Posts Tagged ‘practice



11
Sep
10

Paksenarrion’s Deed & Renaming the Village of Hommlet

I’m reading, and enjoying, Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy. I got started on it by reading the first book, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. You can read that one for free online; this is savvy of Baen Books because you’ll then want to pick up the omnibus of the three-book trilogy, which I did at a used bookstore in the San Juan Islands. (Sadly,  forgetting my passport prevented me from visiting Red Box Vancouver.)

So as I’m reading the middle book in the trilogy, originally published as Divided Allegiance, there’s a section where our hero, Paksennarion, has captured some bandits who have been hiding out in a small keep. One of them is describing their miserable lot – they were often so hungry that they even tried to catch and eat a giant frog from the moat. A lightbulb appears above my head: giant frog + moathouse = T1: The Village of Hommlet.

In the comments to Grognardia’s retrospective on this module,  Rob Conley says he recognized that Moon’s town of Brewersbridge was Hommlet just from the directions Paksenarrion takes to walk from Jaroo the druid, aka the Kuakgan to the Welcome Wench, aka the Jolly Potboy. This indicates to me that Rob knows his classic AD&D modules better than I do, and is also better with spatial relationships and maps, neither of which are surprising. Here are some other often unsurprising observations:

  1. Deed of Paksenarrion is the best novelization of a D&D campaign I’ve ever read. The episodic, zany, picaresque Maze of Peril is better at showing what it’s actually like to have played D&D with J. Eric Holmes back in the day. The oddly disjointed, stuffed with too many protagonists Quag Keep does the same for playing with Gary Gygax, and has the advantage that while Moon’s changes to Greyhawk lore can be purely attributed to filing off the serial numbers, aka poetic license (either authorial or Dungeon Mastery; it’s not clear to me yet how Moon was involved in D&D), Norton’s might well reveal a pre-Folio archaeological layer. But when it comes to showing what D&D would be like if it weren’t a game, but rather a moving and intelligent story told about your character with an epic sweep, Paksennarion’s Deed is unparalleled in my experience. Her thoughtful handling of the religion and morality of her paladin PC hold their own against Gene Wolfe’s Patera Silk in Book of the Long Sun and Abel in The Wizard Knight, which is high praise, and her evocation of medieval military life and tactics (for which the book was first recommended to me) feels spot on; like Wolfe and David Drake (or J.R.R. Tolkien), Moon draws on her own experiences of military service. This item is becoming over-long, but the last thing I wanted to underline is that Paksenarrion’s Deed succeeds by any standards, not just “good for a RPG novelization” (Robin Wayne Bayley’s Nightwatch, I’m looking at you).
  2. Perhaps understandably given that last sentence,  Moon does not appear eager to be painted with the RPG-novelization brush. Or maybe it’s just that she didn’t have permission to do a novelization of Temple of Hommlet. Her discussion of the literary sources for the Paksennarion books referenced at Wikipedia mentions D&D as well as many other interesting citations, but not the specific Gygax module she’s clearly working from. (Possibly she only experienced it as a player, and thus wasn’t aware of its provenance?)
  3. Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Horrors, I know, and I shouldn’t complain because how awesome is it to have a magic encyclopedia in my pocket that has entries about the nerdiest things I could wish? Still, this just ain’t true:  “A number of people[who?] have pointed out resemblances between the story setting and Dungeons & Dragons, in particular alleged similarities between Moon’s town of Brewersbridge and Hommlet (a village in The Temple of Elemental Evil module for AD&D) and between Moon’s religion of Gird and the faith of Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel in Greyhawk.[citation needed] However, such themes may often be similarly found in many brands of high fantasy, and are not unique to any one fictional world.” The correspondences here are much more specific than just “this fantasy novel has orcs, and so does D&D”. I’m hoping grodog or somebody may be inspired to go through and list them all – it’d be an interesting exercise – but we’re talking about specific fight scenes in Divided Allegiance whose opponents and sequencing are the same as combats you’d encounter while following the dungeon key in Temple of Hommlet.
  4. I don’t think it’s taking anything away from Moon to say that Divided Allegiance is a testament to Gygax as a storyteller, just as I think Gygax’s reputation can survive my saying that his modules show that better than his novels. The story that Moon tells about Paksenarrion’s adventures in the moathouse proves that what Gygax set forth in sixteen pages is, like Edgar Allan Poe’s invention of  detective fiction in “The Speckled Band”, a great and lasting template from which others can cast works of virtue. That’s not news to any of the thousands of gaming groups who’ve had great experiences in Hommlet, but it’s interesting that it can be true for a novel as well as actual play.
  5. In the back cover blurb for Paksennarion’s Deed, Judith Tarr says “This is the first work of heroic high fantasy I’ve seen that has taken the work of Tolkien, assimilated it totally and deeply and absolutely, and produced something altogether new.” I’d say that the thorough mulching of Tolkien’s work by D&D, mixing it up in a big syncretic brew with minotaurs and flying carpets and Baba Yagas that everyone then drinks and pisses out into the groundwater with its active metabolites intact, was the key step in that assimilation.

So here’s the thing with specific gaming relevance I want to talk about, dropped out of numeric order in case you were skipping over all those. How do you feel about the practice of renaming things when it comes to gaming?

In a novel, the renaming works because making the familiar seem strange sets up an aha moment; recognizing that a Kuakgan is a druid, and a hool is an ogre, is like the head of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. Moon is good at names that have their own resonance, and by tying them to D&D archetypes she gets to borrow their thunder while avoiding their limitations. An ogre starts out predictable and has to be made surprising; a hool reserves the right to veer out of known territory whenever it pleases.

Have you experienced this working well in actual play? You don’t need DM of the Rings to know that roleplayers will gleefully trample all over many novelistic effects. I’m certain that at a certain point, players will stop saying “Let’s go see the Kuakgan” and start referring to him as a druid. But is there nevertheless a residual benefit if the DM, and especially the NPCs, can continue using the exotic names to cloak the familiar D&D bones? (For me, this may be of academic interest only; experience suggests I am as likely to slip back into calling a smeerp a rabbit as are the players.)

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16
Jul
10

DexCon After Action Report, Part 2

Saturday saw a major upswing in attendance. The halls were crowded, as were the gaming tables. The signup sheets for my sessions, which had been almost empty, finally started to fill up.

My Saturday afternoon game was packed, with eight people squeezed around a small round table. Character creation was slowed by having only two sets of the core rules, though that’s mostly because people took a lot of time to equip their characters. Strange that it takes so long even with Red Box’s limited list of gear! But they finally sorted out their possessions and special abilities—mostly combative knacks in the vein of “two-weapon fighting,” “quick shot” and “weapon master”—and the fighter-heavy party trekked out in heavy rain to the Chateau.

This was unquestionably the best of my D&D sessions at the convention. The players had a strong dynamic and were interested both in role-playing their characters and in exploring and looting the depths. After negotiating with the Chateau’s orcish guardians (aided by an excellent reaction roll), they delved into the dungeons, where it took them some time to realize that the map they were drawing of their exploration was identical to one of the pre-drawn maps they’d received at the start of play. They eventually found their way to the vastness of the Grand Stair that wound down through the center of the dungeon. A random encounter there turned into something resembling a set-piece battle, and a wild plan involving a rope and elementary physics saved the day from an otherwise invincible opponent.

One noteworthy situation that arose here was the trouble of resting in the dungeon. Distrusting the orcs, the party decided to hole up in a small dungeon room. As the room they picked had no door, they set guards in the hallway outside, and took apart some furniture from a nearby room to build a bonfire in the hall. Naturally, this brought multiple waves of wandering monsters down upon them! They only reconsidered this stratagem after a preponderance of the PCs had been paralyzed by ghouls.

Saturday evening was a slower session, with only five players, two of whom had played in the afternoon game. The resulting continuity resembled a real campaign, with the returning PCs farming out magic items to the new players and sharing maps and information about the dungeon. Sadly, their chosen path took them through empty room after empty room, while the random encounter die refused to cough up any monsters. Had this been a session at home with my own gaming group, that would have been fine—exploring a new area is a more meaningful reward in long-term play—but these people were paying to play a single adventure, so I fudged things to drop an encounter in their path. Things warmed up considerably after that, and the players seemed to have a good time despite a near-TPK at the end. (How many paralyzed adventurers can fit into a carrion crawler’s stomach? Roll 1d4!)

Sunday was spent on a final visit to the dealer’s room, where I acquired a copy of The Swordswoman and some old AD&D modules on the cheap, then headed home; I’m not a fan of Sunday convention gaming, as I prefer to get home early and take some time to decompress. I think I’m finally finished decompressing!

All in all, it was a good experience and a viable experiment. I plan to give it another try next February at Dreamation 2011.

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!

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?

26
Apr
10

blue box blues

Calling it this

But using This

Been prepping the Blue Box lately – or rather, the Cook/Marsh version thereof.

For a year now I’ve wanted to create a high-level adventure to showcase the famous monsters and some under-used rules.  So I’m hoping to design a 6-hour dungeon for four Name Level characters.

The High Concept is that this powerful group is on a delve that Goes Terribly Wrong: they get stranded on a much deeper level than they’d anticipated, a Horrible Monster strikes from ambush and decimates half the party in the surprise round, and now it’s a scramble  to safety.  (Yes, it’s contrived, but it’s basically a one-shot.)

But all I’ve really done so far is design an adventuring party and make a bunch of mistakes in doing so.

  • Creating Level 9 pre-gens is loads faster than in D&D 3e, but it’s still tedious.
  • It’s even more tedious to create their attendant mid-level retainers and kit them out with magical gear.
  • 4 PC’s + 3 retainers each = 16 characters in the party = real slow combat rounds.
  • Giving retainers interesting magical items really gives them personality, but that’s a bad thing!  Personality distracts from the unfamiliar PC pre-gens.  Plus the magic items make them mechanically complex.
  • Choosing the Best Monsters Ever is difficult!  Contriving a way to fit them all into a dungeon is hard.
  • I feel bad I’m not including Wilderness Travel or Dominion play, because I want to road-test those rules too.  But there’s only so much a guy can do.

That said: a party of four Name Level PC’s can defeat a 10 HD Red Dragon in three rounds, although they do get banged up pretty badly in the process.  I’ve designed a pretty nasty Beholder encounter, we’ll have to see if it fares any better against the full group.  (I suspect the Mind Flayers wouldn’t even last three rounds.)

It wouldn't be smiling if it knew it would be dead three minutes later

EDIT: It took too long to play out the whole battle, but a more-or-less full strength Beholder managed to kill three retainers in the surprise round, charm a fourth, and then got its central eye poked out.  I suspect it would have lasted about three rounds as well.  Disappointing!

22
Mar
10

The Game Is What Happens At The Table

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

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

Things to remember:

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

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

09
Mar
10

Mastering Morale: Know When to Fold ‘Em

Conan wheeled, to see the girl standing a short distance away, staring at him in wide-eyed horror, all the mockery gone from her face. He cried out fiercely and the blood-drops flew from his sword as his hand shook in the intensity of his passion.

“Call the rest of your brothers!” he cried. “I’ll give their hearts to the wolves! You can not escape me—”

With a cry of fright she turned and ran fleetly. She did not laugh now, nor mock him over her white shoulder. She ran as for her life…

— Robert E. Howard, “Gods of the North”

When I played D&D as a kid, monsters had a habit of fighting to the death. After all, wasn’t that what they were there for? Realism—Gygaxian or otherwise—didn’t rank highly on our list of gaming priorities.

I got back into D&D in my early thirties, playing a heavily house-ruled version of Third Edition under a DM marinated in Second Edition tropes. Our enemies often fled or surrendered, but there were no rules for it; morale was a matter of DM fiat. Sure, it worked for our DM, but the effect wasn’t easily replicable.

Imagine my surprise, upon cracking open a copy of Red Box D&D, to discover a set of simple and straightforward morale rules! They tell you exactly how to determine when monsters decide to flee from combat. This has an enormous influence on play, both adding a valuable naturalistic element to combat and allowing the PCs unexpected victories.

A year and a half after starting my Red Box campaign, I decided to take a closer look at the details of the morale rules. Imagine my surprise at discovering that they aren’t quite that simple or straightforward. In fact, they’re both deeply mutable and—get this—completely optional.

At last the trolls broke and fled. Hotly did the elves give chase, cutting them down, driving them into the burning camp. Not many escaped.

— Poul Anderson, “The Broken Sword”

It’s right there in the section title: “Morale (Optional)”. You can completely ignore the morale subsystem, either determining for yourself when monsters flee or simply making them all fight to the death like the aliens in Space Invaders, and still remain completely within the rules.

If you do employ the morale rules, you still have a lot of control over how to use them. Check it out:

* The rules indicate that you should check morale after a side’s first death in combat and when half of the side has been incapacitated, but these are explicitly called out as “recommended times for morale checks.” You may decide that one or both of these conditions doesn’t apply to a particular group, replacing them with new conditions of your choice. E.g.: the Five Ogre Brothers check morale each time one of them dies, while Morgan Ironwolf’s Irregulars only check morale if their leader falls. You may also call for morale checks on the fly if the situation calls for it; green hirelings are liable to bolt upon encountering the eviscerated remains of a prior adventuring party, while a gnoll warband may flee in the face of a dramatic phantasmal force.
* The DM is free to apply pre-planned or ad hoc modifiers to morale checks. The rules recommend that such modifiers don’t exceed +2 or -2, but otherwise the referee has a free hand to apply such modifiers. Such modifiers are easily suggested by circumstance—or by the players. Are the monsters winning or losing? Do they think they can outrun the party? Are they driven to fight by habit, hunger, greed or a desire for revenge?
* It’s up to the DM to determine what a morale failure means. Do the enemies fall back en masse to a more defensible position? Do they scatter in terror? Or do they lay their arms down and surrender, throwing themselves on the player characters’ unlikely mercy?

Interestingly, aside from the general optionality of the rules, the only inflexible component is retainer morale. After an adventure, each retainer must make a morale check. A retainer who fails the check will never work for that employer again! Of course, this check can be modified just like any other morale check, so be nice to your retainers if you want to keep them.

Hoom Feethos was beyond all earthly help, and Quanga, now wholly the slave of a hideous panic, would hardly have stayed longer to assist him in any case. But seeing the pouch that had fallen forward from the dead jeweler’s fingers, the hunter snatched it up through an impulse of terror-mingled greed; and then, with no backward glance, he fled on the glacier, toward the low-circling sun.

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Ice-Demon”

Like a Bizarro-world equivalent of the Tenth Amendment, old-school rulesets reserve all powers to the DM that are not otherwise placed in the hands of the players. (This stands in sharp relief to new-school games which transfer much of this authority to the players.) As such, the DM should use the morale rules to supplement and enhance gameplay without letting them override one’s own understanding of the milieu. That gnoll is charmed? Let him fight to the death to defend his master. The enslaved goblins are trying to escape? Don’t roll a morale check to see if they keep fighting when you know they’re going to run away anyway.

Use the system. Don’t let it use you!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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