Posts Tagged ‘mortality

20
Jan
12

Q&A with the 2nd Dungeon Master in Champaign-Urbana, 1974

Folks whose memories span several ages of creation may recall that my friend Nat Sims was a co-founder of Behemoth3, my first venture into RPG publishing. Nat went on to found the successful iPhone app developer Night & Day Studios, and although being its CEO keeps him pretty busy, over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of playing the card-based diplomatic wargame Here I Stand online with him and some members of his extended family.

The first cRPG, "The Dungeon" aka PEDIT5, may also be from Champaign-Urbana, written by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford on a PLATO terminal at the University of Illinois. Click pic to learn more.

One of my first experiences on the road to the old-school renaissance was hearing Nat’s stories about playing D&D in the 70s with his parents. His mom was the DM for a group of players mostly made up of his dad’s graduate students in a drama program. What Nat remembered most clearly was impatiently waiting for the “grown-ups” to finish drinking wine and describing what their characters were wearing, hoping that at some point during the night they could kick down another door and kill something.

On one visit home, Nat picked up his old D&D stuff including a mimeographed set of rules and one of the dungeons that his mom used. At the time, I thought that the ruleset might have been some draft of proto-D&D; with the wisdom of hindsight I bet it was actually one of the re-typings that were popular at the time as a way to integrate houserules (and avoid buying multiple copies of the expensive D&D “white box”).

At some point I’ll tell the story of what Nat & I made of this ’70s dungeon, my first exposure to the wonderful improv challenge of trying to make sense of a funhouse on the fly – and doing it without any help. (It was the ’90s, so the Internet and OGL-based support system on which the old-school brain trust relies was just a glint in Mozilla and GNU’s respective eyes.) What I want to do now, however, is pass on some conversations I’ve had with the creator of that dungeon, Nat’s uncle Mike Metcalf.

My questions for Mike (presented henceforth in italics) began with:

I’ve been making a point of seeking out all the original D&Ders I can – most recently I met Michael Mornard, who was part of both Arneson’s gaming group in the Twin Cities and Gygax’s in Lake Geneva. I would love to pick your brain about those days! Do you still have any of your old maps and whatnot?

He replied:

I had the 2nd dungeon in Champaign-Urbana in 1974 and went on to be a dungeon master up at Gencon once. My Dungeon stuff is at Nat’s Moms (my sister) who borrowed the stuff once to copy etc.  Used that dungeon with the family once and ended up turning my Mother into a zucchini; great fun.  I think it is secreted away somewhere in their house.  But, I do have stories, experiences and ideas.

One of the things Gary Gygax did before Arneson introduced him to proto-D&D was to run a Diplomacy fanzine. It seems to me that part of why he latched onto roleplaying right away – it only took one session of Arneson DMing his Blackmoor game for Gary before he was ready to start DMing it himself (for his kids, the first Lake Geneva players!) using Dave’s fragmentary notes – was that the kind of writing as if you were a historical world leader that we do while playing Here I Stand and that people used to do in diplozines is much like pretending to be an elf.

 Does this ring true – did you have experience with Diplomacy zines or other correspondence-based kinds of writing-as-if-you-were-someone-else? Or were there “playing in character” aspects of board or wargames that you just brought over to D&D play?

The way I got into D&D was that a friend of mine had gone to GenCon and come back with a copy of the rules and a graph paper dungeon (#1 in the area).  Pretty basic stuff with a list of main character types and monster types etc.  Our group had played ‘Chain-mail’ miniatures and this was a partial take-off on that idea.  We just took to it.  Easy to get into character.  We had already done Diplomacy and, of course, had to play our character-states.  As we killed off character after character (never got to the points necessary for a level-2 – hard damned dungeon), we got into a flow.  I had the never-ending ‘Botnick’ brothers starting with Coors Botnick, Budweiser Botnick etc (down the list of bad beers).  I quickly made a dungeon (2nd in the area) and we played each dungeon in a revolving mode.  Didn’t have a ‘zine at the time – just those rules which were modified by each dungeon master as he saw fit.

I’ll tell you of my other Dungeon – where I tired of D&D being an open-ended game to one of fixed dimensions (meaning that it would end at some point – no possibility that it could continue).  After playing many a dungeon trip in many a dungeon and watching other people with more time (I was in veterinary school) make giant above ground (and below) fantasy realms etc., I realized that I was losing interest in the open-ended role playing genre. Yes, one’s character might eventually be killed off (though rarely after gaining a certain upper-levelness) but things just went on and on. I guess I was too much of a history-based gamer. So, years later, I concocted this idea of a Dungeon. I found 4 other D&D players who were interested. Each players tribe lived on an island having a causeway to the dungeon complex with no outside interaction with any other player/side. The dungeon was finite: geometrically 4-sided with a middle entrance level and one level above and below the middle. I stocked the dungeon with all the requisite treasures; once found and removed – no replacement. Monsters/traps were easier in the middle level and more diificult above/below.  As all 4 players and I were in the same room during the game session, I devised some fog-of-war.  Each player could enter the dungeon with 9 men (randomized characteristics but possible to improve).  Each player thought that their entrance into the dungeon was to their North.  In addition, I numbered each room with a color-number that was meaningless to them as to level etc.  Each player did a few moves, exploring, fighting, discovering then passing to the next player.  This was all being done game-time simultaneously so there was the chance that the parties within the dungeon might meet (and fight) each other was.  If one party got to a room previously sacked, they would see the results of the previous visit.  Since ‘North’ was different for each player, orientation of other players experiences was very difficult unless they could recognize the area of the dungeon being described.

A very enjoyable experience – everyone quite enjoyed it.

This evolution of play sounds like it’s coming from the sense of D&D as a “squadron-based war game, with a couple doses of light humor and the occasional funny accent” that James took away from Michael Mornard’s game. What’s interesting is that Nat’s memories suggest that, around the same time that Mike Metcalf was making D&D into a squad competition he found more compelling, his sister’s game was been moving in the direction of “the wacky imaginative, pretend to be a Cleric bullshitting drunk people to convert to your faith, stuff” that James thinks “wasn’t a strong part of the earliest playstyle; it seems to have been an opportunistic growth, like a lichen growing on a rock or something.” (Quoted from here.)

Got other questions for Champaign-Urbana’s second-ever DM? Let me know and I’ll pass them on!

30
Aug
11

Weird Tables: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Winter is nature’s way of saying, “Up yours.”
—Robert Byrne

Your humble reporter lives in New York City. This past weekend, while making real-world preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Irene, I was also making preparations for imaginary bad weather—the coming of winter in my Glantri game.

While the PCs were exploring Quasqueton at the end of January, the winter snows began in earnest. This typically shuts down all travel in the region until the spring thaw. Not wanting to spend the winter in a tiny border keep, some of the PCs decided that they’d set off through the deepening snows in hopes of reaching the capital before travel became impossible.

In order to resolve this dangerous choice, I created the

WINTER TRAVEL TABLE

Roll 1d6 and apply your Constitution modifier, along with any other modifiers the DM deems appropriate.

Roll Result
0 or less DEATH: You die of exposure.
1 FALL: Your character slips on the ice and suffers a broken bone(s) or some other structural injury. Roll again with a cumulative -1 on all further rolls on this table. If you survive, you spend the rest of the winter recuperating from your injury.
2 WOLVES!: You are pursued by a pack of wolves. Roll (level + hit die size + prime requisite modifier) or less on a d20. If successful, you survive their onslaught; roll again. If you fail, you are devoured.
3 TAUNTAUN: Lost and without shelter, you are forced to take shelter for the winter inside the corpse of a large animal, such as a bear or elk. Save vs. spells or permanently lose one point of Wisdom due to body horror. Alternately, you may push on, getting a reroll at -2.
4 CAVE: You are forced to hole up in a cave for the rest of the winter. Save vs. poison or permanently lose one point of Constitution due to starvation. Alternately, you may push on, getting a reroll at -2.
5 HUT: You take shelter in an isolated farmstead. Pay the owner 50-100gp (or provide an equivalent amount of equipment) in exchange for sharing their limited winter stores of food. Alternately, you may push on, getting a reroll.
6 or more CITY: You successfully reach your destination.

Whereas many tables are solely for the use of the DM, this is one of those tables which players should view before rolling. Perhaps they’ll make the sensible decision and stay indoors!

12
Apr
11

Emergent Behaviors: Don’t Sacrifice That Hireling!

A year ago, I posted about how players try to ditch their hirelings in order to avoid giving them a share of treasure. While not exactly counter-intuitive, this is a situation that doesn’t always go hand in hand with the DM’s preferred style of play. But it’s an emergent behavior that comes out of the intersection between rules and player goals: if the aim is to acquire gold and XP, and hirelings bleed off gold and XP, then it’s in the PCs’ interest to ensure that the hirelings perish in the line of duty before they can get their share.

(It also leads to weird situations, such as when a PC becomes an NPC and the party decides to stop giving him a full share of treasure for no apparent in-game reason. Which is perfectly explicable from a player perspective but utterly silly from an in-game perspective!)

In the following year, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no reason not to twiddle the rules in order to create a more desirable outcome. So, how might one go about encouraging players to keep their hirelings alive — or at least not discouraging them from doing so? By tweaking the distribution of gold and XP.

1) Hirelings that demand a flat fee instead of (or in addition to) a share of the profits will spend or cache that money before going on an adventure. This avoids the ghoulish prospect of PCs looting their hirelings for their fees.

2) If the PCs give a share of treasure to a hireling, give the PCs some of the XP value of that share of treasure! Now, you probably don’t want to give the PCs full value here — hirelings already provide significant benefits in play, and you may not want the choice of whether to use (or betray!) hirelings to be a total no-brainer. But if the players know that their characters gain at least some XP from rewarding their hirelings, then those who want to play their characters as decent employers don’t have to feel like total chumps for doing so.

25
Oct
10

Improv Techniques Made Art Gallery Gaming Awesome

 

Ghastly spaghetti-stuffed pinata visible over my left shoulder.

 

Allegra LaViola’s blog notaboutart has pictures from the OD&D Tower of Gygax adventure I ran at her gallery last Thursday, as well as from the opening of the Doomslangers show on Friday. I had a great time at both, although I did have to explain to my son:

Not every art gallery opening lets you roll a dice to see if you die or get to swing a wooden sword to chop limbs off a giant animatronic undead pinata. In fact, that will probably never happen again; your peak gallery experience happened at age 8, it’s all downhill from here.

Here is a post I promised Tim Hutchings about what DM tricks I used that I think made the adventure I ran fun:

Ask questions. After the game, head Doomslanger Casey Smith – player in this game, DM for their epic campaign that’d climaxed the night before (pics also on the notabout art link above) – mentioned this as a really noticeable part of my style. “At first it caught us by surprise – why are you asking us about what was in the room we just ran away from? But after getting over the initial hesitation, the creative juices really started flowing and it became really fun to be put on the spot and asked to invent stuff on the fly.”

Asking questions is one of the commandments that the fantastic indie game Apocalypse World gives to its MCs (aka GMs), but don’t be misled into thinking this means it’s some kind of hippie thing; it works spectacularly for red-blooded beer-and-pretzel RPGs as well. The most common questions I asked were: “Please describe what happens when you deliver the killing blow to your enemy” and “Please describe your horrible death.”

Say yes. To get the players’ creative juices flowing, there needs to be the implicit assurance that however they answer a question is not going to be wrong. Part of what makes this work is that you’ve already set the tone; the players are going to reach for references that draw from what’s been established in the game and/or their well of D&D lore. Part of it is that you only ask questions you won’t need to negate. “Describe how you kill it” is awesome because when you ask the question you’re announcing “this opponent is all out of hit points and I now relinquish control over its fate.”

A similar kind of question I asked a lot was to introduce new PCs when a players’ old one died: “You were teleported here when you mis-cast a very complicated spell. What was that spell trying to do?” Here again the question contains the information I need to establish as GM: you’re here now. What the character is leaving behind can be as wild as the player wants; there’s no risk in saying yes, and a big payoff in that the newly introduced character arrives with a spontaneously created narrative that gives them personality and verve.

Reincorporate. Not everything the players invent needs to become part of the fabric of the game, but as GM it’s fun and satisfying to draw from the pool of answers the players have just given you when you do your own improvisation. At the very beginning of the game Allegra decided that their characters were fleeing a giant snake, so when I needed a wandering monster here it was, an enormous serpent with a venomous bite and corrosive blood. Another player decided that the reason a god had cursed his new PC by teleporting him here was that he had accidentally let his pet pig befoul the god’s backyard shrine, so when I was narrating a miss in combat I decided that the charred corpse of the pig got underfoot.

Let the players be awesome. This may seem at odds with the fact that the death toll in this game was 100%. Tim Hutchings’ character was the only one to survive the final zombapocalypse; since we were out of time I had him roll a saving throw to see if he made it out of the dungeon alive, and the answer was “no”.

I think it’s easy for the players to feel like their alter-egos are icons of coolness when all is going well. Having things go wrong is an important part of the game, but it’s more fun if you use a little DM technique to frame it as fantastically wrong instead of just a simultaneously lame and boring whiff. So sometimes, when a player missed their dice roll and I felt they could use a little more spotlight time, I’d ask them to narrate the failure: “Okay, your character is obviously a great and competent warrior, so something unexpected must have happened for you to miss like that. What was it?”

Likewise, when characters died, I’d make it an event by:

  • asking the player of the dead PC “What are your dying words?”; even if these are usually “Aaargh!” it always drew a laugh from the table and reinforced the idea that death is an especially fun & vivid part of play
  • instructing players to “describe your horrible death”. This isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill slipping feebly into that good night; even if you were senselessly killed by a kobold, it will be a grisly senseless death worthy of an accursed hero (and as hammy an actor as you want to be)!
  • displaying my evident relish of killing the PC with a big grin on my face: this is fun for me at least, and in retrospect it’ll be memorable for you too, why not enjoy it now?
  • letting players roll up new characters as soon as they died and introduce them the next time it was that player’s turn so that losing a character didn’t mean missing out on the action

One of the nice things about letting the players narrate their own awesomeness, or at least the reasons that kept them from realizing their potential to be so, is that they’re better at hitting their own definition of awesome than you could ever be. When Tim’s character failed to make it out of the zombie-ridden dungeon, I would have said that he surrounded himself with a wall of dismembered corpses  until his protection from evil spell finally ran out and he died fighting. Tim’s narration was much better: “I grab the treasure and make for the exit, but on the way up the stairs I slip and accidentally crack my skull.”

P.S. At the opening the night after the game, I introduced my son: “Allegra, this is Javi; Javi, this is Allegra, I killed her cleric last night.” I wish to apologize for this grave injustice. In point of fact, her cleric died of willingly drinking from a poisoned fountain, a heroic sacrifice that proved to be the party’s (temporary) salvation.

27
Aug
10

Blood and Guts: A Red Box Death & Dismemberment Table

Several of my fellow OSR bloggers have designed injury tables that provide a range of possible results for when a PC drops to zero hit points. (Some examples are Robert Fisher’s, Trollsmyth’s and Norman Harman’s.

I like the idea in principle; it allows for non-lethal effects that keep beloved PCs alive, while simulating some of the ugly consequences to combat that can be found both in real life and in sword & sorcery fiction. But the versions I’ve seen include a number of ineffectual results where the target is unharmed, stunned for 1 round, gains bonus hit points from adrenaline, etc. That’s too forgiving for my taste! The PC is already in trouble; the table should indicate how much trouble results. So I’ve written my own table.

When a PC (or an important NPC, at the DM’s discretion) drops below 1 hit point, roll 1d8 and consult the following table. Reduce the die size to 1d6 or even 1d4 for relatively weak attacks, or increase to 1d10, 1d12 or even 1d20 for especially powerful, destructive attacks. When using a curative spell to deal with an injury from the table, the spell provides no other benefit; no hit points are regained.

Roll Result
1 Scarring: -1 to Charisma; drops to -2 with three scars, -3 with six scars, -4 with ten scars, etc
2 Broken bone (DM chooses or roll randomly): broken ribs/collarbone/etc give -2 to attack rolls, broken arm/leg gives penalties as per severed limb; heals in 3d4 weeks or with cure serious wounds; if attack is cutting/piercing and target is unarmored, use arterial bleeding instead
3 Arterial bleeding: die of blood loss in 3d6 rounds, preventable with cauterization (1d6 damage and scarring) or any healing spell; if attack is bludgeoning, use broken bone instead
4 Disabled part (DM chooses or roll randomly): Missing eye gives -1 to attack rolls, mangled/missing fingers give -2 to attack rolls using that hand, ruined larynx/shattered jaw impairs speech and prevents spellcasting; -1 to Charisma; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
5 Slow death (gutted, massive internal injuries, spine shattered, etc.): incapacitated, die in 1d6 days; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
6 Mortal wound (heart pierced, throat cut, neck broken, etc.): incapacitated, die in 1d6 rounds; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
7 Limb severed (DM chooses or roll randomly): die of blood loss in 1d6 rounds, preventable with tourniquet, cauterization (1d6 damage) or any curative spell cast; -1 to Charisma; missing arm can’t be used for weapon/shield, missing leg halves movement rate; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
8+ Instant death (decapitated, skull crushed, torn to shreds, etc.)

Have you used an injury table, whether a full-on death and dismemberment table or a broader critical hit table? If so, how has it worked for your game? What recommendations would you make for others who’d try that approach?

20
May
10

Alas, Poor Black Leaf

It gets worse, as is to be expected from Jack Chick.

Suicide in D&D is less about the fate of poor Black Leaf’s player than it is about drawing a bloody line between your old unwanted character and your shiny new one.

It’s a story as old as D&D itself. A player doesn’t like their character—these things happen!—and decides to play a new one. But instead of a pleasant retirement, the old character suffers a drastic and terminal end. Methods vary from self-inflicted injury to lurid player-narrated tales to the time-honored “death by goblin,” where the character is thrown into deadly situations until the dice take their grim toll.

Why suicide instead of peaceful retirement? There are, I think, three reasons:

1) The Reroll: By the book, if you don’t like your character’s stats, you can’t reroll. You have to play the character you rolled. Character death provides an end run around the problem! Just view your replacement character as your “reroll.”
2) Player Authority: In a world where the DM controls everything other than your character, you may feel that surrendering control of your character is anathema. Killing your character is a final gesture of defiance in the face of the DM’s implicit tyranny.
3) Closure. What’s the end of your character’s story? If the character recedes into the quiet mists of NPCdom, you may never find out! Better, perhaps, to write your own ending to the story while you still have authority to do so.

Personally, as a DM, I find it annoying when players casually kill off their PCs. Characters in which the group is emotionally invested are valuable assets to the DM, and I hate to see such assets tossed away thoughtlessly or inefficiently. On the other hand, I can see how players can find such an attitude grating. This tells me that this is one of those things that should be talked out between players and their DM.

The important thing is that if you’re going to wipe the slate clean of old characters, that you incorporate it into the story of play just as you would everything else. Adventuring is a ghastly profession. Does it drive people to suicide? Does it welcome those with a death wish? Is it a magnet for character-killing weirdness? Of course!

07
May
10

Should I have killed Martin “Le Black”?

In last night’s game, while the party was fleeing a horse-sized giant scorpion, stalwart party member Martin “le Black” held the back of the line to give the others time to flee up a stairway. His player asked me if he could get some bonuses to AC for fighting purely defensively, having the high ground, and being better able than the giant scorpion to maneuver through the close confines of the rubble-choked stair. “Sure,” I said. But it was late and I was tired, and I didn’t actually determine what the modifiers would be. I just rolled the dice.

The attack roll for the giant scorpion’s stinger was a 19. Was this a hit? I didn’t know. Probably it should have hit—almost certainly, really—but that was meaningless when I was deciding on the modifiers after the fact. If I’d chosen the modifiers beforehand, this would be letting the dice fall where they may. Now, however, it was pure DM fiat either way.

I thought for a moment. If the attack hit and Martin blew his poison save, I’d be killing a PC by fiat. If the attack missed, I’d be going soft on my players, and that’s a violation of social contract; the old school DM must be harsh but fair, and this would undermine that crucial harshness.

Man vs. Scorpion

The scorpion in our game? Bigger.

What did I do? I split the difference, sort of. I let the attack hit but without the poison save; the giant scorpion’s stinger missed, but smacked Martin upside the head on the backswing for a few points of damage. Not much of a compromise, really, as he had oodles of hit points to spare, though it could have made a difference if the scorpion had gotten another set of attacks off before Martin clambered out of range. (Those two d10 pincer attacks can be nasty!)

In retrospect, the best choice would have been to discard that attack roll, solidly establish the ad hoc modifiers, and then roll the attack again. But I’m not embarrassed by my choice. Strictness isn’t a goal in and of itself; it’s a means to an end, and its goal is a more enjoyable play experience at the table. Player characters should never die for ambiguous reasons. Killing Martin while I was playing loosey-goosey with the rules would not have made things more fun.

The lesson I’m taking away from this is not that I need to be harsher, or that I need to kill off a PC to make up for it. The lesson is that letting the dice fall where they may only works if you know what the roll means before you let the dice drop.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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