Monday, November 1, 2010

Winding Down the Session (Part 2)

First let me just say that all my players are great guys…at least, that’s MY impression of them. Even Steve, who’s been gone the last few weeks (though he told me Sunday…while watching the Seahawks O-line disintegrate…that he may be getting his Thursday nights back) is a lot of fun at the table.

And I’m not just saying that because most of ‘em read the blog (hi, guys!). Talking with them before, during, and after sessions they all seem pretty cool. Well…maybe not my brother, but you know…

Smart, too. AB was just remarking to my wife that “they’re pretty smart.” I’m not sure what exactly he expected (a bunch of knuckle-heads?), but yeah, all the guys are fairly sharp, even the guys who’ve never played D&D in the past.

[actually, I do have a pretty good idea of why the players are exceeding my brother’s expectations…for the last year or so he’s been hanging out in small towns in North Carolina, where the sharpest folks are college kids that drink way too much, and where the use of “fancy words” got my brother punched in the face on three different occasions. Using big words is, apparently, adequate grounds to brawl in some parts of this country. AB spent so much of the last 18 months trying to “dumb himself down” that he’s still transitioning back to a Seattle society]

Now I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that B/X Dungeons & Dragons is NOT a game that requires a PHD in rocket science. The rules are simple enough that pretty much anyone can learn it and play it in a single evening. Well, provided they have a little imagination and that any attention deficit disorder is of a mild variety.

But smart helps. And multiple players who are on the ball make the survival rate skyrocket. Unless the adventure designer or DM decides to play dirty (un-turnable ghouls, Blackrazor-wielding halflings, etc.). Without a little dirty-play, it’s tough to rack up any TPKs on that kind of collective brain power.

Which seems to be a bit of what my players want. Quotes heard last Thursday in the Baranof included:

“I figured I’d already be dead.”
“We read your blog; we knew what we were getting into.”
“We’ve been waiting for you to destroy us.”

Hmmm…I see. Great guys, smart guys…but a little masochistic. And here am I, some sort of DM dominatrix, hire to break their balls for ‘em.
; )

In all seriousness, while I do take some satisfaction in inflicting pain and suffering on PCs, like Luke there is a definite part of me that grows a little tired of the “fun house” adventure. Or, as AB said, “the story needs more story to it.”

Here’s the Real Deal, folks: running B/X D&D in a one-off adventure like White Plume Mountain is NOT much different than running D&D Encounters for 4th Edition. Not that I would ever prefer the latter to the former: B/X is easier to run, easier to teach, leaves more room for creativity, and provides real ways to “challenge players” rather than challenging their characters’ stat blocks. However, as Gygax himself pointed out (though darned if I can find the reference), the game is at its best, and reaches its most satisfying potential, in LONG-TERM CAMPAIGN PLAY.

From what I’ve read, 4E’s not much about campaign play…but neither are one-off adventures, no matter how cool they are (and believe you me, White Plume Mountain is definitely one of the coolest). PCs die, PCs get raised, PCs (eventually, probably) succeed…after all there IS one resource that is absolutely un-limited in B/X game play: new player characters. Oh, you died? Make a new guy.

Killing players really isn’t enough (at least not in a one-off game)…and yet it can be a total drag as well, when characters get killed early in the session (as Terril and Sly and Tito did) and players have to sit on the bench waiting to get back in the game.

And yet, death really isn’t much more than a minor speed-bump once players get to mid-level. A 7th level cleric can raise dead on any player character. Unless applying AD&D rules (whole, non-mutilated bodies needed) or adding permanent-death dangers (like Blackrazor), there’s very little to prevent PCs from staying alive indefinitely…so long as they can keep the cleric alive.

If D&D is a sort of chess match between the players and DM, the cleric is the King on the board. Actually, that’s a terrible analogy…but so long as the cleric remains upright, the rest of the characters have little to fear.

- Wounds? Cure light and cure serious work fast with sleeping in between.
- Disease? Cure disease at 3rd level renders lycanthropy, mummies, and giant rats moot.
- Poison? Neutralize poison at 4th level wipes out that “insta-kill” effect.
- Curses? Remove curse at 4th level prevents hazardous magical effects from hamstringing characters.

And, of course, Raise Dead as a 5th level spell. Just about the only things still left in the DM’s “bag o tricks” is energy drain and petrifaction…and the former, being the province of the undead, is also generally defeated by the party cleric.

Anyway, the point is: death is just a part of the game, and rather small one even prior to reaching Name (9th) level…and Name level (in my opinion) is where the game REALLY picks up.

IF you’re running a long-term campaign.

If you’re NOT running a long-term campaign, than 9th level just means those challenges are all the easier. Yes, yes…a dragon will still turn you into bacon (in B/X there’s no need to “boost” dragons, as an average-to-large red will still cook the goose of most fighters up through 14th level). But consider White Plume Mountain: does the microwave corridor or frictionless room or inverted ziggurat provide any more or less challenge to characters of ANY level? Monsters can be increased in hit dice, or made more numerous, or whatever, but a funhouse is a funhouse is a funhouse…whether it’s for characters of 7th level or 3rd level or 13th. And while it is totally cool and fun to throw challenges at players…sometimes killing them, sometimes not…doing so without long-term ramifications is only fun for so long.

The campaign is where it’s at. Without it, you’re not playing much more than a glorified, creative (extremely fun) board game.

So why am I bothering to play White Plume Mountain at all? If it’s soooo “un-satisfying” why even bother running a one-off, site-based dungeon adventure?

Well, for a number of reasons:

A) One-off adventures are a good way to “knock the rust” off my DM skills (especially running the B/X system with which I have less practical experience than, say, AD&D).

B) Running one-off adventures helps teach new players the “ins and outs” of B/X D&D…something new for many (if not all) of them.

C) Running a one-off adventure lets me play a favorite mid-level adventure like White Plume Mountain without waiting months for players to advance…who’s to say they wouldn’t get bored long before 7th level?

D) Coupled with that last reason, running a one-off adventure allows players to get a taste of higher level play which (especially for players who prefer spell-casting characters) can be a real blast.

However, the Number One reason for running a one-time adventure like White Plume Mountain rather than starting a campaign is the simple fact that I don’t really know these guys and have no idea how they are going to react and play long-term.

When I was a kid, we had a tight group of friends that loved to play these games. We ran nothing but campaigns and created whole worlds and sagas surrounding the player character protagonists. As an adult…through high school, college, and later…I tried many, many times to start long-term campaigns. Vampire, Ars Magica, Mage, AD&D, 3rd Edition (D20) D&D, Top Secret, Maelstrom, Amber, Over the Edge, ElfQuest, D6 Star Wars, Rifts, Stormbringer

Guess what? None of ‘em amounted to anything. Nothing, zip, nada. Generally we could do character creation. Often, we could get through ONE session. After that…people get bored, people lose interest, people have different motivations for play and different creative agendas and leave when those needs aren’t being met…

And I get bored, too. I have my own “agendas” when playing/running games (and NOT just killing players or “being a badass,” by the way), and sometimes when my own expectations aren’t being met I can “flake out” on a game.

But usually, it is the players that aren’t on-board for a long term game.

Now some of these cats at my Thursday night game are definitely down for a more serious, campaign-type game (1st level characters, carving names and reputations out of whatever little fantasy world I decide to put together). Others, like my brother and his tea-bagging antics, seem a lot less interested in a “serious tone.”

However, even though it appears I’ve at last gathered a group of like-minded individuals, there is a different issue that raises its head when anticipating campaign play: how does one juggle all these individuals in a long-term game?

So long as the party is just a “wrecking crew” going into dungeons and performing a smash-and-grab…you know, your basic medieval fantasy street gang…there’s not much to do besides make sure everyone has a chance to represent his own character’s persona in the party. The random relationships give the PCs some semblance of reason for being together (as reasonable as anything else, anyway), and after that the story simply becomes “how well does this group of tomb raiders work together on expeditions?” Do the players kill each other over Blackrazor? Do they force the Halfling into all the dangerous nooks & crannies they find? Will the fighter get everyone killed in his rogue quest for a polar bear hat? How many times will the elf cheat death before he meets his final, permanent doom?

These little “story lines” can flesh-out and “add meat” to the site based adventure. But that’s not campaign play.

In campaign play, characters have a real impact on the fantasy environment…on the “world” of the game. As they grow in power and experience, they acquire more than just treasure…they acquire reputations and status, territories and dominions, allies and enemies and relationships. They create the legends of their own game world.

Well…at least that’s how games USED to be. It seems to have been that way in the old Greyhawk campaign (with Mordenkainen, Robilar, etc.) and certainly it was in mine. But with many RPGs of the last 20 years (White Wolf, I’m looking at YOU), the meta-plot and NPCs of the game designers have trumped the action of characters unless GMs are willing to digress from the writers’ accepted story line. Which some have no problem doing (GM tinkers out there), but which I find exhausting…at least when there is a lot of support material that needs to be modified.

ANYway…campaign play in Dungeons & Dragons involves the characters taking a greater and greater role in the shaping of the virtual world based on both their actions AND their very presence (if an 18th level magic-user wanders into town, most people sit up and pay attention). You can’t do this if all you’re doing is running one-off adventures, site based or not.

All right, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. We talked a little bit about our “long term goals of play” last Thursday due to the imminent departure of at least one player (Josh). It was decided we would spend the next couple weeks (presumably his last two with us) finishing up White Plume Mountain. After that, we’ll “figure things out.” However, me being me, I’m already thinking ahead, trying to put together some options or ideas for that possible “next adventure.”

Because these ARE some good guys. And I’d like them to have some fun. And I want more out of the game than a series of one-off adventures, myself. We’ll see how it all shakes out.

: )


  1. Something they did add back in 4E that the early versions of the game had was an inherent end-game. In old-school it's a keep or wizard's tower, but in 4E it's various forms of apotheosis.

    A style of campaign I'd really like to try is the West Marches thing:
    Not the scheduling part of it, but the no safety rails hardcore sandbox aspect. Looks like it'd work well when every player can't consistently make it 100% of the time.

  2. @ Fumers: I'm thinking something a bit more radical...but I'm still formulating ideas.
    ; )

  3. Oh sure, get all radical and satisfying *after* I'm out...

  4. Clerics definitely got overpowered in later editions of the game. They seem pretty modest and balanced in BX to me. The spell list is heavy on the utility side, not much in the way of defense or offense, kinda like 3E bards.

    Cure light wounds and cure serious wounds don't work that fast. They heal 10% to 20% of one of our fighters total hit points. And a 7th level cleric only gets two 1st and 1 4th level spell per day.

    It's a bummer how weak Cure Serious is given that it's a 4th level spell (only twice as good as 1st level Cure Light), though it's a lot better than Create Water and Speak with Plants (in a dungeon that has plenty of water and no plants).

    I wouldn't say BX is getting this healing thing wrong (like how 4E gets it wrong making characters unkillable), but I think saying the other party members have little to fear is an overstatement. We'd be toast or at least the targets of a lot of DM fudging without two clerics in the party.

    A character raised from the dead can't fight, cast spells or use abilities for two weeks, making it not that great for a one-shot.

    Level-drain is definitely worse than death with the game not having Restoration at all. Because of the chunky BX attack progressions, the dwarf's level drain from 7 to 6 gives him a whopping permanent -3 attack penalty equivalent.

    Alster will do the right thing for the party and quietly push the soul-sucked dwarf into the next bottomless pit we come across.

  5. @Fumers, we no longer have 2 clerics; Taril was cut down by the possessed halfling. :'(

    Also, I think the new (post-kill) characters started out with less XP, so there's less incentive to slit wrists and start over (for me, anyway).

    Don't know if B/X is different from Labyrinth Lord, but in LL, the dwarf's SAVING THROWS jump by 3 points from level 6 to 7, but the THACO only goes down by 1 point. Still sucky, but not as catastrophic.

  6. @ Josh: In B/X, dwarves receive their bonuses to attack and save progression every three levels. 6th to 7th is a break-point as is 3rd to 4th (so, I guess, the good news is that now that you're down to 6th, being drained to 4th or 5th "ain't no big thang"). In B/X, all characters increase attack ranks by +10% (+2...yes absolute, not relative). Saves work different, though on average a dwarf has a +2 over a standard fighter in every category except dragon breath.

    Oh, yeah...the new guys DO have less XP.

    @ Fumers...ah, come on, I didn't fudge THAT much. You guys are playing well...I've been lucky to off as many of you as I have!
    ; )

  7. LL probably smooths out the attack table but in BX, the chart on page X26 shows a thac0 of 14 for 7th level dwarf and 17 for 6th level. Saving throws differ by 2 except for Dragon Breath which has a jump of 3.

  8. +2 is not +10%

    If you need a 17 or better to hit, +2 would be a +50% increase in hits.

  9. @ Fumers: Did I not say "absolute, not relative?" If your chance to hit rises from a 10 in 20 (50%) to a 12 in 20 (60%), your chance of success is now 10% more than previous; it has increased (relative to what it was) by 20%...however, speaking in relatives requires one to do calculations for each individual AC.

  10. You did say "absolute, not relative" but I wasn't sure what you meant by that. I get it now.

    You can work out the numbers that way but I think it makes sense to speak about bonuses/penalties in relatives to not understate their importance. Otherwise you end up with not quite right conclusions like "starting scores don't matter that much".

    A first level fighter with a 16 str hits a goblin 25% more often than a fighter with a 9 str, not 10% more. Makes a big difference to think of it that way during character generation stats tweaking.

    If you can increase your defenses so a monster needs a 20 instead of 19-20, your defenses aren't 5% better, rather you cut the hits in half.

    The "+2 = +10%" really breaks down when you get into "need a 20 to hit" territory, especially because of BX's repeat-20s-forever-off-to-the-right attack table. If you follow the rules as written, a +2 bonus increases your chance of hitting by 200%.

    If Bless truly only made your party 5% better, it wouldn't be worth a spell slot.