Tuesday, January 15, 2019

More (B/X) Mummy

And now for some monster love.

I've mentioned in passing my love for 2nd edition's "Mummy Lord." The fact of the matter is that I love the mummy monster in general. I don't know if it's my lifelong fascination with Egypt, my seeing the treasures of King Tut circa age five (when they were in Seattle), or just that I dig cursed movie monsters wrapped in bandages (hiding their Only-My-Imagination-Can-Guess hideousness)...I've just always dug on mummy monsters. Despite cinematic missteps (you know which ones I'm talking about), I'm always ready to throw down some cash on mummy fiction.

So it was that I ran into this post from Matt Jackson the other day that inspired today's idea. Let's talk about the B/X mummy.

For my money, the mummy doesn't get used enough in the B/X game. Heck, undead in general could stand to make a stronger appearance (that's a whole 'nother post...).

Just waiting to be dropped
into your game.
Mummies are one of the top dogs of B/X undead, the greatest of the corporeal undead (though I suppose that depends on how your campaign skins vampires). For me, they are the B/X equivalent of the lich (yes, I realize I added the lich to the monster list of my B/X Companion...forget all that for the moment, huh?), and my inclination is to treat them as such. How? Read on....

The monster as presented in the Cook/Marsh expert set is only slightly evolved from its original appearance in LBB2. Armor class, hit dice, movement, treasure type, number appearing...all its stats are exactly the same. Even the 1d12 damage is from OD&D (from Supplement I, when Gygax introduced variable weapon damage). None of that differs from the creature's earliest incarnation.

Holmes, so far as I can tell, was the first one to introduce the fear trait (similar to Greyhawk's presentation of the lich...in effect, if not actual system), though with the added complication of bonuses for multiple party members (this is pure cinema movie monster stuff, and shows up in the MM and later editions, too). Cook/Marsh ix-nays any such bonus, and I prefer the simpler form of fear found in B/X.

However, I disagree with B/X's "nerfing" of the mummy rot ability. In all editions prior to B/X, a cure disease spell only reduces the effect of the curse (from healing taking ten times as long to healing "only" taking twice as long)...and then only if the spell is cast within an hour of being affected! This makes the mummy's special ability at least as dangerous and permanent as the energy drain of lesser undead (the wights and wraiths): a permanent crippling of the character's ability to heal damage. True, magical curing is unaffected by the earlier (OD&D and Holmes) versions of the rot, but it's still an ongoing penalty as additional resources must be spent to heal the wounded character.

Regardless of how one values the trade-off, the B/X version is still too easily cured for my taste. Any 6th level or greater cleric has access to the spell that will cure mummy rot, and as there's no additional debilitating or detrimental effect, it's unlikely to produce much inconvenience for parties likely to encounter the monster (mummies don't show up till the "levels 6-7" Wandering Monsters table). Yes, mummies are durable and hit hard, but they're still slow and their special ability doesn't strike nearly enough fear in the hearts of PCs...I think most BX players would rather take their chance with a trio of mummies than fight an equal number of wights.

So what to do...up the nasty as AD&D does? In addition to the standard "advancement" of undead (adding an extra HD) in the Monster Manual, we find that the AD&D version of mummy rot causes eventual death (in D6 months) and permanently reduces Charisma by two points for every month affected. ALSO, an individual killed by a mummy immediately "rots and cannot be raised from death" unless both a cure disease and raise dead spell are used within 6 turns (one hour).  Well, now!

[it is interesting that a raise dead spell cast upon an AD&D mummy will turn the creature into a normal human "of 7th level fighting ability, naturally." Raise dead spells cast on undead in B/X simply destroy the creatures (unless a save versus spells is made), but AD&D allows for the raising of undead creatures (other than skeletons) to life, so long as they are "newly made undead" and are within the normal time restrictions of the spell]

No, I can't say I'm a huge fan of the AD&D version of the mummy. And while the older form of rot found in Homes and OD&D is probably my favorite for its long-term ramifications, I think I prefer to stick with the B/X version for its immediate impact potential on an adventure. Characters infected with B/X rot receive no benefit from magical healing, including that of potions, magic staffs, and spells; if the rot finds them deep within the bowels of a dungeon (and out of cure disease spells) their ability to survive will be severely curtailed.

Still, it's fun to ratchet up the challenge such creatures present to players. Without going "full Mummy Lord," here's an idea I've got to make the mummy a bit more of a threat to mid-level characters. You'll note that a mummy has pretty much the same combat stats as a 7th level cleric, albeit one with tremendous (18) strength...that's the basis for the following variation:

ANCIENT MUMMIFIED PRIEST*

(all stats as the B/X mummy, except that it saves as C7 and has Treasure Type G)

The magical ritual for creating mummies was developed by ancient priests who wanted deathless guardians watching over their burial tombs for eternity. Some of the more devout priests chose to undergo the ritual themselves, in order to better safeguard the sacred resting places of their kings and high priests.

A mummy priest has all the same powers and abilities as a normal mummy. In addition, a mummy priest may perform the following magical spells, each 1/day, as a 7th level cleric:

1st level: darkness, cause fear
2nd level: hold person, snake charm
3rd level: locate object, curse
4th level: stones to scorpions/scarabs (functions exactly as sticks to snakes)
5th level: insect plague

A cleric may attempt to turn an ancient mummified priest as a normal mummy, but the creature receives a save versus spells to resist the effect.

XP value: 925

Okay, maybe there wasn't always much
"choice" in the matter...

Monday, January 14, 2019

Show and Tell

A couple days ago, Timothy Brannan commented on my "Bubble" post. Part of what he wrote included the following:
Moldvay, Holmes and Mentzer Basics were all a product of their times. That is getting people (often read as "kids") to learn how to play. As someone who has been developing college curriculums for 20+ years I can tell you kids and young adults don't go to books to learn how to do something, they want a video or podcast (but mostly a video) and that's where they go first. If I were writing a course on how to learn D&D I'd first look at my video budget. BTW this is not a value judgement on learning, it is a different modality. I used to work with severe Learning Disability students back in the 80s that used similar modalities because they could not process information via text and they did fine this way. I know people that swear by audiobooks too and others that hate them. (I have spent much of my academic and professional career on these exact issues.)
...which I find interesting and worthy of exploration.

My son is young (he turns eight this week), but he already exhibits a lot of his father's love of gaming (duh, of course). He enjoys card games (rummy 500 is his current favorite, but he plays cribbage, poker, and a few others, including Uno, Pokemon, and Magic: the Gathering). He loves Blood Bowl (we had a BB "World Cup" tournament over the summer that was pretty epic). He just acquired Axis & Allies & Zombies for Christmas (it was the top of his Santa list). And he's been playing my old games of Dark Tower and Dungeon! since he was three and four, respectively.

[he is also interested in designing his own games, as I've blogged on a couple-three occasions]

As I write this, in the early morning hours while the rest of my family sleeps, I can see from my vantage point two board games (AA&Z and Camel Up!), completely set-up, on two different tables, where he was tinkering with both (a third table holds a recently used Yahtzee and a cribbage board, though my four-year old daughter was the one messing with the latter), and I know there's a new Star Wars Monopoly floating around somewhere (acquired from los Reyes Magos).

As far as I know, he's never read a single instruction book or manual.

In fact, while he opened the new Axis & Allies (and Zombies) himself, and set it up in its entirety, he has all but refused to read the manual, other than the parts on set-up and disposition of forces. He wants me to read the instructions and teach him how to play. And lest you think he will eventually get restless waiting on me and buckle down and read the instructions himself, I would draw your attention to the fact that he's owned Arena of the Planeswalkers since last Christmas, and has never gotten around to playing it, because no one in the house has read the instructions.

[he has used AotPW and its neat minis for other purposes, however...he's just never played the game as intended]

Now this is a child who enjoys reading...he's read the first three or four Harry Potter books, half a dozen of those Wimpy Kid books, and more than double that number of Nancy Drew mysteries (the original ones, written in the 1930s)...he's currently on the Ski Jump Mystery. And that's when he's not reading non-fiction history books, which he really loves...especially anything about World War II or ancient Egypt. He's read a lot of the Magic Treehouse books, but he prefers the dry, "Fact Finder" series that provide the historical foundation for the time travel adventures. The kid even read (an abridged) Moby Dick over a four hour road trip...that was last April; I haven't even read Melville!

But, of course, there's a difference between reading a book and a manual. A book's sole purpose is to entertain and/or inform. A manual's job is (or should be) to instruct, for the purpose of understanding how to do something...like operate a blender or maintain your car or play a board game. Some people really dig on manuals (my wife is one, and she's not a huge reader). Most of us, though, prefer only to use them minimally...as a reference when actually needed. After all, manuals are merely a means to an end, whatever that end might be (working the blender, changing the car oil, playing the game).

In asking my son how he'd like to learn a new game, his clear preference was to have me read the manual and then teach him. His second preference? Have mom read the manual and teach him. Asked if he'd rather watch a video instead of reading the instructions himself, he said "sure"...if his parents weren't available and a video was (my child isn't given ready access to the internet). Reading instruction manuals is just "really boring."

And when I really think about it, it's hard for me to find a lot of disagreement in my heart. Reading manuals are one of my least favorite methods of learning anything, even ones that include photos or illustrated examples. Even videos are a poor substitute for teaching...you can't ask questions of a video, nor ask for additional clarification when required.

I have this story in my head about role-playing games, about learning to play them from reading them, because I've read and learned so many over the years...all the way back to B/X Dungeons & Dragons (which I taught myself to play). But this hasn't been the way I've learned most of the games I know. All the card games I know how to play have been learned the same way as my boy: I've been taught them by other people. Even Magic cards (which were showed to me by a roommate back in 1999). But most of the "standard" card games I know were taught to me by my grandmother in Montana (they play a lot of card games in Montana over the long winter months): everything from rummy and hearts to cribbage and pinochle. I asked my mom to buy me Dungeon! when I was eight years old, and I'm pretty sure it was she that first read the instructions and taught me to play...as she taught me to play Scrabble, Clue, Monopoly, and (presumably) Candy Land.  I taught myself Risk, but I'd seen it played before by my teenage uncles and their friends (again, in Montana). My father taught me chess.

Even recently (three or four months back), I purchased the deck-building game Ivion only after I was taught the game in a demo with the husband of the game's designer. I know deck-building games are a "thing," but till Ivion I'd never figured out how to play any of them. I even purchased a Blood Bowl-themed deck-builder about five years ago (based on great reviews) that sits on my shelf to this day.

Of course, it's not just games I've learned from other people. Every job I've had has required on-the-job training. Sure Burger King showed me a couple 30-minute videos during my first day of orientation (as a 14 year old), but an experienced person walked me through all the ins and outs of the kitchen (and only allowed me to make the most basic of sandwiches till I'd mastered that). The 15 year career I quit to move to Paraguay required four weeks of training in Olympia before I even got a desk in the (Seattle) office, and then 11 more months of a probationary period where I was assigned a dedicated trainer who audited every single action I took for my first six months.

And around the house, I am hesitant to start ANY home improvement project unless I've done it before or consulted with someone more knowledgable than myself (like a contractor buddy or my mom's 65-year old boyfriend who's a retired Boeing engineer and ex-military). I am more likely to pay someone to do the work, not because I have money to burn (I really don't) but because I don't trust myself not to screw things up without at least some solid instruction.

[though I should say I have been much better in recent years in taking the initiative in home projects...but that wasn't the case for the first four decades of my life]

Learning from others...at least learning the basics...is the way most of us feel more comfortable learning. Probably it's a cultural thing (schools and stuff) but regardless of whether we learn best by seeing, hearing, or doing all of us want someone to teach us the various skills we want to learn. Once we've acquired knowledge of the basics, THEN we can refine our knowledge through our own exploration or experience with the subject matter (or seek coaching for more speedy or targeted improvement). But the more complex the skill we're attempting to learn...and the more consequence to failure...the more we desire the help of a teacher.

Now, of course, I have taken the time to read game manuals...many, in fact. However, in all the cases where I have "self-taught" myself something I believe there are caveats that can be attached as to why this occurred.

  • In the case of some games (Axis & Allies, Camel Up!, Battleship Galaxies, PokemonGo Go Gelato, Lost Cities, etc.) there was a case of my children begging me to read an instruction manual in order to teach them, so that we could play a particular game. My kids have been my biggest impetus to learning new games over the last three-four years.
  • In the case of some games (Firefly, Nautilus, Dragonriders of Pern), the theme or setting of the game was one I had particular interest in AND there was a significant (or possible) method of "solo play" included with the game. I have acquired other games with themes/settings that have special appeal for me (The Dark Crystal, The Call of Cthulhu Card Game, Bang!, Arctic Scavengers) that I've never bothered to learn as I have no one with whom to play.
  • Some games, almost all RPGs, I've acquired for reasons of nostalgia, intriguing theme, or specific "design purposes" (i.e. to examine them for how they designed their various systems and incorporated them in the game). However, while I've "read" the manuals for most of these, I can't say that I've learned how to play them. In fact, if you asked me point blank to run most of these (including Everway, Dragonraid, Hero Wars, Privateers and Gentlemen, Blood Red Sands, or the newest Star Wars line from FFG), I would need a substantial amount of "refresher time" (probably a week or more) to re-read and absorb the material before we could have anything like a first session.
  • Other games have been much more easily digested (and thus remembered/retained) because their basic "chassis" are so closely akin to another game I'm already familiar with...like, for example, Dungeons & Dragons.

Yes, Dungeons & Dragons, the game on which I base the lie that "all you need to learn a game is a good instruction manual" because, of course, I was able to learn how to play D&D without the aid of anyone teaching me. This, by the way, is absolutely true: I received my copy of the game, I read it, I introduced my friends to it, taught them (to the point that some of them would later run the game as DMs themselves, for other friends), and never looked back. Having said that...
  1. The edition I first acquired was the Tom Moldvay basic set, perhaps the single greatest edition for learning the basics of "dungeons" and "dragons" ever published. Complete with multiple page-long examples of character creation, running encounters, creating adventures, and running players through the game. The included The Keep on the Borderlands adventure module also provided great notes from Gygax and examples of home bases, wilderness areas, and dungeons...and tying them all together.
  2. The basic premise of basic D&D isn't all that far removed from the Dungeon! board game which, as I noted above, I had already acquired and learned (through my mother) prior to picking up my first box of Moldvay. Just the concept of a multi-level dungeon (filled with monsters, traps, and treasure) gave me a leg up on understanding the game's premise.

I probably can't overstate how much Moldvay's examples of play helped me. I read and re-read these examples many times, even after playing the game the first time. The encounter example (page B28) shows how to use the reaction table, how spells work (in and out of combat), how to conduct missile and melee combat, and how players interact with the DM and each other based on alignment (not to mention basic kibitzing during a game). The "sample dungeon expedition" (page B59 to B60) shows how the DM presents information to the players, how to clarify that information, how to present traps, how to describe features of the adventure site, how to award treasure, how to deal with character death (it happens), and how to manage a group of players...at least, a group all bent on the same objective of play. From these examples, I could look at my own DMing (at a young age) and at least get some idea of whether or not my game looked at all like the one Moldvay was playing. Everything else I learned later (adding the "Advanced" texts to our game) was built off this foundation.

If I had come to the game through some other gateway (especially the original version of the game or first edition AD&D) I can understand how a teacher would have been pretty much essential, just to prevent frustration with trying to understand the instructional text of the game. Hell, I'd be hard pressed NOW to try to parse out the D&D "instruction manual" as it is today, without my basic foundation (I've blogged before how I've literally fallen asleep every time I've attempted to read through 4th edition Champions). I can definitely see that, lacking a foundation and any teacher or mentor, I too would be left with little alternative besides combing the interwebs for some video to show exactly how I'm supposed to play this game...

I feel I've been something less than charitable to folks who "don't like to read the instructions" (even my own boy!) or who prefer watching a video to reading a manual. Instruction manuals aren't terribly fun (usually) and even when they are written in a "fun" way, it's usually somewhat less fun than the fun anticipated from the end for which they've been written (for example, playing the game the manual explains). Dungeons & Dragons especially is a hard game to learn, regardless of edition. I was simply fortunate that my introduction to the game was written for persons "Ages 10 and Up" (yes, I was reading above my age level back in 1982), and that it was written in such a particular, precise yet streamlined manner...even including a page count (64 minus illustrations, tables, and example text) that wouldn't bore the shit out of my young mind. Something to think about with regard to my own game design going forward.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a manual to read about World War II zombie invasions...

Probably everyone loses...

Friday, January 11, 2019

Nearly Four Years Ago...

...was the last time I wrote about Wizards of the Coast's free Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons. People may remember I had some rather harsh words at the time for a company that had promised (and was thrown a lot of public accolades for) a free game that would be "the equivalent of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia" (May, 2014) and had failed to deliver even a complete game (by January, 2015), when it appeared that "the process of launching fifth edition is over."

Well, Lo and Behold, I checked out WotC's D&D site yesterday and found that there was a recent update to the Basic Rules!

Released without almost zero fanfare on November 19, 2018,  it appears (from a cursory read-through) that the D&D Basic Rules could just about be called "a complete game." Finally.

Now, it's not a great "complete" game...it's certainly nowhere near the old RC, for example. But it at least it tells you how to advance characters and how a DM sets challenges and awards experience. No, it has exactly zero information on how to build adventures or run campaigns, but presumably one could puzzle it out through the process of building "fun combat encounters" appropriate for the players you have and stringing them together. Hey, it's not like Heroes Unlimited offers a whole lot more in its core rules!

So, while the 180 page "Basic" game may not provide a lot of great instruction for the new DM that wants to run D&D, I can still squint my eyes and see WotC meeting it's original promise of providing something that "could easily provide a lifetime of gaming" (well, "easily" might be a bit of a stretch). I will give credit where credit is due...it took a few years, but they did get around to it. Who knows? More updates might be to come. Perhaps these Basic Rules will someday be as beloved as those of Holmes or Moldvay or Mentzer!

[interesting that the update doesn't register a blip on Mike Mearls twitter feed. There IS something from Jeremy Crawford (11/26), who is billed as "lead rules designer" and "managing editor" for Dungeons & Dragons...maybe Basic is no longer Mr. Mearls's baby? There was only a single line on WotC's news feed about the update, which makes me think they're not really all that interested in their Basic Rules anyway]

Anyway, I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention this after noticing it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Coaching

The Seahawks' season ended on a disappointing note last Saturday with the team's 24-22 playoff loss to Dallas. Still, it was a far better ending than most analysts predicted at the beginning of the season, when Seattle was projected to win four to six games and miss the playoffs completely.

I say "most analysts;" not everyone was so pessimistic at the beginning of the season, and that includes Yours Truly. I was very curious to see how the 'Hawks season would go this year, but I didn't see the loss of key players as the same grounds for disaster as even the local reporters. After all, the team was still returning proven blue chip commodities in the two areas most important for American football: quarterback and head coach.

True, having those two pieces doesn't automatically guarantee success (see Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Green Bay this year) but, in general, a proven, veteran quarterback always gives you a chance to win games, and a solid coach can turn the most motley crew of rag-tag yokels into a team. That's what happened this year with the Seahawks, as Pete Carroll coached up a defense consisting of cast-offs and young players (and, yes, two pro-bowl linebackers...one of whom was injured most of the year), to the point they could grind out a ten win season and make the postseason as the #5 seed in the NFC. In the end, it wasn't quite enough to win a close game against a good team on the road, but for me it demonstrates the importance and value of good coaching.


Pretty good coach.
I think it's easy for folks, especially non-athletes, to underestimate the benefits of coaching. Coaching is more than simple instruction or teaching, and it is different from "mentoring," a term I've grown to dislike as it's proliferated through our language in recent years. In a coaching relationship, a person with a certain amount of expertise (the coach), provides training and instruction to another person (the person being coached), with the focus of accomplishing a specific task or objective.

Per Ye Old Wikipedia, the term "coach" comes from Oxford, circa 1830, when it was applied to tutors whose aim it was to carry a struggling student to success in a class or exam...the same way a horse drawn carriage would carry a traveler to a difficult-to-reach destination. The term was quickly adapted to  sport, where a coach's aim is (presumably) to transport a team to victory...and from there the word has evolved into a part of our ever evolving lexicon.

These days, we have coaches for all sorts of things: "life coaches," "relationship coaches," "personal finance coaches," etc. Some of us (i.e. "me") may turn up our noses at these (can a person really be more expert at living my life than I am?), but that doesn't mean we should denigrate the concept of coaching, nor of how it works and how it can be useful.

A person with expertise in a field...even minor expertise...can hold up a mirror to what we are doing wrong (or what we could be doing better), helping us sharpen our skills to an end result of being better than when we started. My 71-year old mother doesn't get out to the golf course anymore, but when she did (15 years ago or so) she'd take the occasional lesson from the resident golf coach at the course she belonged to. Not because she didn't know how to play, or how to hold her club, and not because she had any plans to turn pro; my mother will tell you she was a mediocre golfer at best (though she enjoyed the game). But having a coach can still help you improve and develop your potential. A coach can help you become the best whatever it is that you want to be. And if your hobby of choice is something you love, this is probably important to you.

[back when I still fenced, I paid for weekly lessons from my coach for the same reason, even though my opportunity to become an Olympian...or even be competitive in local tournaments and such...had long since past]

The last two years I've had the great joy of coaching my son's (school) soccer team. Because it is youth sports and we're talking 6- to 8-year olds, my objectives of coaching are a little different: helping kids improve at basic skills (passing, dribbling, shooting), getting the kids to work together as a cohesive team, and instilling in them an enjoyment and love of the sport such that they'll want to keep coming back in future seasons. The latter isn't just important because we'd like healthy, active children, but because if players start dropping out we won't be able to field enough players for a full team...and then even the kids who want to participate will have to look elsewhere for their fun.

Fortunately, it appears I'm a fairly good coach (at this level). The parents like me, the kids like me, and everyone is having a good time...probably me most of all. It helps that I give all the kids equal playing time (spreadsheets work great for this), and that we tend to dominate our games (we don't officially keep score or track wins/losses...but the kids know). And that's helped grow our program. My first year we had eight kids on the team. Last year we had ten from my son's school (out of sixteen kids in his class), plus four kids from another, smaller school who didn't have enough players to field a full team. I'm hoping to add at least two or three more next year, as we will be required to split into two teams ("boys" and "girls") and we'll need at least 6-8 kids for each squad. But I'm pretty confident we'll get there...there was a lot of enthusiastic support at both schools.

Still, my expertise as a soccer coach is fairly limited. My son...who spent nearly three years in a South American country where the boys eat, drink, and breathe futbol...happens to be a talented athlete with a passion for the sport. Last April he tried out for (and was accepted to) a local "premier" team that plays high quality, competitive soccer 10-11 months out of the year. It's been a bit of a transition for our family to become "soccer people," but it's been very good for my son: the training and coaching he receives from dudes with British accents and extensive resumes (not to mention deep connections to the local MLS team) is far and away greater than anything I can teach him. He loves it, and his skill long ago outstripped anything I've learned about the sport after decades of play.

Even so, he enjoys playing for his school team, and wants to continue playing for it (seven weeks, every Fall). He understands that I, as a coach, have a much different objective from his premier team coaches: building a foundation for a consistent, coherent team and trying to bring everyone up to a similar level of skill. Diego's coaches at Seattle United, on the other hand, have the objective of developing each individual's talent and skill to their greatest potential. They are not overly concerned with team building, or even winning matches against other premier squads; instead they are seeking to train and groom players for long-term success at a high level.

Here's the reason I write all this (and the reason I've been wanting to write about this subject for over a year): I am of the opinion that our hobby...specifically the Dungeons & Dragons game and particularly individuals who wish to take up the mantle of "Dungeon Master"...could benefit from some coaching.

Ah, hell...that's not a strong enough declarative. I think DMs need coaching...not simple one-time instruction, and certainly not just examples of play from some YouTube video, but on-going training with a pointed objective of creating quality, competent game masters. Waaay back in September of 2017, I hinted at "strategies for enhancing and retaining player enjoyment" (though I never wrote the follow-up post)...this is one of the main ideas I wanted to propose.

And it's not a matter of me thinking there's not enough coaching available; over the last couple years I've come to the conclusion that there really isn't ANY coaching available. Not in the way I think there needs to be.

"And why should there be?" some folks are certainly asking. "It's a game, not a sport. A fun hobby, not a way of life. Read the instructions found in the book and then try running a few games...you'll get how to do it."

Really?

Most of would admit that Dungeons & Dragons (and role-playing in general) is a bit more complicated than your average game. I think people can easily see that the instruction manual, even for "basic" editions, is a bit more cumbersome than that found in your average board game...even those of the "Euro" variety. And, um, we do coach other games, just by the way...my soon-to-be eight year old has a chess coach with whom he's trained (along with several classmates) for an hour after school every Monday the last three months. And didn't I just read something about a new, competitive video game league being formed???

[Jesus...there's your "decline of Western Civilization" right there, folks]

I've bitched before, long and loud, about the lack of teaching available for D&D, how the game is marketed (and written) almost entirely for individuals who are already experienced players, and how the corporation's general strategy for acquiring new players is: 1) get people interested (with "buzz," strategic marketing, and pretty books), 2) have them join a game and learn from 'experienced' players who are probably half-assing the game themselves, then 3) get them to shell out money for adventure campaigns till they stop being willing to do so...probably because they throw up their hands in confusion or boredom or despair of ever being able to do it like those video-stars that first got them interested in the game.

Rinse and motherfucking repeat.

[mmm...do you coach the 7-year olds with that mouth, sailor? Let's tone it down a smidge]

Not really a coach.
That's a vast simplification, of course, but the real fact of the matter isn't (I don't think) one of vast "corporate conspiracy" so much as a lack of plan for growing and cultivating the hobby (which I've also talked about before). Because the job of the corporate suits is to make money and the job of the game designers is to write games for publication (to make money). As long as the money continues to flow into the coffers (and the paychecks into designers' bank accounts) no one's worried too much about where the hobby is or isn't going. When there's a downturn, they'll just layoff a bunch of staff, until they're ready to put out the next product that's going to give them a cash infusion.

[something tugging on the edge of my mind here about history repeating itself...]

ANYway, I think (yes, little old me, who is a very small fish, even in terms of this particular niche of a niche)...I really do think that even a little coaching (i.e. a little more than none) could go a loooong way toward improving, not only the quality of play around gaming tables, but also our perception of the hobby itself. And by "our" I mean "everyone who's aware the hobby exists" (whether or not they play D&D).

Because a game that has coaching is a game that has a perceived desire for improvement...and that usually means it's something respectable (i.e. worthy of respect) rather than just a "silly pastime." Silly pastimes are things that are just fine when played by children, but held as contemptible when pursued by adults. Because adults should be "doing something better" with their time...as if playing golf or tennis or piano was so much more world-shaking in its impact on our communities and the world at large.

All right, that's enough to chew on for now. Probably more than enough.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Accepting Shortcomings

Ugh. I've just tried (and failed) to find the right words for the same subject...twice. Twice I've tried banging out a post that I've been wanting to blog about for many moons...at least eight months, but probably more like a year and a half. This feels like the right time to get to is, but I just...can't...connect...the...thoughts.

Thing is, it's something important (at least to me), but I'm not the subject matter expert on the subject I wish I was. Which means, not only do I not have the vocabulary to defend my position (a subjective feeling), but I can't see quite the way to apply it to the subject at hand (i.e. the subject of this blog, i.e. gaming).

Frustrating.

However, I recognize my limitation and I need to spend a little time doing some research in order to find the words I need. Probably it didn't help that I was up till 1am with the missus last night, drinking wine and watching TV (since I have to get up uber-early to get the ball around here rolling); the old brain just doesn't tumble right in such circumstances. But I will get to it. I promise...hopefully by tomorrow I'll have the words I need.

If not, I'll post something a little easier on Ye Old Noggin.

Later, people. Have a good one.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

We Don't Care

[I'm actually back in Seattle now, eagerly awaiting the start of playoff football. This is a post I wrote while winging my way back from Mexico]

Somewhere over North America…

Several weeks ago I had the chance to watch Dan Collins (Delta) and Paul Seagel in their first livestream video about "old school gaming" in which they discuss some of the concepts that distinguish the "old school" from the "new school" (cue the usual groans and rolled eyeballs). Around the 23 minute mark of the video they start talking about high death count as one of the usual indicators of old school play. And while I don't entirely agree with that, Paul has a quote about two minutes later that really struck a chord with me...one that I've been rolling around in my mind ever since:

"I have had moments with players being more used to 'new school' games being taken aback, and needing an adjustment of 'Oh, really? I can die this easily? Well, why do I care about this character?' And the answer is, well, you don't. Like, maybe get attached to them after they've lived through a few things..."

This is literal truth. We DON’T care about our characters…not at first anyway. 

Allow me to walk through character creation, B/X style:

I roll my six ability scores, then take stock of what I have and what looks like a good option for a possible class, probably leaning towards something I think I’ll enjoy playing (*I* tend to be partial to fighty types). Based on how those ability scores look (in relation to my character class and, possibly, my presumed role in the party) I start to form an idea of my character. Then, because of the randomly determined gold I possess, I choose equipment I feel will be suitable for my character and the adventure at hand. At this point, I might (if my imagination is working good), start to form an image of my character in my mind’s eye…though not often.

Finally, I roll hit points, make some notes about armor class and whatnot, give my character a name that feels appropriate, and pick an alignment based as much on whimsy as on setting, image, and/or idea. Alignment gives me some guidelines for how I might play my character, but if I haven’t formed a really solid concept in my head, I’ll probably just pick “neutral” as a default.

At this point, I am ready to play. There is nothing more I need…no background, no backstory, no hometown, family, allies, enemies, blah-blah-blah. None of that matters. It is helpful if I’m familiar with other players at the table, and it’s definitely useful to know what kind of characters they are running, but these things can be picked up on the fly once play begins. Social dynamics are going to morph anyway once the game commences, based on player personality, scenario/situation, and reaction to situation (based on player personality).

If the DM is doing his/her job, I will become immersed in the game world, reacting to situations as they arise, based on my personality, the resources available to me on my character sheet, and the actions of my fellow party members. Depending on the outcome of party member actions, social dynamics might change, and things may develop that impact future play. But when I am fully immersed in game play, all thoughts of character “image” or “concept” melt away…in my mind’s eye, it is me (JB) wearing armor or wizard robes, swinging a big axe or a holy symbol, dealing with monsters, exploring dark dungeons, etc. The personality of my “character” becomes my own, with all other directional pointers (like alignment) simply fading away.

Let me reiterate that last point: when I am immersed in playing, the character has MY personality, and makes decisions as I would, regardless of alignment. A couple of examples:

- A PC who stumbles across an opportunity to steal a bit of decent treasure (say a fist-sized diamond), unbeknownst to the rest of the party, is as likely to do so as the player playing, REGARDLESS of character alignment.  The lawful character might feel (selfishly) that this is something to be used for the good of her cause, church, etc. and best kept from the hands of her dastardly compatriots. A chaotic character might feel it’s best to share such a find with the other party members because the party is the character’s best ticket to survival (and eventual wealth and power). 

- A lawful character might feel it is best to put captive creatures to the sword as it benefits “the greater good” of protecting civilization from the monsters’ degradations. A chaotic character might feel that captives spared might make fine recruits for a motley horde at some future point…barring that, they may prove useful in some more immediate fashion (information or hostages, for example).

There is no rule that says a lawful character can’t act cowardly in the face of danger (despite what Moldvay writes…see page B11). There’s no rule that says a chaotic or neutral character cannot have a personal sense of honor. And even though the rules state “alignments give guidelines for characters to live by,” in my experience player personality trumps alignment every time, and it is always possible to justify one’s actions later, if and when called to do so.

The same holds true for ANY attempt to artificially create a fictional “persona” based on backstory, secondary skills (1stedition), kits (2ndedition), backgrounds (5thedition), non-class professions (0-level DCC), etc.  Assuming the DM is doing his/her job, my attention is going to be held by the game, and I will act and react to the events of the game based on my personality, and the resources I have available. 

Playing D&D is not the theater. I have no need to understand my character’s background or motivation because I am not acting out a script and I am not reading someone else’s lines. In theater, these things (background, motivation) are immensely important to help put yourself in the headspace of a character, in order to deliver a performance that feels authentic. Acting always filters a character through the actor’s own person, but to get the right emotional beats, actors need to recreate (in their own mind) the circumstances that have led to the on-stage actions they are taking.

Playing D&D is not about delivering an “authentic performance;” that isn’t the objective of game play. The objective is to have one’s character survive and thrive in the imaginary environment provided by the DM. And if the DM is pressing the players hard, providing situations that make survival difficult and thriving complicated, then the player is likely to experience the immersive type of game play that is unavailable in any other medium, outside of certain “First Person Shooter” games (and those only provide a similar experience in a limited, restricted sense). When players experience this type of game play, all the pseudo-storytelling write-ups in the world have little impact on how a PC behaves. 

Why do we care about this character? The answer is: we don’t. At least, not for a good, long while. After a few game sessions…depending on the particular inclination of the player…we start to identify more and more with the scribbles and numbers on the character sheet as being “me,” i.e. ourselves. And it is at that point players start to form an attachment, sometimes a deep attachment, to this alternate identity we’ve created. Even our fellow players may begin to look at the character sheets as “us” (at least at the table) alternately calling players by character names and referring to characters by the names of the player.

But it’s never really the character that we care about. When the DM is doing their job, what players care about is the game being played. And the character as a vehicle is our means of interacting with that game. As characters develop over time, we players become more and more attached to the character sheet that represents ourselves in the game world…not only because of the character’s increased effectiveness (fighting ability, spell inventory, magic item stockpile, etc.) but because of the character’s impact on the campaign itself…the creation of a shared history for the fantasy world based on the adventures experienced, and the stories of past exploits experienced by members of the gaming table.

Losing such a character…this fantasy avatar to which we’ve formed a deep attachment…can be a devastating blow. Having that character diminished (in any number of a variety of ways) can cause us to suffer real anguish, even in those of us who don’t usually feel terrible losing a game of, say, Uno or Monopoly. And from my own experience as both a DM and as a player, I can say that the loss of a long-term character (beloved or not) can have a dramatic impact on the other players at the table as well, not just the player whose character was lost.

Personally, I think that all the additions to character creation over the years...additions that draw out the chargen process…has been done in part to facilitate us becoming attached to our character sheets, trying to make us care about these scraps of paper from Session 1. Yes, I know there are other reasons the designers will cite: providing players more options, adding interesting systems, giving players a means to distinguish themselves from the other characters at the table. Those things are part of it, sure. But really, that's all in aid of trying to make us CARE from the get go…and the thing is, what we truly cared about was never the character itself. What we cared about was what the character was allowing us to do.

And that only occurs with a competent DM and long term play.

All right, we’re preparing to land at SeaTac, so it’s time to put away Ye Old Laptop. I’ll post this to the blog sometime tonight or tomorrow. G’night!
: )

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Meat Shields

Regarding the introducing of the B/X game to new players, ViP asked (in the comments) how I felt about “giving each player two or more PCs, or a bodyguard, or an animal companion” in order to counter the initial deadliness of the game design. ViP cites the DCC “funnel system” (the practice of starting an adventure/campaign with multiple characters, presuming a high death toll) as a workable model.

The TL;DR answer: not a huge fan of the idea.

For those interested in my extended thoughts:

I’ve played DCC more than a couple times. I’ve also played in B/X campaigns where I was allowed multiple 1st level characters to start, with pretty much the exact goal as DCC: allow players a little leeway, without cutting down on the overall deadliness. I’ve also had the opportunity to run multiple characters in games when we were lacking a sufficient number of players at the table; that experience isn’t limited to B/X, either (I was asked to run multiple characters in one of my last ever 3rd edition games).

Here’s the thing: AS A PLAYER, running multiple characters in a game does not give me the same experience as running a single character. For me, I’ve found the practice gives me a lesser experience; that is, the experience of role-playing, the main reason I’m playing a tabletop game is diminished in having to split my attention between multiple characters. I don’t get the same “buzz” from driving two (or more) characters; what occurs instead is that I lose my subjective immersion in the game experience and become much more of an objective “game player.”

To use some Forge-y terms (which I know some of my readers detest), running multiple characters throws me immediately into “author stance” with respect to my characters…the same perspective I have when I am a DM running multiple NPCs. Perhaps this is a side effect of having run so many games (and so many NPCs) as a DM/GM over the years. Regardless of the reason, caring for more than one character causes me to lose my feeling of immersion in the game world…and the game, for me, becomes much more about practical game play, and much less about escapism.

I am trying hard (at this moment) to think of a time as a DM when I allowed players to run multiple characters in one of my games. I honestly can’t remember any (former players of mine reading this: feel free to correct my aging memory). I would much rather adjust/change the adventure, or increase the PCs’ experience levels (for a one-off adventure), or assign multiple NPCs to a party (that I, the DM, will run) then require or allow players to run multiple characters in a game session. When I run a D&D game, I want to give the players an immersive experience; I want players to feel like they are in the game. These days I am of the opinion that most of the enjoyment of D&D play is derived from being experiential and while (in the past) I did not fully grasp this concept, I was fortunate enough to run games in a style that (often) allowed this experience to unfold. Now…I wouldn’t want to run a game in any other way and, to that end, I would forgo any type of “funnel system” that deprived players of the single character experience.

Regarding ViP's other suggestions:

I’ve blogged before (and at length) about retainers in B/X. I’ve also offered my own ideas for adding “built-in” animal companions and bodyguards (see my B/X exceptional traits…some of the entries on the list provide just this type of bennie). My thoughts on the matter, and on hired “meat shields” in general, has shifted somewhat over time.

First, let me say that with regard to “retainers,” the B/X system’s brevity on the subject causes it to fall down. B/X is just a streamlined, cleaned-up version of OD&D and does an exceptional job in most of the slights changes to the original system. However, in subsuming the “Loyalty” system into “Morale” and providing a specific system of when to apply it to retainers, Moldvay goes a long way to undermining the concept of retainers as longstanding henchpersons and companions.

Per the rules printed on page B27 (and, yes, I realize these are listed as optional, but the Morale system in B/X is a rather key component of the game; cutting it results in multiple problems) retainers much check Morale after each adventure with failure indicating the retainer "will not adventure with their employer again."  That is damn fickle considering a PC of average charisma will only command NPCs with a morale score of 7 (possibly 8 if providing lavish rewards and shares of loot). That’s a 42% chance of desertion after each game session (as “adventure” is defined in B/X)! Even improving that morale to 8 only reduces the chance to 28%, meaning you’re fairly likely to lose your retainers after four game sessions; that’s a month of (weekly) play! The Cook/Marsh expert set talks blithely of “permanent NPC retainers” (on page X59) but then provide the exact same morale rules as Moldvay (on X26).

Clearly house rules on the subject are necessary unless you want your campaign world to resemble Vance’s Cugel to Clever, or similar (and perhaps you do). For me, I think the recruitment and grooming of loyal retainers is part of the overall system of character development that occurs in a long-term D&D campaign, helping to make the world more real for the players…and, thus, more immersive.

Jory Cassel, retainer
Retainers, in my opinion, should be MORE than simple “meat shields;” death or diminishment of a retainer is an appropriate alternative “loss” or penalty for players (in place of death or diminishment of their own characters). Players should not be cavalier about hiring retainers and allowing them to die in their stead…at least, not if they plan on hiring more in the future (word gets around…). But this only matters if you have retainers that stand fast with the PCs. Which doesn’t happen often given the B/X rules.

Mercenaries are a different matter. Here, the fickleness of the combined Morale/loyalty system is actually appropriate…and as mercenaries are pretty much expected to die “in service,” it’s less likely for PCs to take hits to their reputation for such losses, at least when it comes to hiring more mercenaries (they WILL however, take a hit to their pocketbook!).

Bronn, mercenary
(no last name)
I’ve always allowed the hiring of such NPCs to round out adventure parties…probably because it was suggested in the opening pages of B2: The Keep on the Borderlands (my first adventure module, included with the Moldvay basic set). The smart adventurers will save some of their starting money in order to acquire these types of hirelings, and I encourage this in new players. To me, a hired sword is just another choice of possible starting equipment for the beginning adventurer. I usually price mercs as 5gp to 10gp depending on equipment and assumed hazards (with expectations of bonuses or loot shares). Mercs in my games tend to follow my presumed prejudices regarding the type. I suppose they’d gain experience as a retainer, but such NPCs only rarely make more than one or two forays into a dungeon before dying or quitting (from a failed Morale test).

As for “animal companions?” Well, setting aside for the moment that I am a bit dissatisfied with how I did the exceptional traits (and would probably re-write them before using them)…I think such special characters fall into a category very similar to “loyal retainers.” They should probably only be provided as a reward for advancement (not something to start with at 1st level), as part of a character’s ongoing development. They should count against a character’s limit of retainers (based on Charisma), and they should not be considered simple “meat shields.” For me, an animal companion is something akin to a discovered magic item, and its loss should be a real blow to a character.

Expensive mounts and warhorses, I put in the same category as mercenaries…though their “loyalty” is assured so long as you remember to tie them up.
; )