Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Zen Dungeon Mastery

[over the course of the month of April, I have been posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” This will be the last entry...thank goodness!]

Z is for Zen Dungeon Mastery. Yeah, there’s such a thing.

The practice of Zen is just “meditation in action.” I say “just” which, of course, is ridiculous…in our world of information overload and extreme over-thinking, shutting off the old noggin and “going with the flow” is anything but easy.

While Zen can be practiced in all aspects of daily life (yes, ALL), there are some activities where it becomes easier…heck, IMPERATIVE…to find a Zen state. High level sport activity is one such experience (though not one readily available to everyone). Blindfolded archery is another, though one I’ve never tried. Some types of performance art have moments of Zen-like trance state. For me, I find that I can only hit bank shots in pool consistently by “going Zen” (though I usually refer to this as “using my Jedi mind tricks”).

And, yes, you can do a little Zen meditation when DMing a game.

Now, maybe it’s not pure a pure zazen, but one can definitely achieve moments of still mind and clarity, even while communicating to a table of eight people. I call it Zen DM’ing. Others call it “being on their game.”

First off, you have to know the rules, back and forward…like in your sleep. And by knowing the rules I’m not just talking about the rules as written by the designers but the rules as used and utilized by YOU. If you have your own regular house rules (along with, I hope, thoughtful reasons for implementing them), that is absolutely fine…so long as you KNOW what it is that you’re playing with.

To be a Zen DM requires being able to speak with a firm (if calm, cool, and collected) voice of authority, something you can only really do if you have a firm grasp of the rules, both collectively and conceptually…if you can’t do that, you lose the zazen state pretty quick.

Knowing the rules…and knowing them intimately, not just how they function, but how they work together and why…is just the first leg. After that, you must know the scenario.

Again, “in your sleep.”

No, you don’t need to know how many goblins are in room #4 or what the hit points of the owl bear is, nor what treasure is heaped in the ogre cave. But you have to understand the setting. You have to know what it’s all about. You have to know how the various factions (if any) interact with each other…and why. You need to be able to picture the place in your mind’s eye…both the interior and exterior…and it sure helps if you can imagine the sounds and smells, too.

This “imaginary sensing” is hugely important. It is analogous to knowing one’s lines if you’re acting in a play. If performing in a play, you can’t actually ACT until you know what your lines are. That’s a damn fact…you try “acting” without knowing your lines and all you are is some dude on a stage pretending to act. As a DM, you cannot embody the adventure unless you can get the sensing down in your imagination. Call it a “developed knack.”

[and just for the record, there HAVE been times when I have “phoned it in” with regard to my sensing…cut me some slack, though, it took me a few years to figure out how to act on stage, too!]

Oh, yeah…just to relate the “theater analogy” back to the other part: knowing the rules of the game is knowing the mechanics of being on stage (how to endow objects, set stakes, where the 4th wall is, blocking, voice and diction, etc.).

SO…you know the rules (the mechanics of the game), you’ve got a sense of the adventure/scenario (that’s the script). What’s next in our pursuit of Zen (Dungeon) Mastery?

Well, that’s really the bulk of it (see, told you it was simple)…though once you’ve got those two legs under you, the next thing to do is: let go of your attachment to how you want the game to unfold, trust in your players, and act as a vessel for the transference of creative energy.

Really? Yes, really. Let’s go through those a bit.

NON-ATTACHMENT: one of the harder ones for myself and for most self-oriented, self-interested individuals. It is all too easy to attach hopes and fears to the outcome of dice rolls. “I hope the thief doesn’t bite it…they need him for the next encounter!” “I hope I roll maximum damage and rip that stupid fighter limb from limb!”

It’s not about being a “fair” or “unfair” DM; it’s about being human. No matter how impartial one attempts to be, it’s human nature to attach some hopes or anxieties to the roll of the dice. However, the dice will fall where they may…and for the most part, even if you’re not packing Game Science Dice, what goes around will (eventually) come around. The hot hand turns cold and vice versa and it’s all as the universe wills.

I said “for the most part;” the trick is to make sure to always leave your players an “out.” This is what I call true “game balance,” a balance struck between player creativity and DM fiendishness. If the players are creative in a way you didn’t anticipate, don’t stomp ‘em…let ‘em have their break. Don’t wait for them to find “The One True Solution” to a challenge that you crafted in your infinite wisdom. If you do that, then you are stacking the dice against the players.

Non-attachment. Always.

TRUST THE PLAYERS: What I just said about game balance goes for the players as well. Assuming you are playing an Old School version of D&D, you shouldn’t have problems with min-maxers. What is there to “max?” This being the case, you need to open yourself up to TRUSTING your players: trust that THEY want to have fun, too. They are there to play, NOT to wreck your day.

[and if they ARE trying to wreck your day, there’s something wrong with your boundaries/social contract; re-draw the lines, 86 some folks and THEN get back to your Zen practice]

Be open to your players. Listen to what they’re saying (listen mainly through the Caller if you have a large table, but keep your ears open to pertinent chatter as well). Practice active listening…when someone speaks, shut the hell up, look him (or her) in the eye and LISTEN. Ask questions for clarification if necessary, but in general, trust what they say.

Trust also that your players are JUST TRYING TO HAVE A GOOD TIME (did I already say that? Too bad; needs emphasis). If you make an assumption about what a character is doing and jump him and the player says, “Wait I wasn’t doing that! I was doing this other thing!” you might as well go with the player rather than YOUR assumption (see non-attachment above). Nine times out of ten, I find my players are happy to take the knife in the back/belly when they screwed up and know they screwed up…give ‘em the benefit of the doubt when they claim they didn’t and YOU made a mistake.

It's not that they're trying to take advantage...it's just that we are dealing with an inefficient medium of communication (having to describe orally what is happening in one's imagination, rather than sharing thoughts telepathically or something).

ACTING AS A VESSEL: This part is actually pretty easy if you're doing everything else...and understand the concept. Here's the thing to grasp: all creative juice/energy comes from outside of you. Or, rather, you have the power inside of you, but you are little more than a conduit to the universal source of creative energy. The mistake some folks make is thinking that they originate their creativity themselves...that they owe nothing to no one. And that's both true and untrue at the same time. However, if you do make the mistake of thinking that creativity only comes from yourself (as opposed to being a conduit) the tendency is to rely solely on yourself, thus shutting down the flow of creative energy, and limiting the amount of "juice" you can "pull."

Oh, it doesn't mean you can't rely on wit alone for awhile, but in transferring energy/information to the players at your table (acting as a "channel" for the game), there is making it an intellectual exercise and there is investing the game with feeling. And of the two I prefer the latter, something that only comes from allowing oneself to act as a vessel of creative energy transference.

[yes, I realize that is a ridiculous mouthful of words. let's try a different tact here...]

Okay, forget the whole bit about "being the vessel for energy transference;" let's talk about WHY we would even want to "invest more feeling" in our Dungeon Mastering instead of just being clever and intellectually proficient. I mean it's just a game right? Like presenting a cool puzzle/challenge for players to unravel? Isn't that the whole reason why we're sitting at the table instead of playing on-line poker?

Sure. But this series of A-Z posts was about "taking your game up a notch," and for me that means engaging your players at a level deeper than just the intellectual. I want your players to feel the game...to feel their characters...to feel like they're there. This not just Settlers of Catan, this is Dungeons & Dragons. It is not just about making the optimal stat build (at least not for old schoolers)...the rules should be simple enough to Get The Hell Out Of The Way of the actual game play, so that you can FEEL (in your imagination) that you are down in one of these dark and dingy dungeons, looking for treasure hoards, and fighting (or running) for your lives against creatures terrible and dire. If you can share that experience, I think you'll be more likely to end up with "repeat customers."

That's why.

So...Zen Dungeon Mastery. DMing as meditation in action. For the purpose of communicating a richer role-playing experience to your players. That's what I'm talking about.

Yes, I understand that Zen is in many ways "its own reward," but I'm not a Buddhist and I tend to bend things to my own pragmatic causes more often than not. Playing Zen can lead to a better game at the your table...that's what I want anyway. And, yeah, it's pretty damn hard to do...pretty damn tough to be "on your game" all the time and on a level that allows you to connect with your players in a way that is more than just "clever."

But that's the goal, folks.
: )

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for "Youth In Asia"

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

Y is for "Youth In Asia;" AKA Your Time Is Up.

At some point, all player characters careers must draw to a close. It may not seem like it right now, players may be saying “But I LOVE, Mung the Magnificent!” but, trust me, it’s true.

If you play the game long enough, everyone gets sick of what’s going on.

I’m not saying people eventually get sick of D&D or of role-playing in general (God forbid!) though I am aware that this happens, too…and sometimes people just need a 12-13 year break/hiatus (*ahem*). Nope, sometimes the game still holds value for you, still excites you, may even be inspiring you to try new things with it…but your current campaign is cramping your style.

Ragnarok, baby. Armageddon.

That’s the usual response: “Let’s just blow the whole thing up and start over! Everyone make 1st level characters, but this time we’ll be playing B/X instead of 2nd edition!”

[yeah, I wish]

These days, of course, it happens less frequently, mainly because fewer people are playing long-running campaigns. I’m sure some folks think it’s pretty funny that I’d bother to write a book like the B/X Companion when only the most diehard, dedicated, or Monty Haul campaigns would ever see characters over level 14…and those guys are all playing AD&D (1st edition). In the old days it wasn’t just possible, it was highly likely that you’d be playing in a “high level” game…campaigns would last and last and new players that joined would be given mid-level (or higher!) characters to keep up with the “old hands”…or the treasure being collected would be enough to level ‘em up right quick.

These days…nah. People want to play other games. People have lives and families and extracurricular activities that consume their time. Even kids…they have to log hours of Xbox in addition to piano lessons and softball. And there sure seems to be a lot more television on TV than when I was a kid. Too bad…television rots the brain worse than D&D ever did.

And anyway, I hear all the time from folks that they prefer “low-level” or “mid-level” games. Huh…weird. I can only imagine this is due to having exhausted the possibilities of game play (as they see them), rather than really being enamored of low level play. I would hope it’s not simply a justification for campaigns “falling apart early” (see last paragraph).

[if low level play is so cool, why has every edition since 1985 sought to “jazz up” the lower levels of play?]

Well, whatever…for those folks who get “bored” after level 12 and for those players who go into the 20s and 30s before feeling the tug of disenchantment, this post is for YOU.

It doesn’t have to end in Ragnarok.

You don’t have to “blow up” the campaign world and all still-surviving PCs.

You don’t have to UN-make creation in order to start over.

I mean, you CAN, but I just want you to know there’s another way. It’s called RETIREMENT.

Why, why must PCs be kept forever as high-level 20-somethings (or 30-somethings), eternally youthful and wandering and care free with their magic swords and bags of holding. I mean, carefree until the world explodes because the players and DM are sick of these eternal n’er-do-wells. Why can’t they just settle down and go into retirement?

Why can’t they get old and fat…like the rest of us?

Really, is it so much to ask for a graceful Fall from Grace? Are we so afraid of our own (real world) mortality that we refuse to let these people finally, FINALLY “get a life” after years of adventure?

Here’s the thing: RETIRE them. Keep the campaign WORLD and start new characters. Even if you want to play a new edition where the rules have changed, there’s no need to “adapt” the old dudes…they were an anomaly for their time…legendary heroes, as is their right.

“Oh, yeah…Landon the Half-Elf. Can you believe they say his father was an elf and his mother a human? He had the skills of a fighter, thief, and magical minstrel…all rolled into one! They sure don’t make ‘em like THAT anymore.”

And why not? Because now you’re playing B/X or OD&D or AD&D2 (though I hope not!).

Leave your guys in the fantasy world but put ‘em on a shelf. Let them act as retired NPCs to interact with the new PCs. Allow them to be the parents or older relatives of the new batch of PCs. No, that doesn’t mean your 1st level character gets his mother’s vorpal sword of giant slaying. “I donated that to a Halfling museum years ago…I think I heard someone robbed the display…”

Allow them to get old and fat (or stay fit and fair) and buy castles and titles and temples and enjoy their wealth…or allow them to squander it all and end up face-down in a gutter in the “Free City” of Greyhawk. Whatever strikes your fancy…ask the PLAYER what he thinks was the “final destiny/doom” of his or her character…and let it unfold.

If they’re still around, these are the guys who should be handing out adventures and tips…not sages and wandering wizards at the local tavern. You need to talk to the King? Make the king an ex-PC…going gray and entering his dotage perhaps, but still the same old character. Some DMs may even ask the old player to “control” the NPC for interactions.

What does it do to keep these figures around? Sure, sure…there’s some neatness to the idea but you were sick of the game world and wanted a completely clean slate, right?

Continuity.

That’s what you get. Consistency: the feeling that the world is living and breathing and in some ways eternal. It has no end…just younger, less experienced PCs showing up to take the place of the old veterans. It may have no perceived beginning…who’s to say the old PCs predecessors aren’t sequestered somewhere in hiding or suspended animation?

Ever hear of a trap the soul spell?

D&D is a fantasy game, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have DEPTH to it. Doesn’t mean it can’t have LAYERING. It doesn’t matter if one campaign used Pathfinder and Feats and the next one uses B/X with some firearms rules thrown in. Changes to the game can be “conveniently forgotten” just as the fun earlier adventures can be remembered and talked/bragged about.

Continuity helps make the game feel “alive.” It gives players a sense that, “oh, I’m NOT just wasting my time at this table…someday my current PC may be an NPC in someone else’s game.” That’s not a bad little accomplishment.

Look at Mordenkainen and Robilar.
: )

Baranof of Horrors

So we played S1:Tomb of Horrors down at the Baranof tonight. With 1st and 2nd level characters.

You see, I've got this theory, see? That the Tomb of Horrors, while ostensibly for characters level 10th to 14th, is actually no more (or less) deadly at 1st level.

And it's not...I mean sure, everyone died (twice...but tonight was special 'cause we were calling "do overs"), but they were making progress. They were on their way, sorting through the riddles. Hell, they made it to the temple and would have probably made it farther if the thief hadn't gotten greedy with the treasure in the benches, leading to a gas attack that chased everyone through an arch that...well, you get the picture.

Point is, even 14th level characters get killed when they act stupid in an adventure that is designed to stomp the hell out of the players.

I've run Tomb of Horrors probably half a dozen times over the years. I've never had anyone (that I can recall) kill Acerack. I've only seen one or two parties actually discover his tomb. I've seen lots of "powerful" adventurers killed in any of the three entrance tunnels. The 1st level guys at least made it past those.

This was my first time playing S1 with B/X, but the only thing that really needs to be converted is the demilich. Ah, well...you've got to make it to his lair first.

Maybe I'm retarded. Maybe I'm just super-duper tired. But it wasn't a bad experiment. Next week, we'll return to the Caves of Chaos.
; )

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for Xenophobia

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

X is for Xenophobia, of course. I mean, what else could it be? Xylophone? Xanadu? Xanth?

Actually, “Xanthian Relationships” wouldn’t have been a bad topic…except that I already touched on it a bit with romantic entanglements. And anyway, any good interbreeding adventures should lead to xenophobia at some point anyway, so there you are.

A xenophobe is a person who fears what is ALIEN to them…the outsider. Back in high school (a while after I quit playing D&D) I used to hit up the arcade by my bus stop (remember ARCADES? Wow…the good old days of burning through quarters) and there was a great game called Xenophobe or Xenophobia I used to play…when I wasn’t playing Gauntlet, of course. Roughly based on the film Aliens, you got to shoot a lot of bid monsters while trying to keep things from biting you in half or grabbing onto your face. Great, manic fun…and playable with two or three players!

However, to really explore “xenophobia” at least one of the players should’ve had to play an alien instead of a human. I mean, how else is one going to encounter the inherent nastiness that comes out when two different species are forced to operate in tight quarters with each other.

Xenophobia has been a part of the D&D game since at least 1st edition AD&D. With the introduction of both the new “sub-class” of Race (as opposed to non-human types just being a different classification of adventurer) AND the ever beloved Racial Animosity tables we were gifted with our own fantasy Civil Rights movement, care of Gary’s personal campaign setting.

I’ve written often enough of my preference for B/X and its use of Race as Class. I think it makes perfect sense for humans to be versatile (humans ARE versatile…I know this from my experience with humans) and it is equally acceptable to consider all non-human races as NON-versatile. After all, they ain’t human…they are alien creatures, with different ways of thinking, alien physiologies, lifespans far in excess of a human one (and thus providing a completely alien temporal perspective)…Lordy, “demi-humans” are WEIRD, no question.

Or at least, they should be treated as such.

Personally, I never give demihumans a break…at least I never used to in the past. If everyone wants to play an elf than by-God, I’m going to make sure that they take the shit-end of the stick whenever they’re in a human town. Which is almost always (elves don’t build towns…they live in the trees and ride wolves, don’t ya’ know). If your character is some sort of “badass” dwarf that is strutting his stuff at the tavern, you better believe he’s going to be called “Shorty” and get his beard pulled and his beer watered (and not literally with water, if you catch my drift). And should said dwarf get huffy or uppity or start a brawl, guess who’s going to get the brunt of the blame from the HUMAN constable when the town guard shows up?

Xenophobia. These are aliens walking amongst us. They grow hair on their feet and have pointed ears. They are the OTHER, those that DON’T BELONG.

And once again we see why player characters, scurrilous rogues that they might be, are still real, true, honest-to-goodness “heroes” even if you’re playing an addition that doesn’t include feats and kewl paladin powers. PCs are REAL heroes because they’re the most tolerant SOBs around. They freely adventure with other species, recognizing them for what they are: friends, companions, fellow adventurers. They’re not concerned that the dwarf smells like dry rot and the elf eats dried dandelions instead of jerky. They’re still the trusted point man or rear guard or magical support of the party. They’re trusted with the LIVES of the human adventurers, regardless of their alien differences. And that’s pretty cool.

It’s even MORE cool when you can show the difference between the fellow party members attitude and that of the local yokels.

Halflings aren’t allowed within the city limits,” should be the common refrain heard at any AD&D city’s gates. Why? Because in AD&D, Halflings are all GODDAMN THIEVES and you don’t think the town guard isn’t going to catch on? What…you say your character belongs to and is protected by the local thieves guild? Ha! Right…Halflings are too conspicuous. Sorry…we’re “human only,” son.

You don’t think human guilders aren't going to bribe town thugs to run dwarves out of town? Dwarf craftsmanship is renowned…and that means less profit in the pockets of human guildsmen. The last thing any thriving business community wants to see is a bunch of dwarves showing up and setting down roots. Best to move that riff-raff along as soon as possible!

And elves? EVERYONE hates elves! The orcs, the gnolls, the Drow…just best to keep them the hell away from ANY are of human civilization as war usually follows these jerks. Also, any one of ‘em could be a wizard…dangerous enough that they can blast you just by looking at you even if they aren’t packing a sword. Plus, they’re after our women-folk (if you play AD&D with “half-elves,” that is). Yeah, elves are weedy gits that need a good pummeling and boot-kicking whenever you get one alone in a dark alley.

My evil NPCs often sport some sort of elven ear collection.

And, oh yeah, half-orcs? See impalement.

Not that xenophobia isn’t a two-way street ‘cause it most certainly is…remember the only thing all demihumans have in common is that they’re INHUMAN. Their alien perspectives only apply to their own species (I hate the use of term “race” for demihumans). When others enter their domain, they should be treated with furtive suspicion at best.

At best.

Most humans entering an elven wood shouldn’t be coming out alive (think Lothlorion, folks). Same with any human venturing into a mountainous dwarf kingdom (though the dwarves probably won’t shoot ‘em up like the elves…they’ll just clap ‘em in irons and put ‘em to work in the mines for the rest of their miserable lives). Halflings? Well, humans should probably never even be able to locate the Shire let alone a live Halfling. And don’t forget the “wee folk” are ALL sharpshooters (and more adept at the bow than elves, at least in B/X).

Adventurers entering these “inhuman realms” will find even more reason to bring along a companion of a different species. With a dwarf walking point, the party is much more likely to get past gnome and dwarf patrols sans incident, and possibly even a friendly greeting or some welcome aid for a “brother/cousin.” WithOUT that dwarven party member? Well, there’s more than one way to shift a stone, ja?

See, there are some people that think demihumans are “useless” in high level play…for me, I see them as essential to any adventuring party at EVERY level, both as guides and emissaries, ESPECIALLY in a world where humans are all-too-often (let’s face it) looked upon as the equivalent of an “Ugly American:” coming into other peoples’ homes and wrecking the joint all because they’re big and loud and have huge-ass stompy boots.

Humans still have to sleep sometime…even the 30th level fighters.

Just keep it in mind in your games. Adjust those Reaction Rolls for players based on who’s doing the talking and the target audience. D&D is not a shiny, happy MLK Jr Dream-place. It’s dirty and nasty and primitive and people are often in danger of being eaten. Just because you speak (heavily accented) Common doesn’t mean the inn keeper is going to give you the same price for an ale he just gave the human townie…and doesn’t mean he’s going to give you a civil word either! And just because your gal is some sort of fancy-pants goody-goody Paladin doesn’t mean the local wood elves want any part of your evangelizing and sword-swinging antics…you smell like 5 days on the road in armor, your horse poops all over the place, and you just hunted Twiggy the Elf’s furry pet for your evening meal. You REALLY think you’re going to wake up to elven singing and camaraderie?

: )

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Dungeon Alphabet


Picked up a copy of The Dungeon Alphabet by Michael Curtis today...yes, I realize I'm a little late to the game and all but I buy precious little on-line if I can help it (besides an inherent paranoia with slinging my credit card around the computer I prefer to support my local game shop as much as possible...I'm a traditionalist, go figure).

The thing is beautiful, serviceable, and practical...not to mention both cute and exceptionally clever. I look forward to reading it in depth tomorrow during my morning and afternoon commute.

However, just a brief perusal is enough to give it praise...the illustrations inside the cover? Fantastic. And I got it for an all-too-easily affordable $9.99. Wow...I am REALLY doing something wrong with my own books!

All right, now I need to go read Chgowiz's tear-down of today's blog post.
; )

W is for Wandering Adventures

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

W is for Wandering Adventures. Not “adventurers;” ADVENTURES.

While I’m a fairly old hand at this D&D stuff, I certainly do NOT rank among first couple generations of gamers. I mean, I cut my teeth on B/X (duh) before moving to 1st edition AD&D…I never had the opportunity to play OD&D (supplemented or not)…and I never even saw a copy of Holmes Basic until last year or so. I’ve never played a Judges Guild adventure module, never used the Rolemaster books, have never seen/read a copy of EPT, and missed out on that whole Wilderlands thing.

So it might be surprising to some (or not…you be the judge) that when I first started bopping around the OSR blog-o-sphere there were more than few concepts I wasn’t grokking. For example, this thing called “sandbox play;” what the hell is that?

Here’s the thing about the whole world-creation-exploration combo…I can’t say I’m a huge fan.

And the REASON I’m not a huge fan is this: in practice I haven’t found that it works for me. Oh, I understand (now, somewhat) why folks would sit down and create a world and then let player characters traipse around the place “finding their own adventures.” It sure beats having every adventure start at the mouth of dungeon, or in a tavern meeting with some fantasy “fixer,” or being summoned for yet another audience with the local ruler. Give PCs a sandbox and let them go where the wind (or the tavern want ads) take ‘em.

Here’s what I find happens, in practice:
  • Players often end up with a “huh, don’t know what to do” attitude (looking for clues or suggestions or direction from the DM)
  • Some players DO have a strong idea of what they want to do, but it’s “off the grid” (i.e. something the DM hasn’t prepped), leading to them being forced to go for the direction offered by the DM
  • PCs spend a lot of time combing through “tavern want ads” which is no more or less ridiculous than DQ’s “Adventurer’s Guild” (aped by many computer fatasy RPGs since).
  • The players (and sometimes the DM!) get BORED with the world/setting long before they’ve exhausted all the adventure avenues the DM bothered to prep, thus leading to (what I see as) a waste of the DM’s time and energy.
  • It requires a crap-ton of energy on the DM’s part to keep the campaign world living/breathing/evolving/resolving as the PCs podunk around the imaginary country-side.
Now back when I was doing a LOT of gaming (i.e. back when I was a kid), this ain’t what we did. Oh, sometimes the more clever of us would sketch a quick map of the continent with a few forests and mountain ranges…perhaps even a town or city or four with actual NAMES (though we never included history/demographics/rulers, etc. unless they were pertinent to a particular adventure). Characters were simply supposed to be wandering rogues seeking adventure…and in the fashion of serial adventure cartoons, every new session would find them getting into some new scrape or other.

THAT’s how I used to play D&D…call it the Banana Splits school of role-playing (perhaps even the “D&D Cartoon” school of role-playing). Players were expected to play their character/role in whatever scenario (I hesitate to even call them “adventures”) that the DM devised. The DM was expected to come up with adventures. Eventually, characters would amass enough wealth that they’d be building strongholds or “bases” or whatever and then they wouldn’t have to wander anymore…adventure would wander to them!

Is this terribly realistic for adventurers to be “weirdness/adventure magnets?” Of course not. Is D&D terribly realistic as a game? No, not really.

There was never any rhyme or reason to how PCs ended up in one place over another. This week we’re on the outskirts of some spooky castle (Ravenloft)…next week we’re somehow lost in the mountains looking for the caverns of Tsojcanth. Adventure modules were used in a “modular” fashion…slotting ‘em in as characters reached the appropriate levels of experience. Sessions, like many modules themselves (Desert of Desolation series, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Shrine of Tamoachan) simply picked up in media res. How did the characters end up in some Mayan jungle/temple? Who knows! It’s just “D&D.”

Yeah, so, not very “sand-boxy” at all…more of a fantasy RPG version of the ol’ “buddy flick.” And I’m sure that others play (or have played) in a similar style that doesn’t involve world crafting or drawing up a gazillion level mega-dungeon or trying to come up with a rich, historical background setting. That is to say, I’m sure my style of play is nothing new, and may in fact feel a little primitive to the more sophisticated grognards.

Heck, just reading over it myself it seems fairly crude…though not necessarily un-fun (now that I’m thinking about it, this is the kind of game I’d like to run with my current batch of players…that is, if they should they ever graduate from the Caves of Chaos and be ready for “wilderness adventures”). But does this way of running a campaign really “kick ass?” We ARE trying to stick to a theme here with the A-Z posts, right?

Well, maybe.

Here’s what this kind of campaign does FOR you:

  1. It takes pressure off the DM to do extensive world creation, allowing time and energy to be spent in designing cool and/or outrageous adventure scenarios.
  2. It takes pressure off PCs to figure out “what do we do next,” allowing them to spend time and energy in exploring their character, their character’s relationship to each other, and their character’s relationship to the evolving campaign setting.
  3. It allows one to plug in neat modules with little or no justification.
  4. It allows one to play D&D the way God and Gary intended.
Well, maybe not that last one…though I would imagine the “World of Greyhawk” evolved at least in part from evolution of actual play rather than the heady imagination and penchant for fiction of Mr. Gygax.

Or not. Who knows…all I can say is my BEST campaigns evolved from this type of wandering “serial adventure” campaign. How else are you ever going to have a chance to use those “random castles” and random “castle inhabitants” in the Expert set (from Book 3 of the LBBs if I remember correctly)? If all your castles and towns are plotted out beforehand…heck, if all your adventures are “sited” before play begins, how can you truly build a weird and supernatural fantasy world? I don’t know…I’ve never managed to do a good job ahead “building worlds” in advance. Players always want to go off the grid, and frankly I WANT them to! Once they’ve built their own castles (which is a complete nightmare if all the territory has already been divided into the various countries of Mystarra or whatever), THEN you can worry about your stable locations and your “friends and neighbors.”

Until then…let the good times roll!
: )

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Vow

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

V is for Vow; an oath or promise not taken lightly.

In our 21st century world, we sometimes forget the power of words. Or perhaps “forget” isn’t the right term; “respect” might be more apt. Part of this has to do with the sheer amount of information (words) with which we are constantly inundated. Look at blogger…the touch of a button and I can reach thousands of readers with my paltry words, scribbled thoughts that went straight from my brain to the keyboard. And I am just ONE blogger; there are hundreds more out there, just like me scribbling on the same topics and posting every day; personally I read many of ‘em…not to mention the regular news sources (newspapers, television, internet), books, etc. Information is available in the millions of pages and words per day. And when you’re constantly surrounded by words, they can lose some of their luster. When words are commonplace, how can they have special meaning?

The OTHER part of why words seem to have lost the mystic power over time is our general lack of veracity, accuracy, and integrity with what those words say.

For purposes of this post we’ll skip anything regarding veracity and accuracy (there’s a lot of misinformation and half-truths floating around) and concentrate solely on “integrity.” For MY purposes:

INTEGRITY is doing WHAT you say you’re going to do WHEN you’re going to do it.

If I tell my wife that I am going to “do the dishes before I go to bed” (or some other household chore) and then fail to follow through, that displays a lack of integrity on my part. If I blog here that I am absolutely, positively going to have my book published no later than February and don’t get out till September, that’s the same thing. And while I acknowledge that I am in fact a “big slacker” and that EVENTUALLY I get around to doing those dishes or finishing the book, it doesn’t change the fact that NOT doing what I said I was going to do when I said I was going to do it makes MY words a bit weaker than the person with more integrity. A LOT weaker than the person with absolute integrity…something we don’t see as much these days as we might like.

In the “olden days” people TALKED less and DID more. Being a “glib” talker was not a compliment; often it was considered a character flaw. One did not need to be wordy to be eloquent…people admired you more for saying what you meant and following through with what you said. These days…well, we live in a different world…communication and lingos are complex and we find various ways to say things hoping that SOMEthing we say will be understood by our target audience, and that what we say will register and resonate the way we want, which is to say “in such a way as to not give offense” (more often than not).

But worrying about the appearance of the word, the cloaking of it, doesn’t negate the need for integrity to strengthen the thing. If I say

“I am going to do my best to do X, Y, and Z (not necessarily in that order) providing it doesn’t interfere with the feelings of persons A or B and provided it doesn’t get reprioritized due to circumstances 1, 2, and 3…”

You’re giving yourself a ton of “outs” (i.e. excuses, justifications for failure) rather than just saying:

“I will do X,”

…and then following through, dealing with the consequences of X if and when they arise.

It’s tough. We are told often enough that our world isn’t “black and white” but it kinda’ is. I mean, Jesus didn’t say, “It’s okay to kill SOME people…you know, just the BAD GUYS, like people who might have an itch to hurt you and yours…and, yes, sometimes collateral damage happens…that’s OK, just long as you’re defending your homeland or Right of Life, Liberty, etc..”
Nope, he didn’t say that. He said, “If someone slaps you, give him the other cheek; if someone takes your coat, give him your shirt, too.” That’s pretty black and white.

But, these days, we’re all about the CAVEATS and the EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE and the JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE (well, maybe we’re not “all about” that last one…). It’s not often we Keep it Short and Simple. We have made our own society a complex one with complex rules and our communication reflects this complexity.

In the “simpler, primitive” fantasy world, such complexity need not exist. And in a GAME (of course) we are allowed to make our own rules.

The vow or oath is a formal pledge and declaration, a promise that one is going to DO SOMETHING come hell or high water. Basically, it’s a statement of integrity and commitment to that statement.

A vow is not something to be taken lightly (and even today, we have few “formal vows” and all are considered serious commitments) but in the fantasy literature that is the basis for Dungeons & Dragons, vows are fairly commonplace: a hero gets all worked up about something and swears an oath to do something or die trying…whether that’s to seek revenge or protect an individual or defend the Alamo it doesn’t matter.

I like vows in D&D…I think it adds something to the game for a player character to make this kind of formal declaration. For one thing, it is completely a product of role-playing…there is no mechanical pay-off to making a vow in the game. For another thing, it’s a commitment to action…a character that has taken a vow KNOWS what he has to do and ain’t going to be hemming and hawing and looking befuddled. That’s game motivation pure and simple.

In last Thursday’s game, Josh’s new character was another archer…the father of the archer that had died in the goblin caves the week before (yes, Josh reads my blog and was playing on last week’s offspring post). He decided that the father (whose name was also Fletcher) was determined to bring back his son’s remains, whatever the cost (in fact, Fletch Sr. was only 1st level compared to his adventuring 2nd level son, so this was a fairly bold promise). When a (negotiated) encounter the lizard man tribe led to some treasure being offered in exchange for aid, Fletch got the party to turn it down as he wasn’t interested in any action until he’d discovered the last resting place of his child. Although, no formal vow was made by Josh, his character acted as if one had been, forswearing rest until his child was avenged and laid to rest.

[Fletcher did not recover his son’s body, but did find his son’s gear in the treasure hoard of the goblin chief after the party had put an end to the monster. He took his son’s equipment back to the Keep and had the Curate burn it on a funeral pyre to lay his son to rest…also giving the church a share from his loot. Having done this, he accompanied the party back to the lizard man camp site to complete the mission offered by the scaly humanoids]

Vows like this…of vengeance, or protection, or commitment to a cause or quest (think the Fellowship of the Ring)…are cool and add an extra oomph to the role-playing experience. At least they do for me. While I don’t like and don’t hand out XP for “role-playing” (why not? Because it’s too arbitrary and subjective to be a behavior-shaping reward mechanism), I AM sorely tempted to give some sort of bonus for taking a vow and seeing it through to the end.

What kind of bonus? Well, that depends a bit on the vow and how much integrity one takes in acting on it. Vowing to loot a million gold pieces or vowing to level up are hardly what I’m talking about…vows should be things that are somewhat of an inconvenience or that side-track you from other adventuring goals (for example, Fletch Sr. may not have been quite so keen to go back to Goblin Town after the party had been over-run the last disaster…he could have opted for “easier pickings” – like Kobolds! – before trying the caves again). Even if the vow IS in line with your goals (Fletch would have gotten around to the goblin caves eventually) such an oath should curtail or restrict one’s action (one-track mind)…at least in order to maintain INTEGRITY with regard to the vow.

For those who can fulfill their vow immediately (and through normal adventuring hardship…I’m not talking about vowing to “build a house by next Tuesday” or something!), I’d recommend the character receives enough bonus XP (on top of the adventure XP) to advance to the next level. Note: this is only for MEANINGFUL, PERSONAL goals: avenging one’s kinfolk, rescuing one’s (captured) loved ones or family members, saving one’s home town or place of residence. The vow must have PERSONAL MEANING attached to it; otherwise, it’s just a promise of aid.

For vows that cannot be fulfilled immediately (for example, a marriage vow to protect one’s spouse, a vow to defend one’s lawful dominion against all invaders, etc.) I’d recommend an on-going +1 bonus to saves and attack rolls ONLY when acting towards the wording of the vow. If a fighter pledges his sword to do his liege’s bidding, he receives the bonus only when on actual missions of import for the lord, NOT when doing his own adventures (and NOT when side-tripping during the liege-lord’s adventure/mission!). If these vows are not taken seriously, the DM has the option of removing the bonus…for example, if two PCs marry each other and then go fight a dragon together, they shouldn’t receive attack bonuses; protecting one’s spouse means not taking him/her to the dragon’s den at all!

Anyway, just an idea to add a little integrity to your game.
: )

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hay Problemas...

Actually I have a couple problemas. The first is that no one seems to believe me. I told my wife that I put the baby to sleep by dancing him to Lady GaGa and she thinks I'm just making it up to be funny. Then I show her and she flips out! Like I've discovered something amazing or something. No...he just likes rhythmic dance music. He digs on Black Sabbath, too (the Ronnie James Dio years), and I'm trying to get him into Wolfmother (the latter depends on his mood, really), but GaGa is always a hit.

Which is good, 'cause I get tired of singing him show tunes.

The OTHER problem (probably a bit more interesting to my blog readers) is the new book. "Which new book, JB? You've got, like, four or five hot irons in the fire!" Right. Got it. Yes, I am as prone to the famous "gamer ADD" as anyone, and the fatigue/sleep deprivation thang doesn't make that any easier.

However, right now I am referring to the new book that is almost ALMOST complete (at least the writing)...the only one I'm currently soliciting (and accepting) artwork for, my little B/X player supplement whose name I am withholding because...well, because I'm a might superstitious if you must know.

The PROBLEM is that it is shaping up to be FRIGGIN' HUGE, on account of the spell lists. Let me break it down in terms of "good/bad news:"

The Good News: I have completed all the spell lists, including the mammoth final spell-caster spell list (170 spells from levels 1 through 10). You think that was easy? No way, Jose. Choosing which spells in the list would over-lap (there are hardly more than 170 spells in all of B/X...and that's counting the B/X Companion) and which would be saved for various "niche protection" consideration was its own ball game...as was deciding on the particular order in which spells would be acquired (what is a 2nd level spell for one class is sometimes 1st or 3rd for another, you know?)...not to mention that I still needed to come up with more than 50 new spells to round out the list (51 in fact, not counting half a dozen or so reversed spells). So, yeah, list complete, even if the writing's not (and I plan on doing some work on that tonight, if I can keep my eyes open).

The Bad News: Even shrinking the font down to 9 and leaving no space for pictures, the spell lists clock in at 21 pages. 21...without fleshing out 170 spell descriptions! I figure to have at least (or close to) 30 pages by the end...and this is a book I wanted to come in at 40 or so TOTAL. The rest of the book is already 23 pages (21 shrinking the font) with at least 6 or so pages left to compile.

Why 40, JB? Isn't "more" better? No, it is NOT. This is supposed to be a slim supplement, not an f'ing huge-ass tome! What's more, this one is going to be "perfect bound" (meaning more cost on my end) and I had hoped to price it cheaper than the B/X Companion. I don't know how I'm going to manage that without shrinking the page count...and right now, I'm not liking where the page count is heading.

SO...I will probably be placing a poll on the blog in the very near future regarding the issue, but does anyone have any suggestions for me? Dare I take the font down to 8? Should I skimp on artwork (*shudder*)? Drop the demi-human classes (who like that "race as class" thing anyway)?

OR...right now, I've got the spell lists in the same format as the B/X Companion. Meaning the same format as B/X: each spell is presented including "range" and "duration" and a brief description...even if that description is "this spell is the same as the 5th level magic-user spell of the same name." Maybe I should just drop all the repeats?

But isn't nice to have them in the book? Even if all it does is tell you where to reference the actual spell description?

Ugh. All right, it's 9:15 and I got too little sleep last night and I've got get up hella' early tomorrow as well. I'm probably just a bit "over-tired." Hasta manana!

U is for Urban Decay

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

U is for Urban Decay, something found at the stinking and depraved centers of "civilization" within the fantasy world.

I suppose there are some campaign settings where some or all of the towns were as idyllic as the village of Threshold in the Mentzer Expert set. Especially for players that started with the 1983 BECMI sets (and learned that D&D was about being “heroes”) the smurf-like, fairy tale village is probably par for the course. Protecting these idyllic settings will not only allow you to preserve that peaceful, small town life, but give you XP (and a reason to kill orcs) to boot. Think of yourselves as hobbits defending the Shire.

That’s not the urban setting I’m used to in Dungeons & Dragons.

I’ve always taken my cue from the DMG, specifically the Ride of Emrikol the Chaotic. Twisted, cobblestone streets, taverns where people are all too quick to grab their swords, and bodies burning in the street. Basically something like the Wild West spliced with pre-Renaissance Europe. Filth and corruption and squalor.

That’s what civilization is like in MY campaign settings.

It’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed the Warhammer Fantasy setting…when I picked up my copy of WFRP in the early 90s, it was like returning to my D&D roots. Not the shininess of Mystarra and 2nd edition, but the stinking mess of 1st edition with back-alley assassins and wandering harlots. Hey, my cues were taken from Robert Aspirin’s Thieves World anthologies…not to mention Gygax’s own Gord the Rogue tales. For me, Sanctuary was Greyhawk with warmer weather.

And really why wouldn’t civilization be down and dirty and rotten and awful? I mean, how easy could life be that the best and the brightest would risk life and limb down some ancient ruin looking for treasure instead of doing something productive with their lives. Really! Greed is one thing, but in D&D real treasure is NOT easy to come by.

Ask my players.

No, your character may have been born to a high social status but that doesn’t mean your life isn’t sordid and small in the steaming stink of things. Ruling over a pig sty, how could you NOT turn towards an opportunity…ANY opportunity…to build your own story book Camelot some day.

If only you can pull enough gold out of the tomb.

Back in my day, going to town was an adventure in and of itself, rarely as easy as provisioning up and finding an inn in which to rest and heal. No, town was where you went to get into trouble. To get mugged, or rolled, or pick up some disease that would make you appreciate the party cleric all the more. If you were smart, you might stop by the local (pagan) temple and use some of that wealth to sacrifice a bull to Ares (or whomever your blood god of choice was). Then, if you had money left, you might head down to the docks to try to build your petty cash into something more, trying your hand at dice or cards in the local gambling house.

After which you could blow any winnings on archaic drugs, booze, and the aforementioned wandering whores.

Back then, thief skills were the prized “extras” any PC wanted to have. Thieves, thief-acrobats, assassins, thief-multi-classes (usually magic-user or illusionist), 1st edition bards, dual-class characters with a couple levels of thief…usually all the players were making sure they had some backstabbing and concealment ability for use in town. “It takes a thief to know one” and “no honor among thieves” were phrases that got passed around quite a bit…plus being able to “climb walls” sure helped getting into and out of buildings through ways other than the front door.

Urban adventures. Urban decadence. I don’t remember anyone ever making a big haul of loot in any particular urban setting. Oh, there was a raid on the assassin’s guild of Willip, but that was payback and personal, even if there was some treasure that came out of it.

No, I think our urban adventures were mainly just due to PCs being tired of sleeping in the woods.

As a DM, urban adventures were always desirable…nothing says player killer like high level (human) NPCs and one usually runs out of good reasons to have human opponents in weird or fantastic “dungeon” settings. If you WANT to pit characters against tough adventurer-types, the concrete jungle is the place to encounter them. In all their splendor.

In all their decay.

One should be wary of any walled sprawl that greets visitors with a few heads on spikes. It was not a “gentle” age, this mythology that has helped inspire so many ugly-faced fantasy films of the “B” variety.

Personally, I love it…but I understand that’s a subjective personal preference. I don’t think I’d let my children hang out in that particular campaign setting, but I wouldn't want my game to be any other way.
: )

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Twilight Calling???


Has anyone ever played or run the 1986 adventure module M3: Twilight Calling? I had never heard of this particular TSR offering, though it was written by Tom Moldvay (for all I know this was the last adventure module Moldvay wrote for TSR...certainly it was one of the later ones written). Any information is appreciated...thanks!

[and, yes, I've already read the wikipedia entry]

Maps, Modules, and Musings

Winding down Sunday afternoon...baby's sleeping, beagles are sleeping, I already took my nap, so I'm good for a few hours...

Last night I was up till 2am drawing maps. "Maps?" Yeah, maps...adventure module maps. When I first started this B/X Companion project O So Many Moons Ago, my original plan was to publish it as a box set in the same style as Moldvay's Basic Rules and Cook/Marsh's Expert Rules...in other words, a little box, a 64 page booklet, and an adventure module to "get things rolling." After all, while the rules explain the rules, it was the first couple adventure modules (B2:The Keep on the Borderlands and X1:The Isle of Dread) that really put it all in perspective. At least they did for me. As a kid teaching myself how to play (I wasn't introduced to the game by older siblings/friends) these were the basis for understanding what an "adventure" should look like.

Not that I didn't evolve my DMing style over time...I think most people who have acted as "game master" for years do...but the idea of how to design a dungeon or a wilderness adventure definitely comes in part from these adventures. While I have adapted other ideas to my gaming the idea of a "map" with "numbered scenes" which PCs will visit (in whichever order they choose) is still my main fashion of playing...at least for B/X. This is the foundation upon which everything else is built.

Well, whatever...I'm probably being too simplistic (again). The point is, I wanted to include my own adventure module with the B/X Companion to not only showcase the rules but to present something of a model for "high level adventures." I just can't think of all that many published adventure modules designed for high level play.

I suppose it depends on what one considers "high level." When WotC issued a version of Tomb of Horrors for 4th edition, my immediate reaction (besides irritation) was the desire to do a B/X conversion of the game. At the time I figured it could wait till my Companion came out (since a high level module needs a high level rule set). But looking over the old S1 on Saturday and you know what? Ain't nothing in the adventure that needs "converting." Oh, sure, there's the old demi-lich Acerack, that needs a B/X conversion...but other than that, is there anything in the module that requires characters of higher than Expert level? No. Characters of levels 15 to 36 aren't any more suitable for this "dungeon crawl" than a party of levels 10th to 14th. S1:Tomb of Horrors really is just an "expert" level module.

Same with Q1:Queen of the Demonweb Pits. Last summer I was REALLY itching to revisit this module and work up a conversion for B/X and was anxiously looking forward to my book's publication...after all, it's tough to run G1-3:Against the Giants when you don't have a game that includes the mighty Hammer of Thunderbolts or D2:Shrine of the Kuo-Toa and D3:Vault of the Drow if you don't have my Ponaturi or Dokkalfar monsters from the B/X Companion. And I was soooo looking forward to statting up Lolth and her demon buddies as a B/X conversion.

But in reading Q1 this weekend I found that there's a lot about it I don't like. I know, I know...Q1 has long had a mixed reputation with old school fans of the GDQ series. There's still an awful lot to like about Q1 and I think Sutherland gets a lot of things absolutely right. I even like the Spider Ship/Palace that others revile (it's just "weird enough" to sound like my favorite kind of acid-trip-D&D).

But it's NOT "high level" play. To me, this is "God Confrontation Lite;" sure Lolth, as a goddess, is so far out of the class of your ordinary adventurer that there is no way she should ever be defeated. Well, so long as she's played with "Godlike" intelligence and not as a two-bit monster (i.e. so long as the DM isn't "fudging" the adventure to "save" the player characters). The other nice thing about Q1...this is just about the only scenario I can imagine where adventurers of ANY level would have the motivation and wherewithal to even consider confronting a demon goddess on her own plane (really...I tried for awhile the other day to come up with something suitable and ended up with nada...in many ways Bloodstone is just a rehashing of the Q1 plot crossed with a bad B-grade movie).

In all fairness, Q1 does come closest to what I consider "high level play:" the antagonists are definitely up there, the planar weirdness is as it should be, the extra-dimensions/worlds are right on. But then the treasures are pedestrian. Many of the monster encounters are fairly normal/pedestrian. Again, other than the fact that Lolth should KILL EVERYONE should they make it to her palace, the challenges are all geared right around that level 10-14 range...in fact they're a little nerfed (in my opinion) possibly to compensate for PCs having limited access to spells and whatnot (i.e. fighting bugbears and ogres instead of demons as a "game balance" to the planar restrictions on spells and magic items).

And, yes...while I was at it, I also reviewed the 2003 Dragonfoot module Skein of the Death Mother (a re-imagining of the final encounters of Q1 designed and written by folks who didn't like the Spider Ship). And found it was pretty much the same encounters in a different setting...i.e. not much to cheer about there.

So, right...back to my own adventure module designed for "high level play." It's all well-and-good to bitch about everyone else, but what are YOU going to do about it JB? Well, maybe...just maybe...I'll finally get around to publishing my own adventure module.

The main thing that was holding me back was the main "site encounter" due to the necessity of drawing maps...something I have some kind of mental block about. Hell, this is one of the reasons I so enjoy playing (or re-tooling) standard old school adventure modules: my own pulling-teeth-frustration when it comes to drawing up a map. Sure, I can do a 5-6 room cave complex, but a mega-dungeon? A labyrinth with adherence to Gygaxian Ecology? No...those things just don't come very easy for me (unlike some folks).

But last night, I'd had enough...ENOUGH, I say, of sitting on my hands and whining that there ain't no high level adventure modules for using with the B/X Companion. There are quite a few folks that have purchased the game over the last seven-eight months and while I've gotten a lot of positive feedback, I get the impression that for most people it is sitting on their shelf as a mere curiosity. Ugh. I didn't write the damn thing to be a "curiosity."

So I sat down and just drew the maps. All of 'em. They're done.

Of course, they look shitty and unprofessional compared to most anything you'll find floating around the OSR, including One Page Dungeon Contest entries. But at least they're finished. I can now finish statting out the module's last few encounters (now that I have rooms to which I can assign monsters) and get this thing out-the-door.

I'm looking forward to play-testing.

Happy Easter!


...to those who celebrate it.

For everyone else, I hope you all have a great Sunday, with a lot of Spring sunshine and plenty of rest and relaxation to help carry you through the coming week!

Pax!
: )

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for Treasured Items

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

T is for Treasured Items, which is different from the simple treasure found in all editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

All Old School adventurers are treasure hunters…treasure might as well be the name of the game (or at least an extra letter: D & D & T). Without the promise of treasure, there is no impetus to go into the dungeon, no motivation to go on adventures.

Oh, sure, I suppose there are some few adventurers that are motivated by fighting evil or some special “quest” B.S. that they have to complete to get their paladin powers back or something. But let’s look at the spell Quest for a moment…it has a saving throw! Obviously no one wants to VOLUNTARILY go on a quest. Only those forcibly compelled will do so.

Not so with treasure…everyone wants treasure; why do you think it’s called “treasure?” Because it is something to treasure…something considered precious and valuable.

But is it? Do we truly treasure our treasure? Do we treasure it enough?

Like most of the topics I’ve discussed this month, I think that treasure is one of those things we notoriously “gloss over.” It’s all well and good to count GP value for the purpose of how much experience is handed out at the end of a game session, but I don’t think we spend enough time detailing the value and sheer coolness of the treasure discovered.

And by “enough time” I mean ANY time. “Oh, you found a bag of 235 gold pieces.” “There seems to be a pig pile of silver and gems in the chest.” “When you draw the sword from its sheath it gives off a magical glow.”

Wow, how BORING. And yet, the acquisition of treasure (especially in B/X as my players will tell you) can be quite tough, costing more than a few lives in the pursuit of wealth. Shouldn’t the wealth be worth the trouble involved? Holy Jesus yes!

[speaking of Jesus, I almost did T is for Theology...hope everyone is having a happy Easter weekend!]

Recently, my players got slaughtered almost to a man due to a miscommunication and a snowball effect of bad luck. The two characters that managed to “make it out alive” acquired very little in terms of treasure…probably under 500gp worth of loot once the silver and copper was converted. Pretty weak for a pair of 2nd level adventurers…especially considering they left eight of their fellows for the stew pot.

But let’s consider what 250 gold pieces worth of treasure is. First off, it’s a damn sight more than any starting adventurer’s portable wealth, even one from the Upper Class. If “standard rations” are 5gp for a week’s worth of food, the character can eat for almost a year. And this is hearty “adventurer’s food,” not peasant gruel.

Hell, a fully trained war horse can be purchased for 250gp…if the characters were business men instead of adventurers, they could invest their money in a string of ponies and go into the ranching/wrangling business.

But they’re not, and probably the loot will be spent to outfit some new mercenaries. 500 gold could buy ‘em five man-at-arms for double the hiring price of Clem, Chip, and Roy and outfit the lot with plate, shield, and sword. Now how’s THAT for a heavy bodyguard?

Not bad.

But that’s just talking about VALUE. In the end, players are responsible for their own expenditure of currency (and who’s to say they won’t simply blow it buying drinks at the tavern). Treasure should still be treasured for itself, NOT just “what it can buy.”

And that means (DMs) that you must do a better job at describing the haul…not just in terms of encumbrance and value but in terms of what it is. Coins can be ancient or shiny, clinking and jingling or encrusted with the dirt and grit of ages. Gemstones can be plump or small or fist-sized or precious, shining like stars in the night sky, wrapped in black silk or red velvet or neat, little paper packages. Jewelry…well you need to go for broke when describing bling-bling. Make it stuff the characters want to WEAR not just sell. Arm bands and bracelets and rings and earrings and buckles and clasps and broaches of precious metal and more precious stones. Make their mouths water…make ‘em fight over who gets the 50gp emerald rattling in the small clay urn shaped like a demon. The adventurers aren’t jewelers after all…let their eyes glaze over as you describe the wealth they’ve found.

“Only 50gp for the sapphire! It’s the size of my thumb!” Yes, but close examination shows a serious flaw just beneath the surface…what you thought was just a little grave mould is actually an imperfection. Still, it’s enough to buy a suit of chainmail, five kite shields, or half a dozen halberds topped with the “finest elvish steel.”

As for magic items…even if they’re not bestudded with gold and jewels, they should still carry apt descriptions. Maybe the +1 sword doesn’t glow, but it is the straighter and more true than any blade you’ve held, it’s steel shines in the torch light and it’s light as a feather in your hand. Maybe the +2 sword found later is a crude and ugly cleaver, a goblin weapon with attitude, sporting a grinning skull pommel and evil-looking runes carved along its crooked length. Perhaps the +3 shield is battered and dented and only a learned (16+ Intelligence) magic-user or sage can tell you the armorial design on the front is the crest of a family of renowned giant-slayers, the last of whom died centuries before…the wear-n-tear obviously due to the blows of monsters capable of shattering stone and iron .

Make treasure something to treasure. Not everything has to have a page-long story attached, but a sentence or two of description can go a long way to making it more than just a point-gathering exercise. Yes, for some people treasure collection IS only a “point-gathering” exercise and they won’t give a shit what description you attach to the loot so long as you tally up their XP at the end of the night. So what? This series of posts is about ELEVATING your game…give ‘em some description anyway. If they don’t care then let ‘em fence the loot for half the value (and half the experience) they’d normally receive. If all they care about is rolling dice, than making them work twice as hard to advance will give them the opportunity to roll twice as many dice rolls.

For the other players…well, they’ll be happy to bask in the glow of the treasure they find.
: )

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for the Social Status

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

S is for Social Status; the SEVENTH ability score.

“Seventh ability score? I thought that was Comeliness.” No my little poppet, I’m still talking about B/X Dungeons & Dragons, and there is no Comeliness score in B/X. There IS, however a seventh ability score, that I call “Social Status.” You might know it by an alternate name:

Starting Gold.

When creating a 1st level character, players roll 3D6 six times, in order, to determine the following abilities: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. Players THEN roll 3D6 a SEVENTH time to determine their Starting Gold.

3D6 seven times, all in order. Why not just call it seven abilities?

It would certainly make character creation easier to have a more abstract system in place. Consider the following:

Roll.....Social Status
3…..Lower Class
4-5…..Upper Lower Class
6-8…..Lower Middle Class
9-12…..Middle Class
13-15…..Upper Middle Class
16-17…..Lower Upper Class
18…..Upper Class


Lower Class: Indentured serfs, slaves (escaped), criminals, hermits
Upper Lower Class: Peasants, Prostitutes, Working Poor
Lower Middle Class: Low clergy (monks), prosperous farmers, unsuccessful business folk
Middle Class: Middle clergy, students, moderate business folk
Upper Middle Class: Landless knights, prosperous business folk, teachers
Lower Upper Class: Landed knights, high clergy, titled nobility
Upper Class: Royalty, wealthy nobility, theocrats/patriarchs

The Social Status rank doesn’t show what your character IS, but rather what your character’s background is, as well as his or her upbringing. What you DO with that background is up to you…as with the four basic classes of B/X (cleric, fighter, magic-user, thief) nothing restricts your selection of class.

For example, even though you roll a 14 strength and a 5 intelligence, you could still choose to be a magic-user…you’ll simply receive a penalty on earned experience points (a wizard that is illiterate learns a lot slower from one who can read and communicate fluently in multiple languages). We’ve all got that down, right?

Well, LIKEWISE with one’s Social Status. You don’t have to be a fighter just because your father was a “landed knight;” but you’ll find it a lot easier to properly equip yourself as an adventuring fighter with the correct background.

Consider the Upper Lower Class fighter (a peasant) versus the Upper Middle Class fighter (landless knight). The former has, on average, 45gps to play with. The latter has, on average, 140gps to play with.

The peasant fighter? He’s arming himself with leather and a polearm…maybe a dagger and sling, too…in addition to his adventuring gear (backpack, torches, rope, rations, etc.).

The fighter whose father was a knight? He can oufit himself with plate and shield, a couple weapons (including his choice of sword), PLUS his normal adventuring gear. Even though he may have a lower Strength than the peasant fighter, the knight’s kid is going to be much more effective in combat...and probably last longer because of it.

Besides, one can always increase your Prime Requisite at character creation, right?

For most players planning to field a human adventurer, Social Status is probably the BEST indicator of what class one should take. Fighters and clerics should be coming from the upper classes due to the expense of better armor and weapons, not to mention those 25gp holy symbols. Thieves will generally come from the middle and lower classes…they need to afford their thieves tools, some loot sacks, and a dagger or blackjack, but even if they can afford leather armor they REALLY shouldn’t be getting into fights (thieves are not lightly armored fighters…they’re thieves, and they get gutted in combat). Wizards can come from any background, of course, with their exceptionally minimal requirements…a hermit, ascetic, monk, or peasant is just as likely to have magical ability as a nobleman’s son…and any adventurer from a LOW status background would be wise to consider the magic-user profession as away to advancement out of the poverty of his or her caste.

It would be fairly easy to assign standard equipment lists based on Social Status and thus get rid of the “equipment choosing” part of character creation all together…talk about fast character generation! However, I’ll leave that for individual DMs to ponder and tinker/tune for their own campaign setting. Consider, though, the following:

Lower Class: 30gp
Upper Lower Class: 45gp average
Lower Middle Class: 70gp average
Middle Class: 105gp average
Upper Middle Class: 140gp average
Lower Upper Class: 165gp average
Upper Class: 180gp

Each character should have 15-20gp worth of “standard adventuring gear;” things like backpacks, rations, torches, tinder boxes, water skins, rope, sacks, etc. Only characters of Upper Middle Class and higher can thus afford plate and shield (plus weapon). Middle class can afford chain and shield, Lower Middle can afford leather and shield. Any fighter below Lower Middle Class is going to be naked except for a shield…clerics are generally armored the same as fighters at Middle class and above, but are severely hampered below that due to the cost of their holy symbol. Thieves above Middle Class are going to have more money than they know what to do with (i.e. just enough to get them in trouble). While a bow is a good buy for the wealthy (Middle Class) thief, anything more is just going to invite heavy encumbrance (bad) or attract fellow pickpockets/muggers (worse!).

Magic-users should always have some extra gold, and they can use this to buy lanterns and wolvesbane and silver daggers and such…those specialty bits every party wants to have in the group. Wealthy magic-users with extra money can hire porters, servants, and body guards (men-at-arms) to act as shield grogs, too. These NPCs will come in handy when the MU is out o spells, and will probably be too fearful of the wizard’s reputation to try robbing or mugging him…plus hirelings give the magic-user good practice at acting “imperious” with underlings.
: )

So How Was That "No Skill Rolls" Thing?

So far so good, though I'd say the jury is still out.

Tonight, I was more interested in some of the other areas of the game....for example, negotiation, offspring, and play-testing some of the new character classes from the new book. Up today? A redux of the archer, the new-and-improved barbarian, and the summoner spell-caster (specialty: necromancy)...all of which worked just fine and dandy.

We had a total of six players tonight for the Keep on the Borderlands, four of whom needed to make new characters (only two of last week's three survivors were in session). The "standard" classes included a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief, so there were plenty of chances to exercise the "auto-skill roll" thing.

Perhaps surprisingly, the players did NOT "go crazy" with it. They hired two more "meat shields" (both of whom would die in the first combat encounter), but while the thief did flex his "thief muscles" he did so no more than usual (he climbed a wall without rolling and maybe checked for traps once). There were no locks to pick. I did make folks roll for listening checks, including the thief, but with a 1 in 3 chance I don't remember anyone ever missing that roll.

The reason why I say the jury's still out is that they weren't really scouting "virgin territory." There were back in the goblin (and ogre) caves, or they were in the outdoors (lizard man mounds and giant spiders oh my!) where lock picking and trap searching didn't really seem appropriate. We'll have to wait to see what happens the next time they're in a new labyrinth of exploration. I will keep you all posted, but the early results look promising.

Really.

[and I'm not just saying that for my own ego...I've play-tested lots of rules that later had to be chucked out the window. So far, this one's looking good, but I'm not quite ready to call it]

Only one character (besides the hirelings) died tonight...a new fighter (played by Dave, he who ruined everything) got hammered to death by the goblin chieftain while engaged in melee combat. The party otherwise made out like bandits, hauling in plenty of loot, reclaiming their dead companions' gear (the archer managed to find the remains of his dead son who fell in last week's final confrontation), and making friends with the "especially evil" tribe of lizardmen (whoops! missed that descriptive quote earlier!).

Not bad at all. The venue was good tonight (the karaoke mercifully suspended for the evening) and everyone seemed to have a great time. I know I did. I'll calculate experience tomorrow...right now I'm going to bed. *yawn*

Thursday, April 21, 2011

No More Skill Rolls, Dammit!

First things first...I sure hope everyone had a chance to check out my A-Z post for "R" today, 'cause I really like that one!

Okay...now back to the matter at hand.

I was checking out Grognardia's latest greatest today (doesn't everyone do this?) and while three weeks ago I would have been completely on-board with his thoughts, since play-testing my B/X Shadowrun game, and completely junking skill rolls, I've got to say:

It's not enough.

That is to say, what Mr. Maliszewski concludes (that the answer to "climactic skill roll failure" is to not have a particular climax in mind...i.e. practice non-attachment to outcomes) doesn't resolve it for me. I don't want the CHALLENGE of my game to be "how well can you roll," AKA "how lucky are you."

Or rather, I WANT that to be a part of my game...but I want to minimize it. Combat? Sure....you're fighting someone who is resistant to being hurt (as are the player characters), and the tenseness and general "cluster-f**ked-ness" of a combat situation calls for the occasional Fortunes (or MISfortunes) of War. Likewise with damage and saving throws...damage should be tense and have random elements (a lucky "scratch" versus an unlucky "hole in the head"), and saving throws are, well, Saves...your CHANCE to "get out of jail free."

But skills...no, I'm totally over "random sucking." Forget that noise.

Fortunately, in B/X D&D there is only one class that has skills with random sucking chance...the much maligned thief. The stupid jackass class that started the whole philosophy of random skill percentages in RPGs. Just for THAT I'm tempted to NOT fix it.

But no...two wrongs don't make a right.

Why should the thief have a random chance to fail at their class abilities? Does a fighter fail to wear armor? Does a magic-user fail to cast spells? Yes, clerics have a failure chance at turning undead...at low levels only. They auto-turn everything by 9th level...a level at which thieves still have a 30% chance of blowing a remove traps roll and a 35% chance of missing their hide in shadows.

Nothing like a Name level character having a better than 1 in 3 chance of being discovered by a wandering orc patrol, right? Bullshit.

So here's the deal: thieves in my game will no longer have to roll skill use in my campaign. If they have the skill, they automatically succeed, regardless of level. There are a couple of caveats to this:
  • Attempting to pick the pockets of a character/creature with more levels/hit dice than the thief automatically results in the thief getting caught. The DM is under NO compulsion to tell the thief beforehand what level the target is!
  • Attempting to climb sheer surfaces under abnormally hideous conditions (blizzards and magical wind storms, etc.) may require a climb roll at the usual skill chance as per level.
  • Attempting to open locks, hide in shadows, search for traps, or remove (small) traps requires TIME...one turn per effort (during which time wandering monsters may well be encountered). If a thief attempts to do so at a faster rate (like 1-2 rounds), THEN require the skill roll.
  • No thief may move silently when encumbered by more than 600 coins weight (i.e. the equivalent of wearing metal armor, per the B/X encumbrance rules).
  • I'm tempted to simply remove hear noise as a skill...I'm not sure why the thief's ability to hear should be any different than another character. Let demi-humans have their bone in this regard.

These new rules are going into play effective immediately.

Some may ask, doesn't this make thieves "too powerful?" To which I reply, "what the hell are you talking about?" They still only wear leather armor and (in B/X) roll only D4 for hit points. They still go down like tissue paper if they get embroiled in combat.

BUT NOW they actually have a role and purpose in the party! How many first level thieves to you see trying to disarm that poison needle trap, huh? How many times do they actually try to hide in shadows and sneak up on somebody (or attempting that how many times have they horribly failed and thus been caught and killed?)? I mean, sure...you can fudge dice rolls so that this doesn't happen...but if you're going to do that, then what the heck do you need a dice roll for? Just to hear the sound of the dice hitting the table?

Look, I want my players to think strategy and tactics...I want them to be able to count on the thief's skills the same way that they can count on the fighter to wear armor and take hits or the magic-user to use the spells in his spell book. Sure, a lucky hit can off the fighter or wizard before he gets to "do his thang"...and the same might happen to the thief. But assuming the thief gets through the gauntlet to the place where he can hide or backstab or open the lock or lift the important item off the bad guy, shouldn't you be able to rely on him in that moment?

I think so.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well my "B/X Shadowrun" game ran when I removed skill rolls completely. I can only imagine the same will hold true for real B/X. I'll let y'all know how it works after tonight's game.
; )

R is for Romantic Entanglements

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

R is for Romantic Entanglements.

A bit of a follow-up to the earlier post on offspring, the question might arise, how does one actually acquire children in the D&D game? Assuming one addresses the question at all (perhaps a BECMI player on the path of the Dynast immortal), “looking for love” can be a head scratcher for the average DM.

After all, the closest PCs will generally come to love in the D&D game is a random prostitute rolled up on the DMG’s “urban encounter tables” (more on THAT in a later post). Or I suppose one could be forced into a cheesy/loveless relationship via a heavy handed romance plot in an adventure module (Mines of Bloodstone, I’m looking at YOU).

Both of these are rather terrible ideas…the first because…well, because it’s not really chivalric love anyway (let alone the impersonality of rolling up random “romantic” encounters), and the second because…well, because it’s heavy handed and dumb besides.

And yet, while player characters can always become romantically entangled with each other, I wouldn’t recommend it…it can lead to all sorts of bad juju (I’m speaking from personal experience here).

Here’s the thing (isn’t there always a “thing” in these posts?)…here’s the thing: role-playing games are DIFFERENT from other artistic mediums that engage in telling stories (for example, books and film) in that they are COLLECTIVE. That is, there are multiple individuals not only participating in the activity of creating “what’s happening,” there are also multiple “starring roles” or “protagonists.”

And love stories generally only have two stars.

By the way, this holds true regardless of the love story being told…love triangles may involve three people, but two are always principle and one the “odd duck out.” Same with “less traditional love stories” (here I’m thinking of films like It’s Complicated and Brokeback Mountain where the principle lovers were already legally bound to others…despite being part of “the romantic story,” only the two main lovers were PRINCIPLE to the plot).

And yet, with a D&D group you have multiple players, each engaged in the game as their own “main character.” If one PC is in a romantic entanglement story with an NPC or (god forbid!) with another PC, it can often leave the other players feeling left out.

Why? Because love stories are powerful stories to tell…even in role-playing games.

This is one nice thing about computer RPGs that offer romantic subplots (think Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, etc.)…as there is only one player involved, such virtual romances are fine and dandy: there are no “other players at the table” that will get hurt by or feel left out of the imaginary romance. Same holds true for solo games (between one player, one GM)…for the gamers involved, one-on-one gaming allows maximum expression of one’s ego as the GM creates a world solely for the player’s amusement (and for the GM in the game it allows even greater control over what kind of stories are told…this is a two-way ego-stroking street).

But most tabletop games involve more than “one player, one GM (or console);” my current game seems to fluctuate between 6 and 12 players, with 7 and 8 being the usual number to show up. If I were to focus on one character’s “grand romance,” I’d probably be lynched…they get mad enough when characters with “wired reflexes” receive more actions/attacks in a round than the “mundane” PCs. I’m guessing that this, as much as anything else is a major reason DMs drop the subject of romance from their games altogether.

Still…isn’t that kind of lazy?

I’m not talking about character exploration here, I’m talking about adventure exploration and role-playing. And if you don’t think romance can be an adventure (even withOUT soul-searching character exploration), then at least maybe you’ll consider it to be an adventure GENERATOR.

  • “Proving oneself” to a figure of romantic attraction has long been a part of the fantasy genre…what better reason to send a dashing hero (or heroine) after the local dragon/ogre/bog witch.
  • “Rescuing the damsel/dumbass in distress” has also long been a subject of the fantasy adventure. But being kidnapped by the mustachioed villain (or orc raiding party) is kind of a burned out idea. I prefer this as a means of INTRODUCING player characters to potential NPC romances (and no, the NPCs don’t always have to be “beautiful incompetents;” how many times have the PCs gotten beaten up in a dungeon crawl? Perhaps the NPC is a hardy adventurer that was simply “the last man/woman standing” and surrendered to the bad guys rather than being hacked to pieces).
  • “Quests”…to break enchantments, or to rescue the NPC’s kingdom/village/family are also great adventure starters (definitely different from answering the tavern classifieds)…plus saving the township from plague or drought or monsters will usually land you in the good graces of potential in-laws.
  • “Elopement” is a whole different type of rescue option…who’s to say the object of one’s affection isn’t already engaged (perhaps through an arranged marriage) to someone else. Eluding the in-laws and authorities can be its own adventure (especially if you don’t want to blow up your lovers parents with fireballs and such).
  • “Getting rich” is a specific type of “proving oneself” often found in fairy tales…call it the Aladdin Game. Sometimes proving yourself worthy of matrimony means building that castle/palace FIRST (especially if the spouse-to-be is royalty). Achieving Name level to earn that barony or noble title may be 100% necessary depending on the laws/customs of your campaign world and the heights to which one aspires.
  • “Compatibility Issues” – how to put this delicately. It may be that one’s love is for someone physically unsuitable for the character. Usually this isn’t a story of twisted/aberrant romance; it’s a matter of falling for someone who’s been cursed/polymorphed into a human/humanoid form (or vice versa). While the characters might love each other, the polymorphed individual probably wants to return to his/her own form. How this happens (and what the two will do then) is the stuff of adventure tales.

However, even with these ideas, you still have the two sticky wickets: introducing the characters and involving the other players.

Ah, for the days of ElfQuest where one simply rolled for random “recognition” (“soul attraction”) whenever encountering a new elf tribe. Here’s a very simple mechanic one might employ (or tweak and adapt to their own game) that borrows from the old EQ:

  1. Unless a PC is a determined bachelor (as decided by the player), there should be a certain random chance for attraction diced by the DM whenever encountering/interacting with a significant population with the appropriate desirables (for example, a human magic-user is probably not going to find a potential mate when visiting the local dwarf kingdom, unless the player makes it clear his character has “unusual tastes.”
  2. Upon entering said population (or encountering individuals of the correct orientation/gender on the road/underground). The DM should roll percentage dice equal to the character’s level. THIS PERCENTAGE CHANCE IS NEVER GREATER THAN 10. If the PC is actively searching for someone to woo (“I need an heir for my dominion!”) double the percentage chance. No rolls are made for characters UNDER 4th LEVEL unless the PC is “actively searching;” inexperienced adventurers are too busy with the early part of their career to worry about love.
  3. The percentage roll is made for each PC; however, a successful roll ONLY indicates that a potential match is available in the town. Unless the PC actually interacts with the population, the match will not be encountered/discovered. The DM can feel free to keep the result of the roll a secret.
  4. The character tends to find love in the place he or she frequents. If she stops off at the temple to make a tithing, perhaps the attraction is with a worshipper or clergy member. If the character pays his respects at the king’s court, perhaps it is a member of the royal family or suitable court person. If the PC spends all his time in a tavern down by the docks, well…you get the picture.
  5. The indication that there is a match indicates a mutual attraction, but NOT that the NPC is necessarily open to advances. A modified Reaction roll should still be made (and can be adjusted for things like kind words, flowers, a slain dragon’s head, or ample dowry offered), using Charisma adjustments as normal:
2 or less…Severe detriments to relationship*
3-5…NPC spurns advance*
6-8…NPC open to being wooed
9-11…NPC open to marriage, professes love
12+…NPC open to anything, including elopement, affairs, and impropriety!

Failure indicates the attraction is still there, but the PC is going to have to try harder…there are some “fixes” that the NPC just can’t seem to do without…a bath, better table manners, a fatter bankroll, perhaps even the need for more demure attire (female adventurers). SEVERE DETRIMENTS indicate there are forces outside of the NPC’s control at work (he or she is already engaged/married, is of a significantly higher station, is promised as a sacrifice to the local dragon, etc.) that need to be overcome for the relationship to occur.

As for the other PCs, the important thing is to A) give them the same chance of having romance occur (it is lack of CONSISTENCY that really hurts), and B) when it’s not their turn, make sure they have ways to become involved in the relationship. Certainly they can accompany their fellow adventurer on quests and rescues (and even aid/protect illicit lovers in their elopement!)…but also consider they can act as go betweens with parents (to arrange plans of matrimony) or act as witnesses, bodyguards, preachers for the wedding (clerics!), or provide testimony to the sound character of the PC (if the PC looks a little scurrilous and shady). Hell, dwarves can forge rings and magic-users/elves can enchant them (or provide other types of entertainment for the reception). As a single session (or two) “off” from the usual dungeon delving adventure, such an event can be a fun affair.

Oh, yeah…one more thing: I would suggest that any player who actually ties the knot and gets married receives an AUTOMATIC LEVEL UP.

What? Why? Because the act of making a marriage commitment is a big step in a person’s life and lends a certain degree of gravitas, maturity, and self-confidence to an individual…all of which I feel is enough to add a couple extra hit points and push one to the next plateau of strength of arms (combat ability) and heightened awareness (saving throws) if at the appropriate level break-point.

A character that gets divorced or loses his/her spouse doesn’t lose the bonus level…but a PC may only receive the bonus level ONCE no matter how many times he or she gets married. “Been there, done that.”
: )