.  (Classic hits won, I'm going to call it the Tour de Gygax).  To me that meant Greyhawk - but which rules set?  Of course we put out their AD&D (OSRIC), classic D&D (Labyrinth Lord), or perhaps a modern clone like LOTFP or ACKS.  The player's picked ACKS - several of them liked it from back in the day.  The characters are a little more powerful and have a lot of options; I like the whole domain end-game possibilities, which I loved from AD&D and which other clones overlook.  Historically, we've had several long running LOTFP games (Gothic Greyhawk and the Black City come to mind), and used ACKS for an extended Dwimmermount campaign.  I was a little sad they didn't pick the low-powered horror sandbox, but I'm sure we'll strap on those flintlocks and rapiers and get in some LOTFP style games here and there.

Greyhawk, however, is an awesome setting.  For me it brings to mind the wonder and mystery of first discovering AD&D back in the 70's and 80's, before you knew what an elemental was, or a rust monster or a mind flayer.  The original Greyhawk books are idiosyncratic - they go into great detail on things like coats of arms for obscure principalities, weather patterns, the migration routes of ancient humans, and random encounter tables by geography, without telling you much about any meta story or what to do with the setting.  It's an open invitation to create your version of Greyhawk.  Our last Greyhawk campaign cast the Earldom of Sterich as a mist-ridden backwater filled with haunted moors, howling werewolves, and vampire's castles.  This time around we're leaning into a Lord of the Ring's vibe; fractious human kingdoms struggle with alliances and politics while forgotten evils creep back into the light of day to threaten Law and Civilization.  What role will the players have in rekindling old alliances or ensuring slumbering evils never awaken?

The only significant house rule is that every week, the players are committed to leaving whatever dungeon they're exploring and returning to a safe place, be it town or wilderness camp, where they have supplies, a place to rest, and the missing player characters and henchmen.  In this way we can roll with whoever is available to play the following week.  I like the inspiration mechanic introduced by 5E (where players can earn an extra die roll by doing something inspirational) so we're still using that one - it's already blunted the hard edge of some save or die rolls back in Hommlet's moathouse.  Players can nominate each other for inspiration for good roleplaying, tactics, flooring the table with a fine joke or quip, that kind of stuff - but the DM's say is final.  We use 3d6 in order for attributes, but let the players roll 5 sets of ability scores and pick the set of scores that best fit the character they want to make.

We never returned to in-person gaming after the pandemic.  Several of my long time players moved out of town, and using a virtual table top and video conference capability has been too useful to stay connected.  It's easy to scan old map images from TSR-era modules into roll20, obscure them with fog of war, and then leverage online maps and dice rolling.  However, we are not using tokens at this time, just "theater of the mind".  I'm really trying to avoid slow tactical combat after too many years of 5E, and I'm loathe to reintroduce miniatures… maybe later.  We use a discord voice and video channel for communications, and the players make good use of google documents for sharing notes, marching orders, communal supplies (like their campsite gear), posting images, tracking names and henchmen, that kind of stuff.  We don't get to share pizza, doritos, and pepsi, but otherwise online gaming has been pretty good.

I’ll put a couple summaries together of our first few months of Greyhawking to get caught up on the game reports - that'll be for during the week.


  1. Thank you -- I was always curious about Greyhawk and had the same reaction with the materials available at the time.

    Also interested to hear how you've kept with the online gaming (which also happened to my old gaming group during the pandemic).

  2. I'm curious as to how you and your players feel combat goes in ACKS vs 5E. Better, worse, exciting, less flavor?

    1. I can say that with 5E, we seemed to finish 1 or 2 combats per game session if they were on the easy side... and sometimes not even a whole combat if it was challenging - a tough fight could take multiple weeks. Too many options, looking up rules, analysis paralysis, and everyone agonizing over the minutia. (5E players need an NBA style shot clock and buzzer).

      By comparison we played a short game last night and the players easily got through 4 combats, after spending the first 45 minutes planning. It's night and day. Part of that is low level D&D is a brutal - monsters hit hard and can also go down with only 1-2 hits. Fewer player options may actually be a feature? I never made that connection. Last night we had 7 players and combats flowed way smoother than 3-4 5E players.

      I'm finding it more flavorful - the fights are quicker and I'm more likely to narrate brutal finishes, as opposed to the longer fights of attrition we were experiencing in higher level 5E. I don't think system matters there as much as DM engagement being the factor.

  3. Oh Man, I knew there was a reason I never deleted your blog from my feed. I am so excited that the session reports are coming again. I know you have written in the past that you think most people don't like to read them, but your accounts were the best part of the blog IMO. Your session reports got me through a long dry period of not playing D&D. I almost felt like a secret player in your games, the recaps were so good. Anyway, great to see the blog alive again.