Archive for March, 2010


Ode to Thoopshib

One of my favorite encounters is the Kuo-Toa ferryman offering passage across the underground river in module D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa.[1]  The encounter is a gem-like example of the admirable qualities of early D&D. (Please note spoilers follow, if you wish to play D2 in the future.)

 Evocative:  Sets a feel of gonzo, surreal weirdness.  As written in 1978 this creature was the first Kuo-Toa encountered, so is strange, exotic, and horrific.  Yet when he approaches, it is for mundane purpose: to croak out in the eerie underground language the price for passage across the river.  Imagine encountering a lovecraftian fish-beast lurking in the dark near an underground river who opens his mouth and says… “Do you want the blue plate special?”  The overall effect communicates loads of atmosphere.

 Non-prescriptive:  The players get what they bring to this encounter.  As Gygax says in the introduction to the module, “the river crossing, can be very easy to accomplish, or the rash party can turn it into a deadly nightmare.”  The result of meeting Thoopshib could be anything from peaceful transaction to a nasty combat and/or an accidental raft trip all the way to the Sunless Sea – largely driven by how the characters respond to the situation, not a pre-ordained script[2].  Yet the likely outcomes are reasonable based on party actions.

 Random element:  Thoopshib is unbalanced, and if he is not understood he has a chance of going berserk.  The chance of him flipping out provides both an element of surprise for the DM, and a layer of challenge for the players – have they realized they need to be able to communicate with the denizens of the underworld?  Have they secured a translator during their journey so far?  Even so, the situation could still turn bad – welcome to the underworld!  (Note this represents an elegant solution in this encounter to analysis/paralysis – the longer the players dither over how to deal with Thoopshib, the more likely he is to go off.)

For those who like literary and story-telling elements in their adventuring, the encounter is foreshadowing (and metonymy, for you english majors).  This simple encounter is at heart the whole module writ small: an encounter a savvy party can simply walk through, but a combative or greedy party can founder on.  Thoopshib offers a very topical lesson to the “rash party” capable of learning from experience, right before they walk into the Shrine.  In writing this is known as “show, don’t tell.”

 Concise: In less than half a page, 600 words, EGG outlines a robust encounter, limning the situation such that a DM can fill in details, adapt the situation to a particular campaign, and respond to a wide variety of player actions easily, all without losing the general outline or purpose of the encounter.  Like with many (but not all!) of the D&D ur-texts, there is a lot of content and little wasted space. (See “Evocative” above.)[3]

 1) [SPOILER] For those not familiar with the encounter, it occurs at a river crossing along the shore of a vast underground river.  Thoobshib is an “unbalanced” Kuo-Toa who charges a fee to pole passengers across the river on his barge.  He offers to ferry the characters across, speaking in the common tongue of the underworld.  Each time he has to repeat his offer he has an increasing chance of going berserk and attacking.  He is a formidable creature and even a large and powerful party appropriate to the module (at least six players, average ninth level) will have trouble if they do not handle him well.

 [2] In sharp contrast to later D&D products (I am looking at you, Dragonlance) the characters could actually be completely sidetracked out of the rest of modules D2 and D3 if they are not careful, in a sort of anti-railroad.

 [3] I wish I could write like that.  Instead, my little review here has used 663 words and three footnotes! to describe 605 words of encounter.  For shame! ; )


Conan the Contrarian: Creative Agendas in Conflict

I can’t stand it, I know you planned it
I’m gonna set it straight, this Watergate
I can’t stand rocking when I’m in here
‘Cause your crystal ball ain’t so crystal clear

So while you sit back and wonder why
I got this fucking thorn in my side
Oh my God, it’s a mirage
I’m tellin’ y’all, it’s a sabotage

—Beastie Boys, “Sabotage”

One of the most useful terms to come out of the controversial gaming forum called The Forge is the “creative agenda.” Sheared of excess verbiage, this boils down to what the player wants out of play. One may want to beat the opposition, explore an imaginary landscape, partake in witty in-character banter, or any combination of these and other things.

Conflict between players’ creative agendas can lead to conflict between players. Player A likes combat while Player B prefers diplomacy. They encounter a monster; A wants to fight and B wants to talk. What happens? Maybe there will be an argument at the table, and eventually one side or the other will prevail and play moves forward. More likely, Player A’s character will attack, rendering the point moot.

It is important to note here that conflicts between creative agendas are typically asymmetrical, in that it’s easy to take actions in support of some agendas that will preclude pursuit of the other agendas. Attack overcomes negotiation, while both inhibit stealth. Latching on to the Big Noble Quest thwarts sandbox-style roving exploration. I’m sure the reader can come up with other examples.

DM: You press on into the tree-lined ravine. Cave mouths yawn darkly up and down the slopes of the ravine. These are the Caves of Chaos, and your skin crawls as you consider what horrors may lie within. What are you doing?
Player 1: I follow the route to the wizards’ cave, moving quietly and staying low so as to avoid attention.
Player 2: Me too.
Player 3: Ditto.
Player 4: I climb atop the tallest rock I can find and shout, “Creatures of the Caves of Chaos! I am Dragoon Lancer Captain Era of the Company of the Crossed Swords! Be warned that we are here to destroy you!”

Of particular note is the agenda of interesting failure. This is a common theme in new-school play dealing with stories and thematic issues, and in such games it’s a very useful tool for fun and engaging play! But adversity in such games is generally provided by the player(s), and characters typically act on their own and take their own lumps. In old-school games where adversity is generated by the DM and your fellow players are expected—and expect—to work together, this can be a frustrating agenda to deal with, because not only does it oppose many other agendas, it typically trumps the others in play. If you poke the dragon, insult the king, conceal the villain’s weakness or push the shiny red button labeled “DOOM,” everyone else gets dragged into a disaster of your making.

A similar problem arises when a player seeks out conflict with the other players. Whether their agenda is catharsis or simply being the center of attention, such a player gets off on arguing in-character with the rest of the party. Such a player can easily bog a group down for a large part of a session by taking the opposite side in any debate about the party’s goals, strategies or tactics.

Players with contrarian agendas typically aren’t doing it to mess with everyone else’s fun. They may not recognize that other players have different agendas. More likely, they recognize the differences but fail to grasp the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, thinking that each player can do what’s fun for them and it’ll all even out in the end.

As always, this sort of thing needs to be calmly and frankly discussed by the players and the DM. People who enjoy one another’s company will find a way to compromise! And if compromise fails… well, that’s a subject for another post.


Baby Killer Frogs Rescued from Blackmoor Dungeons

Here's where it all began.

The Second Annual Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday (NYC Branch) was a rousing success, and a great conclusion to TARGA’s International Traditional Gaming Week. Having been out to Gary Con at the start of the ITGW and then organized four different games for the Gameday (plus helping put together fifth table of George Strayton’s 4E conversion of Temple of the Frog when the first one filled up) leaves me with a lot of ordinary day job stuff to catch up with, so I’ll let other people’s posts tell most of the story.

Here, then, are actual play reports from the excursion into Blackmoor Dungeons that I ran using Daniel Boggs’ fascinating Arnesonian proto-D&D rules, Dragons at Dawn:

Rock-god of the Red Box littleidiot wrote:

I got to be a magic user with plate mail and sword. A novelty. Not that he could wield that sword to save his life. At will Lightning bolts and fireballs was also nice. I got to strangle people with their own hair, save amazonian babies and get a sh*t load of gold. Unheard of in any other ‘early edition’ I’ve played. Oh and the amazonians were played by, well, an amazonian. Seriously, she must have been 6 foot tall.

My Amazon ringer was weisse_rose, the intrepid player of Lydio the Spider Dwarf in the White Box campaign, who very kindly agreed to be typecast when she fortuitously arrived right after the dice told me that the 11 warriors right next to the room of the giant frogs were all women. I decided that they were survivors of the destruction of the Temple of the Frog, so their “babies” in need of rescuing were carnivorous frogs bred to take over the world. Whether this juxtaposition of maternal affection and razor-sharp batrachaian teeth also counts as typecasting is for more enlightened observers to determine: I’m just glad that the “you meet one or more females in a dungeon” scenario didn’t end in violent betrayal as usual, perhaps because weisse_rose’s PC glow smoothed over that little misunderstanding about the man-eating pony-sized babies.

Here’s aldarron‘s recap from the Blackmoor boards:

In short: it was awesome. There was quite a turnout, so much so that at times it was hard to hear over all the other games. Tavis ran a great game with lots of creative takes on the old Blackmoor dungeon and he did a magnificent job of debuting the Dragons at Dawn rules I put together. There were eight of us playing and every class from the ruleset was represnted except “Sage”. I was particularly impressed with the Merchant character and how well that was played as well as other characters clever use of their stats like “Appearance” in gaming situations. The group made it past the Elves using some fast talking and slight of hand and found our way into the dungeon. There were encounters with some intimidating undead, a lot of passage exploration and secret doors and some not always successful negotiating with the bad guys encountered. We did strike up an alliance with some warrior women on the third level and had just gotten into a fight with some theurgistists when unfortunately I had to leave to catch the bus back to Schenectady. All in all the event was an excellent tribute to Arneson and kudos to Tavis for organizing it.

People chose their own classes, so I had nothing to do with the diversity – in fact I said “the choices are warrior, wizard, and some other stuff,” but people wanted to know about the other stuff regardless! There was indeed one sage – Ed’s character, the Count Ed Vainglor. He was the one who kept crawling off on his own, and at the end (after aldarron left) he managed to talk one of the valkyries into telling him how to contact Sir Fang. So the rats appear, and then four bats circle around him, and then one lands and turns into Fang’s vampiric ogre companion:

“What do you want, mortal?”

“I seek an audience with Sir Fang,” says Ed.

So Fang lands and assumes human shape: “I admire your courage. What do you have to offer me?”

“Companionship,” says Ed. “Give me the gift of undeath and I will accompany you until the end of time.”

“As you can see, I am not without companionship. What skills will you bring to my entourage?”

“I am an expert in poetry and literature,” Ed replies confidently.

“Ah! Do you hear that, ogre? No longer will you have to carry the burden of making intelligent conversation that is so difficult for you! You are welcome indeed among my children of the night.”

It was an great moment for Ed and sages everywhere, and word has it that becoming a vampire is Ed’s eternal goal as a player so I’m glad to have seen it fulfilled!

One interesting thing was that the group really focused on Sir Fang, I guess because they had heard from the elves that he was the reason they were making everyone drink holy water etc. before entering the dungeon. I’d worried about how huge and open-ended the dungeon was, making pacing difficult for a one-shot four-hour game, but the initial mention of Sir Fang proved to be a powerful nudge that beautifully set up Ed Vainglor’s vampire apothesis as one climax to the session. Eric’s memorable character Bloodgrave, cleric of the Starving God and wearer of the futurisitic battle armor and shield from the Temple of the Frog, was also all in favor of seeking out Sir Fang, but it’s probably for the best that their choices of the many, many possible directions for exploration led them to the set of rooms that created the interesting Amazonian plot and enabled another great Arnesonian climax: helping return frog-babies to their loving warrior-mommies, while burdened with 260 lbs. of gold apiece.

I didn’t manage to kill any PCs, but I did get a rarer privilege for a DM: having a player who was new to roleplaying! He’d learned about tabletop gaming from the Robot Chicken and Penny Arcade actual-play podcasts, and I was honored that the Arneson Memorial Gameday provided an opportunity for him to see what it was all about. He went out to dinner afterwards with Joe_the_lawyer and some of the players from his Castle Zagyg game, and it was great to see him swapping war stories just like an old-timer. The birth of a new gamer is a glorious thing, and less dangerous to witness than the birth of a giant carnivorous frog.

My very amateurish video of the Gameday can be downloaded from The first shows the players in my Blackmoor Dungeons event, and the cover of the Dragons at Dawn rules we were using as a recreation of Arneson’s early ’70s proto-D&D. The second video tours Mark’s Pallid Plague, then Joe’s Castle Zagyg, then George’s Temple of the Frog.

P.S. A Chicagoan I met at Gary Con II told me that the Comeback Inn, the famous tavern detailed in Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign and shown in the inset map above, was based on a real pub of the same name in Melrose Park that Dave used to visit.


Red Box Workshop: The Gnome PC


Gnomes are diminutive demi-humans akin to dwarves and halflings, with the former’s affinity for the earth and the latter’s joie de vivre. Though most shy away from humans, they are gregarious among their own kind and prone to tricks and games. Their curiosity often gets the better of them, leading them from their safe woodland burrows to a life of adventure.

The prime requisites for a gnome are Intelligence and Dexterity. A gnome character whose Intelligence or Dexterity score is 13 or higher will receive a 5% bonus to earned experience. Gnomes whose Intelligence and Dexterity scores are 13 or greater will receive a bonus of 10% to earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Gnomes use four-sided dice (d4) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 8th level of experience. Gnomes may use any type of weapon that has been “cut down” to their size. Thus, they cannot use a two-handed sword or long bow, but may use a sword or short bow. They may wear nothing more protective than leather armor, and cannot use a shield. Gnomes must have a minimum score of 9 in Dexterity.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Gnomes live in underground caves and burrows, and have infravision (heat-sensing sight) which allows them to see 60 feet in the dark. A gnome’s deft fingers allow the use of the thief skills of open locks, find or remove traps and pick pockets. In addition, their innate magic grants them limited spell use (see MAGIC, below). All gnomes speak Common, Gnomish and the alignment language or dialect of the character, and the languages of dwarves, goblins and kobolds.

MAGIC: Gnomish magic is innate. Gnomes do not need spell books, nor do they prepare spells as do clerics, elves and magic-users. Instead, a gnome knows a number of spells of each level equal to the number of spells he may cast per day, and he may cast each spell he knows once per day. A gnome may cast a number of spells per day equal to a wizard one level lower. When a gnome gains a level, he rolls randomly to see what new spell(s) he discovers. The DM is encouraged to adjust the spell selection as desired; for example, the DM in a Holmes Blue Book or AD&D game might replace the darkness spell with dancing lights.

Exempli gratia: Twiggledim is a second level gnome. He casts spells as a first level magic user, and so he knows a single spell, randomly rolled: hold portal. Upon reaching third level, he can cast two spells per day instead of one, so he rolls on the list of first level spells to obtain a new spell. He rolls a four: light! Now he can cast hold portal once per day and light once per day.

First Level Spells:
1) Darkness
2) Detect Magic
3) Hold Portal
4) Light
5) Ventriloquism
6) Player chooses any first level spell on this list

Second Level Spells:
1) Detect Invisible
2) Invisibility
3) Knock
4) Mirror Image
5) Speak with Animals (from the cleric spell list)
6) Player chooses any second level spell on this list

Third Level Spells:
1) Fly
2) Growth of Animal (from the cleric spell list)
3) Invisibility 10′ radius
4) Phantasmal Force
5) Water Breathing
6) Player chooses any third level spell on this list

Fourth Level Spells:
1) Confusion
2) Dimension Door
3) Growth of Plants
4) Hallucinatory Terrain
5) Massmorph
6) Player chooses any fourth level spell on this list

SAVING THROWS: As thieves.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the magic-user advancement table.


OSR (Huh! Good God, y’all!) What Is It Good For?

He who hath the Photoshop skills to alter that to "OSR" shalt earn 100 XP. Huh!

Over at the RPG site, Phantom Black started a thread called Why “OSR” at all?!?! which turned out to be one of those adventures where you set forth to slay a troll and then an unexpected reaction roll makes the monster apologize for all the bellowing and gnashing and exclamation points, and as the parlay ensues you realize not only are there going to be no XP from combat, you’re not even going to recoup your investment in flaming oil.

Determined to get something out of it (besides some fine dick jokes), I thought it’d be worth talking here about what I think the Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is good for. The sagacious Clash Bowley said:

Generally speaking, the OSR don’t think that all change is progress, and that what has been done since year X – the exact year varies – in game design has moved away from what made roleplaying games awesome in the first place. By getting back to the source, one refreshes one’s understanding of what gaming should be. Some see this as a touchstone to make real progress. Some don’t need your steenkin’ progress anyway. They were happy in Year X, and if they just go back to that, they will be happy again. Some just lost where they were going and need to go back to the last known position. There are a multitude of variations. I’m not an OSR guy, but they are pretty straight forward about what they are looking for. It’s just that there are really several OSRs which share some commonalities, but which are going in different directions.

I think that’s well put, but “refreshed” isn’t entirely accurate in my case. Even though I grew up with AD&D I never had a good understanding of what it was designed to do well and how I could get the most out of it. Thanks to the discussion and resources of the OSR, I currently enjoy playing old-school D&D much more than I did back in the day. (Experience with many other game systems, and twenty years’ worth of maturity and personal growth, must also get some of the credit.)

I think the OSR is useful as a movement for the same reason that genre is useful for a reader: if you like one book with a rocketship on the cover, having a label can be a good guide to where to go if you want to delve deeper into more stuff like that.

In my opinion, the body of work associated with the OSR is worth checking out (and experiencing for yourself through actual play with a group open to the experience) even if you don’t plan to make a habit of playing older games. I feel like the recent games of 4E and Rogue Trader I’ve run have been much more successful because of my immersion in the roots of gaming, and discovering that I really, really love the original D&D I never played as a kid doesn’t stop me from being interested in new stuff as well.

Because I think it’s worth thinking more about the “not all change is progress” idea that Clash identifies as an OSR tenet, here’s my response to another question of the quotation-mark-loving OP:

as far as these “old” mechanisms didn’t “survive” in most roleplaying games that are sold today, what does this hint at? Game designers being “morons” knowing better what rules to devise than their customers, just talking the customers into that the old rules were “obviously” bad? Or is it just a misdevelopment that game designers published what they deemed better, thus talking customers into believing those new mechanisms actually were “better”, or was it the broad mass of customers falling to actually believe the fallacy of “new & improved always equals better”? Is this a paradigm shift we are experiencing, or is it a “correction” of “wrong” developments that happened?

If you think “further down an evolutionary pathway” or “around today when other species aren’t” always means “better fitted to survive” then I’ve got some birds unable to fly because of their ornate plumage for you.

I’d say the fact that “old” mechanisms aren’t still around in the contemporary marketplace tells us that the people who felt the need to create new games wanted them to do different things than the original ones did. “Hey, Game X does exploration really well, but I hate its abstract combat. Let’s make a new game to fix that.” Since the designers and playtesters are starting from Game X’s approach as a point of divergence, they’ll spend a lot of effort on Game Y’s critical hit charts and encumbrance rules. They won’t waste word count talking about exploration because they all know how to do that using the techniques they internalized playing in Game X.

The result is that when a new generation of gamers grows up with Game Y, the knowledge of how to do the exploration that Game X was good at is lost, such that it takes a conscious effort to engage with the older games and ensure the survival of their best ideas. What the OSR means to me is a bunch of resources for that effort and a community devoted to this work whose shared or divergent perspectives I can benefit from.

Note also that if Game Y’s designers started playing Game X as pre-teens, the things they think need fixing, like a reliance on consensus adjucation, might not be problems at all to the 24-33 year olds who started it all. And let us not discount the economic incentives to publish lots of new books of RPG stuff on a regular basis. When all’s said and done I think there’s as much evidence for change in RPG design as a process of progressive degradation, like photocopying a photocopy, as there is to say that it’s inexorable progress and improvement. Not having anything to sell you either way, I’m as happy to pick out the good new emergent ideas as to retrieve the old dusty ones.


Friction Points

In one of the many awesome conversations I had at Gary Con, I mentioned that the kind of classic D&D action I’d hoped 4E would make easily gameable was the scene where you’re going through an area full of enemies, trying to slip by and achieve your objectives without bringing everything down on your head. Whenever I run something like this I feel like I’m winging it; I could really use a simple, robust, and objective system for telling which enemies are in potential detection distance, figuring out the odds that a given PC action will attract unwanted attention, and determining the appropriate response without having to work out and remember a zillion different contingency plans. It seems to me that mini-games like this are one of the things old-school D&D does well, and 4E having failed to deliver it doesn’t stop me from hoping someone else will!

Top Secret S.I. module "Brushfire"

Intelligence reports suggest this may be the Top Secret S.I. module this idea comes from.

The guy I was talking to – and sadly I forget who this was, because source memory is the first to go – told me about a Top Secret S.I. module in which the PCs were airdropped into Central America to spread insurrection. It used a sub-system of friction points to track how much heat the PCs drew down on themselves by their actions. If you didn’t hide your parachute, you got a friction point, while getting into a firefight in town might earn you five. When you hit ten friction points, the police would put up roadblocks on all the main routes out of the area; at 30 they’d start searching for you with a helicopter.

The thing that appealed to me about this system was that points were awarded when the players did something wrong. I’ve played adventures, like the preparations for the siege of Farshore in the Savage Tide adventure path, that give out victory points for doing something right. The problem here is that it’s impossible to account for all the clever things a group of players will come up with. Wanting to reward people for good ideas that weren’t anticipated by the adventure’s designers meant that I gave away many more points than the scoring system was able to account for, since it was necessarily scaled to describe “how many of the things we thought of did your group do?”.

Another problem with the victory points systems I’ve encountered is that they don’t happen at the table until the very end of the sequence of play in which you accumulate the points. This doesn’t give players feedback on their blunders until it’s too late for them to do anything about it, and the fact that during the wrap-up of the scenario you can only see one of the possible consequences of your VP score means that it’s hard to tell “Farshore survived because of our creative planning and heroic efforts” from “Farshore survived because the adventure path requires it.” (Or contrariwise, “it was wiped out because we were too busy doing other things to defend it” from “everyone in town died because the DM hates us.”)

So the awesome thing about friction points is that it’s much easier to think of the finite ways that the enemy could become aware of the PCs’ presence as a result of players doing things wrong. And because you can set up multiple friction point threshholds that will trigger in-game consequences,  there’s plenty of opportunities to see that your actions do have an effect.

You can still reward players for doing things right by subtracting friction points. The advantage here is that a ceiling is more gameable than a floor – zero friction points means you’re remaining totally undetected, so you don’t have to worry about what negative friction points would mean. Contrariwise, you do feel like you should worry about the difference between 100 and 150 victory points even if your pre-set guidelines say 80 is all you need to pass with flying colors. Also, as things start to go pear-shaped it suggests lots of clever things players can do to avoid the particular source of heat you inflict on them, making the things that they do to subtract friction points more concrete than a victory point’s abstract measurement of progress toward the goal.

Speaking of losing source memory, another great conversation at Gary Con – maybe even with that same dude – concerned starting a retirement home for gamers where we could consummate the match made in heaven between our twilight years and old-school D&D’s terrifically slow rate of level advancement. I know this is something we’ve joked about amongst the Red Boxers, and Mystery Guy was saying there was a thread on Dragonsfoot about it as well. Let’s make it happen!


The Game Is What Happens At The Table

Like a lot of kids back in the day, I owned a lot of RPG paraphernalia but rarely got the opportunity to play. After a brief faddish spate of Holmes Basic around ’79-’81, most of the kids I knew moved on to other things, so I read The Dragon, bought stacks of D&D supplements, and spent lots of time homebrewing settings that would never see actual play. Tolkien and Greenwood were my idols as I drew up royal genealogies and alien botanies and landscapes lush with purple prose. I am pleased that I can no longer find any relics of that juvenile work; I’d be embarrassed to look at it and I doubt it contains anything salvageable.

It’s taken me years to unlearn some of the lessons I taught myself during that dark decade without actual play. I continue to adjust my DMing so that I hew closer to principles that come much more easily to me in other games, principles that flee at the touch of D&D’s trappings.

Things to remember:

  1. Don’t plan too much. Sure, for a good sandbox dungeon you need to draw up a dungeon level or three and populate them, but beyond that, there’s no need to worry about which towns and countries are where, who all the NPCs are in town, what’s going on in the grand political arena of the game world, etc. If the players are interested in these things, you’ll find out in play, at which point you can fill in elements of the milieu ahead of them in the same way that you’d build out parts of your megadungeon as they descend new stairways to the lower levels.
  2. Don’t struggle too hard for consistency. Look at your mistakes as opportunities. Did the players notice that you’ve given three different names for the local lord over the last three sessions? Sure, that’s because you keep forgetting his name, but instead of “fixing the problem” by retconning the earlier names, just roll with it and say that there have been three different lords. Is this the result of assassins? Plague? A dreadful curse that the ruling family will pay your band of heroic adventurers oodles of gold to lift? What started as an error is now a plot hook!
  3. It’s just a game. Don’t fret over the structural integrity of your dungeon level or the exact details of the goblins’ food chain! Don’t get aggravated when your players give their characters weird names or declare that a PC’s life goal is to find and consume the perfect cheese. This isn’t a novel, and it won’t fall apart if the mood wanders a bit.

Once the upper levels of the dungeon have been set up and you’ve figured out the basics of the nearest town (if appropriate), the DM’s immediate work is done. The rest of the canvas can remain blank until there’s cause to fill it in. Such cause should come, directly or indirectly, from the players or as an extension of their interactions with NPCs. Every foreign land that a PC hails from, every distant dungeon marked on a treasure map, will fill in a bit of that canvas; don’t fill it in too early lest you clog up that open space!


When deliberation needs to be done

In watching the first episode of I Hit it With My Axe the following exchange caught my ear, because it so captures an emergent behavior of D&D.  And because we at the Mule spent yesterday trash-talking about the very same issue.

Sasha: “…and then there is a lot of deliberation…”

Sasha: ” I like deliberation when deliberation needs to be done, but sometimes you just go back and forth and say the same thing over and over, and -”

Zak: “- and whose fault is that?”

Sasha: “All of ours”

The potential for what is sometimes called analysis/paralysis is rife in D&D.  Coming to terms with how those discussions work, and finding a balance of approach(es) fun for all the players is an integral part of the D&D experience.   If the group does not have fun with those situations, the game will not be fun.  But once the deliberation part of the game is fun… people are hooked.

I can’t wait to see more episodes; it is going to be really cool to see what other familiar conversations come up.  Grats to Zak and his players for making this happen.  My hat is off to you…


The Lion’s Paw: Rewarding Generosity

I’ve spent years running White Wolf games wherein the guy behind the DM’s screen is called the “Storyteller.” In D&D, that guy is more accurately termed the “referee.” As the DM, I’m not telling a story; I’m just facilitating the players’ efforts. But this still has many of the trappings of a “Storyteller.” The DM builds and populates the world, laying out challenges and rewards, and constructs the web of relationships and events within which the players act. It’s up to the players to determine how to interact with the DM’s world, but the way the DM designs and presents that world influences their choices… as do the rules.

The reward system of D&D encourages players to systematically destroy all potential enemies and take their stuff. This has led many a grade-school party to treat villages, towns and Little Keeps on the Borderlands as above-ground dungeons, slaughtering well-intentioned guardsmen and innocent civilians for their money, equipment and sweet XP. In more adult play, allies are often treated in the most Chaotic (and/or Evil) possible manner; their aid is accepted until they are of no more use or they fail to truckle sufficiently, at which point they’re stabbed in the back and their stuff taken.

Naturally this approach is anathema to the Tolkienesque high fantasy attitude of 2e and later editions, where the PCs are assumed to be shining heroes of virtue. But it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t even match up with the tropes of pulp swords and sorcery! With the exception of a few particularly amoral rogues like Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever, all of the classic S&S heroes had some sort of moral code; they were ill-inclined to harm the innocent or betray those who’d done them a good turn. Certainly Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser made a habit of robbery, but only from those whose manses were sufficiently rich to make it worthwhile. Others, like Elric and Kane, indulged in banditry and reaving, but their military efforts were likewise subordinated to achieving some higher goal.

(As to the aforementioned Cugel the Clever, his picaresque tale is a morality play in which his immoral behavior always leads to his downfall. His schemes fail not through lack of talent, but rather from an excess of venality, laziness, arrogance, cowardice or treachery, and he comes away with nothing — surely not a role model for the D&D player character!)

As a sandbox DM, I see the players as the “Storytellers.” I have no idea what they’ll do, and I want them to entertain me! As such, I have an interest in what sort of story they’re going to tell. Just as they’re not obligated to play in a setting they don’t like, I’m not obligated to run them through a story that I don’t enjoy, such as the victorious adventures of a band of amoral rogues with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever who are rewarded for their total lack of moral fiber.

This is an instance where talking things out with the players is necessary but insufficient. It’s not fair to the players to block off an avenue of play that’s explicitly rewarded by the rules! No one likes mixed messages like that. So the DM should also be ready to tweak the game’s reward system to facilitate the desired style of play.

As a house rule, if the party successfully forges an alliance with a noteworthy person or creature, the DM may treat that character as “defeated” and give out their full XP value to the party. This would dovetail with the rule that you can’t get XP for a target more than once, so betraying an ally nets no additional XP. As for innocent civilians, if they pose no threat, don’t give any XP for killing them.

This isn’t quite the same as the “story award” that arrives in later editions, as you don’t need to subjectively rate the value of any situation and the players are fully aware of the XP reward system in advance. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with story awards if you like that sort of thing! There’s not that much difference between “you get 1000 XP for rescuing the kidnapped merchant” and “the kidnapped merchant’s family gives you a 1000 GP reward for rescuing him,” especially if you use a “carousing” rule of giving out XP for spending gold rather than earning it.

Other options are available for specific modes of play. To encourage pacifistic thievery, you might give out XP for treasure only, so that killing people yields no XP—or even an XP penalty! On the flip side, you can encourage treachery in an “evil” campaign by awarding bonus XP for betraying those who trust you. Experience points are a flexible tool. Use them however you see fit!


Trash? On the staircase?! BATTLE STATIONS!

Two or three weeks ago, while playing in Tavis’s White Sandbox game, our gang of crafty adventurers descended into the Caverns of Thracia, where we came across a pile of trash . . . on a staircase!

This was obviously a trap, or a monster, or a trapped monster.  And it took our party of eight 4th-Level adventurers at least 15 minutes to bypass it.  Mainly by tentatively suggesting an outcome, and then pulling back in a panic, and then suggesting it slightly differently . . . and then not getting a confirmation of the theory, necessitating a new cycle of guessing and tentative theorizing.

  • “I poke at it with my 10′ pole . . . NO WAIT”
  • “I sprinkle holy water on the pile of trash, just one drop.  Does anything happen?  No?  Okay, two drops.  Anything happen?  No, okay, three drops.”
  • “I roll to hear noises coming from the pile of trash.  But not right next to it!  My ear is, like, 5 feet away.  But I’m listening.  Unless it’s psychic.”
  • “I use ESP on the pile of trash.”

This was really funny . . . for about five minutes, and then the paranoia became aggravating.  With eight players, it’s never clear when we’ve had enough and are willing to take a chance–because once one person has become satisfied, another person’s curiosity will have been piqued.

Every session we have a moment like this, where everything . . . grinds . . . to . . . a . . . halt as we debate whether to stand on this 5′ square or that 5′ square, or whether we should kill the Gnoll guards by a frontal attack, or kill them through backstabbing.  It’s like the 90/10 rule: 90% of the discussion involves only 10% of the plan.

As a semi-frequent player, I can endure this.  But if someone is brand-new to our campaign, and thus a little unsure of what’s socially appropriate and/or lacks the knowledge about the campaign world to contribute, I suspect this would be frustrating as hell.

Question for the audience – How do you solve the problem of allowing players maximal freedom, including the freedom to fail and the joys of sometimes pointless exploration, without it bogging down to wasting time?  How do eight people come to a decision, given limited information, in something less than 20 minutes of second-guessing and third-guessing?

(As a GM, when I get bored of this stuff, I say, “Look, maybe there’s just nothing there,” but that’s only socially useful if I get bored before the players do.)

PS.  It turns out there were caltrops under the trash.  Thank God we finally figured it out, though I can’t remember how we did so – so that if we need to do it again, we’ll be back at square one…

Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,054 other followers