Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bearding the, Lion

Tuesday night, I was fortunate enough to be able to play D&D again...for the first time in years.

Jeez. That's not really what I want to write about, but take a moment for that to sink in. Just looking at the sentence brings up a whole lot of conflicting feelings.

I had actually expected to get some gaming in next month (August) because my kids were going to be in Paraguay with mom for the last three weeks of summer, and I was going to have a bunch of free evenings. Fortunately/unfortunately, the trip fell through due to my wife's work obligations, so...well, shit. But on Tuesday GusL was running a playtest of his Viking rules for the HMS Appolyon through something called "Google Hangouts" and I got an invite to the game, so I decided to join.

And I jumped on my laptop a bit before I settled 'em down with some television in the other room (an example of my wonderful parenting skills...ordered 'em a pizza for dinner, too). But I got to game for a couple hours, in a very cool campaign setting, with a very thoughtful DM whose creativity I respect immensely. Plus Vikings! Man, I loves me some Vikings. Mix that up with the "Stranger in a Strange Land" trope (our lost-at-sea longship floating up against the insanely massive, steampunk ship-dungeon that is Appolyon), and you've got yourself a very good time indeed., fun. And while my character did get turned into a tiny gold figurine because of a magic trap and a failed saving throw, I got to hit things with an (imaginary) axe and stomp around in big (imaginary) boots, kicking down doors and stuff. Going a-Viking suits my personality quite nicely.

Which leads me to the topic of this post: namely, folks who not liking to put their boot in...for fear some hidden tiger is going to bite their foot off.

Yeah, yeah...I realize I'm eliciting a WTF moment from a bunch of readers. I'm talking about something Alexis was describing in one of his recent posts, Confidence Abounds. The essay describes what "confidence" is (briefly: surety, not courage or ego) and how confidence (or lack thereof) can sometimes manifest in gaming, both as a DM and a player.

And ONE of those ways is a player's conviction...their confidence...that there's a tiger (or similar deathtrap) just lurking there, waiting to do them in. Even in campaigns run with low rigidity (i.e. a more open, sandbox-y type campaign) that would otherwise attempt to encourage player agency and initiative and creativity. Players become stymied in their decision-making, laboring under the fear that the axe is just waiting to drop at their first misstep.

Yes, it's out there. So what?
Now I realize that there are some players for whom this is a preferred style of play...players who like approaching a D&D scenario with all the dutiful care of an archeologist, cautiously brushing the dust away with a small whisk so as not to destroy some fragile piece of ancient pottery; the "fragile piece" in this case being the player's character. For me, this isn't terribly fun...neither as a player, nor as a DM. When playing D&D, I prefer my archaeology a bit more Indiana Jones...some bold swinging into action and a pulpy disregard for one's fictional life and limb. That's the kind of adventure I want from a fantasy adventure's the reason I play D&D (when I get a chance!). In real life, I'm a fairly cautious individual. After all, I've got two little kids depending on me.

But in a game, I can get away with acting fairly brazen...and so I do, as much as I can. I often restrain myself (a bit) for the sake of other players, but I'm sure that some find me a little too "gung ho" at times. Even so, my survival rate is pretty good, helped immensely by thirty+ years of DM'ig experience. I've got a pretty good head for the numbers and playing the odds, and a fairly good nose for sniffing out bullshit.

[that magic trap was something I should have avoided fairly easily, but I was distracted at the moment it came up by a pair of small children clamoring for my attention]

So I'm not terribly worried about tigers lurking in the bushes. Even if there is one (just to take an analogy too far), I'd prefer my character to go down fighting the tiger, then to spend a bunch of my precious gaming time worrying that my paper character is going to die. It took me longer to decide on a suitably Norse-sounding name than it took me to roll up my PC.

And anyway, one of the things I've found in the last decade or so of gaming (since getting back into the D&D hobby) is that DMs have a tendency to be pretty soft on players. It's like they have the opposite problem of these players who fear the hidden tiger. They are sure (i.e. "confident") that playing Old School D&D...with its lack of healing surges and death saves...means that a Total Party Kill is just waiting to happen. And they lack confidence in the party's ability to deal with legitimate threats in a reasonable fashion.

I don't know...maybe I've just been "fortunate" in the draw of DMs I've had (Gus said his last play-test involved a giant demon monster that wiped out everyone in the first encounter, but I wasn't there for that one). What I do know is that, other than Tuesday night, I've only lost TWO characters to death in a D&D game in the last ten or so years...and one of those was a character that chose to die in order to give the rest of the party the time they needed to escape a nest of troglodytes.

[the other character was a 1st level illusionist who ate an orc arrow and only had a couple hit big loss]

I think Alexis is correct in surmising that most of us have been conditioned from our formative years of gaming to expect to be tiger-bitten by the game. That early adventure modules...our examples of what D&D is/was supposed to look like...are particularly unforgiving SOBs, character killers, and deathtraps. And, no, I'm not just talking about The Tomb of Horrors. The Keep on the Borderlands, about which I've written many times, has killed more player characters than any other adventure module I've used over the years...and I've run Tomb at least four or five times. The Isle of Dread is probably (a distant) second. Other adventure The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth or Tomb of the Lizard King are notable (to me) for having caused TPKs in a single run...and fairly early in the game. And White Plume Mountain? My last large group to go through that one played very cautiously (over multiple sessions) and were still wiped out, almost to a man.

These early experiences are what give us our surety that the tiger is out there (in the case of DMs, this tiger is a TPK and our sad-faced players having "no fun" for the night). And perhaps it IS out there. D&D is ridiculously lethal when played as written; you can sneeze a hole in a 1st level player character. Gygax's own house rules started PCs at 3rd level, and this to me is fairly adequate across the board: three hit dice worth of hit points, three spells for magic-users (two for clerics), and a 10% bump on most thief skills is a perfectly reasonable starting point if you want to cut-down on the random insta-kill.

But even if the tiger is there, do you want to play tentatively? Do you (as a DM) want to stock that first level of the dungeon with 1-2 hit point monsters that can't hit chain-and-shield armor? Don't we want our players (on both sides of the DM screen) to have enough confidence in the PC's survivability that we can approach D&D with the gusto and verve of the pulp fantasy that inspired the game? Or do we prefer to embolden our players by instituting rules that all-but-take death off the table: plentiful healing, death saves, "shields will be splintered," etc.?

I'm certainly not what I'd call an academic when it comes to D&D. I'm an enthusiast. But even if I can't raise my writing to academic standards, it doesn't mean I'm not interested in having a discussion in how to make the game a better experience...a grander experience...for its players. ALL its players (including the DMs). How we can grab the tiger by the tail and ride that sonuvagun. Or something.

[***EDIT: Alexis just posted a follow-up essay that has some suggestions/methodology for evaluating your campaign...assuming you're a Dungeon somewhat mitigate players' over-indulgence in tiger fear. Another good read...check it out***]

Anyway. I had a lot of fun playing D&D the other night. I hope I get the chance to do it again in the near future.
: )


  1. Glad you liked the game, it was an interesting playtest for me as I've run a 'commando' funnel through it several times (with 0-level WWII commandos that lack armor and melee ability but make up for it in firepower). It was also the first time in 5 (1 a TPK) playtests that a certain Titanic Nudibranch wasn't wakened to hunt the party through the halls. I generally agree on both not trying to make things too safe for PCs while also not making the dungeon so punitive and trapped as to demand incredible caution.

    As a player I tend towards caution myself and I think this influences my dungeon design.

    1. @ GusL:

      There you go again using those fancy mollusk words...had to Google what the hell is a "nudibranch."
      ; )

      I had a lot of fun with the thing as it was, but I have to say I'm a little sorry we missed the giant beastie...I wonder how we would have handled it in play.

      I have to admit one of the things that draws me back to AD&D (in my weaker moments) is the possibility of including something like Demogorgon in play...