Friday, July 29, 2011

Revisiting the "Slop"

Last night, I wrote that the Thursday night game was “sloppy” and that personally I felt like I/we were “off our game.” In retrospect, this isn’t really accurate; I was just trying to put my feelings down on blog before I crashed for the night and I didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating what it was that I didn’t like. Upon reflection, it was actually a pretty good game on many counts.

I think what I was feeling last night was that the game got a little “out of my control” last night. I had certain expectations that didn’t pan out, and things that I felt had been “tightened” in design ended up loose in practice. In the end, I think *I* was too attached to the game unfolding a certain way…and when it didn’t I felt like

A) I let the players down.
B) I let myself down.

The first because I strive for an entertaining game, a fair game, a challenging (i.e. deadly) game, but always an interesting game. The second because, well, I challenge myself to provide that kind of game.

Here’s what happened:

I wrote up an adventure that would play as a sub-plot of the party’s PC magic-user. Now that the cast of characters has become fairly stable (there are some principal PCs that have stuck around for awhile) I’m trying to involve the players more in the campaign world. I introduced the dwarf to some dwarven contacts, I’ve allowed the thief to make some underworld contacts, and I plan on having the cleric get some missions from his “church” now that he’s a vicar. This week, with the graduation of the magic-user from apprentice to 4th level (magician), I thought it would be neat to start developing more of a peer relationship with his former mentor wizard.

Except that the player doesn’t give a shit about this kind of thing.

Which is fine. I mean, it’s one way to play the game, “just give me the damn mission, tell me what’s in it for my character, and then let’s start the f’ing adventure.” Some players aren’t interested in exploring the imaginary world with the vehicle of character, they just want to be challenged and get XP and level up. In other words, it’s a night out to blow off steam by blasting some monsters.

As I said, this is a fine and appropriate way to play the game. It’s not really the way I think, which may be why I butt heads with that player so often. Common complaints (just to highlight) include:

- B/X is too generic (characters don’t have enough differentiation)
- B/X magic isn’t effective enough (saving throws make charm worthless, for example)
- Collecting treasure is worthless (since one can’t buy anything useful with it)
- Auto-kill effects (like save versus poison) are stupid.
- Energy drain is the most terrible part of the game.

Now, while any of these might be gripes to any players, they fade in importance to characters with a less cut-n-dry gamist attitude. For example:

- B/X is only as generic as you want it to be (you can give your PC as much characterization/traits/quirks as you wish to distinguish him from others…but that’s a role-playing thing and generally carries no mechanical effects). The lack of complex chargen rules gives you an empty cup into which you may pour your own characterization.
- B/X magic is plenty effective when used creatively. I could write a whole blog post on this particular subject.
- From a role-playing perspective, treasure is THE thing…the whole reason your character faces danger is to earn money. Save up to buy your castle or conduct spell research or create magic items or hire followers or retain specialists or buy ships or horses or donate money to a temple or blow on hookers and cocaine…WHATEVER. I can understand if YOU don’t care about “imaginary money;” but your character probably does (unless he has a particular quirk about it).
- Auto-kill effects…like poison or petrifaction or whatever…may not seem “fair” but they are attempts to model “real” stuff in the fantasy world. When someone is poisoned by a giant snake or spider, they don’t grit their teeth and manly resist it, taking a few points of damage…they curl up and die in agony. Saving throws are chances for your heroes (yes, I said it) to heroically save themselves. No, it’s not fun to die…good thing there are ways to bring your characters back to life (yet another thing to spend money on!).
- Ditto energy drain…undead are dangerous and losing levels sucks. It’s part of the game; keep your cleric alive and at the ready. It’s not like energy drain is permanent…one can always earn level’s back by gaining more XP. If all you care about is leveling, though, it can be a real detriment to the cause.

This may sound like harsh criticism of my player…I don’t mean it to be. I’m just trying to share MY point of view: i.e. I don’t see these things as “problems” of the B/X system. If anything, I see them as features…which is, of course, why I prefer to play this particular edition.

So, moving on: the player wasn’t biting at anything and in the name of expedience (we were already slooow in starting again…I really need to use the email better between game sessions for the housekeeping stuff) I pretty much said, “here you go, go find this tower.”

Then, of course, they decided to get there BY BOAT, which I didn’t consider initially but made so much more sense in retrospect than an overland journey…and I was unprepared for the action, having to “wing it” with regard to chartering costs and such.

Since they used the boat to take a more direct route to the adventure site I ran into a problem of encounter pacing…initially there was to be a “warm-up” encounter of rock baboons in the jungle prior to getting to the “dungeon” (a ruined tower) where they would encounter a flock of harpy-bitches. Blah-blah-blah I’m not going to bother going into the backstory/interactions between the two groups. Suffice is to say that because they assaulted the tower directly from the water, they ended up being trapped between the harpies and baboons…which could have turned into a real clusterfk if I’d let it proceed as I had originally intended (the harpies charmed nearly all the spell casters, neutralizing those handy sleep spells that would have enabled the party to turn the baboons into a manageable encounter).

As it was, it threw off my whole rhythm for the scene. I held back the monkeys until the party drove away the harpies, but then they wanted to retreat to the woods where the baboons were hanging out, and their buddies were still incapacitated (harpies charm ability has a 120’ range and they can continue singing even in the midst of melee so, presumably, they can sing even in the midst of retreat). It was a screwed up mess, and thankfully the PCs gave me an “out” for the baboon slaughter with some clever use of fire to frighten away the apes.

It’s all the more irritating because I fully intended to read up on harpies and their charming ability before the night’s adventure and I didn’t get the chance. I “epic failed” in a number of ways here:

- Hold person should not have affected a harpy…I panicked when it appeared the PCs were going to be decimated by the 1st encounter. However, allowing the cleric to cast his only 2nd level spell prevented him from using Speak with Animals to negotiate the baboon encounter. Ugh.
- I played the harpies stupidly and randomly…they are intelligent, evil monsters and should have hung out of range and shredded charmed PCs individually. Barring that they should have attacked the non-charmed folks while the others were under their sway. Barring THAT they should have attacked the less armored folks first. I used them like intelligent animals instead of conniving unholy legends of myth. My bad.
- If I’d considered the possibility of a water voyage, I would have drawn up an additional waterborne encounter to use in place of the baboons. My attachment to running the adventure “as designed” and my poor adaptability screwed me up.

Still, it wasn’t TERRIBLE. It just didn’t go smoothly as I’d hoped.

Let’s see:

The PCs entered the tower and got bogged down in its narrow confines while fighting. An encounter that could have been negotiated turned into a battle that killed a PC…but it was the new guy and he didn’t have much invested in his character so that was okay.

Then the thief got bit by a poison spider while hastily grabbing some treasure he found under a rock, and failed his save. Ugh. That was bad. Stanley’s been with the group since session #1 (this was session #14). Despite my high falutin’ talk about “auto-kill” being part of the game there was a noticeable pall on the group when this happened.

And so I waffled. Or rather, I allowed an unorthodox method of saving him. One of the dead monsters had a potion of gaseous form which the PCs forced down the thief’s throat in desperation. They asked if this might cause the foreign substance to leave his system (since in B/X the gaseous form potion doesn’t transform your equipment or items carried). I ruled the thief could make a second saving throw when the duration of the potion expired, and he made that one with flying colors.

At the time, I felt lame about letting the PC off the hook, just because he was a “beloved character.” Would I have acted the same if it had been one of the new PCs? Reflecting on it today, I believe I did the right thing by allowing the PLAYERS’ creative attempt at a remedy to work. I just hope that in the future I will remember to apply this principle CONSISTENTLY whenever the PCs try unusual remedies, not just when one of the “good ol’ boys” goes down.

The trap itself (this was a trap, not a monster encounter) deserves its own post regarding traps, which I’ll get around to one of these days.

The fight with the harpies upstairs went well and no complaints there. The downstairs encounter with the sorcerer and his buddy went A LOT different from how I expected.

There ended up being a lot of discussion on “line of sight” and whether or not it blocks spell use and whatnot. Certainly, I set up the encounter the way I did under the impression that it DOES…the sorcerer knew the party was coming for him and had a chance to prepare, but left the space in front of the door clear for spell-casting rather than having his burly bodyguard shield him.

This had the effect of allowing the players to run up on the mage and gaffle him, causing him to lose a spell most every round (I was rolling lousy for initiative). I had given the party a limited ring of spell cancellation (1 charge) with the thought that without an extra tactical bonus they’d get cooked by a 7th level magic-user. It turned out not to matter a whit. Lightning bolt: cancelled. Magic missile: cancelled. Sleep: cancelled. I had dumped mirror image for invisibility with the idea that the bodyguard could add an additional layer of trouble while concealed. In retrospect, I should have gone with the mirror image, which would have allowed the mage to get off at least one or two more spells during the combat.

I have not taken the opportunity to review the spell-casting rules since last night, but I will before next session as the LOS issue became a heated point of contention. In the end, I think everyone was unsatisfied with my rulings on the matter (I know I was) and as this was the last true encounter of the evening it contributed to my overall “sloppy” impression of the game.

However, the END RESULT of the evening wasn’t all that bad. Only one player character killed. No one dead as a result of poison or harpies or “line of sight” issues or berserk baboons. A ton of treasure collected. And a few lessons learned from the experience (for ME as a DM). Despite the sloppiness, it feels a bit like I dodged a bullet this session.

Next week, I will strive to do better…for the players’ sake as well as my own personal satisfaction.


  1. I believe I did the right thing by allowing the PLAYERS’ creative attempt at a remedy to work.

    very true! i would have ruled exactly the same way. even though i have no idea what "waffling" might be...

    if you have los-problems, use minis. no battlemaps or hex-floorplans or anything, just the minis (and a bit of scenery, if you can). me and my group, we are spoiled because we play in our gaming clubs rooms, so we have every monster you can think of and loads of scenery to use. this really adds to the game. painting up a mini for your hero also is fun for many players.

    However, the END RESULT of the evening wasn’t all that bad. Only one player character killed.

    "only" one player killed?! and that wasn't all bad?! you ARE going soft. :)

  2. Listen you were shooting from the hip this session. They are lucky they did not meet a Arch Demon and his time traveling troupe of Turtlemen from the movie Laserblast, an ice cream elemental and find a tutu in invulnerability.

    Everyone walked away without bailing on the game and you. You at least analyze the game and your role in what occurred - maybe a bit too much. You care! Horray, for your players!

    Go work on the next session and do not beat yourself up anymore over this one. You know what worked and what did not!

  3. Dude, think of the many bloggers that don't get to game at all. You and I are fortunate that we have consistent time at the gaming table almost every week. And how can you know what a bad session is if you don't have many other sessions that are good to great? You know the saying "Even bad pizza is good pizza?" Well, even bad gaming is good gaming...because you're gaming! Unlike many poor slobs out there...

  4. @ All: Hey, folks...part of why I write this stuff is catharsis and/or getting my thoughts out and organized somewhat. I hear what y'all are saying and I will take it to heart...and especially appreciate what I've got!
    : )

  5. "Since they used the boat to take a more direct route to the adventure site I ran into a problem of encounter pacing…initially there was to be a “warm-up” encounter of rock baboons in the jungle prior to getting to the “dungeon” (a ruined tower) where they would encounter a flock of harpy-bitches."

    See, that's the sort of thing that I rail against. With this sort of thing, you assume that the players will be acting in the manner that you want them to do. Players don't do that (as you discovered). Don't make stories for them, give them an environment in which they can discover their own stories.

  6. @ Faol: Oh, I agree completely. It was a site adventure with "encounter #1: woods surrounding tower" and "encounter #2: on the doorstep." Like having guards inside and outside the front door of a dungeon.

    Unfortunately, I didn't consider they might scale the sheer cliffs on which the tower was perched, thereby sticking themselves between the hammer and anvil.

    When I initially gave them the mission (they could have gone back to an earlier/different adventure site if they'd wanted), I asked how they were going to get there as their camels weren't very well suited for a jungle environment. Instead of devising a new method of overland travel, they asked, "why can't we go by boat if it's on the coast and we have a map?" They were trying to be expedient, and would have simply preferred I say "after a week of travel you arrive."

    Im this case though it was important HOW they arrived because of the guardians outside the tower. As I said, I skipped having them be attacked by baboons while scaling the cliffs and walking the tower's perimeter...but then they wanted to retreat to the "shelter" of the woods thereafter. It turned into a mess because I wasn't adaptable and got flustered.

  7. Yeah, I'm a total roll-player. I wish I wasn't but exposition has always put me to sleep. Wake me up when I get to roll dice.

    Even given that, the wizardly mentor I was supposed to be paying attention to didn't have a name.

  8. @ Luke: He HAD a name...I just couldn't remember the f'ing thing and I didn't want to call him "Bob" or "MIshra." On the other hand, you're character has set a bit of a precedent for wizards"flexible" names so I wasn't too worried about it.

    But that's fine. And I get where you're coming from...NOW. I wasn't grokking that before. I remember back when you said, you weren't really into the "funhouse" type dungeon; I thought you meant you wanted a deeper game experience (you know, involving "role-playing" as opposed to "roll-playing?"). If I made a false assumption that was My Bad for not having an open conversation with you and the others...though in my defense, I've been pretty busy lately.
    ; )

  9. That's the hard part of DMing isn't it? Figuring out what your players want before the campaign dies.

    My problem with the fun house dungeon (specifically S2) is that it feels like a bunch of slapped together craziness without a decent thesis for why it's there. Every room is a mental reset.

    S3 is nutty but at least you find out it's a crashed spaceship. There's some amount of internal consistency that flows from room to room.