Posts Tagged ‘players


Cartography to Conjure By pt. 2: Beneath the Chateau

As a follow-up to Eric’s post about the beauty of player maps, I present some maps by myself (grotty pencil) and Maldoor (beautiful GIMP):

The first level beneath the Chateau d'Amberville

One level further down, connected by the curving stairs in the SW of the L1 map

An outbuilding of the main Chateau, suspected but never proven to connect with its dungeon

The map of the aboveground castle in Eric’s previous post was my hand-drawn copy of Eric’s GM map. Here, I started with a player map hand-drawn during a session I wasn’t able to attend, copied it over into my own sheet of graph paper, added notes about what was encountered in that session, and then drew in new rooms and comments as we explored.

The room on Level 2 had a three-dimensional geometry which proved difficult for us to understand and especially for me to map:

ERIC: Let me see what you’ve got there. (Shakes head) Do you just want me to draw it in for you?

ME: Yes, please.

ERIC: (erasing) How did you get it over here?

ME: I think I confused east and west.

ERIC: You’re not a very good mapper.

ME: That’s true, I just like drawing them.

Although it’s frustrating when my maps are inaccurate due to my miserable spatial sense (which frequently includes an  inability to tell left from right), I think map-making has several benefits:

  1. The act of making the map causes you to think about how things connect. For example, when we retreated from the termites, I was able to run to the east and be confident I could link up with those fleeing to the south even without consulting my map (as my PC would be too busy to do), because having just drawn those rooms made their layout clear in my mind.
  2. Likewise, it leads you to think about what might lie beyond the edges of the map. Sketching out the double-wide corridors led us to theorize these were main hallways and more likely to take us somewhere interesting than the narrower ones we thought were originally built for servants to use.
  3. Unlike swinging a sword, making a map is an action you can perform in real life just as your character is doing in the fiction. This creates a satisfying sense of the difficulties involved in map-making, and causes you to value maps all the more. For example, copying out the previous player map made me appreciate the effort involved in making sure that the hard-won knowledge of the dungeon layout doesn’t perish when one cartographer falls into a pool of acid along with the sole copy of the map. And when my previous PC mapped some of the watchtower dungeon, he didn’t own any parchment and I didn’t have graph paper, so I had him carve lines and notches in his shield and tried to draw what that would look like on my character sheet. The result was versimilitudinous and surprisingly useful for navigation, but much less nice looking than Maldoor’s.  Our experiments with mapping structures in NYC in real time also suggest that even with parchment in hand, our PCs are doing a similar thing – jotting down paces counted and directions taken or not, and only compiling this into a drawn-out map readable by others.

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.


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…


Serious Play: The Ministry of Silly Names

After years of relatively serious D&D campaigns set in a well-developed milieu, it’s come as a splash of cold water to see just how wacky a gonzo old-school game can get. A recent session writeup at Carter’s Cartopia—home of such worthies as the PCs Uncle Junkal, Innominus and Barbarella, aided by NPCs like Porkins and Val Kilmer—reminds me of an ongoing peeve of mine: silly names.

There have been a lot of weird names in my Red Box game and in Tavis’ White Box game, and some of them are much more agreeable to me than others. I’m still trying to put my finger on why a fighter named Monterey Jack is fine by me while an elf named Broccoli Cabbage pushes all my buttons, or why I’m bothered more by a pulchritudinous magic-user named Sosexia than a politically correct druid named Obamabiden.

Intellectually, I’d expect to be more troubled by topical real-world references, but in practice they seem to blend into the background pretty easily. It’s the puns that actually get under my skin; they have a deliberately jokey quality that punctures my suspension of disbelief far more than call-outs to the modern world.

Some referees react to this sort of thing with draconian fervor, refusing to allow PCs with silly names in their games. Others take it in stride. Me, I’m looking for a middle way, one that lets me dial down the silliness without eliminating it altogether or making my players feel bad for goofing around. Like everything else, it’s a work in progress.


Emergent Behaviors: The Sacrificial Hireling

DM: Albrecht the hireling asks for his share of the treasure so he can give it to his wife and kids before continuing on with your next adventure.
Player #1: Quick, let’s ditch him!
Player #2: I tell Albrecht that we need to go to the big city to cash in the jewels we found in the dungeon, and I give him a handful of gold to tide his family over while he comes to the city with us.
DM: Albrecht takes the money gratefully and says he’ll rejoin you in just a few minutes.
Player #1: We grab our things and head out of town before Albrecht gets back.
DM: You gather your possessions and leave the village. Behind you, you hear Albrecht calling your names as he tries to catch up with you in the monster-haunted dark.
Player #1: We ride faster!

In a previous post, I discussed emergent behaviors: interactions between rules and players that guide activity during play. Now we’ll take a look at the behaviors that emerge from the intersection between the old-school D&D rules for experience and for hirelings.

Hiring expendable minions is a time-honored D&D method for tackling opposition above one’s weight class. Hirelings get a share of the experience points and—by the book—a share of the treasure, distributed at the end of the adventure. Since wealth and experience that go to NPCs are wealth and experience that the PCs don’t receive, it is in the PCs’ interest for all of their hirelings to die before the end of the adventure! Those hirelings who survive may be cheated out of their share of the treasure, or worse.

DM: After regaling you with tales of his exceedingly profitable adventures with some of the other PCs, Bernard the hireling retires to his rooms.
Player #1: Let’s rob him.
Player #2: Huh?
Player #1: Look at all of those fancy rings he’s wearing! Let’s break into his room and steal them.
Player #2: I don’t think he’s going to leave his jewelry in his room when he’s not there.
Player #1: You’re right. I guess we’ll just kill him and take his stuff.

Depending on your style of play, this may be a feature and not a bug! A high death toll among subsidiary characters is common to the sword and sorcery genre. Conan’s companions often die to demonstrate the dangers he faces, for example, while both Elric and Kane are in the habit of leading whole troops of men to their deaths.

Some DMs, however, may not enjoy the sociopathic behavior this encourages in their players. That’s where the simplicity of early D&D comes in handy! The DM has any number of ways to penalize adventuring parties who leave a trail of dead hirelings while rewarding those who treat their hirelings well. Done well, these methods provide the players with meaningful, strategically interesting choices:

  • Loyalty: Loyalty must be earned! Determine how loyal each hireling is, perhaps using the loyalty table in adventure B1: In Search of the Unknown. Apply modifiers based on the party’s behavior so that parties that treat their hirelings well are more likely to recruit loyal minions, while those that stab their hirelings in the back are more likely to recruit disloyal minions—some of whom want to do unto the party before the reverse occurs, while others are friends and family of deceased hirelings who want a little revenge!
  • Morale: Trust is hard to acquire and easy to give up. In addition to using the morale system religiously, apply modifiers a heavy hand, starting all new hirelings with morale penalties and giving bonuses to morale with every successful adventure. Parties with a good record for keeping the hirelings alive get overall morale bonuses, while those who keep coming back with full pockets and no hirelings get steep morale penalties as their hirelings assume they’re going to die and bail from the party at the first opportunity.
  • Reputation: Word gets around that the PCs are bad news! This makes it more difficult to acquire new hirelings, or imposes other appropriate penalties such as reaction roll penalties in town, higher costs to buy equipment, etc. Devious PCs can get around these penalties by hiring new hirelings in secret, pinning the blame on their rivals, or—worst of all—leaving the area for greener pastures where no one recognizes their ill name, and abandoning your lovingly-crafted dungeon in the process.
  • Turn into PC: When a player character dies, you can allow the player to take over control of a hireling with all of that hireling’s accumulated experience points. This makes hirelings a valuable asset, especially if you otherwise begin all new PCs with no experience points. Hirelings go from being experience point sinks to experience point banks!

Over and above these mechanical concerns, you may wish to consider talking to your players. If there’s some element of play you’re not happy with, clear and open communication is your friend! Unless you’re gaming with jerks, your players should give serious consideration to whatever you need to enjoy the game.

DM: A horrified scream echoes from the tunnel behind you, then chokes off into silence.
Player #1: That’s where we left Weberran the hireling on guard, right?
DM: Yes, and it sounds like his voice, too.
Player #1: Good riddance! That saves me the trouble of killing the coward myself.

Ultimately, all of these solutions paper over the problem without solving it. As long as there’s a mechanical benefit to disposing of your hirelings mid-adventure, players will be tempted to make it happen. The only way to get rid of the issue entirely is to attack it at its source: the interaction between the rules for hirelings and the distribution of experience points.

The simplest fix is to give hirelings their shares of experience points whether or not they survive the adventure. This removes the impetus to eliminate the hirelings during the session, as the PCs gain no extra benefit for the hirelings’ deaths! At this point, any homicidal urges on the part of the PCs and their players are an expression of play style rather than an outgrowth of the system, and you can react accordingly.


are we there yet?

Cover of basic rules

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

How long does it take to play Dungeons & Dragons?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


it’s CLOBBERING time!

This, but like 5 sessions' worth of it

Jack Kirby + Joe Sinnot, Fantastic Four 73

We finished our five-session arc of With Great Power . . . last night.  It’s certainly the best gaming experience I’ve had in years, and in the short-list for my best gaming ever.  From start to finish it was pure joy.

A lot of that joy was contextual: as noted I am a madman on the subject of Silver Age Marvel comics, and  I was lucky enough to have two magnificent players (Sternum and Invincible Overlord) who, in addition to also being huge fans, were terrific role-players and enormously funny people.

Some of that joy was due to the fiction.  Last night:

  • The Thing single-handedly defeated a Troll army that was marching on Asgard (including clobbering Ulik, who had humiliated and enslaved him last session).
  • Spider-Man, tapping into the power of the Norn Stone, defeated the mighty Thor in single combat.  Just as he was about to steal Thor’s hammer in accordance with Loki’s sinister plan, Peter Parker realized he was going too far–and returned it to the thunder god.
  • The Enchantress, who had seduced Peter into near-villainy, came to understand that, though nought but a mortal, his heart was more valorous than many an Asgardian’s.
  • There was a funny scene when the Thing tried to tell-off Odin the Omnipotent, but the All-Father basically yawned him away.
  • Loki, frustrated, made a play for the indestructible Destroyer.  There was a big fight between Spider-Man, the Thing, Thor, and the Fantastic Four against the Loki, the Destroyer, the Radioactive Man, the North Vietnamese Army, and the United States Air Force.  In the end, the heroes triumphed (of course).

And some of the joy was due to the system, though I’m not sure how much.  With Great Power .  .  .  is played with a deck of cards rather than dice.  You generally want high-ranking cards, and in order to get them the player will choose to sacrifice certain aspects of his or her character.  Thus, Spider-Man might ignore Aunt May for a little while in order to save the city.  In mid-game, however, many of these aspects fall into the clutches of the Game Master, who can then do sadistic things: like say that Aunt May has gotten engaged to Doctor Octopus.  In the end-game, a couple of rules shift around to favor the players, and if they’re lucky they can save the day and any spinster aunts.

So the card-economy does a great deal to affect the pacing of the game.  Going into this session, I was concerned that I had beaten up the super heroes so much that there was no way they could build up a hand strong enough to take me on.  Since Sternum kept his most valuable aspects out of my grasp, I couldn’t win outright, but (I thought) neither could the heroes.  It turns out that I was mistaken.  The card economy is clunky, opaque, and feels a little ad hoc, but it worked out beautifully last night, and I’m very impressed with Michael and Kat Miller for getting this design right.  (That said, we did end up house-ruling it that I couldn’t take an aspect all the way to Transformed in the course of a single fight.)

So – best supers gaming I’ve ever had, and a good time was had by all.  Excelsior!

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2020
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