Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Page Counts

Waaaay back in January, I mentioned Ben Gibson was hosting an adventure writing contest (specifically, an adventure site writing contest), but I absolutely failed to write any particular follow-up post on the subject. My apologies. Here's the skinny: the contest ended and, yes, my entry won. 

However, that latter bit is completely unimportant. What IS important is that the compilation of the best entries was released (um, yeah, back in April dude) and is currently available for FREE over at DriveThru. Would you like a handful of adventure sites to sprinkle into your game world as little side excursions? Well, here you go: 32 pages of PDF consisting of eight "adventure sites," each constricted to two pages of text plus map. Not bad. And did I mention it's free?

Here's the bit that I like about it (besides being one of the entries): it's 32 pages.

There was a time when D&D adventure modules ALL clocked in at about "32 pages." That time was long ago, in the magical time period known as the 1980s. 

[funny side note: my kids have romantic notions of the '80s and have often said they wish they'd been alive at that time. My daughter, especially, has lamented that time travel isn't possible, as she'd want to travel back in time to the 1980s and live her childhood then. It makes me laugh. Yes, there are many things about that decade that I miss and/or that I'm nostalgic about, but having LIVED through them...yeah, no. Mm.  Okay, enough...that's a tangent I could wax on about all day...]

And there's good reason for that number. 32 is just eight pages, folded and saddle stitched. Half the size of the B/X books which (at 64 pages each) were just about the limit for a saddle-stitched printer of the time.

Hm. Okay, I'm making an assumption there: my own printer has told me that 64 pages + cover is pretty much the limit of their capabilities. Not sure what reprographics technology was like back in the early 80s. But all those old TSR game manuals (Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Boot Hill, Gamma World, etc.) clocked in at 64 pages or less.

But TSR's adventure modules were always smaller, maxing out at 32 pages apiece...at least up through 1985. 1985 sees the release of WG6: Isle of the Ape (at 48 pages) as well as the Temple of Elemental Evil "super-module" (although that one wasn't saddle-stitched). Beginning in 1986, larger saddle-stitched modules become more and more common offerings from TSR, including most of the final Dragonlance scenarios, B10: Night's Dark Terror, other BECMI-era modules, the DA (Dave Arneson) series of adventures, etc. Of course, 1986 brought the entry of even more "super-modules" to the market, too (A1-4, GDQ, I1-3, etc.) as well as the infamous H-series (Bloodstone). 

In other words: about the same time adventures started turning bad.

Boo-hiss! JB you suck! I love Mentzer's I11: Needle, and I12: Ravenloft 2 is an absolute masterpiece!

Sure, sure, whatever. I'm sure there are plenty of good adventures published by TSR after 1985...my own purchase of modules post-'85 were very few and far between (unless I was picking up old modules...used...from The Book Exchange in Missoula, MT). Fact is that there was a period of time as a kid when I simply had little access to adventure modules at all...that period being between (roughly) 1986 to 1988. As a kid without income (any "allowance" my parents gave me was pretty paltry and probably spent on the occasional comic book), and no car (few places within biking distance of my house at the time carried ANY D&D stuff...maybe B. Dalton's books), there was simply no real opportunity to even peruse these latter-day modules, let alone purchase any. And by the time I got to high school (1988) I was (mostly) out of the D&D hobby anyway, having discovered actual game stores (in the University District and Capitol Hill) and a plethora of distractions...including other RPGs.

These days, though...

There is a limit to what I will read. That's the truth. My time and, frankly, my attention span is rather limited. A 32 page adventure scenario is pretty much the limit of what I can dig into. Oh, I've picked up other offerings...both from the OSR and those "glory days" of the late 1980s...that are far, far larger than 32 pages. But in general they are a slog to read through. And as adventures, they are tricky (for me) to conceptualize and 'hold' in my mind.

Let me explain what I mean by that: when I DM an adventure I need a good "grasp" of the thing to be effective in running it. I need to be able to keep track of the NPCs, the encounters, the way the adventure 'works' (functions) as a site (or sites, if multiple). I need to be able to hold these things in my head in order to react to the antics of the players in a fashion that is appropriate. And by "appropriate" I mean A) in a way which doesn't harm the verisimilitude of the play experience and B) does not cause a cascade effect of errors down the rest of the adventure due to dereliction or neglect. 

Probably I should give examples...and yet I'm so set in how I do adventures already, I don't have any "bad examples" to provide. Perhaps I'm just lazy: maybe I could take and run a 60+ page monstrosity without needing to look stuff up, flip through pages, get confused, get lost. Maybe. Perhaps I've tried running such an adventure in the past and just...can't...remember.

But here's the thing: an adventure is just a scenario. That's it; that's all it is. It (ideally) has a key of encounters that should be both sensible and appropriate (two terms I'm using very specifically). And (again, this is for me) it should have an overall design concept in which those encounters function together in synchronicity...not like a "well-oiled machine," but more like a healthy living organism. Because when we play Dungeons & Dragons we are immersing ourselves in a world and a world lives and breathes. And the person running that world is also a living organism, one subject to error and illness. 

Ugh. I'm probably not laying this out right. Let me approach it from a different angle: 32 pages is IMMENSE, okay? Considering that you are providing a single scenario for adventure...something that the players may choose to ignore or move on from or spend several evenings delving...there is a LOT you can pack into 32 pages. Ravenloft was only 32 pages...and it has more than 120 keyed areas, AND wasted page count on full page illustrations and fortune-card mini-games. The entire Against the Giant series (G1-G3) was published in a 32 pages, and that can take months to complete.  32 pages is a LOT.

If you need more than 32 pages to pen your adventure module, then it probably needs to be broken up into more than one scenario.

That's my opinion, of course. But it feels like a lot of these huge page count adventures are "something more" than a single scenario. They are "setting guides." Or they are "mini-campaigns." And, especially with regard to the latter, why wouldn't you break them into different sections, different linked/related adventures rather than a single, unwieldy book?

Of course, there are also the vaunted "mega-dungeons": the Barrowmazes and the Stone Hells. I know some folks love these. I know that some folks consider mega-dungeon delving to be the TRUE way of playing D&D based on the examples set down by Gygax and Arneson (with Castles Greyhawk and Blackmoor, respectively). They're not for me. I am nearly as interested...and yet far more invested...in the world outside the dungeon, as in the dungeon itself. The idea of playing through a dozen levels of anything is foreign to my game...why O why would I ever want to purchase such a thing for my table?

Heck, I've never been able to finish reading the Temple of Elemental Evil without dozing off.

So, I've come to a conclusion: I'm not going to write any any adventures with a page count higher than 32. 'Big deal, JB, you don't write adventures.' Well, I'm starting to. And I'm going to set some working parameters for myself. 32 pages, including cover page, appendices, pre-gens, etc. That's it. Truth be told, I am a little disappointed that Dragon Wrack was a whopping 41 pages...however, in my defense it did include six pages of pre-gen write-ups and a three page Chainmail supplement.

No more!

I'm totally serious here (silly as this subject might sound). An adventure should offer maximum playability with minimal prep. A 32 page adventure module can be read and digested in an afternoon, and run in the evening...THAT should be the goal. The adventure isn't the game, after all. Oh, it's a big part of the game, but it. Ain't. The. Game. 

[I feel like I'm writing a lot of sentences like that lately]

32 pages should be an absolute maximum for the adventure proper. Many adventures shouldn't even need that many pages (pick up a copy of classics like S1: Tomb of Horrors or C1: Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and remove the illustration booklets...count how many pages those are). Just what are we doing these days with the adventures being published. Here's a list of the last 25 adventures reviewed over at TenFootPole:
  1. a 60 page "non-adventure"
  2. a 17 page adventure with a 7-room dungeon
  3. a 32 page "walking simulator" (not an adventure)
  4. a 17 page adventure with a single encounter
  5. a 30 page adventure with 6 encounters
  6. an 18 page adventure with 12 rooms
  7. an 87 page adventure with 30 rooms
  8. a 100 page adventure with 60ish rooms
  9. a 48 page "digest pointcrawl" with 17 encounters
  10. a 100 page dungeon of nine levels
  11. a 150 page supplement/setting guide
  12. a 104 page jungle hexcrawl
  13. a 120 page city supplement featuring 3 dungeons ("not an adventure")
  14. a 58 page adventure featuring 67 encounters
  15. a 34 page regional guide with "nothing of interest"
  16. a 182 page adventure (holy jeez)
  17. a 31 page adventure featuring 3 mini dungeons of 6ish rooms each
  18. a 75 page "Call of Cthulhu-type" adventure
  19. a 38 page "not an adventure"
  20. a 30 page adventure that seems pretty good
  21. a 24 page adventure that also seems pretty good
  22. a 24 page adventure with 35 rooms
  23. an 8 page adventure describing 12 encounters
  24. a 44 page incomprehensible "adventure"
  25. a 19 page "adventure" consisting of random tables
[why am I looking at Bryce Lynch's reviews? Because A) he is prolific and experienced, B) he has standards to which he adheres, C) he (tries to) only review things classified as "adventures" and does so fairly indiscrimately]

Of those 25, 14 have too high a page count for (my) practical purposes, 3 more are non-adventures, and 4 of those left have a higher page count than the number of encounters in the thing (which is totally unacceptable). That's 21 of 25 (84%) automatically eliminated from my consideration for running, regardless of how "good" the review might be.

Of the four remaining, #22 and #23 get eliminated due to their ratio of encounters to page count. Yeah, there are more encounters than pages, but nor much more...a designer should not need a whole page to detail an encounter, and even though I realize the number given is the average...well, that's still too much extraneous detail/padding for my taste. Tighten it up, folks!

*sigh*  I'm sure I'm coming off as entirely unfair and/or "out of touch with the times." Yeah, okay. I'm mean and old (and getting meaner and older). But here's the thing: adventures are meant to be played, not read. Yes, I know some people purchase these things strictly for reading enjoyment. Yes, I'm aware that writers publish material with this very criteria in mind (and that's how they earn their bread). Yes, I realize that a shit-ton of people don't really understand this hobby we're in. I get it. Fine.

Adventures are meant to be played, not read. D&D is meant to be experienced through play...not through reading a book and/or watching other people (i.e. on a streaming series). I get that people derive enjoyment from this type of thing, and that's fine (if, IMO, "weird"). But folks that are doing this are NOT "playing D&D."  They are not doing the activity that we call gaming. They are doing AN ACTIVITY, but it is NOT gaming. It is reading. It is watching. It is "fanning." It is consuming.

But it's not playing D&D.

Adventure modules facilitate play of the game. That is: they make it easier. Or, rather, they should make it easier. That was their original purpose. But that's been lost...for the most part. It happens. A lot of things have been lost over the years. Doesn't mean we all need to (or want to) travel back in time to the 1980s.

My parameters are my own. You're welcome to create your own parameters. "32 pages" works for me.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Fighting The "Good" Fight


I'm a bit cranks this week...one kid has been sick with a cough/cold and my brother has been his usual pain-in-the-ass self. So...yeah, this might come off as extra grumpy.

Sometimes, I wonder why I bother trying to "help" people...why I bother casting my "pearls" before "swine." Not on this blog, no...this blog serves a very useful, very personal purpose.

[for the curious: the blog gives me a place to ruminate and vent and spout off. It gives me a place to practice my writing. It gives me a promote myself and interact with the community. All useful things]

But, no, I'm talking in other places. Commenting on other folks' blogs or in forums or on social media or whatever. So often I read something, somewhere, and I feel this inclination, this urge to offer something useful...not just throw in my two cents, but wax on in a way that (I hope) might help resolve someone's issue. Regardless of whether or not they asked for advice.

And to be fair, sometimes the essays I write on this blog are made with a similar objective in mind: I feel there's a need to HELP people even when, perhaps, there's no one really asking for help. Sometimes, I feel like I must come off as the kid in the class that is always raising their hand to answer every question the teacher asks...to the fatigue and resentment of everyone else in the room. Am I, acting as a "know-it-all," actually contributing anything? Or is this just another form of narcissism? I wonder that sometimes. And sometimes I wonder if I should just shut up and keep my thoughts to myself. Even as I continue to vomit forth my opinions across the ether-sphere.

Most recently, I posted on reddit. This is something I don't remember ever doing (I spend next to ZERO time reading reddit). I get spam-bot emails in my inbox from the site, usually on subjects their AI thinks will be of interest to me ("Why don't people use the cell phone lot at Sea-Tac?" was one from this morning). Normally, I simply hit 'delete' and move on, but yesterday's one piqued me so hard I found it impossible to resist. It was titled "I think I'm burnt out on being a DM." And the poster wrote:
So I started playing DnD in 2004 when I was in like 4th grade. I remember going into a local game shop with my dad and seeing the book. I remember being immediately interested and begged my dad for it. Well he caved and bought it for me and unknowingly gave me a hobby I still love to this day. 

At first I just kinda read the book over and over again absorbing the charts and dreaming of cool things to do. It wasn’t a till a few years later I actually got to play. It was the best day of my life. I was a dwarf paladin (original I know). 

Anyways for quite a while now I’ve been a DM (I am a player in one camping now though). Anyways I just find dnd has gotten so hard to DM (with new players mostly) who have watched one to many campaigns online with professional DMs and actual voice actors and cool effects. 

So by the time they get to my table they have such lofty expectations I just feel personally like I’m not meeting their expectations. It’s always “well this dm I was did this not that.” 

Maybe I’m just burnt out of being a DM, but I just want everyone to have the best time possible. 

So what I came here to ask is does anyone else feel this way or am I just being whiny lol?

Also im I’m thinking about switching systems just to freshen things up for me. Any recommendations? My games tend to be more narrative with emphasis put on story and character development. There’s still a good deadly fight every once in a while to keep the players on their toes. I think like an Ancient Greek/roman campaign would be cool. Any systems out there dedicated to that?

And I thought: oh, this poor guy. Twenty years he's been doing this...TWENTY. YEARS. A not insignificant amount of time. And now he's, what, probably thirty, and he's got no clue, and he's coming to frigging REDDIT for advice. And the "advice" found in the responses? Stuff like: switch games! Run Savage Worlds! Run GURPS! 5E is sooo hard; try Pathfinder 2E instead! Get away from D&D so people don't compare you to all those streaming shows. 

Just. Bull. Pucky.

So I wrote up the following (because, you know, I wanted to be helpful):
I've been DMing for more than 40 years; started with Basic (B/X) D&D back in 1981/2 and have played through a multitude of other RPGs over the decades (TSR, White Wolf, Palladium, Chaosium, various indie games, etc.). These days I am an exclusive AD&D (1E) DM and have been for five years. My last bout of GM ennui ("burnout") came in 2019. It's not unusual, and I can give you my roadmap for getting out of it and never going back.

First: understand and acknowledge your love for this hobby. Something about it compels you to run games (evidenced by the 20 years you've put in). That's fantastic! Respect your calling...not everyone has it. Realize that this is a passion that can last a lifetime; even avid golfers will someday have to give up walking the course (or get replacement knees/hips)...you can play D&D so long as your mind retains cognitive function and you can roll dice.

Second: now that you've acknowledged that you're in it for the "long haul," you've got to get to work. You must respect the game and respect the process...you can always get better at what you do. Sure, some days aren't as good as others, but so long as you're committed to your game, that matters little...you are playing to play, not to be a video celebrity. You must think of your game as perpetual (i.e. "ongoing," even though there may be periods of hiatus).

Third: there are three parts to being a Dungeon Master; they are (in descending order of importance): A) running the game, B) world building, and C) managing the players. To be a DM you need to be able to run the game with "mastered competence" (so competent that you can teach another player). Pick one system/edition, learn it, stick with it. House rule as necessary, but try to keep actual changes/modifications to a minimum. The best designed edition for long-term play is 1E, but if you feel more comfortable with something else, use it. Master it. Once you've done that, you can move onto building your world.

Fourth: recognize that you are not the same person you were at age 20, let alone age 10. Just as we grow and develop and change, our game must evolve and mature. You will get far more satisfaction out of running a serious game, and creating a serious world, then you will playing the types of game you did as a teenager. Supplement your mastery of the system with real world information on geography and history. Incorporate these things into your game, especially that pertaining to economics, military, politics, and religion. Our own world is fascinating and (more often then not) directly adaptable to our games. You create both depth and verisimilitude when including such things.

Five: despite this being a social game, you must make sure you are pleasing yourself. You cannot give a good game to the players if you are not enjoying the process. The players will enjoy the game far more, and be far more engaged if the DM is enthusiastic about the game being delivered. This may mean that some players quit your game (because they don't like the way you're running)...and THAT'S OKAY. There are always more people wanting to play than there are people willing to act as GM. You CANNOT run a lasting, satisfying game if you do not like the game you're running; it is far better to shake aside the folks who are discontent, and find like-minded people wanting to play the game YOU want to run. Be patient and respect the process...the players will come.

Integrate all this into your psyche and you'll find yourself able to sustain a lifetime of gaming. There's no burnout when you embrace something as a vocation...and you can treat your game mastering as one, if you choose to do so.

For more information on the particular style of D&D play I espouse, you might take a listen to the Classic Adventure Gaming podcast (lot of younger folks are getting back into the old methods of play). Cheers, and happy gaming. 
; )

Yeah. Helpful. That's me. 

Here's the part I should have paid more attention to: the final paragraph. Truth be told, I read everything down to the "am I whiny LOL?" part and then went OFF like the hair-trigger reactionary I am. If I'd bothered to read more closely, I would have seen THIS:
Also im I’m thinking about switching systems just to freshen things up for me. Any recommendations? My games tend to be more narrative with emphasis put on story and character development. There’s still a good deadly fight every once in a while to keep the players on their toes. I think like an Ancient Greek/roman campaign would be cool. Any systems out there dedicated to that?
Ah. D&D isn't what this guy wants at all. No wonder the guy's burned out...he's playing the wrong f'ing game.

This is the problem. Well, maybe not "the" problem. But it's certainly "a" problem, and "the" reason that I keep continuing to throw my hat in the ring. This. THIS. That people no longer understand just WHAT THE F--- D&D IS.

Matt Mercer and all his imitators. They have screwed people. Hickman Revolution/2E Storytelling. They have screwed people. WotC disavowing themselves from any type of clarification, only attempting to make the game EVERYTHING to EVERYONE so as to draw more customers (and put more dollars in their bank accounts). They have screwed people. Screwed them UP. People just don't know what the hell they're doing, what they're supposed to be doing, what makes the game the game.

Here's what I probably should have written instead:
Dude. If you want to write a story in an ancient Greek or Roman setting, then GO DO THAT. Don't waste your time with the role-playing hobby. Write your short story, write your novel, write your screenplay...whatever medium you feel would work best for your narrative structure. Perhaps an on-going television series with a "fight of the week" every episode. Write that...get collaborators if you need help finding 'voices' for the different characters, or individual story arcs. 

You are burnt out on DMing D&D because you want it to do things that it is not well-designed to do. 

The "G" in RPG stands for "game." Are you interested in playing a game? Then play the game. Play the game as its written. Are points awarded for "cool effects" and "actual voice actors?" No. Not in any edition of the game. Are you directing a show? Or are you running a game?

Your disillusionment comes from this disconnect with what you THINK the game is for and what it actually does. Your disconnect comes from your ignorance. This is not your fault; this is the fault of the company producing the game. They are a for-profit business enterprise. They are not interested in disillusioning you of your false notions; they are ONLY INTERESTED IN YOUR DOLLARS. "Sure, D&D can be anything you want it to be," is the general company line...the subtext being "please continue to pay us, thanks." 

The only way to cut through your discontent is to decide what you want to do with your life, with your time, and then embrace it wholeheartedly. Do you want to tell stories and see interesting characters change over time? Then go write stories. Stop futzing around with this D&D thing, get off your ass, and go write your stories. Publish them if you like, or share them with your friends, or simply enjoy them yourself: enjoy the act of creation, enjoy the clever unfolding of the plot and circumstance you've created. Write for yourself...it doesn't need to be a money-making endeavor! Playing D&D isn't making you any money! So why should it matter whether or not your works are ever read by anyone other than yourself or your close circle of friends and family?

D&D is best played as a game. It is a lovely game, a delightful game, one of the greatest ever designed. But it is not a good medium for creating "stories." Do not confuse shows like Critical Role for actual game play; actual game play does not look like that. This is something I would expect you to know and understand, having started playing the game long before 2015 (when Critical Role debuted). If not, then I am sorry, but you were taught how to play by some very wrongheaded person. Again, this is probably not their fault: the company selling the D&D game has far less interest in teaching how to play their game, and far more interest in making as much money as possible.

Apologies for being a downer. Best of luck!

Yeah, that would have been a more practical response for this particular individual.  But would it have been helpful?  Or would the guy simply have seen me as a "hater," trashing his game and those things he loves and holds dear (especially his misconceptions)? 

I'm guessing the latter.

Which brings me back to my original somewhat/kinda'/semi-stated question: why bother? Should I bother? People are so touchy these days, so defensive, so prone to polarization. Recently Bryce Lynch reviewed a terrible adventure module in his usual caustic, incendiary manner. The author was so incensed he made the PDF freely available for other reviewers to judge for themselves and...whadya' know...some folks took up the challenge, giving clinical, measured, detailed explanations of why, yes, this IS in fact a terrible adventure module.  Two different approaches to saying the same thing, and yet the response from the author was the same in both cases: hey, I'll fix the typos, but this dreck make me money y'all so I'm going to keep on a-churning it out. Suck it.

SO: nothing constructive accomplished either way.

Why bother? There are a load of shitty products on the shelves at grocery stores that are absolutely not good for humans to consume...and yet people spend money on them, people consume them, and the store restocks the shelves. Even those of us who have some capacity for discernment...sometimes we just say, screw it, it's been a tough day/week/year, give me a bottle of the hard stuff and a giant box of Twinkies. It happens. It's understandable. I get it.

Should we just give in to apathy? Let the world go to hell? Live our own lives and ignore insanity and ridiculousness because we can't make any real difference?

Yeah, no. I'm going to say "no" to apathy.  There's already too much apathy in the world. Perhaps being (the writing equivalent of) a loud-mouthed, opinionated curmudgeon isn't always always helpful or terribly constructive; perhaps it doesn't reach all that many people; perhaps the effort required is (mostly) wasted.

And yet, if I just shut the hell up what would THAT accomplish? Nothing at all, right? 

I'm inclined to think that ain't a better solution. 

No one's required to like what I have to say. No one's required to listen/read what I have to say. Hopefully, I am penning my thoughts in places they can be easily ignored by folks for whom my thoughts come across as nonsense. I don't really want to inconvenience anyone, after all.

But I'm going to "keep bothering" after all, here and elsewhere, as my time and energies allow me to do. I'm not sure I'd call it "fighting the good fight" more like "creating food for thought." Though I admit that, personally, I do seem to thrive on a bit of conflict. Rising to the challenge, and all that jazz.

Okay. Enough babble for now.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Incentivizing

So many times these days, my blog posts feel like deja vu: that I am simply harping on the same issues, or trying to find different tacks to explain the same concepts that I've already written about ad nauseum. Of course, sometimes it's probably appropriate and useful to explain hard-to-grasp concepts multiple times in different, variant fashions.  

Heck, The Bible uses four Gospels to get the same point across, right?

ANYway, it probably doesn't help I pen my thoughts on discord channels, forums, and other folks' blog comments...sometimes I forget what I've written here versus what I've scribbled elsewhere. I'm not quite the internet rash I was ten years ago, but I'm still spread around a bit.

Here's a recent one from the CAG ("Classic Adventure Gaming") discord: a guy (let's call him "Joe") penned this the other day:
I'm, of course, breaking one of the great taboos by giving my 1E AD&D players XP just for showing up and making an effort, but after 30 sessions they still don't seem to grasp that the motherload is when they engage in combat and get loot. A session of exploration typically nets them 500XP, but the week they beat up the tomb guardian and nabbed its goodies, they must have come out at nearly 1500. After they cleared the tomb I dropped HEAY hints that there was more to explore in the immediate area, but they scurried back to base without so much as a backward glance. Leaving all that sweet, sweet gold (and XP) behind.
To which I replied (in part):
...I totally understand the frustration of slow advancement, but you don't want to train players that they're going to be rewarded for "showing up." 

...if (as I infer) you're running a long-form campaign, don't the PCs run out of money due to their lack of treasure acquisition? Are they constantly starving, running out of resources, etc.? How do they pay for mounts, henchfolk, mercs, arrows, expenses, etc.? Are they not incentivized to pull themselves out of poverty?
Because, you know, treasure...the acquisition of wealth..should be THE incentive in any AD&D game. Here was Joe's response:
Money not been an issue so far. They scraped by in the first adventure, then as a reward for resolving the situation the Paladin's PC was asked to continue to follow the clues they had uncovered and given a bag of gold by his Church superiors to buy him and his associates mounts and enough food to get to the next site. As they get into so little combat the attrition on their gear is minimal and I allowed the Ranger to craft more arrows in downtime. TBH, as only one of them had played AD&D before I wanted to keep the bean counting to a manageable level in case it put them off. I am tracking time (loosely, so I know where we are on the campaign calendar and generally have been reinforcing that if they want to fine-tooth-comb any place then any spells will have worn off by the time they are finished) but no training costs, their only henchman willingly joined them because they'd saved and taken care of the rest of his gang, and I also assume that when travelling across country (which I'm not doing as a hexcrawl) then the Ranger and Druid between them can keep them in game, roots, berries and water. Handwaving a few other things, but I am enforcing consumables for the wizard, and the cost of ink to write new spells (as well as the time it takes so they're having to make decisions about how long they can afford to sit around while he does it).
*sigh*

SO...this post is not intended to 'throw Joe under the bus' (for the record,  I feel I tried to give some helpful, compassionate advice on the discord channel), but I want to use this post to illustrate some bad DMing habits, and how they wreck your game.  Joe's not the only DM out there who has gone all loosey-goosey when running his/her campaign, worrying that "bean counting" is going to ruin the fun and enjoyment of the game. It's a common occurrence. And it ends up causing all sorts of issues as the DM has to patch one leak and then another and then another until the campaign is finally sunk.

Here's "absolute truth #1:" AD&D runs on treasure. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Treasure acquisition drives the game; it is the objective goal that focuses the players, encourages cooperation, rewards ingenuity, and makes for exciting game play. It is the main road to advancement, which results in greater character effectiveness, which opens more content for exploration. It is objective and concrete: a solid, non-arbitrary, non-subjective goal. It starts and spurs action.

Your players should ALWAYS be interested in, and looking for, treasure.

If they're not, then there is something wrong with your campaign setting, pal. There is a distinct lack of attention being paid to the world building. Different players have different amounts of ambition; different players have different amounts of caution. Relative ambition and relative caution are the two "dials" that determine how fast advancement occurs...the drive to pursue treasure. But the desire for treasure should be a constant imperative of AD&D game play. If it's NOT, then some examination is probably necessary.

Read Joe's response again, and let's take this point by point:
  • Paladins aren't getting gold from their Church; they are GIVING gold to their Church. The tenets of the paladin class are pretty clear: they are required to donate the bulk of their wealth to charitable institutions. These characters are MONEY-MAKERS for their religion; certainly, the Church will send them on missions, but with the expectation that they will be returning with vast amounts of loot to fill the clergy's coffers. Hell, they should be positively TASKED with this expectation.
  • Crafting arrows (or any kind of weapon or armor) is not the purview of a character class; unless a character possesses a secondary skill of bowyer/fletcher the making of arrows should be far more mysterious than the using of said arrows. And making arrows isn't as simple as whittling some tree branches...arrows suitable for penetrating armor (whether that of orcs or bandits or dragonhide) are going to need metal tipped heads, specially forged. And where is the ranger getting feathers for fletching? And are they taking the time to steam and straighten and lacquer the shafts? Have they paid for the equipment they need to craft the arrows? Unlikely, since they don't have the money to purchase a quiver themselves.
  • I don't do "training costs" myself, but I DO charge monthly character expenses (DMG p.25) to take into account (in an abstract fashion) all those other sundry costs that come from BEING A LIVE FUNCTIONING PERSON. And henchfolk need those 'cost of living' expenses met, too! Sure, the player characters can choose to be unbathed, unshaved, dressed in filthy, patched rags, and sleep in the dirt outside of town...but after a month or two of that, even the most grateful "found" henchperson is going to walk away. Who wants to live like that? After braving hardship and danger, risking life and limb, you can't even get a bath or a change of clothes? Are you kidding me? Those henchmen are going to walk!
  • Leaving aside how difficult "foraging" enough food for a half dozen people might be, leaving aside how time intensive hunting can be (i.e. how many days it might take to even locate game), just how much energy is a group of adventurers going to need for hiking through the wilderness and battling monsters? After a couple weeks of subsisting on "roots and berries" are they going to be in any condition to fight?  ALSO, working animals (horses, mules, etc.) do not subsist on "game, roots, and berries." Nor do they simply "graze." They need animal feed...and lots of it!...especially if they are carrying burdens or riders. Any steeds are going to die of starvation and overwork if chained to an impoverished adventuring party.
Players these days seem not to grasp the logistics of "adventure" these days. It's not their fault, of course: they've been weened on really sub-par fantasy literature, video games, and films that focus on spectacle over substance. Sign of the times. I was somewhat the same as a youth, though at least I'd done SOME camping as a Boy Scout, and could extrapolate a bit. But reading good adventure fiction also helps immensely. I've been doing some of that lately...checking out old Tarzan novels, H. Rider Haggard, Harold Lamb, etc. Books that deal with provisioning, overland travel, and exploration. The COST of expeditions in these books make it clear to the undertakers that they must have success in their ventures (i.e. they must reap some sort of monetary/financial reward). It is an absolute imperative...otherwise, they might as well not bother trying to get back to civilization.

This is The Way of adventure gaming: adventure gaming of the sort AD&D provides can sustain long-term, engaging play when run in this fashion. "Oh, how boring. Where's the story?" cry some. Look: I enjoy a good escapist novel or popcorn film as much as anyone...but the thing about such stories is 1) they tell the story, and then 2) they're done. Move on to the next distraction. Adventure gaming provides long-term, sustained entertainment...it doesn't end. There's no "beginning, middle, climax" of a story. We are playing (imaginary) people's LIVES. We are creating/exploring a fantastical (imaginary) WORLD. It is the highest form of imaginary gameplay...why would you want to shrink it to a simple "story?"

So you need costs. Because you need incentives. Because that is the gameplay loop that gets you to adventure gaming. The fewer the costs, the less incentive. And, thus, the less adventure.

My players are currently running through my rewrite of I3. It's not I3...it has different maps, different encounters, different background. It's actually pretty much nothing like I3, except that it features a pyramid in a desert wasteland. Oh, and there's an exterior temple with some fanatics. Yeah, that's about where the similarities end (except that there will be two additional sections of "desert wasteland," featuring a shifty "nomad town" and a "lost wizard tomb" a la I4 and I5). 

Why are the players heading out into the rugged wasteland that is southern Idaho? Because they've heard of this pyramid that might have left over loot in it. This is pretty crazy for 1st level characters (the adventure is geared to levels 3rd - 5th) but they are a determined, ambitious (crazy) bunch. Still, they had to use all their coin just to buy a mule and provisions for a three day journey from the last civilized outpost (Rattlesnake Station), choosing the roughest, most direct route to their destination to save on expenses. They have to succeed in finding treasure...failure is no longer an option. They have pushed all their chips into the pile: they'll either come away with fabulous wealth, or they'll be rolling up six new PCs. 

When you run a campaign that has adequate costs, "hooking" players into action becomes very, very easy. Treasure becomes the primary motivator, the number one incentive, and all the DM must do is dangle the idea of a payday in front of the players. They'll travel to ancient and hostile cities, deliver freight by ship through pirate & monster infested waters, brave scorching deserts, frozen tundras, primeval forests filled with inhuman faery creatures. No one in their right mind goes into some fortified tomb riddled with slimes, undead, and death traps...unless there's the opportunity for a huge score. But that huge score is only enticing if and when the players have needs

You, DM, must provide those needs.

I don't run my game in a strict 1:1 time fashion, except between adventures (i.e. outside the dungeon). I charge expenses every game month that passes, even if the PCs are "out on safari" (in the wilderness, in the dungeon) 20 days out of the month..it is presumed, they'll have even more costs, once they finally reach the safety of town/civilization. Those expenses eat wealth at a high rate, even without training costs. If my players' 6th level parties go 4 months between adventures (because we can't get together, or because they're focusing on other characters), they'll each need to hand over 2,400 g.p. when we pull those characters out again, plus the costs for their henchfolk. That could easily add up to a bill of more than 10K. Even if they invest some of their loot in money-making ventures (a wise choice), I'm going to charge their liquid assets...and with a long enough period of inactivity, they may be left with nothing more than the income from their dry goods store (or whatever). And if that is how they want to live out their (imaginary) lives perhaps it's time to simply retire the character from play.  

Old TSR modules are littered with retired adventures running taverns and inns and shops. 

AD&D runs on treasure. It is the only incentive you really need, although players (when engaged with a campaign) always seem to find other motivations for action (revenge and charity are the two I most often see). But treasure should ALWAYS be there, as an incentive...for engagement, for action. And it always will be there...so long as you, DM provide them with reasons to need the money.

; )

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Alexis

Hope folks had an enjoyable Memorial Day weekend. Mine was chock-full (as long weekends tend to be with wife and kids)...so much so that I spent most of yesterday just "catching up" on things.

As such, I haven't taken the time to mention my meeting with Alexis Smolensk last Friday...and darn it, he beat me to the punch, despite having to drive back across the country!

So.

It's funny, this day and age we live in. I've "known" Alexis...emailed with him, done podcasts with him, blogged about him, even (briefly) participated in his on-line game...for close to fifteen years. Longer than my children have been alive. And, yet, this is the first time I've had the chance to meet the man, the myth, the legend (I'm sure he would laugh at that appellation). He and his partner were out on the west coast, and so (flattering, this is) took the time to drive down from Vancouver. Just to shake my hand and buy me a beer.  

Touching...though I'm sure I'd have done the same if (for God knows what reason) I was driving through the frozen wilderness of Alberta.

[I mean, I suppose I could cut up there from Montana, one of these summers but there's a DAMN GLACIER between Kalispell and the Canadian border. Jeez...]

I digress. It was fun. He had wanted to meet my family, and I arranged dinner reservations for the six of us, but in the eleventh hour we (mutually) decided our time would be better spent just hanging out and "talking shop." Which we did, whiling away a perfectly grey and drizzly Seattle afternoon in a run-down, nautically-themed dive bar in the heart of Lynnwood's strip mall sprawl. 

No, this was not The Baranoff...we were at the far more creatively named "Pub 44." Um...let's see if I can get a good screen shot:

Not pictured: dark, cramped interior, pool tables,
rotting dinghy hanging from ceiling.

Pretty much perfect, in other words.

Alexis and I spent the better part of 4ish hours, hanging and talking. A lot of talk about writing, publishing, and blogging. Stuff about D&D. Patreon. Some stuff about generational divides. Some personal stuff. 

Mainly, though, we just spent the time getting to know each other...these two people who have never met or interacted in a physical space together. Trying to gauge the differences between our "on-line personas" and who these real human beings are. Sizing each other up, conscious of being judged by the other, and yet trying to be as authentic as comfortable, out of the mutual respect we share for each other.

It was odd. But fortunately, it's a dance we've both been through...mine most recently at last year's Cauldron convention, when I had the chance to meet and interact with folks like Prince and Melan and Settembrini and Raggi. People who have put so much of their soul's out over the ether-webs...both in writings and podcasts. Does the "real person" bear any resemblance to the "virtual person?" One can only tell by actually encountering the human behind the screen.

So...probably should write my impressions of Alexis the man (as opposed to "Alexis the writer" or "Alexis the DM"). I'm sure he, at least, is curious of my thoughts after our meeting.

I think that...some...folks would be surprised. For a guy 10 years my senior (I'm 50, folks) who'd just spent several days on the road (and just got into town a couple hours before we me), Alexis comes across as a vibrant, energetic man of middle years. "Animated" isn't the correct word to describe him...it implies (for me, at least) "hyperactive" and there wasn't anything "hyper" about him, though he does gesture more than I do. The word I want to use is "galvanized"...the man has an inner fire and verve (?) to him. Even relaxing in a booth, drinking beer, talking in leisurely fashion, he gives the impression of being fully engaged

Bright eyes. There is an intelligence behind them that is neither lazy nor slothful.

Alexis is very, very observant. Extremely so, scarily so. There were times (once or twice) when I could tell, based on what he said, that he had been carefully observing me...not just my words, but my non-verbal cues. Like a parlor trick that gives the illusion of reading someone's mind. It seemed obvious (to me) that he wasn't doing this purposefully, to disconcert me and was, in fact, holding back...not drawing attention to what he was doing...in order to not disconcert me. I appreciated (and still appreciate) that. But I did notice...just as I noticed we were both somewhat selective in what we chose to discuss with each other. "Safe" subjects (or subjects we assumed were safe). As you do, with someone you just met.

Even someone with whom you feel a great affinity.

Physically, Alexis is about my height, perhaps a smidge taller, but very thick, in comparison. Trim enough, for a man his age (he's been exercising lately, for health reasons). Grey hair, medium-long, pulled back in a (small) ponytail. Clean-shaven (note to self: if the hair goes grey, you look a lot younger without a Gandalf beard). Glasses that don't hide those intelligent eyes.

But not an intimidating man. He is warm, not fiery. Friendly. He is a grandfather, a teddy bear.. Admits to being a hugger; he is tender and considerate of his partner. He is self-effacing. He talks about being old...but only as a point of fact, not as a nostalgic, "get off my lawn" curmudgeon. Alexis is a progressive; he is a futurist (at least, in comparison to me) or, more accurately, a realist. He embraces the usefulness of technology. He seems to despise only uselessness and ignorance, though he has little time or patience for institutions that have (in his opinion) reached obsolescence. 

He loves D&D. He is an unabashed, unashamed, unafraid D&D nerd. From long habit, I tend to hide my nerdiness under a veneer of "normalcy," unless and until the subject is brought up. Alexis does not. Telling the bartender or barista he's a DM that teaches people how to play D&D comes as readily to his banter as saying he's just visiting from Canada. He is what he is. And he loves it. He lives it.

[second note to self: you can grow up without growing old. Better than the other way 'round]

It was a good time. We both, I believe, got something of the measure of each other. We were able to connect on a level that was personal, not just electronic. And because of that, I think our respect for each other has deepened. I know mine has. It was a good meeting. I'm glad we were able to do it.

Anyway. I would be remiss if I didn't say at least something about my admiration for Alexis. How much I appreciate the impact he's had on my gaming hobby. It was nice to meet someone for whom you have admiration and come away NOT being disappointed. That doesn't always happen. It was also ESPECIALLY nice that he had some kind words to say about my writing...I had really not expected that. 

And that's about all I want to say. Except this: I scratched on the eight ball in our FIRST game of pool, and I left you with four balls on the table in our second. Come on, Old Man, your memory starts slipping after two beers? Jeez!
; )

Friday, May 24, 2024

Illusionary Post

I am at the point now where I think I have probably spent more time working through the illusionist class than Gary Gygax ever did.

[oh, hello! What's this? Well, it's NOT the thing(s) I've been working on the last couple weeks. Sometimes, when you hit a wall writing...which I have...you need to step sideways to get back on track. Another D&D post for the fun of it]

Once upon a time, I spent a whole LOT o' time writing about the illusionist...mm, here and here and here. Good stuff (there's also this bit about color spray and gnomes...for the interested)). Worth a read, I suppose. But that was all waaay back before I took up the AD&D sword again; I was still futzing around with OD&D in those days, rather than simply playing the game. Tinkering. The silly mental exercises we do rather than, you know, doing the real work (i.e. world building and running). 

Here's a choice quote from my most recently blogged thoughts on the illusionist (post-return to AD&D):
As reworked by Gygax for the AD&D system, the spell list for the class is...poor. ...the class, unfortunately, needs a lot of "clean-up."

But how can I say that, when I haven't actually seen a player run and develop an illusionist character over a long-term campaign? How do I know that the class...as printed in the PHB...wasn't reworked specifically due to extensive play-testing and is, in fact, the perfect representation of the class?

Don't really know HOW I'd run them now, because no one wants to play them in my campaign. I do have extensive spell list revisions stored somewhere on my laptop...I'd be tempted to break those out. But probably, I'd just start with the standard rules (if someone wanted to play an illusionist)....
In other words, I punted on the matter.  What I have found...over and over again...is that with regard to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there is very little that needs to be changed to improve the game's overall effectiveness. It functions, and functions well, within the parameters of the rule system as designed.  We argue and critique and hypothesize and debate but when played with the intention of, you know, "playing D&D"...when played intentionally the game works just fine. Most of the adjustments I've made...or proposed...over the years either ended up falling away (i.e. I moved back to the Rules As Written), or...in the case of B/X and OD&D games...were simply moving the system towards 1E. And now I play 1E. That's half the battle right there.

So then, why am I poking at the illusionist?  Because the class IS still a bit of a mess. 'But JB! You just said...' Yeah, yeah, I know what I just said. Give me a minute.

The most recent CAG podcast focused squarely on the 1st edition illusionist class: a very good discussion, and I found myself in agreement with nearly all of it. Oh, some of my stronger quibbles have to do with the phantasmal forces spell, and the implication that nerfing it (for example, not allowing it to do real, actual damage) is akin to restricting the fighter to only doing subdual damage...but regardless of which side you land upon that particular debate, the major point (we do not want to include a class no one wants to play) is valid, and is one requiring some examination.

So: let's talk about it. Is the illusionist a class worth having in the game? Is is a class worth playing?

As a concept, I think the class is fine...more than fine, actually. It fills a very interesting niche, much the same way that the druid fills a niche. The cleric is the high priest archetype (well, at the higher levels, of course. To start, the cleric is quite a bit farther down the food chain of the church hierarchy). But whether your cleric is modeled on the medieval Christian church or the ancient temples priests of Rome, regardless this is the pomp and ritual and institutionalized religion with all its sacred trappings, bells, and whistles...er, candles. 

And the druid is not of that: they represent the more earthy, shamanic traditions, communing with Mother Earth, the animals, the base elements of nature. That is a great niche...with a great suite of special abilities!...that is somewhat like a cleric (hey, there's 'worship' going on!) but is very, very different. A nice change of pace.

The illusionist is to the magic-user what the druid is to the cleric...a very different type of spell-caster, one who has taken a different road when it comes to weaving magic. While the magic-user seeks to alter and change reality, bending it to his/her will, the illusionist says "to hell with reality! I can just bend the mind and the perception of what reality is."  Which is awesome. It's a different approach to using magic...but one that requires a certain type of player ingenuity to make function. It is a far more subtle type of character to play: yes, a player does have to think in terms of trickery to use their magic with effective results, because the illusionist doesn't have the same direct powers as the MU does with spells like burning hands or knock

Mostly, that is. As EOTB points out in the aforementioned podcast, one can play an illusionist as just a pocket magic-user, with a selection of simple, direct magics: spells like color spray, wall of fog, invisibility, blindness, etc. don't require any heavy mental lifting to use, no negotiation with the DM regarding an opponent's "disbelief" and possible saving throw. Unlike the various phantasm spells, these are simple, direct applications that...if a player chooses to stick to 'em...result in a character that appears (mostly) like any other magic-user, albeit one with a different bag of tricks.

To the main issue: it's not the concept that's the problem, it's the spells on the illusionist's list that fail to "punch their weight," especially as the illusionist climbs higher in level. Sure, it's nice to get phantasmal forces as a 1st level spell and maze as a 5th level, but other spells are simply lame in comparison to the magic's gained by an MU of similar x.p. total. And do I want every illusionist in the game to be pocketing the exact same selection of "most effective" spells? No, I do not.

SO, in order for the class to be viable for one's game...something VERY desirable to me, given the delightful way the class fills its particular niche...the illusionist must be viable over the long-term, i.e. not just for the first five or six levels of play. And that means correcting Gygax's corrections to the original (Pete Aronson) spell list.

[by the way: in preparation for this task, I did take the opportunity to review all the "new" illusionist spells presented in the Unearthed Arcana. In general, I hate them all with (perhaps) a single exception (phantom steed). To me, all these new spells are FILLER, most more-or-less duplicating other spell effects (both illusionist and otherwise) in a slightly more specific fashion. These could be good ideas for illusionists wanting to pursue magical research, but I certainly wouldn't make any of them "standard"]

Here, then, is how I'd curate the illusionist spells; adjustments have been made by comparing relative x.p. values at which a spell is gained compared to the spells granted to spell-users of the same x.p. total in other classes, with some caveats (illusions are, for example, easier to master). In many cases, defaulting back to the original Aronson spell lists were appropriate. I've also added one or two new spells of my own:


1st Level (14): audible glamer, change self, color spray, dancing lights, darkness, detect illusion, detect invisible, gaze reflection, hypnotism, light, mirror image, phantasmal image, ventriloquism, wall of fog

2nd Level (12): blindness, blur, deafness, detect magic, dispel illusion, fog, hypnotic pattern, improved phantasm, invisibility, magic mouth, misdirection, rope trick

3rd Level (12): color bomb*, continual darkness, continual light, dispel exhaustion, fear, hallucinatory terrain, illusionary script, invisibility 10' radius, non-detection, paralyzation, spectral force, suggestion

4th Level (10): confusion, dreams*, emotion, improved invisibility, massmorph, minor creation, phantasmal killer, phantom steed**, shadow door, shadow monsters

5th Level (10): chaos, demi-shadow monsters, major creation, phantoms*, programmed illusion, projected image, shadow jump***, shadow magic, summon shadows, veil

6th Level (8): conjure animals, demi-shadow magic, mass suggestion, maze, permanent illusion, prismatic spray, shades, true sight

7th Level (6): alter reality, astral spell, phantom prison****, prismatic wall, spectral life****, vision


*  Spell description can be found in Aronson's original manuscript
** As per Unearthed Arcana (I feel so dirty)
*** As transport via plants (druid spell) but with shadows.
**** Spells of my own design: the former is adapted from my (Holmes) spell mind warp, the latter is adapted from Aronson's create specters (the original version, not the version appearing in The Strategic Review)


In my campaign, illusionists begin with three spells, randomly determined, each of which may be cast once per day (so all illusionists know/cast a number of spells as listed in the PHB plus two first level spells). To determine starting spells, roll 1d12; however, an illusionist will only be taught audible glamer OR ventriloquism (not both) and will only be taught light OR darkness (not both) before starting their career. 

There are no reversible illusionist spells. Illusionists automatically read illusionist magic.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Projects

The blog is going to go silent for a bit. I have several projects I'm working on, and I want to be a bit more focused in my writing. My apologies to the regular readers.

[okay, maybe the blog won't be COMPLETELY "silent," but I am not going to stress about getting out weekly posts...especially posts with tremendously useful content]

But...I'm still alive and well. Just busy.
; )

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Down To It

All right, I'll amend my previous post a tad: youth sports are slightly less safe for kids than playing D&D. My son was injured during our last volleyball game, necessitating a trip to the ER at Children's Hospital. Fortunately, it's nothing terrible: a sprained MCL but no apparent tears/ruptures; he's in a brace and on crutches for a bit.

[for the curious, he made a spectacular, cross-court diving save to get to a ball, popping it over the net and scoring the point. Unfortunately, he landed all his weight on the side of his right knee where the pads don't protect. While the rest of the crowd and team were cheering the play, he was writhing on the floor in agony...we ended up needing to carry him off the court, as he was unable to walk]

So, a bit of a damper on the end of the season, though it made the loss easier to bear (no one was terribly worried about that, given the concern for my kid's health). It was still a helluva' ride, and the kids had a blast...one of my players asked if we could continue running practices till the end of the year just for fun. I told him, 'maybe.'

The positive to this is that our schedule is suddenly much more open than it was: Diego's out of soccer, (flag) football, and golf for the foreseeable future. In fact, for the the first Tuesday in a long while, the kids and I will be free after 4pm today...that's something like 3+ extra hours of time.

Game on.

The kids have been jonesin' for me to run some D&D, something for which I haven't had the bandwidth the last couple months. It's tough to be dedicated to one's craft when you have familial obligations that take priority. That's not to say I'd trade those obligations for the world...I've seen what the other half looks like, and that's not my bag, baby. But it can be frustrating, even so. Patience has never been my strong suit.

[pretty sure I've written that last sentence a hundred times on this blog, over the years]

Now that the opportunity has presented itself, I aim to take full advantage of the situation. The characters are all ready to go. Now, I just need to come up with a small adventure to introduce the players to the new region of my setting: the Desert of Despair, AKA the Snake River Plain of southern Idaho (AKA "the Idaho Deathlands"). My campaign setting is a couple degrees warmer than real earth and the water table is too low (and the region too dangerous) to allow the type of post-1900 irrigation that has transformed Magic Valley (sorry: no U.S. industrial complex east of the Mississippi in my world; folks are stuck with what's in the Northwest), so the area is mostly arid wilderness. 

It's delightfully deadly.

ANYway...need a low level adventure situation to get the ball rolling. The PCs are probably coming from Boise, which suggests "caravan duty"...that old chestnut. But what I need is a small lair, tomb, or bandit camp...not too far off in the desert that they can't make it to one of the (few) townships...that they can encounter around Rattlesnake Station on the road to Bellevue and/or Albion. Maybe there's some nomads that have been harassing the way station, or some local beef with the tribal families. Something. Because the PCs need some experience under their belts before they tackle the Tomb of the Pharoid or venture into the slow mutant lands or invade the duergar caverns beneath the Craters of the Moon

Welp...better get down to it.  Later, gators!