Archive for October 9th, 2009


Of the Deaths of PCs

I have an admission to make. It’s a shameful one for someone running an old school D&D game, but here it is.

None of my PCs in ongoing games have ever died.

Oh, sure, I’ve had lots of characters die. But always in one-shots, throwaway games at conventions or to pass the time. Not characters I’ve invested in. It’s a dramatic lacuna in my experience. And I have to consider: how did this happen? (Or, more accurately, not happen.)

I’ve been playing RPGs for years, starting with Blue Box Basic back in 1978 or so. My memory of play back then is rather vague, but given our tender age and low attention spans, I don’t think my friends and I tried anything more than one-offs. My friends and I dabbled in other games, such as Traveller, Top Secret and Star Frontiers, none of which lasted long. A group at the local youth center, run by a fellow who seemed ancient to us but was likely a college student or even a high school senior, entertained us with his own brand of AD&D; my eighth-level ranger, his name lost in the mists of time, still survives somewhere, albeit permanently blinded from a nuclear strike on the Great Kingdom of Aerdy.

After a hiatus lasting through high school, I discovered a welter of newfangled systems and settings, such as Amber DRPG, Ars Magica and the entire panoply of White Wolf games — Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Changeling, Exalted, etc. And then there was D&D3e, in a group that’s hung together for nine years running three separate campaigns in a single setting. Aside from the games I’ve refereed, I’ve played at least two dozen characters in campaigns of varying length, and not one of them has died. (Except for poor doomed Martin the Green, but as that was a plot-mandated death followed immediately by a plot-mandated resurrection, I deem it to lie outside of the parameters of this scenario.)

As a result of this unprecedented feat of survival, I feel some perplexity when faced by the massive death tolls of our group’s old school games.  How do my players actually feel when their characters are impaled by bugbears, rent asunder by zombie wolves or incinerated by their own arsenals of ersatz Greek fire? Yes, many of them seem quite sanguine about their characters’ fates; certainly my fellow bloggers have had more than their share of deceased PCs  and they show no signs of slackening in their resolve to come back for more. But the actual sensations involved escape me.

Hands-on research is clearly required. But I like my characters and have no wish to kill them off merely for experimental purposes. And in any case, deliberate suicide would seem to defeat the purpose. This is something that should happen naturally, despite all my paranoid in-character behavior.

(PS: Tavis, this is not a request to kill my character. Lucky the Halfling Marksman will die when the time is right; don’t speed that day on my account!)


A picture is worth 1,000 exp

 Two graphs made using the information we collected from the first twelve sessions of the Lost City game. [1]

(I like to geek out with this sort of analysis, and it adds to my enjoyment of the game.  I know folks who see it as trying to dissect a butterfly to find the beautiful part.  Skip it if you wish.)

A couple thoughts on the first graph.[2]

The one-session column will always be large since there are people who play one session and do not return.  Other players like to play a new character each session.

The mortality bulge in the second/third sessions is largely due to probability.  The majority of characters in any one of these sessions have attended only 2-3 previous sessions; by the twelfth session the average character had attended 2.7 sessions.  (This is changing, the average “session age” of the group is rising, fast, and I expect mortality to drift upwards on the chart along with it.)

There were also learning curve issues: we lost a bunch of characters in the first few sessions as we learned.  Hard to tell if it was learning the particulars of this dungeon, or learning about the game in general. [3] 

Sternum also raised an excellent point:

When I roll up a fresh, level one character, I tend to play a lot more recklessly than when I’m playing a seasoned adventured because I have little to lose.  I went through three guys in Tavis’ game one evening because, for those few hours after a character is created, death wasn’t really much of a threat because an equivalent (or better) character would only cost me a minute or two of dice rolling.

This is especially powerful in white box, or any early D&D where random things like opening the wrong door can kill a low-level character.  Newly crafted characters are more likely to volunteer… [4]

I think we will have more deaths in the next few sessions as we move into more lethal areas (teleport traps, efritt, astral monsters, and the beast lord) without having gained new informational resources.  Wear your (low, soft) running shoes.

The second graph is easier to read: I see no linear relationship between sessions played and experienced gained.  The majority of experience comes from treasure (as it should!) and the amount of loot we get has been wildly variable.  Your best bet is to show up for as many games as possible and hope you attend one where we find a nice hoard.  White box advancement is just not a direct result of “putting your time in.”  It has more to do with adroitness, cooperation, and luck.

[1] A sandbox game based on the three original D&D books, with a few changes from the DM (e.g., carousing rules, use of full spell set from AD&D, a different way of approaching HPs).  Original data here:

[2] The crunchy part of me is obliged to point out that the data set here is too small to provide anything in way of statistical significance, but we will not let that stop us, will we?

[3] [Tavis, stop reading please] It would be interesting to have a total wipeout, resulting in a completely new party but with players who already know the game and the DM’s style; would we have as many deaths in the first few sessions of the new party? [/resume Tavis]

[4] To reinforce this, think about how excited everone was about Lydio’s special spider-sense ability during the last session.


gamer truck, I’m a-coming

In August I played a game of Dogs in the Vineyard with my friends Jenskot and Forager.  For reasons of mutual convenience we played in the lobby of the Citigroup Center and over the course of four hours five people came up to us, very curious about what we were doing.  (We also got chased out of the building by security.)

We tried our best to explain–“It’s like a movie, kind of”–and may have persuaded a particularly interested young woman to go home and buy a copy of Dogs.  People were friendly, curious, and they had no clue this kind of thing even existed.  There were several other D&D 4e players at the venue, and clearly whatever we were doing was very different to on-lookers.

This led to some speculation on NerdNYC, and we started to dream big.  In New York, there are these gourmet lunch trucks that drive around the city, using Twitter to meet up with customers.  Naturally our thoughts turned to buying a truck and forming a roaming lunchtime gaming squad, using grants for funding etc.  (This is so awesome, but it is so far in the future after so much work, that we might as well forget about it.)

This led to a conversation with my girlfriend:

ME: . . . So me and Jenskot are kicking around ways to game with non-gamers.
GIRLFRIEND: Yes, your Outreach to Investment Bankers idea. It’s silly.
ME: It’s not so silly.
GIRLFRIEND: You are never going to have a truck driving around New York.
ME: We could write a grant!
GIRLFRIEND: Are you going to have Gandalf parallel park for you?
ME: . . . The truck is not the important thing. Right now we’re trying to think of venues were we’d meet lots of interested non-gamers.
GIRLFRIEND: What about senior centers?
ME: ? ? ?
GIRLFRIEND: They’re playing Wii now. And the ones at Lyman’s Orchard were playing Apples to Apples. So maybe they’d like to play your kind of games.
ME: . . .
GIRLFRIEND: You could volunteer, they would like the company. You could go on family visit days and teach them something to do with their grandkids.  I mean, that’s just one example.  There are all kinds of populations you never seem to think about, who might be into your games.
ME: ! ! !
GIRLFRIEND: You better give me credit when you talk about this on the Internet.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying, our group and our extended friends are actively doing field research on public interest in gaming.  The first step in getting our Gamer Truck is figuring out public demand for it!  Or rather, even if we never get the truck, we want to do some out-reach on behalf of gaming in general.  Tonight we’ll be playing Zombie Cinema and, if we have time, How to Host a Dungeon (about which more later, when their website’s not broken).  We’ll be playing these games as “bait” to lure new people into the hobby.

Here’s why this is relevant to Old School games: we are old.  Already, a huge chunk of “our” history is lost, and we owe a lot of thanks to the hard work of guys like James Mishler, RandallS,  and James Malizewski in helping to recover our heritage in this silly hobby.

Unless we bring in new blood, however, all of that work will be for nothing.  So our gang of players is testing what works to get more people into role-playing in general, and from there, try to see if anyone’s into Old-Timey Dungeons & Dragons – because we think that it deserves to be part of the future of gaming, as well as its past.


Score 1 for death, 0 for play improving

Last night in Eric’s Glantri campaign we got slaughtered. Jesus, just avert your eyes. (N.B.: That link is NSFW, or if it is I want to work in your office.)

It wasn’t technically a total party kill because there was never a point where all of us were lying dead on the dungeon floor. More like a total party replacement; by the end of the session almost none of us were playing the character we started with. Here’s my post-mortem analysis of what went wrong:

– Jumping to conclusions. Our plan was to visit Sebastian, one of the necromancers in the Caves of Chaos with whom we’d previously made a treaty. When we arrived no one was waiting at the mouth of their cave, it took a while for them to respond to our hail, and there were noises of things moving around inside. I interpreted this as evidence that the necromancers were under attack and that we could take advantage of the situation to kill and loot them. It wouldn’t have taken much intelligence-gathering to prove this assumption wrong, but I sailed in with blind faith in my assessment of what was going on.

Roleplaying. Self-preservation is a top priority for rational beings, so arguably it’s poor roleplaying not to act with that in mind. Or, in the “what’s my job in the party” sense rather than “what’s my motivation”, a guy whose romantic ambitions cause him to run into a cave known to be full of zombie guards in order to rescue a medusa who has already betrayed him twice is playing the role of Suicidal Lunatic to the hilt. Good or bad, roleplaying killed Era the Elf Captain of the Dragoon Lancers, the only Red Box character I’ve ever rolled who died in their second session of play instead of the first.

– Beer. Some of the mistakes we made were stupid enough that we need an external factor to blame them on. For example, in the first successful (pre-alliance) raid we made on the necromancers, we took two kinds of badges from their slain apprentices. We knew that one of them protected us from the zombies, but went in wearing the other kind of badge. Oops! It was also a big group of players and the place where we play was unusually noisy, so difficulty in communicating and inattentiveness made things worse.

– Numbers. When we did establish contact with the necromancers, they offered us 2,000 gold to capture a hawk-bear dwelling in the Caves and 3,000 to bring them a bull-man. Our first-level characters shied away from these, suspecting those monsters would have ample hit dice. Instead, we decided to go after the bugbears in the hopes that their numbers would have been thinned out when we defeated their patrol that attacked us while we parlayed with the necromancers. This was foolish not only because the chieftain of those goblinoids probably had as many hit dice, but also because we allowed ourselves to be outnumbered by his forces. If we’d gone after the hawk-bear, we would have been the ones swarming over it – more troops almost always have the edge against a single powerful critter in old-school D&D. We also failed to bring any henchmen, having let the previous ones go over a dispute over whether they deserved full shares on the next expedition. We got hardly any treasure and the henchmen probably would have died before they could claim shares in any case, so in retrospect this was also foolish.

– Lack of profit motive. The hawk-bear might have killed as many of us, but the survivors would have gotten paid. We got no cash from our raid on the bugbears. This relates to survival both because making it to second level would dramatically improve our longevity, and because keeping our eyes on the prize would encourage more caution.

– Born to die. The loss of Francois, the founder of the Crossed Swords mercenary company, was bitter both because of his vivid presence in the campaign and because he died with almost enough XP to level up. Characters who’d just been created had less to live for, and so having fun rightly took precedence over saving their newly-minted PC’s skin at all costs. One of the two new players we had last night rolled a dismal set of ability score rolls, distinguished by a dismal Constitution and a pretty-good Charisma, and decided that his PC would be an enormously fat and jolly elf. What better destiny could such a character have than discovering the sign on the entrance to the bugbear lair promising a hot meal; running in full of enthusiasm, trust, and gluttony; and being promptly skewered to death? Survival is a drab thing compared to such glories.

In retrospect, one of the things this proves to me is that knowledge is power only when the players are invested in it. Eric writes great session summaries and answers to our questions about what’s happened in the campaign. (I’m relying on his summary to supply all the names of the dead; if I don’t mention your fallen hero, it’s because I can’t remember what they were called, not because their passing wasn’t noteworthy!). Details about things like which amulet repels the zombies are probably in there, but reading the summary didn’t get it in our heads where it’d be useful in play. Writing our own summary would help rehearse that knowledge, and the process of recording events in play would likely also foster insight into wise strategic approaches for future sessions. (For example, Oban came up with the idea for the Express Elevator to Hell while thinking about what map symbol to use for the rising-and-falling statue.)

Another thing last night reminded me of is that we need more handouts. The other one of our new players was a pure drop-in, having wandered over to our table when his Pathfinder Society game didn’t materialize, and we should definitely have had stuff to get him up to speed (a one-page guide to character generation, another on how to use the basic Red Box rules – as a 3E-era player knowing the mechanics was important to him – and finally the one-page distillation of Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming that I found somewhere) and plugged into the larger network of gaming (something better to point to our online presence than the napkin scrap on which we wrote the New York Red Box URL, and a TARGA flyer once such exists).

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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