Posts tagged ‘editorial’

January 7, 2012

Revenge of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown

I received the actual physical books in the mail not too long ago. Aside from a few typos here and there, the art and layout is quite pleasing, but you have likely seen other peoples’ pictures of them already.

A couple of observations:

1.
Isle of the Unknown isn’t a fully-conceptualized setting, but Carcosa is. However, it’s a minimalist setting, with a fairly tight, singular premise around which the whole book revolves. And while I admire that, artistically, I actually prefer maximalism, when it’s done right (i.e. integrated maximalism, not pastiche overcrowdingism). Not that I think either book should be less minimalist and more maximalist, it’s just a personal preference I’ve noticed. Luckily for me, I don’t think either product is too weird to be easily incorporated as one layer of a maximalist setting.

2.
In the poster map, the races of men are colour-coded, which is interesting because there are three fictional colours on Carcosa.* While this adds to the book’s tone of otherworldly strangeness, it is also somewhat difficult to actually imagine and picture mentally. To take a couple examples from other sources, when I imagine garrow, I think it looks like both black and yellow simultaneously (not mixed together), and I think of Terry Pratchett’s octarine as looking similar, but with blue and orange, also simultaneously.

(*Never mind that adding one new primary colour actually results in at least five new colours, that’s something to take up with David Lindsay.)

On the Carcosa poster, Dolm Men are colour-coded with light blue and cream, Jale Men are coded with dark blue and red, and Ulfire Men are coded with cream and deep purple. But when I think of ulfire, I think of red, green, and white at the same time (this might be partly due to some bird that was covered in ulfire-coloured flames in one of Blair’s early Planet Algol reports). Jale and dolm, though… I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes I imagine dolm being a bit like olive green, and other times I can’t imagine what either of them looks like. Maybe jale is similar to yellow and pink and neon colours. I mean, sure, it’s “dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous,” but so is purple.

If there is just one fictional colour, then it’s easy to imagine, because every person’s different interpretation can stand without interfering with each other, as long as they imagine some kind of fictional, hitherto-unimagined colour. When you have to differentiate between fictional colours, that can start to get weird.

That’s not a criticism, just an observation. What do you imagine dolm, ulfire, and jale look like?

I do have some actual criticisms of the two books, though. There are a few things that could have made the books easier to use, at least for me.

1.
I think both maps could have benefited greatly from the addition of roads being marked. Even without them, Isle of the Unknown’s keyed map is pretty good, but Carcosa’s is slightly less so. The poster has a map keyed with the locations of rituals and Great Old Ones, but there is no map with settlements or the colours of the men that live in them. When the locations of certain colours of settlements—such as we find around the other lake (the one that isn’t Hali)—are mentioned as plot points in the hex descriptions, it would help to have this information in map format. Likewise, there is a mention of a trade route road winding around the icy wastes, but no indication of where this road is coming from or where it is going.

The political situation isn’t the most useful aspect of this information, however. Terrain, and especially roads, determines how fast characters can move across the map, and how fast characters can move across the map determines how much the DM has to prep between sessions in order to respond to the players’ choices. If there is a road that stretches across three hexes, on either Carcosa or the Isle, it’s entirely possible that the PCs could travel the whole way in a single day, walking from dawn to dusk. Without having roads on the map, the DM basically needs to prep three hexes away from the PC’s present location in every direction, in order to get an idea of where to even place roads. It seems to me that adding even just major roads is not much additional work when all major settlements are already plotted out, which is the case for both books, and some hex descriptions even mention roads, which is at least the case for Carcosa.

Being able to see the roads helps to envision the possibilities of PC movement, which makes the DM’s job easier.

2.
Any hint of motivation or personality is missing from most of the magic-users and clerics in Isle of the Unknown. They are treated simply like monsters—if you want to kill them, all the problems you’ll face and the lack of rewards you’ll receive (in most cases) are listed, but not much else. It makes me wonder why anybody would want to interact with these characters in the first place. Even a little bit of information would have been useful, evocative, and inspirational—the way threats are summarized in Apocalypse World, for example. Describing a warlord’s personality with “Dictator (impulse: to control)” or the character of a landscape with “Maze (impulse: to trap, to frustrate passage)” goes a long way with a short amount of text.

While Carcosa has numerous settlements with motivation-less leaders and populations listed, there are also many characters who do have goals, connections to other parts of the map, and even some small semblance of personality. It would have been nice to have a little bit of that in Isle of the Unknown as well, though it’s by no means a dealbreaker. And while I think including something like the Carcosan Ethnography supplemental material in the book itself would have been fantastic, so that DMs can just randomly generate genre-appropriate population details and character motivations, it’s good enough without it that I’m not really upset.

3.
Similarly, there are a few occasions in both books where the material is essentially a tableau to be presented to the players, with little opportunity for them to interact successfully with it, or to use it in combination with other setting elements. When the text describes something the PCs can see but never do anything with, when some magical effect can only happen once in one location by accident, or when the benefits of braving obscene risks turns out to be a measly +1, I’m a little underwhelmed. I much prefer the part of Carcosa’s premise that includes finding a giant laser cannon and deciding to kill Cthulhu with it. Especially if it doesn’t work because you used up all the charges destroying castles and fortresses that asked you to pay tithes for safe passage, and now you’re facing Cthulhu with no ammo and no castles or fortresses to hide in. There’s slightly less of that in Isle of the Unknown, but both books should have had a little more, in my opinion.

Those are all relatively minor concerns, though. Overall, I think the good things everybody says about these two books are pretty accurate.

December 17, 2011

Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown

In case you are unaware of these two titles, they are a pair of books written by Geoffrey McKinney and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Naturally, I picked them up and have been perusing the pdfs of late. I have an earlier version of Carcosa, but am very pleased with this new edition, while Isle of the Unknown is completely new. They are both old-school D&D hex-crawl campaigns, although Carcosa has a certain amount of premise and theme built into it. There is some controversy about this, which I have no interest in and do not want to know your opinion of.

Instead, I have a completely different problem. In a word, my problem is: Blair.

You may know Blair as the guy with the Planet Algol blog, as a local Vancouver gamer, or as a regular Vancouver Red Box player and DM (or all three). He’s the one who got me to check out McKinney’s Carcosa in the first place, so it’s no surprise he’s had it longer and read more of it than I have. He’ll no doubt get this new version as well, which means running it for him may lack a litle bit of surprise and mystery. I can assume he’ll be likely to pick up Isle of the Unknown too, if he can stop himself from spending too much money on obscure black/death/doom metal LPs that can double as DM screens. So, while he won’t be memorizing either book in their entirety, if I were to run either of them straight, some of that “unknown” would be slightly less so. Like when I decided to run Tower of the Stargazer without knowing he’d read it already.

Don’t get me wrong, I like having Blair running and playing RBV games, but this is another one of those awkward points of overlap in our collections. The rest of the Red Box crew might have some interest in McKinney’s works, but are more likely to ask Blair or I to DM them than they are to buy and read them. It’s just that I’ll need to modify them somewhat in order to bring back the uncertainty and suspense lost by Blair’s familiarity with them (or at least Carcosa), which unfortunately can sometimes be as much work as making up a new setting from scratch.

However! The books themselves offer up an interesting suggestion for circumventing this awkwardness, in the simple fact that they both use the same numbered hex template.

The obvious solution is just to run both of them. At the same time.

That’s a McKinney Combo Platter, kids. You might remember what’s in this hex on Carcosa, and you might remember what’s in this hex on the Isle of the Unknown, but you have no idea what will happen when worlds collide.

November 20, 2011

What I Have Learned from Random Mutation Tables

Here is a lesson I have learned from using random mutation tables in D&D. I normally use the old Realms of Chaos books for mutations, and usually it’s because characters come into contact with a mutagenic substance like warpstone or liquid derived from it.

First, let me define a term: All fiction, including role-playing games are composed of certain elements: characters, setting, props, and situation. Props are things that are important to the story but aren’t characterized, and aren’t just part of the setting. Right? Mostly, I’m ‘a talk about props here.

One of my main joys in being a DM is putting the players into a strange situation, with a whole bunch of moving parts they can interact with, and seeing them invent solutions to their problems that I would never have thought of in a million years. When you introduce a puzzle, the payoff is pretty minimal, because either the players figure out the solution you’ve already devised, or they don’t and there’s failure and disappointment. But when there’s no set solution, you can be surprised and have to improvise. This is one reason why I like random tables as well, and certainly other DMs will agree. I know Tavis Allison has written a post or two about improvising based on random tables.

However, random tables are a means to encourage improvisation on the DM’s side. What I want to discuss here is improv on the players’ side, and one of the key ways to do this is to introduce complicated props.

In a typical D&D game, your average treasure haul will include mostly coins and swords +1. The problem with these is that the only thing coins actually do is buy stuff, and the only thing a weapon or armour +1 does is change the probabilities of your dice rolls. Having a magic weapon or not might make the difference between fighting a certain creature or running away, but it’s a pretty minimal encouragement to creative problem-solving.

Props that Do a Thing

Better is a prop that does a specific thing: A sword that glows when goblins are near, a staff that casts cure light wounds, a sword that bursts into flames. Now you have a prop that does a thing, and the player’s options just increased by one (and a very visible option, too).

Sometimes, doing a thing can put extra work on a DM, though. Take an example from Playing D&D with Pornstars: Snakes are Books. The one disadvantage to this prop is that whenever the players read a snake, they look at the DM and ask “what does it say?” If you don’t have a random table for book subjects, that can be a lot of stuff to think up. There’s a magic spell from Postmodern Magick (the Unknown Armies supplement) that lets you read any book you know of, just by opening any other book. It’s pretty cool, as long as you don’t have to sit there inventing books and texts for hours on end to entertain the players. But if you have some really awesome random book tables (or a really cool library), this is dope.

In essence, though, these are props that create more props. They get your character access to information, which hopefully leads to some sort of action, because the action is where the game is really at. I want to see how the players combine the various props and spells and stuff that they have, and create some sort of plan. Especially when it involves props I introduced, and the players use them in some way that totally surprises me. And a sword +1 is never going to do that. What will? Let’s think of some examples…

Ring of Protection
Your average ring of protection +1 gives you a slightly better armour class. Whoop-de-doo. How about a Ring of the Untouchable? Whoever wears this ring cannot be touched by another living being, or by that beings clothes. This is an effective mosquito repellant, and it protects against viruses and bacteria that are not already infecting the wearer. Other creatures cannot touch the wearer, even if they are wearing metal gauntlets. Natural attacks, such as claws or bite, have no effect. The wearer cannot be pushed around, unless the pusher uses a tool. Weapons still have full effect, even lassos. Whatever the wearer is wearing or carrying is also affected, so it defeats pickpockets as well. The wearer can be touched by the undead, and by demons and other extra-planar entities.

Sword +1, +3 versus Gnocchi
This sword may or may not give a bonus to hit and damage. However, it hates all gnolls and gnomes and anything else whose name begins with a gn-, even Pietro Gnocchi. Anytime it hits one of these creatures, the wielder may immediately make another attack against anything close enough to hit. If the wielder chooses not to make an attack, he must quench the blade’s thirst with his own blood. Even a small amount will do, but he must take 1 point of damage.

Stonecutter
This sword does not actually cut through stone, it’s blade just ignores all non-organic material. It can pass through stone, metal, fabric, dirt etc. as if it were not even there. Stonecutter ignores AC bonuses from metal armour, but not leather, and can attack through doors and walls that are thin enough. Keeping it in a scabbard can be a problem, although the hilt of the sword does not share the properties of the blade. The hilt can be strapped to a belt and will not pass through walls, doors, or armour.

Potion of Mutation
If you drink it, you gain a random mutation! Actually, this is a lot like the snake-books, in that it’s a prop that makes new props. Instead of, say, a book that tells you how to kill trolls, it gives you, say, a third arm which ends in a giant lobster pincer. Good thing I have some random mutation tables!

That was pretty rambly, but I’ve got stuff to do so there it is.

August 24, 2011

Awesome Characters are Not as Awesome as They Appear

In a post on his blog, Blair made a comment about his character:
“You rolled a crap set of ability scores? So did I for my Red Box Vancouver character, and that PC is one of my favorite characters; deal with it.”
The aforementioned former Colonel Kaffshyth (now the Warlock-Axer General), has the following “crap” stats: Str 9, Int 9, Wis 14, Dex 7, Con 14, Cha 7. That’s a full 18 points lower than your average “4d6 drop the lowest” AD&D or 4e character!

However, in an earlier post, Blair also crowed that while DMing he managed to “Totally beat the living shit out of badass dwarf Gamgar,” who is my character. During that adventure, Gamgar had the following stats: Str 9, Int 6, Wis 10, Dex 10, Con 14, Cha 8. Since then, he has lost an arm and a leg, and now has Dex 6 and Con 12. He is but a third-level dwarf with worse stats than Kaffshyth, and his only magical weapons are a shield that weighs nothing and a sword +1, +3 vs. undead (which proves mostly useless whenever he has to fight ghouls).

People have a tendency to think of characters who do exceptional things as having exceptional abilities. Witness Gygax’s ridiculous interpretation of Conan’s stats. Or the urge to interpret Charisma as physical attractiveness and thus the pervasive presence of females with a score of 18, from the ancient Bone Hill module to the first four issues of the more recent Fight On! magazine. And certainly the urge to play heroic fantasy heroes has created numerous techniques for generating characters with higher stats, and little or nothing in the way of flaws. Stats are a way to communicate information, so naturally, the easiest way to show how exceptional and special a character is, is to give him or her exceptionally high stats. Which neither Gamgar nor Colonel Kaffshyth have.

So why is Gamgar considered a badass? Because of what I tell people, mostly. Gamgar managed to survive his first few adventures by scamming gullible goblins, through a lucky series of reaction rolls, in spite of his low Charisma. As a Dwarf, his saving throw vs. death is a little better than 50%, which came in handy when he fell in a river wearing plate mail, and again when he released a poison cloud of gas from a jewelled skull he attempted to loot. For someone who usually only takes a single retainer into the dungeon with him, if that, he’s been pretty lucky in that department too, even if most of them have died fairly quickly—they at least kept Gamgar from dying! And yet, for all his bad-assery, he hasn’t seen much profit. In a game that says “If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure,” Gamgar has managed to survive twenty adventures, but is still only 3rd level. Partly, that’s because, although he doesn’t like to leave his companions behind, he’s not afraid to run away when he has to.

Nor is Gamgar the only bad-ass 3rd level Dwarf in the Black Peaks. Graham’s character Connor had the head of a polar bear and wielded a flaming sword, until his body was stolen by the wizard Zamzomarr. What were his stats? Str 5, Int 13, Wis 4, Dex 4, Con 13, Cha 10. The only bad-ass stat Connor had was his prodigious 22 hit points. Meanwhile, Graham managed to roll two 18s in a row for his latest character (in Dex and Con no less!), whose lowest stat is a 10. Having moved on from the worst stats in RBV history to the best, Graham’s new guy still managed to lose an eye in his first adventure, and almost died of blood loss in his second.

Meanwhile, Dalamyr the Cleric of Wisdom is the most famous character in our campaign. He’s a 5th level Cleric with the following stats: Str 12, Int 9, Wis 14, Dex 9, Con 9, Cha 8. He’s completely average (for 3d6-in-order), only 1 point better than Kaffshyth in total, and yet he’s been on hand for some of the most earth-shattering quests and witnessed some of the strangest events in the Black Peaks. Everybody talks about him and his Doomriders, despite his low Charisma.

As for Blair’s crap-statted Kaffshyth, he’s called the “Warlock-Axer” because he managed to kill a high-level wizard one-on-one. How did he do that? This warlock, suffering from a Light spell cast on his eyes and some hit point damage already, had Charmed Kaffshyth and the two were escaping from the other PCs. After seeing the warlock use Fireball on his companions, Kaffshyth managed to make a (difficult) saving throw, and shook off the Charm. The warlock had the bad luck to run away in the wrong direction, making it easy for Kaffshyth to dispatch him.

The point is, these characters are bad-ass because of the things they have done, a good deal of which have come down to sheer luck. They are not bad-ass because of their stats, and their stats do not reflect their experiences, their successes, or even necessarily the way their players have role-played them. For the most part, stats in Red Box Vancouver have been an obstacle to overcome, not a source of strength. We’ve all had characters with crap stats, and we’ve all dealt with it.

September 16, 2010

D&D: the game you love to hate

The Kiltedyaksman, who I collaborated with on a hireling generator for Classic D&D and who runs Red Box Niagara, posted a rant at his blog that generated a serious Dice Storm in the comments section. The rant was pretty much about having a major hate on for 4e D&D, especially what he sees as WotC co-opting current interest in older editions of D&D for it’s new Red Box.

I was tempted to weigh in, because as much as I respect the Kilted One, I don’t agree with him. And as much as I can understand why people like 4e, 3e or whatever edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game, there was a lot of misinformed opinions about the older editions being thrown around by defenders of modern D&D. There were also a lot of common prejudices about 4e being thrown around by defenders of older editions. And plenty of willful ignorance on both sides.

But then it hit me–what’s interesting about the edition wars isn’t the wars themselves, it’s what it says about D&D.

D&D is like this weird rorschach blot of a game that people see all kinds of things in, and I think that’s why D&D persists. People don’t think, they know, that D&D is:

  • A game about killing monsters and taking their stuff
  • A game about exploring a mythic underworld in search of treasure
  • A game about improvised acting in a fantasy setting
  • A game about building the most combat capable characters money can buy
  • A perfect framework for playing a variety of homebrewed games

The same people also KNOW:

  • Modern D&D is too complicated
  • Modern D&D’s rules are more realistic than older versions
  • Modern D&D is too combat oriented
  • Modern D&D has more options and ideas, just like modern fantasy
  • Modern D&D is a callous attempt to squeeze gamers for money
  • Modern D&D is a miniatures game, not a roleplaying game
  • Modern D&D is a tabletop version of World of Warcraft
  • Modern D&D is a natural outgrowth of better game design
  • Modern D&D character building is totally unbalanced and broken
  • Modern D&D is well-balanced and provides more consistent gaming experiences
  • Modern D&D is designed by corporate lackeys looking to make a buck
  • Modern D&D is well-balanced and boring
  • Modern D&D has come a long way since the days of hobbyist designers
  • Modern D&D is a game about superheroes for munchkins
  • Modern D&D is a genre unto itself
  • Modern D&D is a video game
  • Modern D&D is capable of deep, meaningful story-telling
  • Modern D&D is a railroad

And they also KNOW:

  • Old D&D is a hodge-podge of rules and poorly designed systems
  • Old D&D is exactly like modern D&D, except more primitive
  • Old D&D completely unrealistic
  • Old D&D’s lack of rules is way more realistic than shoe-horning everything into the same unified mechanic
  • Old D&D is faithful to the fantasy genres that inspired it
  • Old D&D is for adults, not MMRPGers
  • Old D&D is a great game for kids
  • Old D&D is an arcade game
  • Old D&D is capable of deep, meaningful campaigns
  • Old D&D is a railroad
  • Old D&D is just like modern editions, only worse
  • Old D&D is totally unbalanced, unlike modern editions
  • Old D&D is totally unbalanced and that’s great!
  • Old D&D is all about random tables and makes no sense
  • Old D&D is all about random tables and endlessly surprising
  • Old D&D was designed by people who loved the game

And of course:

  • Old D&D is a great game, if you ignore its quirks and follow the spirit of D&D
  • Modern D&D is a great game, if you ignore the haters and follow the spirit of D&D

So why is that? One reason is that for the most part, this game is a Cargo Cult. We learn by playing with a particular group of 2-8 people. And then we play with another group of 2-8 people. And then we do it again with another group. How many groups have you had? I’ve been playing for about 30 years, and I guess I’ve had 5-6 distinct groups: my first group, my teenage group, a group I played with after 3e came out, and my Vancouver group (including RBV). Throw in some con games and the occasional short campaign with other people, and my sample set for what D&D is doesn’t even break 10 groups.

From now on, this is the only metric I’m going to judge editions of D&D: is it malleable enough that all those groups out there can play the game that they consider D&D? If not, we have a problem. If so, game on.

Cue discussion of whether [some edition] meets those standards. Cue flame war. Cue cr0m deleting this blog post.

September 8, 2010

The Game that Builds Character

There’s this thing that role-playing games have done, over the past three-and-a-half decades, that I think players want, but games haven’t been particularly good at supplying. As I explained in the last post, the original role-playing game places little or no importance on a character’s unique identity, and greatly privileges the fictional world created by the DM/GM/Referee/et al (I’m ‘a use all these terms and more, throughout).

Problem is, people like their characters! From the elaborate lifepath systems of Traveller and Cyberpunk 2020 to the point-buy character creation systems of Champions and GURPS, games that provide players with a way to carefully sculpt a more complete (more complete than Basic D&D) character have proved highly popular.

This game of character-building can take many forms. It can be completely free-form, in the case of page after page of intricate back-story. It can be completely random, Paul Jaquays’ system-agnostic Central Casting books, for example. And it can be a series of choices provided by the game for the player to make, as any point-buy or resource-allocation system is, be it Shadowrun, Hero system, D&D 3.x, or even Call of Cthulhu. Whatever form it takes, this game rejects the faceless ciphers that are beginning characters in Basic D&D, and allows the player to express his or her creativity, system mastery, or simple desire to discover more about the fiction.

Even in an old-school D&D game, you’re going to get some kind of character building. By the time characters gain a few levels, they will have created a pretty elaborate history of dungeons looted, magical items recovered, and quests completed. Even if they started as faceless nobodies looting the nearest dungeon at hand, at some point players will find their own drives and motivations, and begin to direct the story based on the motivations and desires of their characters, instead of simply accepting whatever dungeon the DM has prepared. It’s just that later games began to include this as part of character generation, not just as part of play.

I think this game is great. I like finding the optimal way to make a certain type of character with a given system—the combination that gives me the most bad-ass fighter, or the most gear and stuff, or the craziest background. I like taking my character through a complete dramatic arc, and seeing how he is changed by his adventures. I like deciding how he makes sense of everything, session after session.

What I don’t like is how DMing/GMing/Refereeing styles evolved (or didn’t evolve) to fit this desire. If the traditional approach is used, the DM prepares a dungeon beforehand, without reference to the player characters. This means there’s no guarantee that any of a given character’s abilities will be useful, and almost no chance that a character will be able to pursue his own personal goals, or explore his own relationships. And yet, it’s inevitable that when people are building their own elaborate characters, they’re going to build characters that aren’t interested in raiding dungeons or exploring the DM’s fantastic setting. They make characters that are all about their own goals, their own specific problems, and their relationships with other people. And not with the dungeon.

Instead of running a loose collection of situations (and when I say “situations” I mean “rooms with traps, monsters, or treasures in them”), the GM is instructed to run a linked series of encounters, which are more pre-planned than semi-random. And then this leads to the dreaded railroading. Outside the constraints of the dungeon, where players have unlimited choice, the GM has to anticipate their choices so he can prepare—which means limiting their choices! The GM may even be using a module, which has a whole series of scenes planned out, which have nothing to do with the characters. And so, players are told that their characters matter, and that the game will address their drives, goals, and relationships (because why would you spend time deciding on them or crating them?) and yet the GM is told to keep a strict reign on the plot, and not let the players deviate too much from it.

Even in a game like Call of Cthulhu, which is pretty close to old-school D&D, I’m still annoyed by the skill selection. I have a limited amount of points, and no idea which skills will actually be useful in the adventure or not. If only I’d put those fifty points in shotgun instead of photography, I wouldn’t have been killed twenty minutes into the game! Expand that out into more elaborate point-buy systems, where I’ve got all sorts of characteristics and relationships, how pissed off am I going to be when none of that comes up in play? Even in White Wolf games, which are pretty explicitly about relationships and conflicts, the Storyteller is still told how to create “your story,” and “the story you want to tell.”

Dirty little secret here, people: The story isn’t produced by the DM, the GM, or the Storyteller. Everybody produces the story. The GM’s job is to introduce situation, and to adjudicate the rules as that situation turns into story. When players describe what their characters do, they are either trying to enter a situation, deal with a situation, or get out of a situation. And when they do that, you say what the situation they enter is like, how the situation evolves when they deal with it, what happens to the situation when they don’t, and what new situation they enter when they leave the old one.

Basic D&D does a good job of telling the DM how to create situation. It just tells you how to make a dungeon. But most games where the characters are important don’t do a good job of telling the DM how to create situation, because the dungeon creation rules in Basic D&D don’t work for that kind of game. When you get past Basic and into Expert, your D&D game is probably going to turn into that kind of game, and you deserve the best of tools for running it when it does.

So I’ve done a lot of complaining here, just setting up this thing that annoys me. I should probably start proposing solutions, yeah? Okay. Here are some games that do a good job of making that game of building a character actually meaningful in play:

Apocalypse World:

This game concentrates on cool, competent people in a post-apocalyptic setting. The game stays focused on the player characters first and foremost by directing the MC (the GM) to build the setting and the situations around the player characters. When you’re the MC, you ask questions, present situations, and react to what the player characters do. Instead of pre-planning locations or storylines, you prepare fronts, which are essentially countdowns. This is an old trick (and one used fairly well in Call of Cthulhu), but the game gives you solid rules to help you. Create a problem, and if it’s not addressed by the players, just make it worse when you re-introduce it later. Every situation is a question. Either the players will answer it, or you will, but you’ll answer it during play, not when you write the question.

Burning Wheel:

This game is almost the exact opposite of Basic D&D. Instead of focusing on the dungeon, BW privileges the characters completely. The GM introduces setting, situation, and secondary characters in order to challenge a character’s Beliefs, which are written from the character’s point of view, but function as cues from the players to the GM. It’s the Beliefs of all the characters put together that determine what happens in the game, with the GM reacting to what the players want, and exploring the characters through their deeds, instead of the players exploring the GM’s fictional setting.

D&D 4E:

The main criticism of 4E I hear is that it’s too focused on tactical minis combat, but this is what makes the character building game work, in my opinion. Because all your character building is expressed through tactical combat effects, every choice you make when you’re creating your character has a concrete and observable impact on game play. Unlike Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel, you can play the game without worrying too much about the fiction, although you still can’t create a character without creating fiction.

Yeah, I know, that’s pretty short. Will I explain how to use techniques from all three of these games in higher-level old-school D&D games in greater detail in later posts? Of course I will!

August 31, 2010

A Game About Tourists.

Old school D&D is a game about tourists.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: three guys walk into a dungeon…

The basic premise of the first few editions of Dungeons & Dragons is fairly simple. Some dudes wander into some foreign, alien environment in order to explore it, for whatever reason. Who these dudes are, or if they’re even dudes, doesn’t matter. It’s the dungeon that really matters.

I’ll be referring specifically to Basic D&D (Moldvay/Mentzer) throughout this article, and I’ll just assume all of this applies to the original and Holmes editions as well.

What the DM does.

Before every game of Basic D&D, including the very first one, the DM must prepare a dungeon, either by creating one or by reading one created by someone else. This is usually done without reference to the players’ characters. The DM may not even know who will be playing, much less what characters they will play. Players may be creating their characters at the beginning of the game, and they may end up playing more than one character in the same dungeon, because of casualties.

This dungeon is a static situation for the players to discover. During play, the DM sets parts of this static situation into motion based on what the players decide their characters do. The DM also uses random charts to introduce new situations during the game. The DM is expected to adjudicate fairly and be faithful to the dungeon as it is written.

So the focus is on the dungeon from the very beginning. Without a dungeon, there’s no game. Without players, the dungeon is still waiting for characters to enter it.

What the players do (and don’t do).

Characters are assumed to want treasure. This is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff, right? No. If you don’t want to do that, you can still play the game, as it’s written. You can run away from monsters, or avoid them altogether, and sometimes that’s actually the wisest course of action. You don’t have to pick up any of the treasure, either. You could just leave it and check out the wall paintings instead.

One of the most popular rules variants for D&D is how experience points are awarded. In Basic D&D, characters receive most of their xp from treasure. In other editions, monsters are a major source, and in various house-rules, completing quests and role-playing get you xp. Thing is, the DM doesn’t even have to write any new rules or make any difficult rulings if the players don’t want to kill monsters or take stuff, or even collect xp at all. It’s not the reason characters exist, it’s just how they get better.

And so they don’t have to get better, either. The endless circles of efficiently overcoming obstacles so you can get more stuff that will help you overcome obstacles more efficiently is certainly there, but it’s not necessary. The characters do have to go into the dungeon, but they don’t have to level up.

Who gets to say what.

Because the characters are venturing into a foreign setting, dividing narrative responsibilities is fairly easy. Players say what their characters do, the DM handles the whole setting. Characters are experiencing the dungeon for the first time, so of course players do not describe any part of the setting. Character background is pretty much irrelevant—only their actions while they explore the dungeon matter—so players are not expected to invent new narrative elements, by which I mean proper nouns: people, places, or things. After they name their character and decide what he or she looks like, they are only ever interacting with narrative elements, not introducing new ones.

The DM does all the creation and introduction of elements. The players manipulate them.

Why this is good.

The main advantage to this system is that it’s easy for players to get into. Because players are only tasked to make decisions and interact with the DM’s fictional creations, there’s much less trepidation to participate. This is only enhanced by the disposable nature of characters. They are easy to create and players have little or no immediate attachment to them. Which means it’s still a fun time when your character is killed in a gruesome, heroic, or even hilariously pointless manner. Your character is simply your gateway into someone else’s fantastical imagination. If you lose one, you just make another and dive back in.

And while this puts most of the weight on the DM, there are plenty of tools to make that job easier. Not only whole modules and instructions for how to make them, but hundreds of other types of information are available through the wealth of the internet and the history of published games.

Why this is bad.

Of course, the game has constraints and when you step beyond them, play runs less smoothly. Some of the problems and complaints that arise out of old school D&D include the game of character building, a lack of familiar settings, a lack of player input, a lack of focus on characters and their narrative arcs, and railroading. All of these will be the subject of future blog posts.

-Johnstone.

August 28, 2010

Giving Players What They Want

When we started playing B1: In Search of the Unknown, I told the players some rumours their characters had heard about the dungeon: goblin slaves, magic mortal man was not meant to mess with, a magic stone that gives you power if you eat it, stuff like that. One of the rumours was that the two guys who built the dungeon had left a giant diamond there. It was worth 100,000gp!

Nobody believed that one, of course.

When we ended one session, Dalamyr the cleric was 25xp away from leveling up. Plus, I was reading some rules in the Moldvay rulebook. And I had a thought. I decided to not be boring.

The next session, I told the players that there really was a diamond worth 100,000xp in the dungeon, for this session only. If they found it tonight, they got it. If they couldn’t, it wouldn’t be there next session.

So, they found a few big black iron doors. Instead of picking the lock, they removed one from it’s frame, and were immediately attacked by the zombie king! Amusingly, the trapped chest killed more characters than the king did, but they found the diamond he was guarding.

Pretty thrilling, right? They can all go home and retire now right?

Well, you can only go up one level per adventure. It’s still kind of like two levels, because you’re 1xp away from leveling up twice, but still. Even with I think six PCs and about the same number of retainers, there was excess experience points lost for everybody. And I didn’t have to do any accounting! Yay!

And then they couldn’t sell it either, so they didn’t get any money out of it. The town of Threshold probably doesn’t see a hundred thousand gold pieces pass through it in a week, nevermind anybody having that much and wanting to buy a diamond with it. So Marrieth the Elf ended up carrying it around and who knows what happened to her.

I mean, I thought it was pretty funny.

-Johnstone.

August 18, 2010

Old-School Modules: Actually Rather Boring.

For our Black Peaks game, I decided to try running various old-school D&D modules, in order to get a sense of how the game is really supposed to play (as opposed to just making things up myself and hoping the game comes along for the ride). The first module I ran was B1: In Search of the Unknown.

This is, probably, the second-most canonical starting module (Keep on the Borderlands holding the top position). It’s also an incoherent mess of nonsense with no hint of internal logic.

The first thing I had to do was modify the map, and not just because some of my players had done this adventure before. The text states that the walls of the dungeon (called “Quasqueton”) are carved right out of the black slate that the hill is made out of. But there’s secret doors in this black slate? My ass. I went over the map with markers to denote which walls were black slate and this had no secret doors in them, and which were lined with brick, stonework, and wood paneling. The wood paneling was the easiest to check for traps, because they could just tear it off with their crowbars to observe the bare wall behind it. I made sure there were no secret doors in the brickwork, though some of the stone carvings in the brickwork were secret doors. Most descriptions of the construction that came with the module were of the variety that might impress 14-year-old boys, like the seventy foot stone mural in the wizard’s bedroom. Compare this with, say, Hammers of the Gods by James Raggi IV. That module has both enthusiastic descriptions of the architecture, as well as the motivations behind the dungeon’s construction and what it was used for.

I kept most of the more bizarre architectural elements, eliminated those I thought were just too ridiculous, and made some of them even stranger. The main result of these strange features was a constant stream of “architects on acid” jokes. For the four sessions it took to run this adventure, I did not make any maps for the players. I described the dungeon and one player drew it out, based on my words. While this had some charm to it, and lead to a few chuckles, for the most part it was a pain in the ass. Additionally, while I understand the reasoning, I find it patently ridiculous that adventurers who take ten minutes to travel sixty feet can’t remember their spatial surroundings better than players sitting around a kitchen table listening to a DM describing ten foot stone walls. Perhaps if every room had been memorable, this would be a more fruitful practice, but in the first session, the players somehow managed to explore the emptiest part of the dungeon. Too much time wasted mapping empty rooms makes me think about how I’m going to die soon. And I’m the youngest person in the room!

I also cut down the wandering monster chart, so it didn’t feel like a monster zoo. Aside from the strange habit of taking unique monsters and turning them into species, the other monster problem D&D seems to have is that every member of the species is the same, so the only way to get variety is to have a bazillion different types of monsters inhabiting one tiny dungeon. I also added a new back entrance for the orcs to enter, and came up with a reason for them to be there—they were the remnants of a marauding army who had slaughtered the nearby village, and now lived in holes in the ground near the mass grave. They entered the dungeon to hunt the goblins and eat them. Strangely enough, the players kept trying to find a way to seal off the back entrance, even though it was just on the other side of the hill from the front entrance where they were camped. They never did try to track the orcs down.

Out of all the weirdness in the module, two things worked best, and even then, the module doesn’t really follow up on them. The cat preserved in a jar who comes back to life when the cork is removed is certainly bizarre, but didn’t really pay off until I had them find a much larger jar, with a woman in it. The magical stone that grants you “wishes” when you eat it proved to be an even bigger success… when I started rolling on the mutations charts in Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness.

But really, the most ridiculous part of the module is the premise. What are these two great heroes doing living in this crazy dungeon? Nothing in their background suggests that they have ever even adventured in dungeons, they are known for defeating barbarian hordes. And yet, they live in a series of windowless tunnels carved out of slate, they keep goblins as slaves, they grow mutated mushrooms, they ply their contractors with LSD, and they have the physical essence of Chaos itself in their basement! Clearly, these two have been traumatized by the horrors of the endless dungeoncrawls they undertook in their youth. Before they were famous, they watched in horror as their colleagues and fellow tomb-robbers were eviscerated, disintegrated, crushed, and mauled. One turned to the obsessive physical perfection of bodybuilding and skill at arms, the other poured over arcane tomes recovered from underground, and dared to uncover mysteries man was not meant to—yeah, you get the idea. When the player characters found their secret notes, it gave me the opportunity to plant some hooks and let them know about dungeons the pair never finished looting, which led to the Tomb of the Red Mummy, one of the best sessions of D&D I’ve run.

But that stuff’s not in the module. The module feels pretty dated, actually. Sorry.

I’ll trash Bone Hill in a future post.

-Johnstone.

August 12, 2010

Something Other Than Nostalgia

Unlike most of my fellow Red Box players here in Vancouver, I never played D&D when I was a kid. I bought the AD&D 2e books, and barely played it a handful of times before getting rid of them a few years later. Instead, I found other games, like Cyberpunk 2020, Call of Cthulhu, and Vampire: The Masquerade, and lost all interest in games with experience levels and dungeoncrawls.

While I always liked the promise of epic fantasy that AD&D 2e promised, but never delivered on, I never found 3rd edition at all attractive. Amusingly enough, the first time I enjoyed playing D&D, it was 4E, which had both epic fantasy and satisfying tactical play. When we started playing Basic D&D last year, however, I realized I already knew how to play. It wasn’t something new like I thought it would be.

I’d certainly picked up a lot of the culture from other gamers, and during that first game when Paul riffed on ten foot poles and flaming oil, I got all the references. But that’s not the same as understanding how play works. No, it wasn’t gamer chit-chat or blog posts that taught me to play D&D, it was Call of Cthulhu.

I think Call of Cthulhu is the most successful repurposing of the dungeoncrawl style. Leaving aside sandbox play for the moment, the dungeon adventure transfers almost exactly to the mystery and investigation style of CoC. Instead of adventurers, you have investigators; instead of corridors and rooms, you have leads, clues, and persons of interest; instead of finding treasure, you stop the Great Old Ones from destroying the human race. And there lies the real difference in play: in D&D you try to avoid dying so you can level up—in CoC, just surviving is considered a triumph, and a few extra points on your Handgun skill is a bonus. Oh, and the skills, of course.

See, Basic D&D has this one major advantage over s many other games: it’s honest. In Call of Cthulhu, you spend all this time determining your character’s skills, and this tricks you into thinking the game is somehow about your character. It’s not. The game is about the dungeon. It’s about some dudes going into that dungeon and exploring it, and how they interact with it, but those dudes could be anyone. As individuals, they don’t matter—the game doesn’t give a fuck who your character is. All that matters is how well you can deal with the dungeon and the threats, the puzzles, and, yes, the opportunities within it. Basic D&D doesn’t encourage you to spend time investing in the Accounting and Locksmith skills, only to put you through an adventure with no money and no locked doors in it.

Both games are about people in unfamiliar situations, and so neither game cares about what your character does at home. If your character doesn’t want to go into the dungeon, or investigate the mystery, you make a new one who does. But D&D is the one that only gives you what your character can do in the dungeon, and little else.

This makes it a remarkably easy game to play. With such a rigid premise and the small selection of rules that everyone at the table has to agree to, we easily move to the point where we start thinking about what extra stuff we want to throw on top of that (if any). Every time I DM, I tweak the rules, or add new ones, to see what works for the people playing, whether that’s adding attacks of opportunity, how we roll for initiative, what to roll when you throw flaming oil at the ground or dissect a carrion crawler, having your Wisdom modifier affect your chances of finding traps or secret doors, including magical items of my own invention, or using mutation charts from other games. But this is all part of play itself, not part of the process of learning how to play.

And that’s why I play. Not for the nostalgia of coming back to a game I used to play, even though I kinda did, and not because this is the game I’ve always played, because it ain’t. No, I’m playing Red Box because it knows exactly what kind of game it is, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. Instead of making you screw around with stuff that doesn’t matter, it starts right at the dungeon, and that’s where I want to go when I play D&D.

- Johnstone.

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