Posts Tagged ‘new-school



11
Aug
10

Age Before Beauty?

This thread on RPGnet contains a discussion on why people still play early editions of D&D instead of 4e. Some of the options presented by the original poster seem to miss the point, but the debate looks healthy and energetic.

As for myself, I run old-school D&D because it’s clean and simple and flexible, requiring little prep and allowing me to wing it without feeling like I’m breaking the rules. The thought of writing up 3e stat blocks again makes my brain bleed, and 4e looks far too rigid in format and playstyle for my taste.

What about you? Why do you play old-school D&D instead of the newer editions?

04
Aug
10

Red Box 4.0

Remember that “4e Red Box” that was in the works? You can see more of it here.

14
Jul
10

DexCon After Action Report, Part 1

Whew! I’m still recovering from four days spent in sunny Morristown, NJ at DexCon XIII. Joe Bloch over at Greyhawk Grognard assembled an elite team of DMs—him, me and Rich McKee—to run old-school games, creating a gaming track with the delightful name of “Invasion of the Grognards.”

The convention space, at the Morristown Hyatt, was pleasant and spacious, and Raul’s Empanadas down the street makes a mean empanada (surprise!). But that’s not what you’re here to read about, gentle readers! So, D&D:

I’d scheduled four sessions of play in my home megadungeon, the Chateau d’Ambreville, to provide a slice of actual old-school dungeon delving. I was a bit nervous; much of the fun of the dungeon crawl comes from being invested in the long-term development of one’s character and party. Would convention-goers enjoy the game without that attachment? (The answer turned out to be a definite yes. Read on!)

Thursday was slow; few people had shown up to the convention at that point, and the halls were all but empty. The sign-up sheets for my games were likewise almost empty, with four players spread across four sessions!

Only one person showed up for my first session. Not wanting to turn a player away, I let him roll up three characters and pick a destination. He chose the Keep on the Borderlands. Hearing from the locals that a party of adventurers had just visited the Caves of Chaos and trounced a tribe of orcs, his party went to the Caves… where they entered the cave that the PCs in my home game had just cleared of orcs. Instead of moving on to a more fruitful cave, he spent the next hour turning over corpses and searching rooms that had been picked clean.

This would prove to be a theme for the rest of the convention.

Thursday evening was spent as a player, roaming through the Castle of the Mad Archmage. The adventure was fun but frustrating, as teleport rooms confounded my mapping efforts and much of the party seemed bound and determined to get us all killed in entertaining ways. The characters were pre-gens, which saved valuable time from being spent on chargen but made it a bit harder to engage with the game.

Friday brought in more people wandering the halls and signing up for game sessions. Five players turned up for my afternoon game, including a father and his preteen son (player of the infamous “X the Dwarf”). The party headed up to the Chateau d’Ambreville, but decided the place was too dangerous to enter! Instead, they explored the Chateau’s infamous watchtower—long since stripped of valuables by prior adventurers—then went on to visit the ruins of Ambreville town, where they were encircled by undead and only barely cut their way out. They had fun despite only acquiring three copper pieces: a sure sign of success!

Despite my fears, no one had any problems with jumping right into the old-school dungeon delving mindset. There was no need for a grand mission; the quest for gold and magic was enough! Presumably some element of self-selection was in effect, as the adventure description was clear and straightforward in this regard. As to character creation, it went quickly, even accounting for house rules—especially coming up with special abilities for each character. More time was spent on buying equipment than anything else! The main bottleneck was a lack of rulebooks; I should have printed out copies of the relevant material beforehand.

For the evening, I played Shock: Social Science Fiction, one of those wacky new-school games that the kids are talking about. Despite only getting about a third of the way through the game due to time constraints and a surfeit of players, it was absolutely brilliant. We sketched out an entire setting in the first hour: far-future transhuman Earth academics visiting a lost colony where hunter-gatherers with elaborate marriage rituals are at risk of occupation by ore-hungry technocrats. The remaining three hours were packed with drama, largely centering around the technocrats’ discovery that according to the arbitrary measures of genetic “fitness” that defined their caste system, the hunter-gatherers would automatically be placed in the ruling caste if they were to be conquered and assimilated as planned.

Mind you, not only isn’t Shock an old-school game, it’s hardly a role-playing game at all. It would be better to describe it as a story game—that is, a game for creating stories. If that’s your bag, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re looking to play a character and get into his or her head-space, though, it won’t give you what you want.

Next post: Saturday!

11
Jul
10

the fighter is the thief of fighting

Two examples of D&D play.  First example:

Dungeon Master: The treasure chest looks to be made of an unearthly metal: it is a deep, slate grey color, but in your flickering torchlight it shows tints of magenta, lime green, and a nauseating purple which, when you gaze at it too long, seems to shrivel your eyeballs.  The clasp is worked to resemble a face somewhere between that of a preying mantis and a giraffe.  If the chest isn’t locked, it sure as hell doesn’t look inviting, either.

Fighting-Man: I’m gonna try to get that chest open.

Dungeon Master: How?

Second example:

Dungeon Master: As you and your allies try to scramble down from the Titan’s bookcase with the scrolls you found, its bookends–worked in brass to resemble an otherwordly hybrid of a purple worm and a lion–begin to roar in alarm.  As the Titan’s pet wyvern, hearing the noise, beats its wings furiously against the bars of its cage, hissing at you, the worm-lion bookends detach from their bases and come slithering toward you.  Now what?

Fighting-Man: I attack.

Dungeon Master: Okay, roll.

The first example cannot be resolved without obtaining additional fictional inputs from the character.  This can slow down the pace of the game to an absurd degree, but it leads to a richly imagined scene.

The second example may have some pretty nifty things operating on your character sheet (exhausting your spells one by one; losing hit points; getting enhancements due to your magic items), but usually the fictional events in the game are imaginatively anemic.

Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t require much in the way of fictional inputs for combat.  In the worst case scenario, the situation in the second example can degenerate into “I hit . . . 6 points . . . You miss . . . I miss . . . You hit, 5 points.”

This isn’t inevitable – a good Dungeon Master or good players can always gussy up this basic exchange – but the rules operate without that degree of creativity and imaginative investment, and there’s always a drift toward laziness which can result in less scintillating play.

(Case in point: in Tavis’s White Sandbox game, Tavis allows players to narrate how they land the killing blow against an enemy.  Sometimes this results in some very nice additions to the fiction: although Eric’s Halfling Archer was the one who reduced the Beast Lord to 0 Hit Points, Eric used his narration to describe that it was Adrian’s character who lopped Stronghoen’s head off.   But often we’re too lazy to say more than, “Um, I just totally kill him.”)

Giving some situational modifiers (+2 for high ground) is a step in the right direction, but these tend to get lost in the spread of a 1d20 roll.

Contrast Gygaxian combat with D&D 4e.  Fourth edition requires zillions of fictional inputs in order to work, it’s just that the fictional inputs are largely confined to relative positioning on a battlefield.  I find it hard to imagine how 4e could be played without figuring out exactly where people are standing, and exactly how they’re attacking.

As a result, combat in 4e is imaginatively rich, in the sense that how you attack someone both requires input from the imaginary environment and also changes the environment in a way that impacts later decisions.

The downside is that in 4e there are so many inputs to track that fighting slows to a crawl.  This isn’t a problem if you’re fighting the Beast Lord, but it stinks when you’re just mowing down encounters that only exist to bleed resources prior to the big showdown.

What would be nice is a version of D&D where resolution has a scalable complexity.  When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with.  When you’re trying to do something really complicated, like blowing up a Lich by re-binding its booby-trapped spell books to deceive it (as Maldoor did), do something pretty freeform to enable the players to show creativity.  Stupid fights against lame-o’s, use the baseline combat system.  Big fights against major enemies, adopt a system where, say, special abilities or feat-type things come into play, allowing for some more tactical complexity.

Credit where it’s due department – Vincent’s making the same point here, over a year ago.

04
May
10

sandbox lifecycle

Jesus's face is, like, 6 hexes in itself

I wanna run a couple of D&D adventures to highlight parts of the rules that the New York Red Box gang hasn’t gotten around to yet: wilderness hex crawling, naval battles, high-level delving, dominion type stuff.

And what’s killing me is that in D&D there aren’t very good tools for limited runs–say, 18 hours or less.

The classic sandbox style campaign, being open-ended and plotless, is no good for my purposes: the pleasures of sandboxin’ comes from watching structure emerge over time.  If you cut things short, the game simply ends without any satisfactory resolution.

(By the way, this occasional frustration with the long-term investment necessary for a payoff in sandboxy stuff was a pretty frequent concern of mine six months ago.  I think sandbox play has a lot to recommend it, but it’s built for – or at least really favors – massive time commitment, which in general I personally can’t sustain as it gets in the way of not just my regular life, but other gaming as well.)

You can slam stuff together in a railroady way – you have this encounter, and then THIS encounter – but that robs the players of agency.

Alternately you can handle this the indie way with relationship maps and keys and player flags.  But this involves grafting a lot of new stuff onto D&D which (a) sounds like work and (b) would, at least in my mind, distract me from figuring out how well the various under-used sub-systems work.

(As an example of new-fangled sub-systems I refer you to Clinton Nixon’s Sweet20 XP system, which was originally designed for later editions of D&D but could probably be tweaked for older games.  If you like it, you might like his game Shadow of Yesterday which is available free on his site if you poke around a bit.)

Has anyone had any great success with mini-campaigns?  If so, what worked and what didn’t?

30
Mar
10

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.

26
Feb
10

Just Talking: Communicating Your Character

Over at Ars Ludi, Ben Robbins brings up some interesting points about sharing one’s character’s point of view.

I think it’s very important to note that good roleplaying isn’t something that just happens, nor does it happen in a vacuum. If you want your character’s personality and backstory to feature prominently in play, you have to put something on the table. No one’s going to drag your character’s secrets out of you!

This has come up a lot in White Wolf games I’ve played in, especially LARPs, but I’ve seen it in other games as well, including old-school D&D. Someone designs their character with dark secrets—drug addictions, broken families, betrayed masters, forbidden loves, and so forth—then works so hard to cover their tracks that no one ever finds out about those dark secrets. At which point they’re puzzled and disappointed, because the whole point of having all this cool stuff in your backstory is to have it come out in play!

The point is, if it’s important to you for your character to have a Big Reveal in which Stuff Is Found Out—or even if you just want them to notice the little things about your character’s behavior and persona—you have to arrange it out-of-character. You can’t depend on people noticing your in-character clues. After all, they’re all busy with their own business, not to mention whatever the referee is throwing at the group!

Hell, I’ve done it myself, playing taciturn characters who never let anyone past their guard. But if no one else at the table knows what’s going on inside your character’s head, how important is it?

There are a number of useful expository techniques for sharing a character’s inner life with the group. These include:

  1. Monologuing: This is where you turn the old adage of “Show, don’t tell” on its arse and tell the group what’s going on in your character’s thoughts. This can be a first-person or third-person monologue. If you do this, keep it short. Non-interactive presentations on the table get boring much faster than you might think!
  2. Blue-booking: This is where you write your monologue down and share it with the group between sessions. This can be a brief excerpt or a full-on short story. Unlike a monologue, you can be as verbose as you want because you’re not stealing spotlight time at the table.
  3. Staged scene: Here you work with your fellow players and the referee to set up a scene in the game that showcases your character’s issues. This may be best accomplished troupe-style, with other players running relevant NPCs—your character’s friends, family, rivals, etc—as appropriate to the needs of the scene.

The one thing I don’t recommend is running long solo staged scenes. No matter how cool your character is and no matter how masterful a thespian you are, a two-hour scene with just you and the referee is likely to bore everyone else to tears. Solo scenes are useful, but keep them short and snappy!

Lastly, it’s important for referees to remember that if a player presents a secret in their character’s backstory, that’s a red flag indicating a point of conflict. Secrets are there to be revealed! You shouldn’t expose it directly without the player’s permission, but you should threaten its exposure on a semi-regular basis. It’s a good way to up the tension, and it offers a good avenue for giving the player a meaningful choice.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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