Posts Tagged ‘Tavis

16
Jan
13

On Dwimmermount, And Failure

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, maybe in the comments to this post about Gygax, Arneson, and a music video. My mom was a little girl when Hawaii became a state. She’s about the age of D&D’s original gangsters, and the vogue for Hawaiian shirts and hula hoops affected her the way Tractics did them. The world wasn’t changed by my mom’s lifelong devotion to hula dancing, but it did mean my childhood was surrounded by the paraphernalia of a hobby most people left behind decades ago.

In 2000, her halao, a hula group made up of dancers who commuted between Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio (for non-Texans, this is a whole lot of six-mile hexes) to practice together, was the first in the continental-US-other-than-California to be invited to the Merrie Monarch festival. This would be hula’s equivalent of Gen Con, if Indy had this big contest we all cared about so much that just being allowed to enter was a big deal.

A women’s group competing in the Merrie Monarch festival. We had all these kinds of cowrie shell necklaces and coconut shell bras around the house when I was a kid.

The day my mom was getting ready to go on stage – braiding all those grass skirts takes a long time – the rest of my family,  my fiancee, and I went swimming at a black sand beach on the big island. After a while the rest of us went in to build sand castles while my dad looked for coral with a snorkel. At one point we looked up and wondered if he was swimming a little far from shore; when we looked again a minute later he had drowned. My brother and I swam out to try to rescue him, but our attempts at CPR failed.

Kehena Beach can be seen in the background of this shot. Most of the folks who helped with the rescue weren’t wearing any clothes.

Like many gamers I grew up devoted to science fiction, especially everything Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote, and I was strongly influenced by its cult of competence. Years later, in a class on SF, Chip Delany identified this as one of the genre’s fixed ideas – the delusion that an exceptional person should be able to do everything exceptionally well, whether it’s to skin a squirrel with your boot or fix a gourmet meal or repel an alien invasion – but it was gospel to me as a kid. I never built a bomb shelter using rolls of toilet paper as radiation filters the way Heinlein told me to in Expanded Universe, but I did lots of other stuff, from taking karate lessons to getting certified as an emergency medical technician, for the time when my training might mean the difference between life or death. When the time came, I failed.

One failure followed another. The Ph.D towards which I’d invested five years of my time and a bunch of other people’s money stalled and eventually sputtered out, a long painful process of disappointment for my mentor, my friends, and others who’d counted on me to deliver my thesis. For a long time I felt like a loser, hiding myself away in shame to avoid evidence of how I’d let people down or fantasizing about grandiose ways I could re-establish myself as an exceptional person. Eventually I got over the idea that I deserved to have life suck forever; the decision to get myself into therapy was a key step, but that and its interesting relationship to what we do in roleplaying sessions is for another post.

This one is about Dwimmermount. If you supported its Kickstarter, or if you’re reasonably attuned to an online community that contains folks who did, you’ll have heard that the project is in some trouble. As the person at Autarch who’s been the public face for the Dwimmermount crowdfunding effort, I’m doing all I can to make sure that what it promised is delivered – although, since James has both the funding and the copyright that are required to release his work, I’m not in the best position to do so. Autarch is still looking for solutions, but everyone’s best efforts can never banish the possibility of failure.

I can’t talk about what’s going on with Dwimmermount author James Maliszewski and how it relates to the project’s problems – mostly because he’s not telling me, and the desire to respect his privacy covers what’s left – but here’s what I can say from my experience following my father’s death.

  • There are worse things in the world than a delayed Kickstarter or a pre-ordered gaming product that fails to ship. People have to take responsibility for their actions, sure, but the reality is that life contains some tragic fucking shit and the only thing that makes it bearable is our compassion for one another.
  • Sometimes failure is a way to realize you’re on the wrong path. I’d been going nowhere as a grad student long before my dad died, and although this isn’t the way I would have chosen to get there, I’m now happier than most of the people I know who continued down the track I got jolted out of.
  • You have to fail if you’re going to learn from your mistakes. The biggest thing I had to overcome was the feeling that I was a failure, and since that’s all I’d ever be there was no point in trying. The flip side of this is the science-fiction fantasy that I should be good at everything, meaning the best way to evade the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t so was to avoid doing anything at which I might fail. Either way, I was shutting myself off from the opportunity to see that you win some, you lose some, and meanwhile it’s fun to play the game.

Autarch is a new company, and we’re still making rookie mistakes. Going into the Dwimmermount project, I felt like Autarch’s success with the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter, and the failure of mine for the Arneson Memorial Gameday, had given us considerable expertise. I see now that those those were relatively smooth hits or misses. We’ve learned a lot more from a project that’s been rocky and whose fate remains uncertain; we won’t again put ourselves in a position where we’re holding the bag and have left ourselves so little control over the outcome. Although I still think there’s a valuable role for crowdfunding to act as the testing ground and collaborative inspiration for projects early in their development cycle, the Kickstarter currently on Autarch’s drawing board, Domains at War, will have a basically finished draft ready to give to backers as soon as they pledge and will explicitly be seeking funds just to illustrate, print, and ship a thing that already exists.

Kickstarter is a new thing under the sun too. Without being privy to their process, the fact that they are growing successfully means they must be learning from their mistakes. I’d like to think that the requirements for project creators to discuss risks to backers, which have been put in place since we launched Dwimmermount, might have helped us avoid another serious mistake in not being transparent from the start about Autarch’s contract with James and the ways it could go wrong. But hindsight is misleading, and there are still many ways that Dwimmermount could come out right.

To bring this back to gaming and pay the Joesky tax, roleplaying lets you make mistakes and learn from the consequences in a safe space. I’ve written before about my frustration with party optimization in 4E, where I felt like no feasible amount of play time would give me enough observations to statistically distinguish successful group strategies from sub-par ones. Tim Harford’s fascinating Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure shows that it’s not just statistics that can be make it hard to recognize when you’ve made a mistake (this being an obvious prerequisite to learning from it). Some of the unconscious biases he points out are kind of a benefit for roleplaying: the tendency to retrospectively cast our bad decisions as good ones can make the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory seem a little less undeserved.

But the fear of failure is what drives these attempts to airbrush away one’s mistakes, and it makes for bad gaming. Fudging the dice robs us of the ability to learn. The wisely titled Play Unsafe presents techniques like holding ideas lightly (because they might be wrong) and not planning in advance (because no amount of worrying will never eliminate the possibility of rolling a natural 1) that I think are at the heart of the old-school approach. Best of all, they’re things you can try out and see if they work for you right away, no statistical analysis necessary.

09
Aug
12

Orc Stomp

Orc Stomp is a 5K fun run being held twice at this year’s Gen Con – once on Thursday at 8 am, and once on Friday at 6 am. I didn’t get it together in time to register, but will be doing it anyways on Thursday morning. If there’s room, I’ll join in with generic tickets; if not, I’ll cheer on the official runners and then do the route myself once they wrap up.

Click for the Orc Stomp page on Facebook!

I’m currently training to run an entire 5K without walking, which hasn’t happened yet. Yesterday’s combined walk/run time gives me an ACKS movement rate of 76 feet per round, which falls woefully short of the 120′ I should be able to do as an unencumbered human. However that pace is an average of my speed over 228 rounds. ACKS assumes I can only run at 120′ for a number of my rounds equal to Constitution x 2, after which I will become exhausted and have to walk at 40’/round for the next 60 rounds until I can run again. Somewhere in there is a way to calculate my Constitution score, which vanity and/or laziness compels me to put off until my time improves a little.

I heard about the 5K at last year’s con from Rich Rogers, who I’d gotten to know online when he interviewed me for the Canon Puncture podcast and then met in person when he stopped by for the continuous Adventurer Conqueror King demo game. I’d been finding that doing things like running up the hotel steps was helping me stay alert during said extravaganza, so I was excited to commit to something longer and more structured at this year’s convention. Rich interviewed me recently for This Just In… From Gen Con – you can hear the results here – and hooked me up with some 5K guides from Active.com that helped me get started. Rich is going to be running on both Thursday and Friday morning, and it would not surprise me if he will also be running to and from each of the far-flung This Just In reports he’s got scheduled throughout the con.

Also planning to run on Thursday are Andrew Pascal and James Sprattley, two-thirds of the team behind the forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary. At least one of them is training to do a marathon, so they are probably fully capable of discussing the project during the run. (I’m still at the stage where I’m breathing too hard to talk, against the advice of those running guides.)

Other less-strenuous opportunities to learn about what promises to be a truly excellent documentary (and meet third member of the team Anthony Savini, who plans to sleep in on Thursday) will be the Filmmakers Meet & Greet on Friday at 10 am, and the panel devoted to their documentary on Friday at 4. Following a ten-minute preview of their footage, I’ll be moderating the panel discussion. Since this is scheduled immediately after the Kickstarter panel I’m on, getting from one to the other will provide me with another opportunity for running!

06
Jul
12

The Insane and Ambitious LotFP Campaign and I

Folks who have been following the LotFP Grand Adventure crowdfunding campaign closely will have noticed that, at one point, the Mule’s own Charlatan and I were slated to do one of the 19 adventures it will be funding, with illustrations by Ryan Browning. This post is to explain why I withdrew our project with the greatest regrets. In tomorrow’s post I’ll suggest some reasons why everyone who cares about the stuff we care about should indeed be following the Grand Adventure campaign closely.

The way that this all got started is that, back in March, James Raggi posted on G+:

My brain is exploding. ToC’s Bookhounds of London + ACKS mercantile system + XRP’s Silk Road detail + Warhammer’s Death on the Reik = Something, yes?

Like a mad scientist, Raggi seems to be perpetually fizzing over with the ferment of mash-ups like this. Note that he is unafraid to throw volatile elements in the mix. Expeditious Retreat Press (XRP)’s A Magical Medieval Society: Silk Road, although eminently useful for all fantasy and historical gaming, is a d20 supplement from the era when 3E was “The Edition That Shall Not Be Named” among the dfootians. And Trail of Cthulu (ToC) is a big favorite of the story-gamers I know in the nerdNYC community. But of course James scoffs at the idea that the OSR should be a firewall that protects us from contamination by TESTSNBN or Forge swine; he takes things that are awesome as he finds ’em. His getting Bookhounds of London author Ken Hite to do a LotFP adventure is a supremely awesome achievement that, for me, is one of the fruits of the OSR having won and a demonstration of what you can make happen with an insanely ambitious crowdfunding campaign.

So when I emailed Raggi with a vague affirmation of his G+ post – “yeah let’s make that mash-up happen!” – he came back with both a crazy way to achieve that, involving nineteen simulaneous IndieGoGo campaigns, and a tasty proposal for what it should look like:

You do a supplement updating the economics stuff from ACKS into the Early Modern Age – taking into account regular sea lane shipping, trading companies and the monopolies they secure (and the piracy they attract), the great risk/reward of exploration, colonies, realms that are ruled by parliaments or noble lineage but the age of small-time conquest/rulership is over, etc.

He gave me the go-ahead to add Charlatan as a collaborator, since I would never venture into the sea-lanes without his Saltbox expertise, and Ryan as artist because he can draw the inside of my mind better than I can see it. We started talking it over, and all manner of ideas started to flow. Some of the concrete results were the title “Register of the Deeps” and a concept for the cover:

Original sketch for the Register of the Deeps cover, by Ryan Browning.

Unfortunately, in the middle of this creative ferment, a development in my personal life arose that forced me to re-evaluate my ability to deliver “Register of the Deeps” by the deadline I’d agreed to. It’s nothing worthy of a Lifetime special, or even an after-school one. It won’t mean my departure from gaming, or even prevent me from working with Charlatan and Ryan to finish Register and release it via a different route at some future date, but it did make me feel I couldn’t promise to have it in time for the LotFP campaign backers with the right degree of certainty.

Lots of people are saying that crowd-funding is changing the face of the gaming industry for the better. If you’ll be at Gen Con on Friday at 3pm, you’ll see me among ’em. The key ingredient here is trust. When people back a project, they’re expressing their faith that it will come to pass. For the Kickstarter miracle to work, this faith has to be well-placed. I thought it better to withdraw from the LotFP adventures campaign than to run the risk of breaking faith with people who’d put up money expecting to have “Register of the Deeps” when I said they would.

Kickstarter may be a new thing under the sun, but gaming history offers plenty of tragic examples of what can go wrong with taking money now for a product later, whether via pre-orders (the Wormy compilation, Sinister Adventures) or a subscription model (Adventure Games Publications). To his great credit, James Raggi was totally understanding about my situation & the reasoning behind my (difficult) decision. He made good on his promise to find replacements who were bigger stars than the originally booked talent, and seeing the quality of the people who are filling the void makes me feel a little better. Nevertheless I’ll always regret having gotten folks, especially Charlatan and Ryan, excited and then yanking the football; also having come this close to saying I shared a stage with the lead singer from GWAR, metaphorically at least.

Next to come: why the LotFP Grand Adventure crowd-funding campaign matters.

 

20
Apr
12

I’m a Third Level Gen Con Industry Insider Guest of Honor

I am proud to make two announcements concerning yesterday’s events:

  • My Glantri character, Gael Ur-Boss, reached third level – the greatest such achievement of any PC I’ve played in Quendalon’s campaign!
  • I was announced as one of the Industry Insider Guests of Honor for Gen Con ’12.

Particular reasons I care about these announcements:

  • Playing Glantri is fun. Having a character who is more capable will make it more fun (although it is to be noted that third level is nowhere near making Gael a force to be reckoned with in any Glantrian party these days).
  • Doing panels and workshops is fun. Having a larger audience resulting from the extra publicity from these being on the Industry Insider track will make it more fun (although it is likely that the bulk of this audience will be attracted by those GoHs more illustrious than myself: Wolgang Baur, Stan!, Dennis Detwiller, James Ernest, Matt Forbeck, Jess Hartley, Kenneth Hite, Steve Kenson, T.S. Luikart, Michelle Lyons, Ryan Macklin, Dominic McDowall-Thomas, Jason Morningstar, Susan Morris , Mark Rein-Hagen, Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat, Gareth-Michael Skarka, Christina Stiles, George Strayton, Richard Thomas, Rodney Thompson, and James Wyatt).
It’s a truism that no one wants to hear about your character. I’m deliberately drawing a parallel by talking about my beloved Gael (did I tell you that s/he got a +1 to Constitution just from becoming a six-year-old orc instead of a five-year-old one, even before s/he leveled up?) in the same breath as my Gen Con appearances. These are games you can play within the world of roleplaying. If you invest enough time and effort, you’ll get a recognition which is meaningful to the other players in your group.  But even should you make it to name level, it’s still a game that’s pretty uninteresting to anyone not intimately involved.
That said, here are some reasons you might care about these announcements nonetheless:
  • You will be adventuring in Glantri and need a comrade with not zero, not one, but two whole first-level cleric spells!
  • You will be at Gen Con this summer and might be interested in stuff I’ll talk about at the panels and workshops I’ll be on.

Panels etc. are yet to be determined, but here are the ones I said I “would feel comfortable hosting” in the application to be an Insider GoH:

Fund Your Game Project with Kickstarter (panel)             

From publishing your RPG or boardgame to opening a gaming café, learn how crowdfunding can help you achieve your dream from those who have succeeded (and failed) with Kickstarter.

Raising Money for Charity with Gaming Events (workshop)

Learn how you can use your gaming skills to help a good cause by studying previous examples, getting practical advice, and participating in a celebrity roleplaying event to raise money for a gaming-related charity.

Record and Share Your Roleplaying Sessions (workshop)

Podcasts and actual play videos are increasingly popular as ways to share the excitement of your games and help bring new players into the hobby. Learn how to get started!

Teaching Games (panel)

Educators, parents, and kids share their experiences with programs that introduce kids to gaming, from school curricula to homeschooling to summer camps, and pass on advice and inspiration.

Getting Paid to GM (panel)

A survey of professional opportunities for roleplaying gamemasters and advice on how to get started.

Lunch hour being over, I should get back to the business of Getting Paid to Have a Day Job, but will perhaps come back to this topic (or ones raised in comments) in future.

03
Mar
12

Dwimmermount Kickstarter is… Schrödinger’s Cat?

So maybe you have been following the Dwimmermount announcements and noticed that the Kickstarter was supposed to launch this afternoon. But then it got to be evening here on the East Coast, and where was it? The answer here is that Autarch can seem pretty polished due to the excellent production staff whose day jobs make the Escapist look so good. However, it is still a small enough company that it can be seriously bollixed by a single fourth-grader who loses his backpack in a way no one can find it. (Where was it? In his classroom, not really lost at all, which is why it was so hard for me to find it.)

It is a poor craftsman who fails to account for this kind of thing, and that would be me. In my day job before we can apply for funding we have to go through a whole series of internal review processes. Because I am a procrastinator and the people I work for are emergency medicine physicians and thus adrenaline-junkies, we like to stress out and do everything at the last minute, but the internal deadlines mean we do this well before the time it is really due. Without those review steps, I gave myself the luxury of cutting things so close that a couple of hours of running around doing Backpack Quest created a problem.

OK, but then James posted that we were delayed! This is because when I finally got it ready to submit, it turned out that Kickstarter had instituted a new internal review process after all. In some ways I was glad for this – one of my “lessons learned” was to get it ready and then announce when it will go live, since these deadlines are all self-imposed. But at my day job, the internal review process takes ten business days, and now that Kickstarter’s funding awarded is catching up with federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, it made sense to me that was the kind of review they would perform. So I wrote to James and was sheepishly like uhh I have a good idea for an Open Friday post…

But then within just a few hours – even though it was well after end of business out here – Kickstarter got back to us with the green light to launch the project! Normally this is a great moment of champagne-popping rather than frantic confusion, but the good news here is:

  • yes we are live and the response has been tremendous, thanks for believing in this project despite the confusion!
  • when there is a snafu you have some evidence that we will try to get out in front of it ASAP and let you know what’s going on
  • James now has the distinction of having the most briefly delayed most-anticipated-delayed-gaming-product ever

Please accept my apologies for the unnecessary excitement!

14
Dec
11

strahd gangbang

Neisseria, the Medusa navigator by Scott LeMien

With the help of my Medusa navigator, I crashed the spaceship into to the mouth of the enormous ghost-robot that hovered over Swamp Town, and we disembarked to rob the spoiled teenage were-tiger picnickers…

Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

we killed strahd, you missed it

Well actually, it looks like Beedo’s gang did it too, but they had more people involved.

In our game of I6: Ravenloft, the four remaining PC’s had found all these curiously specific items of Strahd-slaying, but the best weapon was, of course, a mule to the face.

Our Normal Magic-User negotiated with Strahd to return a painting of the vampire’s little girlfriend–and threw a mule (from a robe of many things) through the painting right as Strahd was examining it.  “A mule to the face would at least be distracting,” so our Kryptonian Assassin got a backstab  with the Sun Sword.  I ended up facing the vampire lord for a round or two of single combat, and then Sensible Half-Orc blasted him with a mystic amulet or something.

The Ravenloft module was entertainingly and ably run by “Naked Sam” on the Red Box site, and it was a nice change of pace.  I think the four players that night all agreed that while we had a fun time, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e was a laughably pretentious game with little to recommend it over LBB, B/X, or BECMI.  I practically cried reading the “Gaining Experience Levels” section on page 86 of the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Forget Strahd: somebody needs to run a stake through Gary Gygax for sucking blood out of gamers with that nonsense.  Ugh.

the necromancer is dead, so what else is new?

A couple days later, I swung by Tavis’s game, where we had the aforementioned Medusa-navigated spaceship crashing into the ghost-colossus to rob teenage lycanthropes having a picnic on pickled robo-dwarf.  You know: Tavis’s game.

we are here for the picnic (art by Jedo)

One of our off-screen enemies, going back to the days when I was a regular player, was a necromancer named Ashur-Ram, who keeps Wraiths and Spectres imprisoned inside crystal phials which he throws as grenades.  We never have enough priests to turn back these level-draining undead, so we usually gave Ashur-Ram a lot of latitude.

But it turns out he was on board the ghost-colossus when we smashed into it.  This precipitated a panic when long-serving members of the party realized the danger we were in, especially after Ashur-Ram’s Dragon killed all of our meat-shields. “Quick,” said the other party members, “the necromancer appears willing to pay us to leave him alone!  We want to leave him alone!  We want to get paid!  Let’s take the offer!”

BAH!

Now, it may be my -2 Wisdom modifier talking, or the fact that I was playing a brand-spanking-new character in contrast to guys who had invested for 40 sessions in their toon.  But when you have an insanely wealthy necromancer by the throat and you outnumber him 8:1, and he’s already spent some of his best spells, you strangle that fool.  And so for once I exploited our consensus-driven process by refusing to give in until everyone else got sick of arguing with me.

We killed the necromancer, who had filled us with dread for like 30 sessions, in like 3 rounds.  Nobody took damage except for one guy who got drained two levels and who had been staunchly opposed to fighting this guy.  (Sorry, dude.)  But we are now even more ridiculously wealthy than we had been, and I’m sure fixing the level-drain will be fairly easy.

Plus I think some dude got it on with a Sphinx.

big bad encounter design in old-skool D&D

Both of these episodes are related.

What surprised me about the big fight with Strahd is that there was, in fact, no big fight with Strahd.  We encountered him three times, and it was no biggie each time:

  • Our scout teleported away without any lasting harm thanks to a magic item
  • Our Assassin decapitated him with a single attack (no lasting harm to Strahd)
  • Mule to the face!  And then super-death.
  • Before we got to Strahd the last time, we fought a Nightmare.  The Nightmare put up a better fight.

My impression of this fight, and the hit on Ashur-Ram the necromancer, is that the Many versus One fight is really hard to get right in D&D.  Either the adversary is going to be way out of your league, in which case you need to run like hell, or it’s a plausible foe at your level in which case the group of you will crush it easily.

Furthermore, in order to be taken seriously as a fictional adversary in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, you need to cast spells–which means that you can’t get punched in the face even once if you want to cast, but now there are like 4-8 people surrounding you.

The Nightmare alluded to above was pretty much Many versus One (there were some Hellhound minion-types), but the Nightmare had the advantage of an insanely low Armor Class (like -4 or -5) plus an aura of nausea that made it even harder to hit.  As a result, the Nightmare could afford to stick around for a while and dish out damage.  I realized after leaping onto its back to attempt to tame it that it could run away to some Hell-Plane any time it wished and simply ditch me there, so in trying to avoid its weaker attack I accidentally opened up its special killer move.

But Strahd, and the poor Necromancer, didn’t have great defenses (anti-magic would have worked as well) or an infallible yet deadly escape plan.  Run like hell.

So how do you make the Many versus One fight work?

My advice would be: you don’t.  Give the Boss Bad Guy a retinue of henchmen, maybe appropriate to the Charisma score, and have them follow the Boss around at all times.  (Works for world leaders!)  And failing that, no enemy of any brains will stick around to fight on someone else’s terms: if you’re caught at a disadvantage–like, say, eight adventurers crash a spaceship into your bunker and polymorph your Dragon into a flounder–then you retreat, regroup, and get revenge at a time of your choosing.  As someone said at the end of the Necromancer caper, by the time the adventurers reach your throne room, you’ve already lost.

Extremely intelligent NPC’s should probably auto-fail their morale checks in such circumstances, and should think twice before attempting to negotiate with murder hobo’s for safe passage.

But eventually that confrontation is gonna happen, at which point your Boss NPC has to do several things very quickly:

  1. Protect against melee combatants blitzing you
  2. Knock out enemy casters
  3. Cancel any on-going status effects the party’s got going
  4. Take out as many targets of opportunity as possible

It’s hard to say which of those four is the most urgent, though taking care of #1 early hopefully will buy you some time.  My thought is that debuffs can wait a bit since players may try to keep tossing them on as the fight progresses.  You probably shouldn’t waste time buffing yourself, because (a) it takes up time that you need to spend taking care of other things, and (b) the players will just hit you with a dispel anyway.

One helpful trick, though it is sort of unfair: design your throne room in a way that takes care of at least one of these problems for you: maybe you get to drive around in an armor-plated Pope-Mobile or your throne levitates 20 feet off the ground so melee guys can’t reach you.  Or there’s 3 feet of sucking mud all over the place which basically cancels out any haste spell, or a constant rain of cinders that inflicts steady damage so casters can’t rely on getting a spell off.

Relatedly: divert attention with a MacGuffin, hostage, dead-man switch, or some other strategic necessity so that the players can’t get away with killing you immediately.  The problem here is that your distraction probably won’t keep everybody occupied, and things will likely escalate into a very non-standard combat encounter, which favors the players’ hive-mind.

I’m uncertain as to the best timing of summoning help, such as from demons or conjuration spells.  It’s good to have somebody running around taking the heat off you, but they’re mainly just meat-shields.  (I think we summoned 8 Goblins to help us fight the Nightmare.  All they did was get in the way, though we did propose a variation on our beloved Baby Armor, namely Goblin Sponge Armor, to ablate the vampire’s attacks.  Alas they faded from view before we could get our armorer on the case.)  Summoning help costs at least one round, and it’s probably only going to buy you two at best, unless the enemy absolutely must put down your helper.  Bringing two Wraiths into the fight sure didn’t help the Necromancer.

(Related question: why is Animate Dead such a high-level spell?)

My short prescription would be something like slow (surprisingly, does not exist in the B/X version of the game!), confusion, growth of plants, or wall of ice to keep attackers at bay, followed by (say) hold person, darkness, silence, or feeblemind on enemy casters.  Cause Fear is a nice spell for either purpose, though it only affects one target.  I also like casting a charm person on a Cleric: it not only saves you from a melee attacker, it also steals the players’ buffs for your own use.  My general thought is that while invisibility is a pretty good spell, it’s a pain in the neck to run because you’re always sweating whether your next action will blow it.

Any other thoughts on the Many versus One spellcaster thing?  What am I missing?

04
Jul
11

Introducing the Adventurer Conqueror King System

At the most recent session of the White Sandbox campaign, Greengoat passed around a copy of the Adventurer Conqueror King System, which had been freshly printed that morning by Adjua at McNally Jackson Books. I’m going to be talking about this game a lot in the coming weeks, and I want to start by explaining why.

First is that I’ve been involved with the making of ACKS for months. As anyone who’s tried to become a parent knows, it’s wise not to talk publicly about the forthcoming arrival of a new baby until you’ve passed some milestones. The initial one was having a tangible book, with stunning cover art by Ryan Browning. The second was when the website for Autarch, the partnership we formed to release ACKS, went live earlier this weekend, thanks to Ryan and Carrie Keymel. Now that these concrete indicators have convinced me that this thing is really going to happen, I’ve got a lot of pent-up things to say about it.

I had Adjua digitally print and perfect-bind a copy of ACKS to use as a prop in the video I shot at Greengoat’s studio. This video will serve as an introduction to the Kickstarter project, launching later this week, which will fund the publishing of the game. We worked hard on making the cover look right (Carrie’s layout assistance was invaluable here as in the composite image above), because the cover is what was visible in the video. Although the 256 pages of the interior do indeed contain a complete and playable fantasy roleplaying game, at this stage in ACKS’ development there is still plenty of stuff left for us to add.

One of the things that’s currently missing is a credits page. Eventually that’ll include Ryan for illustration, Carrie for layout and Greengoat for cartography, and Alexander Macris, Greg Tito, and myself on the text side of things. When we get around to assigning ourselves titles I’ll probably get an Additional Design credit, since that’s what I have for a similar role on the DCCRPG: telling the guys involved in the actual design work what I think they should do to make the game better suit my lazy ass. In this I join many great minds in the old-school renaissance scene who have similarly been putting forth great ideas they didn’t have to implement themselves; we have used as many of their ideas as we could make fit into ACKS. (This is not to say that there aren’t OSR folks who are expressing their great ideas in design form; in this case my role has been to point to the sources we should steal from. Another of the things left to do is to write for permission to specifically credit the originators of these stolen ideas. Ironically, it’s often harder to thank those whose ideas we used when they were originally put into practice than it is when they were just thrown out there half-baked. This is because the former are usually released under the Open Game License, which makes it easy to copy but hard to credit what exactly you used from where. My old publishing company Behemoth3 released books with a limited license to use the name of our books & our company to make this possible, but it never caught on – probably because Section 14 of the OGL which creates this problem and the legal language we used to get around it are both pretty arcane, and also because it was and is generally easy to get hold of folks in our little community and get permission on a case-by-case basis. I digress because of a recent post of Jeff’s; as he says, it’s a shame that more people don’t do this, but the way the OGL is set up means it’s not a simple courtesy.)

Perhaps this telling the writers what to do job is what they call being a developer at places like Wizards of the Coast where that’s a separate role from being a designer. If so, it reinforces my conviction that it would be sweet to work there, because this development thing is nice work if you can get it. This brings me to the second reason I’ll be talking about Adventurer Conqueror King a lot. Unlike the work I did for Wizards where I got paid the same whether the book was a hit or a flop – or even, as with Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, when it never got released at all – I have a direct stake in the success of ACKS. I don’t think there is necessarily a financial conflict of interest between my selfish desire to see ACKS sell a zillion copies and my responsibilities to entertain and enlighten my fellow followers of the Mule. The best way to get y’all interested in ACKS will be to have a ton of interesting things to say about it, which I do (at least to the usual blogging standard of “interesting enough to me to wax on self-indulgently about”). Contrariwise, an excess of boringly crass hucksterism will cause you to tune out and me to lose this free marketing channel, I mean, esteemed podium from which I am honored to be able to share my exudations of hot gas.

The last reason I’ll be talking about ACKS around here a lot is that in a very real way, the game is an outgrowth of the Mule and the New York Red Box community from which both sprang. Over at Autarch, I posted the original email in which Greg – an old gaming buddy from a pair of long-running 3E campaigns and one of my co-authors on Goodman’s 4E Forgotten Heroes books – introduced me to Alex, whose online magazine the Escapist had seduced Greg to leave Brooklyn for Durham, NC. I waxed fannish about how I’d been reading the Escapist since the beginning due to its laudable practice of hiring my tabletop RPG heroes to write about all manner of interesting stuff. In his reply, Alex said that he’d similarly been reading the Mule and the NYRB forums since their inception. I originally thought he was blowing smoke up my ass, but it turns out that yes our pond may be tiny but some of the fish swimming in it really have done stuff like turning startups into multi-million dollar media empires. Better still, said empires can then indulge their publisher’s lifelong devotion to funny-shaped dice by running columns like Check for Traps (written by Alex and Greg) and Days of High Adventure (featuring installments not least by the Pope of Old-School himself), video shows like Zak’s I Hit It With My Axe, and one-off articles like my own D&D Is The Apocalypse.

Adventurer Conqueror King is the product of several long-running old-school campaigns. Glantri and the White Sandbox you’ve been reading about here and maybe also participating in as a player and referee, like I have. The third is Alex’s Auran Empire, a sandbox which he credits the Mule and the Red Box forums as having helped inspire him to launch. Our campaigns started influenced each other even before we began development on ACKS – for example, the 4:1 ratio of XP from treasure to combat that I use as a rule of thumb in the White Sandbox was suggested by Alex in a comment here at the Mule, based on his own experience on what worked for his group in the Auran Empire.

Although we didn’t know it then, during Gen Con 2010 Greg and I took the first steps towards the game that the players of the Grey Company passed around last weekend. He was telling me about the appreciation for the Old Ways he’d gained as a player in Alex’s campaign, in particular how awesome the expansion of scale was when they emerged from the dungeon and started doing wilderness exploration. They had warhorses now – heck, one of them had been reincarnated as a centaur – and the baffling-on-paper transition from 1’ = 10 feet to 1’ = 10 yards expressed the visceral and compelling evolution in their party’s ability to dominate much larger battlefields through their fighters’ unconstrained mobility and the power of their mages’ area-effect spells. We started kicking around ideas for mapping the 4E idea of tiers of play onto the classic adventuring concepts, sketching out what scales of time and space the players can act upon in each tier, what key abilities must be gained to permit advancement to the next tier, and what activities constitute the campaign during each stage. ACKS is, among other things, the culmination of that late-night conversation.

At one point as Greg was telling me these war stories from Alex’s campaign, I thought to myself “some of that sounds a lot like the Caverns of Thracia.” I was right: ACKS is a game by and for slayers of the Beast Lord. To the extent you’ve enjoyed reading the Mule posts that have come out of our engagement with these ‘70s gems – which is just about all of our posts in one way or another – I think you’ll enjoy Adventurer Conqueror King when it comes out, and I hope you won’t mind me going on about it until then.

11
Feb
11

What Made for a Successful D&D Birthday Party

Strangely less popular among nine-year-old boys than the unicorn.

This past weekend James and I ran a D&D birthday party for seven boys, all eight or nine years old. We had two and  a half hours allotted, so here’s how we broke it out:

1) Kids arrived and settled in. They all knew one another from school (third grade). Most were new to D&D, although one was in our afterschool class last semester, one is new to it this semester, and one was my son who I have not stuffed quite as full of D&D lore as James believes because the fanatic pursuit of Pokemon lore he shares with the birthday boy competes for brain-space.

2) Kids chose which color dice they want and which miniature will be their hero, both of which they got to keep as “goodie bags” from the party. We didn’t have them do any further character creation (all heroes had the same stats behind the screen) except for name. Lots of the kids who hadn’t played before had problems coming up with a name, so I asked if they wanted to roll for one. I didn’t actually have a table, I just used the time they were rolling the dice to think them up.

3) The scenario was that the heroes set forth from their stronghold to explore the surrounding wilderness in search of magical items to claim and Pokemon to capture. We had the kids construct the wilderness using Heroscape hexes, and the stronghold using wooden Kapla blocks.

4) While eating pizza, kids chose which one of the magic items their hero wanted to start with. James and I designed 14 these to define roles without having to explain classes (although many kids decided “my guy is a mage” or whatever anyways, either through previous exposure to D&D or videogames with class archetypes), and to do the D&D thing of having pre-defined powers that let you do a particular awesome thing and then find ways to try to apply it to whatever situation you wind up in. This worked really well with kids at this age and experience level; some examples were the Sword of Sharpness and the Wand of Wonder. Not every item got used in play but it really helped establish the tone of the game and made the kids feel that their heroes were chock-full of awesome.

5) The kids divided up into teams – one rides the unicorns that the stronghold has in its stables, the other group flies out on its griffons. They got to keep the miniatures for these too, and I used blu-tak to glom their hero miniature onto their steed’s base. James predicted that nine-year-old boys would shun the unicorns, which was a problem because this was meant to be the way we split them into manageable groups for each of us to DM. We gave the birthday boy the choice of which team he wanted to captain, and when he chose griffons that further stacked the deck in their favor. But in the end, we had four unicorn-riders and only three griffon aeronauts. James and I had decided that we’d try to counterbalance the unicorn’s potential pink-factor by saying that they were more reliable than the risky, hard-to-control griffons (as his PC had experienced first-hand in Delta’s superb Corsairs of Medero scenario at Recess). I don’t know if this was what made the difference, but I had a ton of fun roleplaying the balky griffons.

7) James and I then each ran a hexcrawl for our respective teams. We chose this because coming up with a more planned scenario would have required coordination, whereas a  purely procedural move to a hex,encounter roll, reaction roll, combat or negotiation, morale, etc. was something we could each wing. I got lucky with my first wandering monster – a griffon, which I decided was a riderless mount like one of my group’s. They used their horn of plenty to produce some horse meat with which to befriend this new griffon, and I had a great time roleplaying the reaction of the existing griffons to the interloper and to this bountiful cascade of meat. Some of the riders failed their control rolls, so one hero was wrestling for control of the meat-spewing horn with his mount while another was carried along on a dive after the steaks falling into the sea. The thing that really paid off in this encounter was that I decided that the newcomer’s saddlebags held maps to the likely locations of two of the magic items, the horn of the valkyries (which I’ll post about separately) and the cloak of shadows (which was being worn by a hobbit thief, who coughed it up after one of the kids successfully had his griffon swallow said halfling).  Choosing between which of these to go after, and then being able to count hexes to the location and plot a course, fortuitiously gave direction to the hexcrawl. Without this, James felt like his group was a little more aimless, so having or finding a partial treasure-map is definitely something to do for next time.

8) Cake, ice cream, and singing “Happy Birthday”. I was glad the parents remembered this part! Maybe our party services should include D&D themed cakes so that we don’t forget the traditionals. I was glad to see the kids were having so much fun they weren’t asking “when will we have the cake?” every five minutes like at many birthday parties I’ve taken my son to, but I would have caught hell from him if we left and then he realized there hadn’t been any.

9) Properly hopped up on sugar, the two teams return to their stronghold and find it’s been taken over by intruders! As they were eating their cupcakes, we set up the miniatures for this. A silver dragon and the skeletons he’d created by sowing his teeth into a field crouched on top of the block-castle, and fielded an army of lizard-men who were advancing on the siege organized by the gargoyles who’d been left in charge of the stronghold and the dragon-hunting Lord who had been befriended during another random encounter (which I used to foreshadow this encounter; he reported that the silver dragon was not sleeping in its lair like it should be, bum bum ba BUM!) . The kids knocked down these miniatures, and their own block-castle, by firing discs at it using crossbows and catapults. James and I were kept busy going “arrr!” and narrating the battle reports while sliding the disks back at the kids (having more ammunition would have been good!). This made for a dramatic climax story-wise, and as actual play it was really nice to let the kids do all the yelling, throwing stuff, and bashing miniatures that we spend so much effort in the afterschool class trying to prevent.

Doing all of this was enough fun for me that I’ve set up a company, Adventuring Parties LLC, to offer birthday parties, bachelor parties, events, etc. Its website is active now although still a little skeletal – click the link to check it out, or just email tavis@adventuringparties.com if you are in the NYC area and have an event you want us to do, or if you’re a Dungeon Master elsewhere and would like referrals to do parties in your area.

17
Oct
10

super awesome lets pretend time (pt 2)

I managed to clear my schedule this week to help Tavis with his after-school D&D program.  I guess this is Week 4?  (I probably shouldn’t call this Part 2, since it’s the fourth week, but hey.)

My job was to help one of this week’s Dungeon Masters with her prep, and to help her batch of kids stay focused.  Five things were noteworthy:

1.  Our first sandbox!

Although Tavis had observed several railroad adventures in Weeks 2 and 3, this time around we had our first sandbox dungeon.  “My” Dungeon Master RaQuel, with help from her dad, obtained one of those poster-sized battle maps used in 4e: a small town adjoining the ruins of a castle.  The Dungeon Master had prepared a little encounter in each building, which could be explored in any order.  The encounters were plausible, interesting, and (weakly) interconnected.  It was delightful to see.  (I think Tavis said her dad used to be a gamer, and she admitted he helped her a little; I’m curious how involved he was with the design.  But regardless, it was very well done.)

2.   Our first GMPC.

“Okay . . . So, this fire goblin jumps on your head!  He is eating your brain!”

“Ha ha ha, my brain…. my brain . . . . it’s so big, it’ll be a big meal!”

“Okay, so when the fire goblin is eating your brain, he becomes good.  He’s a good guy now.  He is your slave because of your brain.  He is like, ‘Yes master!’ because your brain is so strong.”

(a round later)

“The fire goblin turns into a boulder.  [Places wad of tinfoil on the map.]  It’s a boulder made of tinfoil.  With eyes in it.  And the tinfoil is like really good armor.”

(a round later)

“Okay, you could run to the tower, but the Fire Tinfoil Goblin says, ‘Master, jump on me, I’ll roll there, I’m faster.’  Okay, so do you jump on him to roll there?”

(a round later)

“The prisoner won’t leave without his parakeet, but the parakeet wants food.  There’s a peanut in the tinfoil goblin!  It says, ‘Master, I have the food.  If you want it.’  Do you want it?”

3.  You Will Never Guess What Victor Did!!

The Dungeon Master wrote on the map “Adohna’s Chest!”  But then Victor wrote down “MAdonhna’s Chest” and we opened it!  Hee hee hee!

(This was, to the 8 year old boys, indescribably hilarious.  They hero-worship the 12-year-old boys like Victor.)

4.  Elementary School Teachers are Vastly Under-Appreciated

Spending 80 minutes supervising 5 little kids and getting them to focus on something is hard work.  Oh man.  One kid was literally bouncing off the walls, doing flips over the sofa, doing weird postures that would break his neck if any other rambunctious child bumped into him.  (As a lawyer, I look at this child and see FUTURE PERSONAL INJURY PLAINTIFF written on his forehead.)

I don’t know how teachers handle 30 of these little dudes.  I leave the classroom and want a belt of rum just to steady my nerves.

5.  These Kids Like D&D

Leaving the session, I asked Joan (one of the other Dungeon Masters), “So, hey, is this stuff fun?”  And Joan responded, “Yes!  It’s my favorite game, even more than chess!”  Which made me feel really happy.

29
Jul
10

Funky Blank OD&D Character Sheet

Front page

Back page

As promised when I posted long ago about my 4E character sheets, here are my OD&D sheets. I made these at the very beginning of the White Sandbox campaign, when both my mastery of GIMP (lots of the sheet involved literal cutting and pasting) and understanding of what kind of things would be desirable to have on a sheet were in their infancy. If I were doing this again, I’d want to give more room for special powers, include a worksheet for detailing the attributes of custom classes (by listing those of the fighting man, magic-user, and cleric and having players circle which ones they chose or what they replaced them with), and also incorporate a “paper doll” for showing where equipment is carried and which of it might explode.

You are invited to download .jpg versions of the front page and back page from box.net, which hopefully are of sufficient quality for printing.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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