Posts Tagged ‘mortality


The Spirit of the Staircase

Here are two things the title of this post does not mean:

  1. A celebration of the  stairs, as well as the pits, ramps, and chutes, plus elevator rooms and often teleporters, that give old-school dungeons their awesome verticality. If this was that post, I’d note that many ways to go up and down is as much an essential element of a great dungeon’s  interesting-to-explore and meaningful-decision-generating spatial complexity as branching loops and hidden areas (and often creates vertical loops and searches to find a point of entry to something you know is above or below but presents no obvious way to get there). I’d trace the early history of verticality, which very rapidly goes from the organically evolved (1970-71’s Blackmoor Dungeon, where the connections between levels are many and complex but were likely created by Arneson superimposing the sheet of graph paper for each new level he was designing on top of the previous one and deciding which staircases would or wouldn’t exit on this level) to the highly designed (1976’s Dungeoneer adventures, where the rise and fall of elevations nestle on the same sheet of graph paper like origami before it’s folded, and were likely created by merging one’s consciousness with that of a being from a higher-dimensional space). And I’d theorize that this spirit of the staircase evolved from actual play as an immediate consequence of  the mythic underground idea that the treasure and danger increase the further away from the surface you get.
  2. A new kind of incorporeal monster which can perceive you only when you’re changing elevation, presumably because it comes from another plane where either horizontalness does not exist or its projection into our realm is strongly tied to the Z axis.

No, this post is about the French phrase l’esprit du escalier, which means the clever things you only think of saying after it’s too late to run back upstairs and deliver them. (This post will also not be about the many awesome things that implies about French culture and trying to invent similar phrases to express the essence of fantasy cultures).

In last night’s game, our heroes caught G’ruk the Fishfinder, shaman of the lizardmen tribe in the Caverns of Thracia, alone and whacked him. (I’d say with extreme prejudice except that Chrystos, who speaks Lizardman, went to such great lengths to protest any possible anti-reptile discrimination.) One of the many grace notes in Jaquay’s creation is a wonderfully evocative list of the things Gruk is carrying, from the mundane (18 gold pieces, a human jawbone) to the appropriate (sacred rocks, divination sticks) and straight through to the mysterious (a bag of alum?).

That pouch is the focus of my esprit du escalier. So there are four little bags within G’ruk’s big belt pouch, right? The text says one of them has alum. Two are unspecified – I said bone dust and dried river mud, but in a minor instance of e. du e. I wish I’d made one of them the ochre he’d used to draw his stick-figure of the Lizard God. And one is a virulent poison in the form of an airborne powder that G’ruk would have thrown at his attackers to create a deadly 10′ by 10′ cloud if he had survived long enough to get a single action.

Well, remember what happened last time the party found four mysterious bags within a bigger container and reached into one of them? The party sure does! (Hint: Fight Bag.) So John Fighter cautiously drags G’ruk’s corpse into another room where it won’t be discovered by his fellow lizardmen; cautiously loots his body; and, one by one, cautiously shakes out the content of the four little pouches…

Often, when I know some horrible fate is about to be sprung on the party, I go around and ask everyone what they’re doing. And usually, my emphasis on where exactly they’re doing it causes a mad rush to declare that, as James put it, “I’m further away than the person who’s furthest away.”

But in this case, the fact that John Fighter was about to cut short his own noble future and that of whichever PCs happened to be closest was an entirely unexpected treat. So my reflex was not to laboriously and tellingly establish locations, but rather to get right to making adventurers die.  Everyone was spread out and doing the kinds of wipe-off-my-sword-and-consult-the-map activities that traditionally follow lizardman slaughter, so I decided there was a flat 2 in 6 chance that any given PC was within the cloud of powdered save-or-die. The dice said Obscura, Lotur, and Arnold.

Sadly, James pointed out that he’d specified that the magic user formerly known as Zolobachai was doing something with the altar, and as this was more specific than the usual “didn’t I say I was visiting relatives on another plane?” I was happy to let him avoid the cloud. Fortunately, John, Obscura, and Lotur all rolled such crap that not even the +2 bonus to saving throws decreed by the merciful Mr. Jaquays could save them. “Okay,” I said, “you’ve all been killed.”

However, late last night I realized a better way I could have pinned down the PCs’ location. Asking people where they are is a give-away, but people are used to me saying “It sounds like there are lots of things people want to do; let’s go around the table to make sure everyone gets a turn.” (The earlier parts of the session, which often kept the spotlight on one or two players, would have benefited from this approach, but I felt it wasn’t feasible when only one person spoke Lizardman or when traveling en masse through the unknown made it advantageous for one caller to direct the group’s movement).

In hindsight I wished I’d used a clever bit of misdirection: “OK, John Fighter is shaking out the bags; what’s everyone else up to?” The reason I wish I’d done this is not that James felt guilty about talking his way out of being in the cloud, when previous statements implied that Lotur had also been over by the altar. Using the dice to determine who might be affected kept me from worrying about being out to get anyone in particular, and I knew I wasn’t favoring James; if Greengoat himself had reminded me about Lotur’s stated actions at the altar, I would have let him off the hook. (I suspect Greengoat didn’t speak up because accidental poison inhalation during looting is entirely fitting for a PC named Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, and much as I love the character of Lotur I respected his desire to go out with a whimper).

No, I wish I’d slyly duped the party into telling me where they were standing because:

1) starting the go-round with a description of  what John was doing might have caused more PCs to gravitate over to him on the suspicion that he was about to find something particularly awesome, increasing the number of potential targets for G’ruk’s unplanned but effective post-mortem revenge. (This would have worked better if John wasn’t so unimpeachably righteous and unlikely to snarf treasure for himself).

2) when the poison killed them, the fact that they had just heard me point out in a casual way that John is shaking out the bag, what are you doing would have driven home their own culpability in their death and given them their own midnight regrets: of course, I should have known that dumping out a bag is as lethal as reaching into one!

P.S. As it turned out, one of the things Ookla’s character sheet brought into the campaign from another era of creation was three doses of anti-venom. Everyone revived by these made their “will survive adversity” rolls, so no casualties were lasting. Still, we’ve had a long a phase of expansion in which the party got lots of cool things (or, in Ookla’s case, was allowed to re-activate them as everyone else caught up to his level of bling), and I am now delighted to be whittling away these resources, one platinum liger at a time. (Newly acquired levitating 30′ long battle-drinker worm, I’m coming for you!)


Don’t Roll Your Hit Points Until You’re Hurt

One of the notable house rules in the White Sandbox campaign is that hit points are rolled only as necessary to absorb a PC’s wounds, making it hard to gauge how much damage a character can or can’t take until their luck is put to the test. I find it easier to show how this works than to explain it. At the table I talk people through each step the first time they’re hit, like so:

Lotur the Scurrilous Cur is 3rd level, so he has three hit dice. We imagine each of these as representing a different aspect of his ability to stave off death: mental, spiritual, and physical. Because he was fully healed since his last adventure, we don’t know how many hit points he gets from each dice.

Not five feet into the dungeon, Lotur is hit by a gnoll’s arrow and takes six points of damage. The player notes on Lotur’s sheet that he has taken 6 points of wounds, and starts rolling his hit dice to see if he can absorb the blow.

If Lotur rolls a 6 on his first (mental) hit dice, it absorbs the wound fully. He crosses out that hit dice – we imagine that he’s run out of plans for dealing with gnoll ambush – and leaves the other two untouched and unknown. Unfortunately, he only rolls a 2. He crosses out his mental hit dice, and has four points of incoming damage left to absorb. He rolls a 1 with his second (spiritual) hit dice: he crosses it out. We imagine that he is demoralized, and still has three points of incoming damage.

For his last (physical) hit dice, Lotur rolls a six! He subtracts the three points of incoming damage, and notes that he has three hit points left on this dice. However, at this point we imagine that he is actually bleeding and has an arrow sticking out of him.

Oops, here comes another arrow! This one rolls a 2 for damage. We already know that Lotur has three physical hit points left, so he doesn’t need to roll any hit dice. His player crosses off two of the hit points remaining on Lotur’s physical hit dice, and increases his total wounds taken from 6 to 8.

Salvation arrives in the form of a cleric. Each point of healing delivered by the cure spell will subtract one from Lotur’s wound total. If the cleric rolls eight or more points of healing, all Lotur’s wounds are erased and all three of his hit dice are reset. However, the cleric only rolls a 3, so Lotur increases the hit points remaining on his physical hit dice from 1 to 4, and decreases his total wounds from 8 to 5.

Note that poisoned arrows have to get through to the physical hit dice to be effective, so there’s a benefit of having that dice untouched; and some kinds of healing will add to your spiritual or physical hit dice, but won’t work if those dice have been crossed off.

To answer some questions that tend to come up:

– When a character has more or fewer levels than they do physical/spiritual/mental hit dice, we assign extra or missing hit dice to one of the three categories depending on class. A fighter gets an extra physical at L4, a cleric an extra spiritual, etc. Then spread out until at L6 all classes have two of each.

– Once a character’s hit points have all been rolled, these rolls are kept only as long as they have wounds. When all wounds are removed, hit dice reset to unknown.

– High constitution provides a buffer after you run out of hit dice. Characters that are tough get 1 HP per hit die of buffer; exceptionally tough characters get 2 per die. So if a 3rd level PC rolled 12 for their HP, a tough one could actually take 15, and an exceptionally tough one 18, before collapsing.

This idea was inspired by Zulgyan’s method of rolling monster HD, and realizing that most of the d6’s I have are either red, green, or white, which I assigned to physical, spiritual, and mental.

I like this approach because it makes taking damage an exciting dice-roll contest between player and monster. As per Gary’s house rules we’ve started with third level characters, so when a PC is hit by a lizardman spear for 6 damage, there’s a dramatic sequence of rolls: does their knowledge of fencing techniques cover this? No, they roll a 2 for their mental hit dice, so there’s 4 points of damage remaining, and their plan for survival is in shambles. Is their esprit de corps sufficient for them to simply knock the spear aside? No, they roll a 2 for their spiritual hit dice, so there’s still 2 points of incoming damage and they’re demoralized. OK, are they hale enough for them to survive this thrust? No, they roll a 2 for their physical hit dice and die!

I also like the way that doing this helps imagine what different states of being wounded are; it helps systematize the idea that hit points represent divine favor and luck as well as sheer toughness.

In play it does take a little longer to resolve PCs taking damage than if players were just subtracting a number from the HP written on their sheet. It did mean that the math involved was a lot easier – take the # of damage dealt, subtract from 1 to 6, repeat. Plus, I feel like the risk of a player dying is worth spending extra spotlight time attending to, and I like how not knowing what your hit points are before they’re tested means that every wound carries the possibility of death. If a 3rd level character rolled a string of 1’s for their hit dice and was going to be stuck with that forever, I’d certainly let them re-roll, but this approach means that although such bad luck might mean your character gets sent to the graveyard, it doesn’t mean that you might as well roll up a new one even before they start adventuring.


The Paradox of Death’s Door

Like many DMs, I’ve implemented a house rule allowing PCs to survive when their hit points drop to zero. But does this really help the party?

The player base in my Red Box game has expanded significantly over the past few months, so we generally have 6-9 players per session. As I divide experience points evenly between all surviving PCs at the end of a session, lots of surviving PCs means only a few experience points each. Characters only tend to get sizable lumps of experience when most of their fellow PCs die, such as when the inimitable Hamish was the sole survivor of a trek into what has since been dubbed the Swamp of Death.

Last session, six PCs entered the dungeon, and two of them dropped to zero hit points but survived. The party received a total of 715 XP. Divided six ways, that’s 119 XP each. Had both of the incapacitated PCs simply died instead, the remaining four PCs would have received… 178 XP each. Hm. A piddly 59 XP is hardly a worthwhile gain for the survivors. Meanwhile, the two incapacitated PCs had 780 XP and 252 XP respectively; not a lot, but significantly more than that 59 XP differential.

The problem, it seems, is that the party is simply too large for its individual members to gain experience at a decent clip. Perhaps they need to face stronger opponents—foes who will kill enough PCs that the survivors will get bigger pieces of the experience point pie! Clearly this calls for experimentation…


Of the Deaths of PCs

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

None of my PCs in ongoing games have ever died.

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

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

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

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

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

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


A picture is worth 1,000 exp

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

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

A couple thoughts on the first graph.[2]

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

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

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

Sternum also raised an excellent point:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Score 1 for death, 0 for play improving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2019
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