Archive for December, 2009


Signposting Styles of Play in a Sandbox Campaign

I’m working on a West Marches-style campaign for the Rogue Trader RPG, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Rogue Trader PCs command enormous resources that enable them to do pretty much anything they want, and the concept of the game is wide-screen enough to encompass a huge variety of possible goals. Different kinds of goals will reward different playstyles, from the social interaction and intrigue involved in negotiating a trade monopoly to the exploration and combat of searching for archaeotech on a derelict space hulk.

Letting players know where to go to find the play activity they want to do

The challenge is that even if I know what kind of play the group wants, as a sandbox GM I eschew the ability to deliver it. If they go to a world that’s marked on my map with a skull and crossbones, they’re going to get combat whether they like it or not. The best I can do is to make sure the environment contains lots of raw materials for whatever playstyle the group might prefer, and then put up signposts to say “Rumor has it that you can find the things you’re looking for by seeking in this direction”. I like this approach because as a player I hate feeling that I’m being catered to, and will gladly trade a high degree of inefficiency in getting what I want for the illusion that when I do I have wrested it from an objective and uncaring game-world solely by virtue of my mighty deeds.

So if it’s up to the players to seek out the kind of thing they like to do, my job is to create accurate signposts to reduce their inefficiency in finding it. My personal preference is for signposts that point to in-game things rather than player desires. Partially this is because I often meet players who aren’t comfortable in talking about what they want, or are used to doing so only in game terms (“I just want to kick some ass!”). I find “you have an invitation to the private party of the planetary governor’s mistress, do you want to attend?” more immersive and evocative than “are you interested in social roleplaying and intrigue?” but this comes at the cost of some inaccuracy.

The limitations I set on myself as a sandbox GM mean inaccuracy can’t be eliminated altogether. It’s always possible that a group seeking hot chainsword action may somehow believe that it will be found at the mistress’s party, and it’s all too likely that one player will draw their chainsword during the banquet and spoil others’ hopes for play focused on intrigue and status. But I can avoid contributing to the problem. It’s tempting to turn every social invitation into a deadly trap and every xeno-infested world into a political negotiation, but when I do I have to remember that these false signposts are frustrating the players’ ability to steer towards the kinds of play they want.

I think this ties into some things we’ve been talking about here and amongst the New York Red Boxers recently. I haven’t been consciously setting up signposts for different kinds of play in the White Sandbox; many of the adventure hooks I dangle lead to just another hole in the ground, which may contribute to James’ feeling that all D&D adventures are basically the same. (When I have created hooks for political intrigue and town adventure they haven’t been followed, which might also suggest that there’s a narrower collective understanding of what playing D&D entails than may be the case for Rogue Trader. Perhaps this is abetted by the fact that old-school D&D rules don’t seem to support those other styles of play, although I increasingly support our Invincible Overlord’s contention that often the best thing a system can do is not get in your way.)

Signposting also came up in a conversation about Eric’s frustration with internal conflict among groups of players who can’t agree whether they want to be psychopathic killers or story-builders. My feeling is that if we use strict West Marches scheduling where the party is formed around both a date and a specific plan of action, and if there are clear in-game referents that can be used to distinguish between different styles of play, a group that comes together for a night of adventure in Glantri City will likely all agree that they’re there to develop ongoing storylines and do collaborative world-building just as the group that plans an excursion to the Caves of Quasqueton will have cohered around kicking down doors and setting things on fire.

(This post is based on discussions at EN World and Story Games in which other folks say interesting things even if I mostly repeat the above.)


Why a West Marches Campaign Needs a Town (Moving Into the Dungeon, Pt. 1)

The White Sandbox campaign has recently been playing out the implications of a shift away from a fundamental West Marshes tenet: the adventure is in the wilderness, not the town.

In gearing up to write about this, one thing I realized is that Ben Robbins’ excellent and influential posts never point out what I consider to be the main reason you need a town in a West Marches campaign: so that you can answer the question “What happened to the PCs of the players who aren’t present during this particular session?” with “They’re hanging out in town.” This might seem obvious, but I think it’s key to understanding what happened when I violated the “town=safe / wilderness=dangerous” separation.

The town of Belltower, unfortunately no longer a boring place where nothing ever happens

When the last West Marches post advises “be careful not to change the focus to urban adventure instead of exploration”, it’s part of a discussion on motivation: “Once players start talking to town NPCs, they will have a perverse desire to stay in town and look for adventure there.” Since the rewards of the game are meant to come from ventures into the unknown, and the unifying principle for the party is the need to band together against the dangers lurking outside the boundary of civilization, giving the players an incentive to hang out in town works against the premise of the setting.

I don’t deny that this is important, but as far as I’m concerned the most pressing need to avoid having adventures take place in town is pointed out in Jeff Rients’ post about using West Marches methods in his Cinder sandbox: “My idea of a town adventure goes something like blah, blah, blah, there’s a fight, and then the town burns down“. A place that the PCs interact with during play is going to be changed as a result, often drastically and for the worse.

The social dynamics of a West Marches campaign demand that town be safe and unchanging. If the adventure is happening in town, it’s hard to explain why all the inactive characters who are supposed to be cooling their heels there wouldn’t join in the action. Part of why I want to keep these PCs offstage is laziness. As of last session, that’d be 32 NPCs for me to run: no thanks! But the more important part is that sooner or later I hope all of those players will rejoin the campaign and want to run their old PC again. The more the town becomes an unsafe environment, the more likely it becomes that I’d have to say “Sorry, you have to roll up a new character because your last one died during a session when you weren’t around.”

And if town is a place where nothing ever happens, it’s your one refuge against the intimidating accumulation of play history that James prepared to hurdle but smacked into nevertheless. We spend enough time each session with the PCs in Zolobachai’s wagon or the Bloody Traveler Cellar explaining to one another what happened on the last venture into the dungeon. We’d never get anything done if town adventures meant we first had to tell the returning players what happened to their unplayed characters since last time: how did we decide that they escaped the doom that the players brought upon the town that was the last known location of the inactive PCs, and what trail of bread crumbs led them through a string of burned-down taverns to the one that the party is currently using as the staging ground for the latest town-destroying adventure?

Unfortunately, much of this wisdom comes in retrospect. Later posts in this series will explain why I yielded to the lure of town adventure, and how I think this crossing the streams resulted in the players’ decision to move into the dungeon.


are we there yet?

Cover of basic rules

Thanks for buying this game! You'll do this many years from now! (by Larry Elmore)

How long does it take to play Dungeons & Dragons?

Several m0nths ago, James Malizewski observed that the Mentzer Companion Set effectively codified the much-needed “endgame” for Dungeons & Dragons.  I respect James, but it’s not much of an endgame if it never arrives.

I’m going to say that Level 12 effectively qualifies as hitting the endgame.   Under the Moldvay/Marsh/Cook version of the Basic Game, most classes need about 600,000 points to reach Level 12.

How long does it take to get there?  For a game that’s been in play, in one form or another, for about 35 years, there seems to be very little hard data, though Maldoor made an early attempt.

I’ll take a guess based on a semi-official pronouncement.  The Holmes Basic Rulebook states that it should take about six to eight adventures to level up.  I don’t have my copy with me; I’m going from memory.  Holmes, unfortunately, doesn’t explain whether this means six to eight sessions of play, or six to eight completed dungeon-adventures.  (In any event the most helpful measurement would be points acquired per hour of play.)  But let’s assume Holmes is talking about sessions of play.  In that case it would take the player 72 to 96 sessions to reach Level 12–somewhere around three to four years if you’re playing twice a month.

Frankly I think Holmes’s math wasn’t intended to apply beyond the first few levels, which after all were his main focus in the Basic Rulebook.  As an example, a Magic-User needs 40,000 points to go from Level 6 to Level 7.  To do so in eight sessions would require earning an average of 5,000 points per session (maybe 20-30 thousand for the party as whole).  That’s not impossible, but it’s a very steep pace to maintain given the adversaries you’d have to fight.  I don’t have any hard data to suggest another rate of advancement, but presumably it gets a lot slower around high-level play.

But even at lower levels, Holmes’s estimate of 6-8 adventures to level seems way off for our group of players.  Eric’s Principalities of Glantri game has been playing for about 20 sessions, and nearly all of the participants are still Level 1 (this is in large part due to turnover, both of characters and players).  Tavis’s White Sandbox game has had about 15 sessions with a more stable (but larger) cast, and maybe 50% of the regulars have gained one level.  Also, we’re playing with what amounts to double-XP-for-treasure rules, and Tavis is using the 100 XP per hit die of the enemy, so our advancement is considerably quicker than it would be if we were playing by the B/X rules.   And we’re also playing using published modules (B2 and Caverns of Thracia).

To me this suggests that Holmes’s estimate is too generous by a factor of 2 or 3 (or it could be that the “adventures” he’s using as his unit of advancement are maybe 2-3 sessions in length).  So that would mean hitting Level 12 would take anywhere from 144 to 288 sessions.  Playing twice a month, that’s anywhere from 6 to 12 years.

So in order to reach the endgame of a D&D campaign, we’re talking about a time commitment of at least 3 to maybe up to 12 years.  For a casual social activity, competing for attention with one’s professional and familial obligations, as well as whatever other interests one might have, it approaches absurdity.

Now, I’m assuming (1) that we’re playing from the low-levels to my arbitrarily imposed cap of Level 12, and (2) we’re advancing at a rate more-or-less as the rules intended.  Either assumption might be wrong.

But to the extent that you’re measuring your game against some idealized mode of play where folks go from Level 1 dopes to Level 12 super heroes, that is a long haul.  Maintaining your own interest, to say nothing of your players’, is going to be a serious challenge.


fates worse than death

One frustration I have with Dungeons & Dragons is that, past a certain point, all play is basically the same.  You find a “dungeon” of some kind, you seek the treasure, you maybe slay a “dragon” of one kind or another.  This is awesome.  But is it inexhaustibly awesome?

It bugs me a little when grognards complain about how D&D 3e and 4e is nothing more than a video game, as if D&D was somehow more substantive in the past.  That certainly isn’t true of OD&D or the B/X stuff, which are unabashedly mixtures of wargaming and board games (not to mention the video games of the day), with only the very lightest of “role-playing” grafted on.  While 4e defines your “role” as Poorly differentiated guy with Kung-Fu style #5, 0e defines your role as Poorly differentiated Schmuck #3 lost in a subterranean death-trap.  At most, your character is a collection of a dozen integers, a lust for gold, and (if you’re one of those namby-pamby actor types) an outrageous accent.  It’s always been this way.

In addition, the game really doesn’t handle stakes much higher than loss of Hit Points very well: in fact, not at all.  So, maybe the Princess falls in love with your Savage Barbarian Bandit, maybe not; but the question is either to be resolved by GM Fiat or a simple dice roll, and in any event the real story is about how many wandering monsters you’ll encounter while stumped by a puzzle in the catacombs.  The story’s not about you: there’s no story at all.  Like life, Dungeons & Dragons is what happens while you’re making other plans.

All of this taken together, it strikes me as absurd that “campaign play” is the idealized mode of Dungeons & Dragons.  When every session is, broadly speaking, like every other session; when every character is, broadly speaking, like every other character; when the only tension is whether you’ll have to create a new and almost interchangeable character at a lower “experience level,” that is, to see whether the time you’ve invested thus far has been wasted or not . . . It’s almost like some kind of Dadaist prank: a story with no plot and no characters, only a setting that appears to change.  It’s the exact opposite of fantasy literature.

Don’t get me wrong: the game is very fun, and I enjoy playing.  But I’m not sure I enjoy it an infinite amount, and I think the idea of prolonged campaigning – more than about 5-10 sessions or so – is some weird parasite that grafted itself onto the wonderfully designed board game elements of D&D and eventually devoured the entire thing.

What would a D&D “campaign” look like that was designed to play itself out in 5 sessions instead of 30?  Instead of a mega-dungeon, which everyone on the Internet has been obsessing over as the sine qua non of a successful D&D game: a micro-dungeon.  And cram all the crazy action you’d expect to see in a 30-session build-up into a very cleverly designed world?


Fight On! #7 Is Out, Huzzah!

The new issue of Fight On, my favorite gaming magazine, is now available at Lulu. This one does not include my “Random Events Make You Say Yes” essay, which has been held over to #8. That issue is devoted to Erol Otus, which may inspire me to write a second piece devoted to how at Anonycon I was able to use the evocative player handout illustrations he did for The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan to let the players’ input do the work of improvising a trap/puzzle encounter. What better way to pass the time while you’re waiting for all that than to read and re-read #7? The robots at Lulu are printing mine at this very moment, but the table of contents indicates that it contains such delights as Adam Thornton’s “Wandering Harlot Table” and “One Time at D&D Camp” by Harnish & Robbins. Enter the code “HUMBUG” when you checkout at Lulu and save 10%!


Expedition to the Upper East Side

don't make fun of this guy's nose

Honda Tadakatsu, 17th C.

Dig it: from now through January 10, 2010 the Metropolitan Museum of Art is running an exhibit on the arms and armor of the samurai from the Heian through the Edo Period–basically, seven centuries of katanas, o-yoroi, kabutos, and all those other crazy things we ogled in the centerfold of Cook’s Oriental Adventures.  If you’re in New York, or planning to visit for the holidays, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

We hit the place this afternoon, but because one of our traveling companions was a bored little kid, we didn’t get to see as much as I might like.  Since the items on display change every week, I’m going to organize a Red Boxer expedition sometime soon.

There is some genuinely cool stuff there, including a video of the forging of the sword-blades.  This included a guy whose family has been sword-polishers for fourteen generations.  The method seems to involve a series of stones, decreasing in size until you’re polishing the thing with grains of dust.  Also, during the forging, the swordsmiths placed types of clay onto the molten steel, creating patterns of discoloration that could only be seen when the sword was perfectly polished: basically, a kind of invisible ink type of deal.  There are zillions of sword blades on display, to the point I got bored looking at them, but they also have naginata (glaive) and yari (spear) blades as well, and several suits of incredibly cool armor which surely was too fantastical to ever be used in battle.

Treasure’s one of those things that everyone loves in Dungeons & Dragons, but frankly all I usually care about is its value in gold: the idea of appreciating this stuff for its own sake, or marveling at it, is completely foreign to me.  “Emeralds?  Uh, okay.  I rush straight into town and find the emerald guy.  What’s he give me for it?”  As Ben “Mr. West Marches” Robbins mentions, players will actually listen to exposition when it’s described through treasure.  But also, players will appreciate fancy descriptions of art, if it’s art that can be used to kill dudes.  Collecting the life’s work of a particular swordsmith could be a pretty neat quest, especially if the stuff is forged so well that it’s practically magical.

does this helmet make me look like a bug is pooping on my head?

Kabuto with mantis crest, 17 C.

As an example of ridiculous art objects which definitely say something about the setting they’re embedded in, here’s a helmet where, for some reason, the guy wanted a gilt praying mantis on his forehead.  In person, it looks freaky as hell and also completely ridiculous.  If you poked him in the forehead he’d fall over and never be able to get back up.  The mantis’s body is made from wood, the wings are papier-mache, and both are coated in a fine layer of gold.

The Met, of course, also has a couple centuries of European arms and armor too, along with just about every single pole-arm Gygax ever fetishized, so you can do a compare-and-contrast.  (Does anyone else think it’s weird that you’re in a museum, looking at Fine Art after Fine Art, and then suddenly there’s this room full of Full Plate?)  And also, recreations of ancient Egyptian temples, as well as zillions of works of art from Medieval Europe.  (There probably ought to be more religious-themed art objects in D&D – it seems like for about a thousand years the only works of art Europeans knew how to produce were pieces of Jesus fan-fic – and in a game like Tavis’s explorations into the Caverns of Thracia, we ought to be tripping over generations of religious iconography, all of which will be mined for expository information and fitted into Maldoor’s database.)  But until then, here’s a sword:

I too would get married if this was my wedding gift

short sword, swordsmith Yoshimochi, 17 C.


Running a Con Game pt. 4: Dress Rehearsal

Let’s assume that you’ve  read the three previous posts in this series, and are psyched to sit down with a bunch of players you haven’t met yet and GM an adventure at a gaming convention. Let’s further assume that it’s the morning of the day when you’re scheduled to run this event. And you haven’t had nearly as much time to prepare as you would have liked. (This last part requires no assumption; it’s always that way). Coincidentally, I am in that situation myself and can give a perspective on what I think is important to get ready before showtime.

(Let’s also assume that you’ve also just read James’ post celebrating his best gaming experience in years, and mused over the rare circumstance that two of us write posts that have to be posted on the same day for their references to “last night” and “later today” to make sense!)

Player Handouts.  I’ve been spending the bulk of my prep time on making the pre-generated characters for my events. If I wasn’t using pre-gens, I’d have been working on the quickstart guide to help players make their characters at the table. Whatever information you need to hand the players so that they can hit the ground running should always be your highest priority.  There’s a lot of “by Issek’s jug what happens now?” unpreparedness that you can hide behind the screen. When the players first sit down and get stuff that proves you’ve put some care into getting your event off to a good start, they’re much more likely to eagerly seek out the fun they’re confident you have waiting for them – which is all it takes for winging it to become a joy instead of a desperation move.

Gimmicks.  The other thing I made sure to have ready was at least one cool prop for each adventure. As I say at least once per post in this series, the nature of a convention puts lots of limitations on what you can do in a RPG session but also creates opportunities. One of them is designing the adventure to lead to whatever gimmick you have in mind that wouldn’t be feasible in a regular campaign session. That might because it’d be too much of a pain if your players started expecting that kind of thing every game, or because your regular campaign is freeform enough that you never know whether your props would get used. (If I brought my Anonycon bag of tricks to every White Sandbox game, the temptation to railroad y’all so I could bust out my gimmicks and stop lugging them around would quickly become overwhelming).

At least one reader of the Mule has said they’ll be playing in some of these events, and through the awesomeness of the Metamorphosis Alpha forums I may run them again at GaryCon for a group of players that includes MA creator Jim Ward himself. (My prep for that game will involve wearing adult Depends.) So I’m going to keep some of my gimmicks a surprise for the benefit of their future victims. Folks who played in the Forgotten Heroes tournament at Gen Con ’08 will recognize one of the ones I’m re-using; there’s no shame in getting as much mileage out of a good prop as you possibly can. And gamers familiar with Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan will recall that it’s got a booklet of art meant to be shown to the players at key points in the adventure. These make a great gimmick because they’ll give new players both a hint of  old-school flavor and also an advantage over the experienced hands, for whom the warm rush of nostalgia may distract them during the crucial few seconds in which they might escape the ways I’ve changed the adventure to screw them. Another classic convention gimmick is Dwarven Forge scenery (spruce it up with dry ice fog, or lasers and mirrors,  if the tiles alone are too old hat for you) or other cool miniatures setups.

Gimmicks are helpful for two reasons. First, the fact that you’ve prepped this crazy thing that’s not part of their usual game experience tends to make them forget, or at least forgive, the other times where your facade of knowing what you’re doing may have slipped. Second, planning around the scenes that justify using your gimmick gives structure to the adventure design. Thinking “what on Oerth is going to happen in the Tamoachan event” was dreadful, but became delightful once it changed to “how can I shoehorn in all my favorite Otus and Darlene illos”.

Runthrough. On the half-hour bus ride this morning, my seven-year-old wanted to tell an evolution-themed “pretend story.” (Today he’d chosen to wear the shirt I brought home from Gary Con for him. My wife is a research scientist, and sometimes we look at our offspring and think “What hath nerds wrought?”. Which is awesome.) “Okay,” I said. “Your species is trying to get off this planet and expand into another niche on another world. You learned that there’s an alien starship inside an ancient pyramid. As you approach, you see…”

The key things here were that I got to tell the story of the adventure out loud to someone, making me feel much more confident about doing it again later that afternoon. And having him describe to me what he did helped me identify the key decision points and get some ideas about what I needed to present to make those choices clear and interesting and the unexpected directions players might take. Compared to playtesting (which I recommend but haven’t done), this is fast-forwarded, boiled-down, and good for testing story elements instead of mechanical ones. Javi and I often use a d6 to randomize our pretend stories, but this time he explicitly said “I use my light-saber to defeat the bad guys, and I don’t need to roll to do it.” Which was great by me – the PCs are almost always meant to overcome the combat obstacles in a convention game, and if you have a good feel for the mechanics (or are ready to fudge on your side of the screen) you can be pretty sure it’ll work out that way. This run-through is to help figure out the truly unpredictable aspects of how you and the players will respond to one another’s input throughout the scenario.

Doing this kind of run-through is so useful that I strongly suspect that the Gygax kids were often the unwitting assistants in Gary’s preparations for his convention games. (Or maybe not so unwitting; when I busted out the Tamoachan illustrations, my son said “I knew this was a D&D adventure with a map and pictures!”). If you don’t have kids to help with your run-through, try to find a friend you can talk into it. Friends of the opposite gender with whom this pleasant activity might eventually lead to procreation are recommended. You need a captive audience for your con game dress rehearsals, and the world needs more gamers!

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2009
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