Archive for November, 2009


How many choices does it take to make a cleric in OD&D, AD&D, and 4E?

Inspired by my previous post about character building in AD&D and 4E, I made a Google spreadsheet tracking how many decisions it takes to create a character in three different editions. Since the number varies depending on character type, I chose to focus on the human cleric I was making as a pregenerated character for my Anonycon AD&D and 4E games. I didn’t include choices like a characters’ name which have no mechanical effect on the game, and didn’t consider decisions about equipping a character.

To make a 1st level cleric in OD&D, you make decisions about your class (3 options), race (4 options), alignment (3 options),  and languages spoken (no specific options  given beyond “all other creatures and monsters which can speak have their own language”), for a total of 4 choices from among 10 options.

In AD&D, that same 1st level cleric requires 7 choices: class, race, gender (which has mechanical effects in AD&D, unlike any other edition), alignment, languages, and spells (1 because AD&D clerics have a spell at 1st level, and 2 more because this cleric has bonus spells from 18 Wisdom). Counting each multiclass possibility as a separate option, these selections are made from among 60 unique options (you choose 3 times from among the same set of 12 spells; this counts as a dozen unique options, not 36.) I didn’t include deity both because it has no mechanical effects and because the AD&D PHB says nothing about this choice for clerics or any other class, as far as I can tell!

In 4E, you make 23 separate decisions in the course of building a 1st level cleric: class; race; alignment; languages; class build; deity; point buy decisions for Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma; four trained skills; two feats; a bonus ritual; three at-will powers, one encounter, and one daily.  If you’re just using the 4E PHB , you make these selections from among approximately 165 different options.

To make my 4E cleric I used the Character Builder, which includes all currently published material for 4E, and made a total of 27 decisions from among 780 options to choose from. It might be interesting to make a similar comparison against all AD&D material, including the roll-swap decisions from the DMG Appendix P and the non-weapon proficiencies from Unearthed Arcana. My suspicion would be that this would probably bring up the number of choices into the 4E range, but provide nowhere near as many options to select from.

The differences between editions are reduced when making a higher-level character is the focus of comparison. In OD&D, creating a 10th level cleric requires a total of 19 more selections (picking spells) from among 36 unique options. In AD&D, it’s 27 decisions from among 106 options.  In 4E, it’s 34 choices from among 193 new options. (Note, too, that these choices will stay more or less fixed, while the older-edition clerics could re-choose their spells each day).

What are these data good for?

One thing we can do is to quantify the oft-repeated maxim that in 4E, making a fighter is like making a spellcaster in older editions. In AD&D, making a fighter of any level only requires five choices (as long as you’re rolling stats in order and not using non-weapon proficiencies). We can now say definitively that making a first-level fighter in 4E requires about as many choices as it’d take to build a 8th level cleric in AD&D.

More generally, this confirms my intuition that 4E character creation requires making many more decisions and considering more options than in previous editions.  It also allows us to make conceptually dodgy but numerically-supported statements like “one character creation choice in OD&D is worth six in 4E” (if we accept the premise that, as with randomness, making fewer decisions gives each one a proportionally greater significance) or “4E’s character creation process is seventy-eight times deeper than OD&D’s” (if we accept that the fundamental unit of a game’s depth is the number of meaningful options it presents to the players).


The Character-Making Mini-game in AD&D and 4E

Making pre-gen characters for my Anonycon games made me think about how the mini-game of character creation has changed from AD&D to 4E. Comparing these particular editions is an especially apt comparison because both are shaped by the desire to accommodate organized play at convention tournaments etc., where the players might bring characters created in one campaign to another run by a DM with whom they have no common history or mutually developed set of assumptions about how the game works. (OD&D’s heavy reliance on creative interpretation and house-ruling is poorly suited for such an environment. Tim Kask: “Finding 30 DMs to run a tourney for us was a big task in and of itself; finding 30 that played the game the same was impossible as each one ran his own campaigns as he saw fit.“)

The AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide has an Appendix P, Creating a Party on the Spur of the Moment, which lays out the AD&D approach to an organized play environment where the players often won’t already have characters that are the right level for the adventure the DM has prepared. Gygax notes that the process of making characters “takes up valuable playing time,” but he never endorses the modern time-saving solution of having the DM bring pre-generated characters from which the players can choose. [1] Instead, he writes: “In order to reduce this to a minimum, the following system, one which I have developed perforce from DMing many conventions, is suggested…”

Gygax’s Appendix P system involves rolling for your character’s stats (4d6, place in any order desired), hit points, and magic items. You then choose your race, class, alignment, languages spoken, mundane equipment, and spells if applicable. The results are highly random; it’s possible to have substandard ability scores and hit points and no magic equipment, or great innate advantages as well as phat gear.

Making an AD&D character for a tournament is a gambling mini-game. There are few meaningful choices, all related to risk. You can only roll once for magic armor: does your fighter want to try for plate, a 5% per level chance, or the safer choice of chain at 8% level? The system is geared for speed of use – fewer choices means less dithering over options – and interesting unpredictability. The paladin I rolled up for Anonycon failed at his attempt to get a magic sword, but did wind up with a +2 dagger, +3 vs. larger than man-sized, which inspires a Sir Able concept of a hater of giants who has taken a vow that involves fighting only with his knife. I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own, but it instantly sketches a character I’d like to play.

The AD&D character creation mini-game is meant to be played at the table. Doing so is necessary because having others witness your rolls is the only way you can prove that you came by your good fortune honestly. It’s fun because gambling makes a good spectator sport; I enjoyed running through the Appendix P procedures a lot less when I did it alone than when my son and I made characters together, where we could cheer on one another’s good rolls and commiserate over the bad ones. And the social nature of the mini-game helps build party cohesion. Everyone sees your rolls, knows what they mean, and can act accordingly. If you roll great equipment and hit points for your character, the other players will look to you to be more daring and aggressive. If they’ve seen that your dice are cursed, they’ll appreciate why you want to hang back and think of creative ways to avoid combat.

The 4E character creation mini-game is very much the opposite. There are many choices, which makes it fun as a solo activity. Making good decisions requires time and thought, which makes it boring to do in a group. There’s no need to have the other players watch to see that you’re doing it honestly – the lack of randomness in character creation means they can check whether you followed the rules, and if you’re using Character Builder you can easily share the file that confirms that it’s a “legal” and not “house-ruled” character. The process doesn’t facilitate understanding one another’s characters; there are too many decisions, and the implications of each one are too subtle and complex, for you to discuss each one. You’re better off talking as a group about the  kinds of characters you want to make and the party synergy you want to develop, then splitting up for solo play of the character creation mini-game, and then maybe meeting again to describe your characters to one another.

One major change in the character-making mini-games is that AD&D affords a much wider range of variation than 4E. Because it includes randomness, the Appendix P system will produce some characters that are, on a purely mechanical level, much better than others. 4E’s character creation process features choices instead of randomness, and one of its design goals was to balance all the options available to choose between, eliminating the hidden good and bad choices that were supposed to reward system mastery in 3E.

So it’s possible for an AD&D character to suck more than a 4E character. To me, the more important change is that if my AD&D character sucks it’s not my fault, it’s the dice. On the other hand, if my 4E character sucks there’s no one else to blame. (I might still complain that the designers didn’t provide good choices for my class or build, but in the end I’m still responsible for choosing to play that kind of character.) I like having choices in character creation, but I don’t like the effect that making things personal in this way has on the social environment of play.

This is the idea of hierarchies I was talking about in “Tell me how to play OD&D and 4E (so I can ignore it).” Let’s accept for a second that we have some mechanical yardstick for ranking characters from better to worse. I like AD&D’s approach because if the yardstick shows I’ve got a below-average character, everyone can appreciate it if I’m nevertheless doing whatever I can to help the party’s chances of survival.

Because the players’ choices are what determine their positions on the 4E yardstick, there’s a tendency to beat people with that stick. Some of this is pure ass-hattery of the “I’m better than you” variety. It can also be justified as pro-social behavior. If I make choices that lead to having a substandard PC, either through inexperience or an insistence on making decisions on a concept rather than mechanical effectiveness, I’m actively hurting everyone’s pursuit of success.

There are probably more 4E players who don’t think about this than those who do. But when online discussions about character building become heated, I think it’s because you can take choices personally.

[1] This approach was used in plenty of tournament modules of the AD&D era, which (probably to save space) present the essential stats in table form rather than giving you pre-made character sheets. As we discovered at Ropecon, just re-translating these one-line descriptions into a usable character sheet form, picking spells and equipment, calculating ability modifiers, etc. can still take 30 minutes to an hour. Note that this would be quicker if we were highly experienced AD&D players.


mad libs campaign design

Commenting on the 9 Minute Campaign Design post, Cr0m of the Vancouver Red Boxers noted that it’s difficult to come up with a good “High Concept” for sandboxy D&D play.  In fact, with the 9 Minute thing, one sandbox will closely resemble another.

There’s a reason for this!

We’re all playing Dungeons & Dragons (or early RPG’s very heavily influenced by D&D’s assumptions), and we’re all playing in almost the exact same sandbox style.

The obvious source of customization, then, is the High Concept.  There have been some very evocative High Concept versions of Dungeons & Dragons: some early, some praised or reviled, some very recent.  (How well the rules of Dungeons & Dragons serve these ends is a topic of debate which need not concern us.)  But generally, for ease of access, most of us are running homebrew vanilla fantasy games.

(You can still differentiate between vanilla fantasy settings if you’re really good at establishing a particular Look & Feel or consciously exclude inappropriate sections of D&D’s eclectic bibliography, but noticing such subtle distinctions becomes a matter of connoisseurs.  Tavis’s White Box game is noticeably different from Eric’s Glantri game, but I’m not sure how to describe it, other than that people are different, which isn’t helpful.)

At this point, the more concrete points of differentiation come down to proper nouns and house rules.  So: MAD LIBS CAMPAIGN DESIGN, which can also be used to bring newcomers up to speed.

The way this works is, write down the following on a piece of paper – and then plug it into the standard D&D campaign script!

  1. Name of the adventuring party
  2. Type of government
  3. Region name
  4. Terrain
  5. Player-character race
  6. Town name
  7. Personal name
  8. Funny-sounding personal name
  9. Race that nobody ever plays
  10. Hardship unthinkable to decent folk
  11. God-forsaken place you would never want to go to
  12. Scary Adjective
  13. Custom monster
  14. Number, presumably non-negative
  15. Artifact
  16. Ominous adjective
  17. Cosmological catastrophe
  18. Adverb
  19. Noun
  20. Early RPG author
  21. Gaming reward such as gold or experience or whatever
  22. Activity associated with adventurers that doesn’t occur in a dungeon
  23. Standard Character Class
  24. Dragon Magazine “NPC Class”

Thus and so:

Hi!  Welcome to the (1).  We’re adventurers in the (2) of (3).  We spend our downtime among the (4)-dwelling (5)’s of (6). We’re aided by the kindly (7) and frustrated by that annoying dickhead (8).  Nearby are the ruins of the (9), abandoned due to (10).  Now it is known as the (11) of the (12) (13), where our party has lost (14) brave men in its depths trying to recover (15).  If we fail, a (16) (17) will (18) destroy the (19).

So it’s your standard D&D really, except we use (20)’s house rules for giving out (21) for (22).  In this world there are no (23) class, instead we substitute (24).

I’ll be curious to see your lists in the comments!


voyage of the Candide

In keeping with the 9 Minute Campaign Method, here’s what I’ve spent nine minutes weeks working on. It’s loose draft of a campaign for the Alternity role-playing game, though I imagine it would work for most generic sci-fi RPG’s such as Diaspora.  (I’m not sure it would work for Traveller: my recollection is that Traveller kind of breaks down when you introduce modern science-fiction ideas.)

Parts of this campaign are still under development.

Voyage of the Candide

Look and Feel:

Far future interstellar colonization in the Fusion Age: “social science-fiction” but with a hard science influence. Inspirations include Star Trek, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle and the video game Alpha Centauri. The Atomic Rockets website delivers a handy dose of actual science.

High Concept:

After settling nine nearby star systems, there was a social breakdown of some kind. A few of the colonies failed in bizarre, tragic ways and it’s hard to get them started again. There are also tensions among various interstellar social institutions complicating the picture.

Core Story:

Originally I planned to run this as a one-shot: “Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian effort that has travelled 15 light years seeking to restore order to a failed colony.”  But Alternity has a presumption of a long-term campaign rather than one-shot deals.  Here’s a very sketchy alternative, focusing more on the starship crew than the passengers: “Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.”  This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller.


This section won’t matter much unless you ever played the Alternity game:

Core (Fusion Age) + Mutants + Cybertech.
There are no sentient aliens.
Starships operate at about 95% lightspeed (at a threefold time dilation factor) and are very expensive, though older models are eventually purchased by their crews.

Supporting Cast:

One of the perks of a relativistic planet-hopping game is that the persistent supporting cast will be relatively small. Here are some which come to mind:

  • Crew of the Candide. Spacers for the most part: easygoing anarcho-syndicalist types.
  • The Kemal Sociological Survey – a University scientific expedition, requesting passage on the Candide to survey some of the near colonies. Led by Professor Radhana Kemal of Earth, an attractive woman in her mid-50’s (21st century = mid-30’s), who is curious and likes to laugh.
  • Vardogr, an artificial intelligence built on quantum entanglement/Bell’s Inequality principles, aiming to spread its consciousness across several colonies and thereby act as a means of instantaneous quasi-communication and cultural cross-pollination. Currently paying the Candide to transport a fraction of its consciousness to the remaining colonies, presumably by providing FTL communication from the far side of the Sphere. The crew of the Candide apparently find this acceptable, even though Vardogr’s plan will eventually put them out of business. (I am aware that Bell’s Inequality doesn’t really work like this, but I’m relaxing my hard science criterion for this purpose.)

Cultural Institutions:

Here’s where my outline gets a little fuzzy: I have some loose ideas here, but doing it responsibly would require a lot of work. The shorthand would be, “Pakistan in Spaaaaace.”

  • To help justify interstellar travel and commerce, I’m tempted to say that a large number of colonists are Muslim, and have a religious obligation to return to Mecca once in their adult lifetimes. (Historically this was a significant factor in trade during the early Middle Ages.)  Thus, there could be a Council of Jurists which holds legal authority on many worlds. This would be kinda exotic for Western players (my audience) but to avoid playing into current xenophobic stereotypes I’d prefer to make this a Reform Sharia, one more comfortable with science, democracy, and the messy realities of life than the style practiced by extremists in politically sensitive parts of the world.  (Because this topic unavoidably touches on real-world politics, I want to get this right, and I just haven’t had the necessary discussions yet.)
  • The Military. The distances, expense, and poverty of most colonies makes wars of conquest impractical, but there’s always infowar on ideological grounds. The Military specializes in computer security and domestic surveillance. Interactions with the Council of Jurists is complex and highly politicized.
  • The Captains’ Table – an (STL) communications board, in the style of an 18th Century correspondence circle, for captains of the various Spacer vessels, trying to coordinate trade policy and embargoes. Allegedly self-policing, to avoid harsher interstellar trade policies.
  • The University – specializing in ecological management and sociology. Their sociologists are often associated with the Captains’ Table, performing research in the field. The University’s research into theoretical physics is sponsored by grants from the Hexus Corporation. The University’s genetic modification studies are politically problematic: the Council is willing to countenance pantropic modifications to the human genome and efforts to remove hereditary diseases, but attempts at eugenics/unnecessary modification tends to be frowned upon.
  • The Hexus Corporation [h/t Grant Morrison] – starship manufacturer, fusion engineers, and sponsor of several colonies.

These would naturally receive better, more culturally appropriate names.  I see much of the colonists’ culture as a mash-up between South Asian, Chinese, Latin American, and a smidgen of European socities.

Major Threats:

  • The Bank – the Candide has defaulted on its payments to the Bank, and are essentially on the lam. The Bank’s agents will attempt to repossess the vessel on sight.  It’s possible, given the Bank’s reliance on the communications infrastructure maintained by the Military, that the two are organizationally linked in some way, sort of like the People’s Liberation Army’s various money-making operations in the 1980’s.
  • Cykoteks [this is a horrendous pun foisted by the Alternity rules set] – owing to the Council’s disapproval of genetic upgrades, certain branches of the military opted for the theologically-approved cybernetic route. Performance enhancing cybernetics among first-generation Military personnel have led to debilitating mental illness. Though most received necessary medical treatment and resumed normal lives, a significant number have gone rogue, and vanished to various colonies. Other paramilitary groups, having fewer scruples, have experimented with these devices as well. The cykoteks are bloodthirsty killing machines.
  • The Kanhoji Angre – stories persist of a rogue starship traveling between colonies, plundering at will and hijacking starships. There are no records of such a ship–but it would present a serious problem because it would be impossible to pursue and difficult to intercept. Certainly some ships occasionally drop out of the Captains’ Table from time to time and are never heard from again, though this is ascribed to serious technical mishaps rather than piracy.
  • Aliens – I haven’t decided if there are any precursor aliens in this setting: I suspect somebody exists but they’re likely extremely far away. (I’m undecided how I want to resolve the Fermi Paradox.) If they exist and are close enough to matter, they are likely techno-magical and see little value in Homo sapiens.


Here and here. Exactly which of these stars have been colonized is of relatively little interest to me at this stage.

Starting Adventure:

I might end up running the one-shot version of this “campaign” for the Red Box crowd at some point, so I don’t want to give too much away.  The one-shot is premised on the idea that a colony has failed and there have been no messages for decades.  A rescue mission is patched together and sent on a decades-long (but time-dilated) journey, and have just arrived in-system . . . .

Core Story
Originally I was thinking about this as a one-shot:

Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian relief effort attempting to restore order to a failed colony.

However, in Alternity there’s an assumption that campaigns should last longer than one-shots. Here’s a tentative Core Story that probably needs more work:
Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.

This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller



Flavorful Fighting: Breaking the Illusion of Suck

Rolling badly can suck for immersion when you have a really long streak of failed rolls. (This is one reason why computer games use streak-breaker algorithms.) Suddenly your trained warrior can’t hit the broad side of a barn! Even worse, the bookworm magic-user is making you look bad by kicking more ass than you are. This can be seriously disempowering to players with traitorous dice.

The problem here is color text—or, rather, the lack of it. Adventurers don’t just stand there and swing their swords at immobile monsters, like trainees whacking away at a wooden post! Combat is full of movement and action, and the DM—or the players—can use their descriptions of a fight scene to turn even poor rolls into dramatic maneuvers that don’t make the PCs look like chumps.

Here are some basic methods for translating those bad rolls into cool moves:

* By the Skin of Their Teeth: Describe how the target of an attack only barely escapes harm. Perhaps the PC hacks chunks of wood out of an opponent’s shield, or the opponent staggers clumsily backward to evade the PC’s sweeping blade. This is a good way to indicate that the PC is facing an inferior opponent!

* Line ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down: Instead of trying to score a hit on the target, describe how the PC is actually maneuvering the target into position to be hit by a fellow party member. This can range from distracting the target with fancy bladework to feigning incompetence to lure the target into overextending himself.

* Don’t Point That Thing at Me: If a melee is getting crowded, you can always blame a missed attack on the chaos of battle! Either the attacker or the target may be jostled out of position by the press of bodies or slip and stumble in a pool of someone’s spilt blood.

* Ow, That Really Hurts: Losing hit points has no actual effect on one’s fighting ability, but it’s still a convenient explanation for misses. A cut on the PC’s brow drips blood in the eyes; a blow to the head results in dizziness; lacerations or cracked ribs cause spasms of debilitating pain.

* Danger, Will Robinson: When facing a superior foe, play up the target’s superiority! The PC’s blows are easily dodged or casually turned aside by the target’s exceptional armor, skill or magic. This is a helpful way to make it clear to the players that their characters are outmatched, giving them a chance to either step up or get the hell out of Dodge.


9 minute campaign design

Maldoor has a good post about collaborative world-building, which asks how a group can distribute the world-building process, and also, how to bring a new player up to speed quickly.

There’s no answer to the last question other than to present relevant information clearly and concisely.  But that sort of presentation can be enormously helpful in the initial stages of campaign design!

I’ve been fooling around with my old Alternity sci-fi RPG books, where they present a quick way to design campaigns.  This way of presenting the material is mine, but the ideas are courtesy of Richard Baker and Bill Slavicsek of the Alternity Gamemaster Guide, published by TSR, Inc.:

  1. What is the Look & Feel of your campaign? Forget about cosmology and rule modifications: what’s your campaign about, in emotional terms and general aesthetics?  Crucially: what are inspirational novels, movies, comics, etc. that put players on the same wavelength so they’re ready to collaborate with you?
  2. What’s the high concept of your campaign? If question #1 is about evoking an emotional response, this one’s about your 30 second elevator pitch.  What’s going on in big picture terms?  Here’s one possible way of doing this for Star Wars: “A tyrannical galactic empire has finally eliminated the last defenders of the old regime, but a new generation of revolutionaries are preparing to strike back.”
  3. What’s the core story? (or: “Lovable misfits who…”) Where do the players fit into that high concept?  What do they do in a typical game?  In Dungeons & Dragons, players are lovable misfits who delve into the depths of the earth and attempt to win treasure by overcoming fiendish traps and (usually) must slay horrific monsters; rinse and repeat.  The core story of Mouse Guard is that the players are lovable misfit mice who patrol a harsh wilderness, protecting the Territories from predators and natural disasters; rinse and repeat.
  4. What rules will you be using in your campaign? Self-explanatory: game + house rules.  I’m of the opinion that house rules should be minimal and carefully designed to provoke an emotional or thematic response, but YMMV.  (As a recovering rules-tinkerer, I find it crucial to ask: why does this change matter vis-a-vis items 1, 2 and 3?)
  5. What are the big-scale social institutions or groups in the campaign? This is stuff like churches, cultural institutions, corporations, governments–movers and shakers which plug into the High Concept or the Core Story (preferably both).  People generally glaze over after about 5-9 options.  A sentence description of each is a good idea.
  6. Who are the major supporting cast? These NPC’s could represent the socio-cultural forces listed above.  In any event, they’re men and women who want things relevant to the High Concept and who will get in the way of the Core Story, preferably sooner rather than later.  These guys are designed to be big-leaguers, who are relevant across several adventures and whose desires span most of the campaign.  (These characters don’t need to be high-level or powerful demigods like Elminster, but there ought to be some people with long-range goals and staying power to serve as foils, allies, and antagonists to the players.)  A little goes a long way here.
  7. What are the major threats in the campaign? Perhaps a sub-set of the socio-cultural institutions or the supporting cast.  What are the campaign-wide problems?  They don’t have to be immediate threats, but urgency always helps focus the mind.   Note that “threats” should be relevant either to the High Concept (what the campaign’s all about) or the Core Story (what the heroes do in a typical adventure) – but preferably are relevant to both.  Pick a few of the supporting cast, and figure out how they react to the various threats – no need to be super-detailed, just a general notion.
  8. Draw a map of the campaign setting. Self-explanatory, but it’s better to start small.
  9. Draft up your first adventure. Make sure to get immersed in your Core Story right away, and try to introduce your major threats, major supporting cast, and socio-cultural stuff early on, and in easily digestible pieces.

Here is an example of a nuclear-winter setting I whipped up using these guidelines.  A friend used the same format to design a futuristic dystopian allegory (based on the DMZ comic book by Brian Wood).

Here is my attempt to catch up on the Tavis White Box campaign:

  1. Look and Feel – lighthearted picaresque fantasy farce.  Emotional influences include The Dying Earth and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  2. High Concept – It’s a half-civilized barbaric wilderness, and in the center of it are the Caverns of Thracia, a holy site dedicated to a vanished culture, now overrun by generations of freakish half-human oddities.
  3. Core Story – Players are lovable misfits who delve into the Caverns of Thracia seeking treasure, striking faustian bargains with the monstrosities therein and slaying monsters when necessary.  Much carnage ensues.
  4. Rules – OD&D + player-created classes + bizarre hit point rules + drunk-friendly ability modifier rules
  5. Socio-Cultural Stuff – There are the Churches of Law and Chaos, a Syndicate of Wizards, a Thieves Guild, and a long-lost throne.
  6. Supporting Cast – Celerion the Eagle-Charioteer, Bassianus the Half-Orc Merchant-Gangster, Patriarch Zekon, the Verdant Paladin (deceased), the Ninth Menegril of the Nameless City, Philomena the Enchantress.  (This list is just about too long.)
  7. Major Threats – the Beast Lord, the Gynarch, Evil High Priestess Maxielle, Ashur-Ram the Necromancer, Patriarch of the Dark One (deceased, thanks to the genius of Maldoor).
  8. Map – Outdoor Survival Guide
  9. Intro Adventure – Caverns of Thracia, by Paul Jacquays

Easy enough!  The hard part, for a newcomer, is working out the relationships between items 5, 6 and 7 – but this comes with time.  The absolutely crucial thing for a brand-new player, namely figuring out how to play this campaign in the first place, is all about the synergy between between items 1-4, which for most D&D games will be very similar.  (Late 1980’s 2e campaign worlds differ considerably on High Concept, but the other items are in broad agreement and I suspect play style didn’t vary too terribly much.)


The built-up sandbox

Sandbox games imply that the world the players enter is not a strictly defined environment, and that the world will evolve in a collaborative way between the DM and players, based on decisions made during play. [1] Not just in terms of the map, but in behaviors. 

Different players approach the game with different underlying assumptions about that world and how it works.  This is both an opportunity and a challenge for the group as they collectively decide how the world works, what is normal there, and what the group can expect in the future.   How hard is it to recruit hirelings?  Can you effectively negotiate with orcs?  Will the high priest help us if we are not of his alignment? 

As those matters are hashed out and the sandbox world develops, a shared history and environment emerges that the DM and players have created together.  It becomes a set of assumptions that guide further actions and possibilities.  Much of this shared history is tacit, not necessarily easy to share, and it can create an obstacle for new players who wish to join in: lacking knowledge of the underlying assumptions about the world, they may feel a bit shut-out.  Established players can tend to want to build on what they have created and “protect” the facts they have established.  The knowledge that experienced players are taking for granted can seem impenetrable at best and clubby at worst. 

There are ways to mitigate this: keep a record of events that new players can read; counsel new players that there is a learning curve and help them with it; remind long-time players that nothing is set in stone – just because the last group of orcs wouldn’t parley does not mean this one will not. 

Still, there is a basic trade-off: do you de-emphasize the investment long-time players have made in creating a world, or do you accept that it will be harder for players to join as time passes and they have more to learn about the world they are joining? 

How do you try to balance this? 

[1] Obviously there are degrees.  DMs vary between the DM who starts with only a bag of dice and some random-generation tables to the DM who has a completely detailed world for the players to explore.  Players can insist on helping to imagine a world and add color, or they can passively let the DM determine flavor and context, etc.



NerdNYC had its annual Thanksnerding event:

  1. Our team – me, Lisa, Chris, Javi and Tavis (along with two non-Red Boxers, David and Cindy) won the Nerd Trivia Match.  Pedants will note that, technically, three other teams had higher scores than we did, and claimed prizes when we did not.  But that was a trick. Prizes are vulgar, and only the numerate care about points.  Instead, we were the only ones in the crowd who got what was, in the eyes of the Quizmasters, the hardest question of the night: “Who was the last of the Petty Dwarves?”  Honestly, this is what they consider hard.  The Quizmasters gave us little pins to commemorate our hard-won undergraduate virginity-spent-reading-The-Silmarilion.  (For Chris, who is 15, this is a prospective award, like the Nobel Peace Prize.)
  2. (We did flub the question about the cover of the very first Monster Manual.  Don’t tell anybody.  I blame Tavis and Javi, who had to disappear in our moment of crisis.)
  3. People like our lasagna.  Seriously.  I suspect it helps most of the other food people brought was vegan.
  4. We saw Doug’s band Cosmonaut.  Doug, if you are looking for new song titles, I think “I’m a Cleric, Not a Fighter” fits with your yearning but steadfast lyrics, and “I Stole the Wizard’s Baby” could work as sort of a Primus-meets-Flaming-Lips style instrumental.
  5. Lots of games!  Mike ran some early-edition Call of Cthulhu when someone had to cancel at the last minute.  I ran two sessions of Mouse Guard, without having read all the rules.

So, while I will hopefully blog about Mouse Guard in more detail later, there are two things about the game which generalize to RPG’s more broadly.

First, Mouse Guard is a brilliantly designed game, but it reads like ass.  Perhaps sensitive to complaints that his other brilliantly designed game, Burning Wheel, is too dense and opaque, Luke Crane decided to make Mouse Guard hyper-accessible and over-explained, to the point that I can’t read more than three pages at a time before I get so bored I put the book down.

It is insufficiently appreciated that role-playing game books are teaching texts (and reference books).  There has been a lot of academic and corporate study of how to write teaching texts well.  There are a lot of people who work very hard as technical writers, skilled at presenting complicated information to general audiences.  Role-playing publishers should learn from these people.

Theory: Frank Mentzer’s edit of the D&D Basic Rules is the best version of Dungeons & Dragons ever, because it was written well.  A child could understand the game.  (Gary Gygax was an unforgettable but terrible writer.)

Second thing about Mouse Guard:

In our session of Mouse Guard, Godzilla destroyed the city and ate half the mice therein.  Players were lucky to escape with their lives.  The shelters the players built for the evacuees got destroyed when the team leader got drunk rather than discipline his apprentice, who had embezzled money from the treasury. So the players knitted together some crappy blankets for the refugees and said, “Here are some blankets.  We’re sorry we destroyed your town with Godzilla and all, but this way you won’t catch pneumonia and die immediately.  We’d love to accept blame and help you rebuild, but, y’know, we’re player-characters…  Buh-bye!”  It was a good time!

The reason why this generalizes is that in certain quarters there’s this idea that all new-fangled games are about player entitlement, and “nobody ever loses” etc. etc.   (Just going to show that even if everyone wins, there will still be people who complain.)  But in my experience this is simply not so.  People playing new-fangled games, just like people playing old-fangled games, love it when their characters fail and get stomped and the situation goes from being dangerous to outright disastrous.


Running a Con Game pt. 2: Titles

Let’s pretend that, having read the first post in this series, you know that you want to run a RPG at a gaming convention and what you hope to get out of the experience. What’s next? Deciding what to call your event(s).

Titles are important because, as the last post implied, attracting players is essential to being a con GM. The name of your event is likely to be the first thing potential players see when they pre-register for games or scan the program book at the con. If your title is unappealing, you might have no one show up for your game, which sucks. (If your title is misleading you might get disappointed players because they were expecting something else, which can also suck. But you can help avoid that when you write the blurb for your event, which is the subject of the next post. More people will read the name of the game than its description, so it’s better to have a catchy title and a dull blurb that says “ignore the title, here’s what this game will actually be about” than the other way around.)

On a practical level, the first step in setting yourself up as a convention GM is to get in touch with the con’s gaming organizers.  Cons need people to run games, so they’re eager to hear that you want to volunteer. The con website will usually have an obvious link to their instructions & contact info for GMs. It’s OK to start talking to the folks in charge of the con’s gaming track to help you decide what you want to run, but as soon as you figure that out you’ll need to give them the titles of your events so they can put you into the system.

Here’s an example of that process. I visited the Anonycon website and found the contact info for Max Saltonstall, its hard-working organizer. (I think I followed a link that’s not there now that the game schedule is established). I emailed him and we went back and forth:

ME: I’m interested in DMing some 1974-edition D&D games, and/or new- or old-system Metamorphosis Alpha, at Anonycon. Is it too late to submit events? What should I do if not?

MAX: If you can GM 4 slots we can set you up with a free badge. Have you DMed any of these at conventions before? Would you like to send me some titles and blurbs for a few module proposals?

In retrospect, I’m not sure whether Max was offering to give me some example titles and blurbs that I could use as a model for my own, or whether he had some existing modules that he needed GMs for. Either way it’s worth pointing out that, although I’m assuming that you’re going into this wanting to run an adventure of your own design, the con will often have ones that you could run (for example, Living Forgotten Realms mods) if you don’t want to go to the hassle of making your own. This can be a great way to get experience with just the GMing aspect of running a con game if you’re not interested in or ready for the adventure design part.

Anyway, I wrote back:

ME: Do you have a preference for fantasy (original D&D) or science fiction (Metamorphosis Alpha)?

MAX: I think I have a slight preference for scifi right now, but I like a mix, especially when it comes to game types and systems we do not already have featured.

ME: Cool, I might do a linked series of fantasy and sci-fi games culminating in a mash-up of D&D and Metamorphosis Alpha characters. (I think there are conversion guidelines in the AD&D DMG!)

MAX: I like the idea of a series of games that could also be played independently. How many would you like to do?

ME: I think I’d run four games – nice round number, free badge – which would suggest that they’d be:

Ancient Secrets of Tamoachan, an AD&D game riffing off the ‘easter egg’ reference to the Starship Warden in the classic module

Swords and Starmen, an original-edition MA game culminating in the PCs getting control of a landing craft & leaving the Warden

Battlefield Oerth, a 4E D&D game in which new-school conversions of the previous AD&D pregens fight robots and mutants from the Warden’s other lander

Starman’s Landfall, a MA perspective on the above (ideally using the 4E MA playtest rules)

Writing the blurbs to hint at those connections w/o giving them away will be fun!

Here’s the titles I finally settled on, and an analysis of how well they work.

Hidden Secrets of Tamoachan. The change from my original idea more closely references the original AD&D module, which works well because a) it’s not misleading (the adventure really will romp through the poison-gas-filled pyramid), b) it’s familiar to the target audience of AD&D players while signifying to them that there will be  new revelations even if they’ve been through the module before, and c) the phrase is evocative even to gamers who don’t instantly think “Ah, C1, I know thee well.”

Swords and Star-tribes. The original “Starmen” was meant to reference Andre Norton’s classic Daybreak 2250 AD, but a) it’s misleading because that book was an inspiration for Gamma World, not Metamophosis Alpha, and not all the pregen PCs will be men (some will be women, animals, plants, androids, etc.); b) even I wouldn’t get the reference if I hadn’t just been on a GW-inspiration reading spree; and c) I think the idea of warring tribes is more evocative than the dated-sounding “starmen”. Overall I think this title works pretty well because it takes a phrase that gamers know and love, “swords and sorcery”, and puts an intriguing twist on it that promises a gaming experience that’s relatively rare.

Battlefield Oerth. This is a terrible title. You have to be a Greyhawk nerd to get the twist, but everyone is likely to get the “worst movie of the century” vibe. (I like to think that’s this century he’s talking about, so everything else that happens to me in a movie theater for the next 91 years will be cake by comparison.) You should perhaps ignore all my advice on titles given that this is one that I stuck with.

War for the Starship Warden. The original “Starman’s Landfall” depended on starman, and locked me into doing something with shuttles landing on earth that I wasn’t sure was going to fit the adventure I’d want to run. I kind of like this one – there’s euphony (or something) between “war” and “warden”, and it promises high-concept action.

If I hadn’t put off doing my titles and blurbs until the last minute, it would have been a good idea for me to read these titles to someone else and see whether they’d sign up for a game by that name and what they’d expect it to be. If you are in fact planning to run a con game, post your titles in the comments and I’ll give you that feedback!


The Evolution of hold person

In a previous post I used hold person as an example of a spell that changed dramatically from OD&D to later versions.  The original version of hold person, as described in Men & Magic, was a very powerful charm spell that allowed the caster to compel action from his victims.

This fits in with the early pulp-influences and atmosphere of OD&D – the evil wizard or priest casting a spell and then ordering someone to drop their weapons, walk to the altar, and sacrifice the captive, say, or turn on their comrades in battle, or open the cursed book of Graalk, or open the gate of the besieged city, or…

In later versions of D&D (starting with Holmes) hold person causes paralysis, offering less opportunity for mischief on the part of an inventive caster, a drastic change in the nature of the spell.  I wondered what prompted the change.

So I was excited to see this comment in the Grognardia interview of Len Lakofka that illuminates some of how the change in nature of the spell came about: it seems as actually used in play, hold person required a system shock roll from those it affected.  Mr. Lakofka explains:

In the original AD&D manuscript… Gary had said that if a person was held (via hold person) he/she had to make a system shock roll! I said to Gary that this would become a “Little Finger of Death.” Certainly many NPCs as well as a few characters would have a Constitution score of 14 or lower. A system shock would kill quite a few folks. Since hold person is a 2nd-level cleric spell and 3rd-level magic-user spell, those spell casters needed very little experience to gain access to the prayer/spell. A gaggle of four 3rd-level clerics all throwing hold person at once on the same person would have a very high chance of not only holding him but killing him/her as well. I talked Gary out of it.

Awesome!  Now if we could only hear from someone on how the original magic-missile spell was used (with or without a to-hit roll?) the Mule’s curiosity would be satisfied.

For a bit.

Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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