Monday, July 27, 2009

Ode to the Toad (B/X Weekend Part 3)

So Saturday morning I got to bed around 3:30, woke up around 7:30ish to let the dogs out (they are early risers), went back to sleep, woke up my wife at 8:30 to ask who wanted to take the car in, went back to sleep when she agreed to do so and slept till after noon.  I then got up and ran errands (dropping off blankets, picking up the Watchmen from Best Buy, etc.), before picking up an iced Americano and sitting down to a Skype connected game of B/X D&D with Patrick, Meepo, and MikeD at 7:01pm PST.

It was a rockin' good time.

You can read a narrative account of the session here, or Pat's DM observations here. MikeD posted copies of our map as well as some positive comments at Sword+1. Timeshadows was supposed to join us, but an itinerant lightning strike put her out of commission for the evening, unfortunately.  Hopefully next time (we had such a good time, we're trying to turn it into a regular game).

This was my first time playing (as opposed to running or "DM'ing") an Old School D&D game in more than 21 years. I was 14 the last time I was a player, in other words.  And I don't know how long since I've been in a dungeon setting.

Wow...that's a hard thing to actually write and read. Wow.

Truth be told, I've never played B/X as a player; when I used to play OS D&D, it was always AD&D. I was extremely pleased with how well and easy the game system worked. Of course, I am familiar with the game (comes from DMing it every chance I get) but it's still nice to actually apply knowledge to practical experience.

Observations About the Game (some personal, some general B/X):

1. Despite all our confessed "rustiness," the game went smooth as silk for the most part. Sure there was a bit of ham-handedness (no one brought rope?! what the hell?), and some computer glitches (I accidentally programmed my D6 macro to only roll 6s...I did not discover this until probably an hour+ into the game!). But I'm pretty sure the four of us all have more DM than player experience, and that allowed us to play without a ton of explanation/answers being needed.

This led to a very smooth game...we could focus on the challenge at hand (surviving the exploration of a dangerous mine with only three 2nd level characters and no hirelings), and had the presence and knowledge to not get bogged down. Even Pat would ask the occasional question of us players and knew we'd give him a straight answer. Plus, we were all committed to having a good time, and not being the irritants I'm sure most of us have experienced in other games.  : )

2. Role-playing is harder than it looks. I created this rather detailed sleezy, Toad-worshiper, and yet my preferred style of play led me to take a lot of "hard-to-justify-in-character" actions. I was giving commands (suggestions), kicking in doors, plunging bravely ahead, and generally making a horse's ass of myself. Now, perhaps if I'd gone with my original Joan of Arc idea, this would have been more in-character. But I was trying to make a traditional, sluggish, back-skulker priest-type, not the heroic paladin-type I've blogged about.

Now, in my defense, my character was probably the closest thing to a point guard we had. The wizard (poor Mike! I guess he normally plays fighters himself!) wasn't about to jump out there. The halfling (Meeps AKA Sancho) was doing his best tactically by using his bow (Dex + halfling bonuses) from mid-rank.  Someone had to act as the meat shield.  

But you know, it's exactly this kind of play that led my last DM to say, "You treat all your characters like fighters, so I'm not going to let you play a bard." I wonder how I would have acted if I'd rolled up a magic-user....

3. D&D combat is only as exciting as the DM and player makes it. I forgot this, or never realized it. When I'm a DM I use the abstract combat system to as justification for flowery and descriptive combat narratives. And Patrick does the same. It was just weird to hear someone else adjudicating the results of a poor or good roll.  Jarring even. I guess I'm a bit of a control-freak (ya' think?), and while I have no qualms with how he narrated (good work, sir!), I was surprised all the same.

Maybe this is yet another thing D20 has tried to do with its detailed combat system...not simply provide options other than swing-hit, swing-miss BUT give the player more narrative control over his combat actions.  If I can say, "I take a 5' step, make a whirlwind-power attack, and then switch to my elaborate parry Expertise,"...well, you're pretty much defining the action. The DM simply says, "okay you do it" or "no you don't," based on your attack roll. In this case, I have to give some props to D20 (*shudder*) for putting some power back in the hands of players...even though it DOES limit the over-all options available in combat.  This may be something to blog about or add into my B/X Companion..."negotiation of combat narrative between player and DM."

4. While this format worked well for a dungeon delve, I have no idea how well it will "scale." Higher level play is much more open-ended than low-level dungeon crawls...people splitting up using teleportation, enchanted airships, or pet pegasi; characters pursuing their own agendas of dominions, questing, or spell research and reputation-making. For being self-contained the game table was great, but after Name level, D&D (in my experience) becomes a lot less table-top-tactical and much more narrative-driven. 

Not that we have to worry about that just yet.  All our players are (or appear to be) in their 30s with jobs, families, lives. It is doubtful that we'll be able to sustain a long-term campaign, so it may never become an issue.  Still...for a great group of folks, who are already familiar with the rules, it's not too big a stretch to think they may be willing to try a high level campaign (starting with Name Level characters) some time in the future. Of course, I'll need to convince 'em that D&D's optimum levels are higher than 4-8. 
; )

5. 2nd level characters + house rules = serious ass-kicking. Other than a run-in with a giant spider that forced a save or die poison save, our three characters were never in any great danger during the adventure. Part of this was the implementation of several life-saving house rules including binding wounds after battle and splintering shields. Personally, I'm a little too proud to allow my shield to be splintered, but between wound binding, cure light wounds, and the occasional timely sleep spell we were able to rock throughout the low-level romp. Plate and shield is definitely the way to go, when one can get it!

The spider was a bit of bad news. After taking 9+ tries to bash down a door, our party was surprised and the cleric jumped by the spider that rolled a natural 20 to hit. Fortunately, my cleric made his poison save and Pat ruled I had avoided those venomous fangs, just being knocked down. Still and all, if the magic-user had memorized sleep twice, the dungeon would have been even easier to scour.  As it was, in under three hours of "real time" play, we managed to get through pretty much every encounter. I'm not saying it was too easy...I'm saying it was about perfect for our available time and resources (three PCs).  

And that's about it for my observations.  Bottom line is I had a great time, and I don't think I got on peoples' nerves too much with my grandstanding. I would like to play again, and hope we do. It was a very satisfying gaming experience. All thanks to the Internet for allowing us to come together!


  1. Three comments:
    #1 - I do not have a job - temporarily retired and damn happy about it :)

    #2 - for player narrative, I typically do allow players to narrate what happens when they make the killing blow in combat. I just didn't worry about it this time around.

    #3 - thanks for the kind words!

  2. It sounds like a lot of fun. What's really cool is to see people whose blogs I read actually playing the game together. If another game starts up somewhere in blogland, I might have to get in on that.

    For my AD&D game, we do Skype in one of our players, but everyone else is around the table. I'm not even sure how to do a "conference call" type set up... which may actually be useful in the relatively near future.

  3. @JB: My Ellos the Seer would certainly be a knife-fighter if his stats cooperated at all. But with a -1 to hit in melee (and damage), and a -2 in missile (not to mention that bad AC mod) he is purely the scholarly type.

    I am late-30's with wife & kid (1). :) So you are right on there. However a late night Saturday game (it being 10pm start time here) is no problem for me. So I hope we can continue this game too.

  4. Certainly didn't think you were grandstanding at all. In fact if it weren't you, I can all but guarantee I'd be still, as of this very moment, inspecting that pile of rocks. Smelling, tasting, licking, singing to... I'm still not convinced at what that was!!

    And it's hard to be a tank for two humans when you're three feet tall!!