Saturday, July 13, 2024

Basic Adventure Gaming

Some years back, I decided that I would stop referring to what I do as 'role-playing' and instead refer to these things (what I once called "RPGs") as "fantasy adventure games" (or "FAGs," for short). I know I was doing this as early as 2013, because I was very deliberate in my omission of any phrases of "role-playing" in my self-published Five Ancient Kingdoms game. You see, I wanted to end any confusion over how I (as a designer) intended my games to be played.

Of course, the term "fantasy adventure game" is not original to my noggin...I'm fairly sure I stole the term directly from my copy of Moldvay. "Fantasy Adventure Game Basic Booklet" it says, right there on the cover (the Cook/Marsh expert set says "Fantasy Adventure Game Expert Booklet"). The first paragraph of Moldvay's introduction begins:
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Fantasy Adventure Game ("The D&D Game" for short) is a role-playing adventure game for persons 10 years and older...
It's a good term for what the game is about..."fantasy adventure," duh...and, I believe, helps put one in the mindset of what we're supposed to be doing when we sit down at the gaming table. Let there be no confusion! We are here to play a game of fantasy adventure; we are not here to play-act, explore alternate personalities, or craft delightful narratives...all things the "role-playing" term has come to represent.

For the most part, I've approached my entire role-playing hobby in this way...and why not, when my introduction to the hobby was the D&D game?...even with game systems that are clearly not conducive to this style of play. Or rather, I did...up until the early 2000s when I started reading RPG theory over at the Forge and recognizing how different systems facilitate different types of play.

So, yeah...I've been a fantasy adventure gamer (a "FAG") for a long time. 40+ years. And yet I understand that my view of how to use these games is different from the majority opinion these days. Which is why I decided to start distinguishing myself (and, yes, distancing myself) from the "role-playing" terminology. Not because I don't see what I do as "playing a role-playing games" (a genre of entertainment distinct from board games or computer games), but because my approach to how one plays an RPG is so foreign to the majority of the community...even that part of the community purporting to play Dungeons & Dragons, the FIRST fantasy adventure game.

I'm not the only one. I've previously mentioned the growing CAG community ("CAG" is an acronym for classic adventure gaming...I suppose the term "FAG" was found to be problematic...), a splinter group of the "old school" scene that exist mainly to 'keep the flame' of adventure gaming alive, in the same way that the early OSR tried to keep alive "old edition" gaming: by discussion, encouragement, and sharing of 'best practice' wisdom from old timers, not to mention just playing. In terms of the overall hobby, CAG style play can be seen as a niche of a niche: "old variety D&D" is enjoying the same proliferation and popularity one sees in the current (5th+) edition of D&D, but even among the folks who play old edition D&D (or its clones, like OSE) there is a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation, and inaccurate assumptions of what game-play is supposed to look like. The CAG folks aren't (especially) trying to rectify that, but they are trying to be a repository for knowledge, and a resource for folks looking for a way of playing these games in this particular style.

"This particular style." Yeah, I know how I sound. I'm trying to avoid writing "teaching people how to play D&D the correct way," because I know that ruffles feathers. Ruffling feathers isn't my objective today. Definitely not my objective.

*ahem* For more information on CAG, I'd suggest checking out the semi-regular CAG podcast, especially the first couple/three episodes. For shorter summaries, you can read Zherbus or EOTB's blog postings which are fair summations of CAG gaming philosophy. Both of these folks are strong proponents of 1E AD&D (and OSRIC, 1E's retroclone), for the simple reason that it is the system that best facilitates this type of play (a perspective I happen to agree with). 

But the question has come up: Can Basic systems (like B/X, BECMI, Holmes, Labyrinth Lord, Old School Essentials, etc.) be used for CAG play? And, if so, how?

The answer to the first question is decidedly "yes." The answer to the second is...longer.

The basic games (Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer) were all initially intended to act as introductions to the D&D game. It is only with the additional Mentzer volumes (the Companion, Master, and Immortal rule sets) that the "D&D" game (distinct from Advanced D&D, i.e. AD&D, the main product line of TSR for the majority of its existence) became something that could be considered a "complete" game system...a system of its own, standing in its own right.

This latter edition (called BECMI, later consolidated in Aaron Alston's Rules Cyclopedia, sometimes referred to as the "RC") is something I didn't play when it was first published (i.e 'in the days of my youth'). My friends and I played AD&D, although we did pick up some of the BECMI offerings (for 'reasons'). But there was a LOT of stuff for this line that hit the shelves...I've always assumed it was a popular game line at the time, which is why they created so much content for it (setting material in the form of Gazetteers, game accessories, adventure modules for all levels of play). Decades later (in the early 2000s) I acquired a lot of it and messed around with it a bit, thinking there might be something there. 

Meh.

Only recently, I've been hipped to the fact that it might not have been a very popular game line at all...at least in the USA. However, this Mentzer-penned version of "basic" was the version first translated (officially) into other languages and sold overseas. The 1E PHB and DMG were translated into both French and German, but Mentzer's Basic set (and the BECMI line) was translated to French, German, Danish, Finnish, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Korean, Spanish, and Swedish. For many countries outside the United States, Basic D&D was the seminal, defining version of the game.

I'm digressing. As said, the original Basic sets were meant to be a "gateway" to the AD&D game (as it was for me)...but that wasn't necessarily the case in other parts of the world.  Then TSR crashed and we didn't see, hear, or care about these "basic" games until the rise of the OSR circa 2007-9.

Mm.

This next part is tricky. The OSR didn't treat these Basic editions as "introductory" systems; quite the contrary, they looked at them as editions of D&D worth being played in and for themselves. There were a lot of reasons for this. Ease/accessibility was a major reason: they are short systems to read with less nuance. Their rules were so uncomplicated and simple that creating additional, compatible material (a thrilling pastime for creatives) was a cinch. And...probably...there was a lot of familiarity and nostalgia with these systems, especially in light of A) the OSR being an international community, plus B) Mentzer's Basic being the "standard" D&D most widely translated across countries/cultures.

They were also some of the earliest retroclones on the market. Labyrinth Lord wasn't written as an 'introduction' to anything, and its Advanced Edition Companion gave people additional (1st Edition) content, adapted to the Basic chassis. Lamentations of the Flame Princess used basic D&D as a vehicle for exploring all sorts of grimness. OSE simply re-organized the B/X books in a way to make them even more user friendly than they already were.  None of them were designed, nor seemed interested, in being a gateway or bridge to a more Advanced game. These clones were created by different, independent publishers (with different, independent motivations), NOT by a single, gigantic corporation hoping to funnel newbs to its flagship product. 

So...back to that second question.

When one understands the objectives of "adventure gaming," one can begin to see the limitations inherent in a game designed first and foremost as an introduction to the "real game" (the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game written and published concurrently with the first 'Basic' set). Most of the stated attributes of adventure gaming (again, looking at the two cited blog posts above) are easily satisfied even with a basic system of procedures. However, the overall objective/goal of fantasy adventure gaming is long term campaign play...sustained play in an enduring fantasy environment, created by the DM and impacted by the players. Despite the ease and accessibility of the various basic rule sets, their systems have several insufficiencies that hinder long term play. These are:
1. Severe lack of distinction between character type. The basic character falls into one of seven categoric class, is defined by one of three alignments, and has an extremely limited selection of equipment and magic spells with which to choose. Variation between ability scores is compressed (seven possible options for each ability) contributing to a marked "sameness" between PCs. For an introduction to the game, this limited selection is more than adequate; it cuts down on the amount of "analysis paralysis" inherent in a new player approaching a complex game. For long-term engagement, however, more distinction and variety is desirable. AD&D offers 36 class variations (interlocking with race), another score of multi-class options, several times the number of armor and weapon selections, and four distinct spell lists, each of which contains more 1st level spells than any spell list in the basic systems. The variety in the advanced game is sufficient without being overwhelming, providing much "replay" value (in terms of exploring different character types for interacting with the D&D environment).

2. Lack of survivability. This has been discussed before: basic characters are fairly fragile at low levels, easily slain by misadventure. Lack of staying power is a barrier to long-term play, requiring more work on the part of both DM and players to ensure surviving to higher levels of play (a desirable outcome as it opens more content for players and DMs to experience). AD&D increases survivability by providing higher hit dice for most character classes, a negative hit point "buffer," and plentiful healing magic from clerical types even beginning at 1st level.

3. Less opportunity for advancement. Basic systems award x.p. for both combat and treasure found (just as in AD&D) but does so at a lesser rater: fewer x.p. are awarded for monsters and treasure x.p. is only awarded for monetary treasure (magical items being deemed as 'their own reward'). True, x.p. totals for advancement are slightly lower than in the Advanced game, but in practice, far more x.p. is awarded in the Advanced game, especially with the potential to sell magic items for exorbitant amounts of gold and x.p. This procedure in first edition AD&D allows characters to continue to rise at a regular pace, even as the x.p. totals needed for advancement rise to six- and seven-digit figures. Treasure pools for monsters also have a tendency to award more treasure than what is given for the hoards of basic monsters; type H treasure (the best available in B/X) awards an average haul valued at 50,000 g.p. Considering that H treasure only occurs in dragon lairs...and that 50K split seven or eight ways is quite a small amount for name level characters requiring 100K-150K each for advancement...that is a lot of risk for comparatively small reward. As basic game PCs rise in level, advancement has the potential to stifle which, coupled with low survivability, is a bad recipe for "long term" play.

4. Lack of options for mid- to high-level play. Even when a basic campaign awards sufficient treasure for regular advancement, there is precious little to spend all that money on. Basic games require no training costs, no upkeep costs, have a shorter list of "buy" options available, and prices of items are quite depreciated (consider that plate armor costs a measly 60 g.p. in basic play and is available to all but the poorest of 1st level characters). Basic rules provide no rules for item depreciation/destruction, and thus there is never a need to replace or repair equipment for hirelings and retainers. While the Expert sets of both B/X and BECMI provide some guidelines for the building of castes and strongholds, only Mentzer's Companion and Master books make any real attempt at providing "domain" (rulership) rules...and these are poorly done, providing heaps of unearned x.p. on the heads of domain rulers for doing little more than raising taxes on their populations. True, there is some impetus for conquest provided in the Companion book (if only to gain higher titles of nobility), but the "War Machine" system is extremely limited in scope (meanwhile, neither Holmes nor B/X offer any such systems, referring DMs to the out-of-print Sword & Spells for handling mass combat). 
I admit that Mentzer's BECMI system strives mightily to provide options for high level characters: proto-prestige classes, combat maneuvers, higher level spells, demihuman "crafts," powerful monster antagonists, and codified quests for immortality. But, for all practical purposes, these options remain far out of reach due to the lack of advancement opportunity (#3 above) which makes the achievement of Companion (15th-25th) level characters next to impossible to achieve. Such characters require well in excess of 1 million g.p. worth of treasure...the equivalent of 20 average sized dragon hoards...each, in order to reach such lofty heights. Personally, I've found 12th level to be just about the maximum effective in (standard) B/X play, and even that requires impractically large treasure hoards (a four ox wagon can only pull 25,000 coins weight; a bag of holding in basic can only hold 10,000 coins). Any character with half a million in gold coins has the cash to purchase multiple castle complexes given the procedures in the basic rules.

And I imagine that was deemed just fine by the original designers. Buy your castle, retire your character...and then graduate to the Advanced D&D game for your next go around. Buying a castle and settling down in your gold stuffed halls should be considered a "win."

But fantasy adventure gaming is not played with a particular endpoint in mind. Some characters will, of course, "retire"...especially demi-humans who've reached the level limits and are unable to progress further. For the majority of human characters, however, AD&D has no hard cap, no limitation to advancement; like the campaign itself, adventurers' careers have the potential to be perpetual, ongoing without end. In theory, basic characters (both B/X and BECMI) have a 36 level cap which should probably be all but unreachable, even after years of play...but the game does not scale nearly as well as it does in the AD&D game. Demons in BECMI are equivalent to (lesser) gods, not beasts to be fought in the deepest dungeon levels or (more usually) on the outer planes. And while Mentzer included his own version of artifacts in the Master set, they do not function nor serve the same purpose of reward as the artifacts and relics found in the 1E DMG (hint: there's a reason Gygax gives these items a sale value in gold).

So for those folks wishing to play a simpler, streamlined "basic" system with long-term CAG objectives, what can be done to remove these inherent impediments?

1. Increase character variability. The interlocking combination of race and class has generally been found to be sufficient for providing diversity in character choice. Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion (and, presumably, OSE Advanced) takes pains to adapt 1E's system to the basic style and can be adopted wholesale...these games also tend to recreate the extended spell lists and equipment charts of 1E, but in a "basic" style. Solid world building with attention paid to markets and economy, and one's own setting-specific character options can also provide variety for players. The Complete B/X Adventurer provides a plethora of character options and new character classes, although the latter are meant to be used sparingly in better tailoring one's setting, not dropped in their entirety into a campaign.

2. Increase character survivability. Basic characters start to hit their stride around 3rd level, and one can simply start PCs at that level; likewise, DMs might add negative HP buffers, higher hit dice, and bonus spells (based on WIS or INT scores for clerics and magic-users, respectively). However, the main consideration for basic groups is to ensure they have enough bodies in their adventuring parties: 7+ is generally the fewest you want to see, and hired mercenaries (like the kind found in adventure module B2) should be readily available to low-level parties needing to 'fill out the ranks.' Special attention should be paid to both the Reaction and Morale procedures in the basic system, and both the DM and players should understand how these work, as 'breaking' foes (especially humanoids) is generally going to pay higher dividends than fighting them to the death. Fierce as a single ogre is, it is less likely to kill half a party than five to seven bandits/humanoids (all those attack rolls!)...especially ones armed with missile weapons. DMs need to take a look at what makes a "survivable" encounter for low level characters: the Tower of Zenopus example dungeon in Holmes basic, and adventure module B1 are both good resources in this regard. Also, it is incredibly important that DMs stock enough treasure that players are leveling up to more sturdy levels of experience as quickly as possible.

3. Provide sufficient treasure. Unless one adopts the AD&D system of awarding x.p. for magic items, and higher award totals for defeating monsters, DMs will need to find ways to stock immense amounts of coin and valuables for the players to advance. It should not be unusual for PCs to be 3rd level after 4-6 sessions of play (depending on character type and diligence in sniffing out loot), given a bit of luck and survival. Unfortunately it is difficult to sustain such progress even into the mid-levels, as I first noted waaay back in 2010...it is simply a flaw of design. However, one idea I had back then was to slash all x.p. requirements (i.e. the amount of x.p. needed to advance in level) by a factor of five or ten, while retaining the normal treasure hoard amounts and monster x.p. values. So, for example, a fighter's progression might look like this:
1st level: 0 x.p.
2nd level: 400 x.p.
3rd level: 800 x.p.
4th level: 1,600 x.p.
5th level: 3,200 x.p.
6th level: 6,400 x.p.
7th level: 12,800 x.p.
8th level: 24,000 x.p.
9th level: 48,000 x.p.
10th level: 72,000 x.p.
With an advancement table like this, a 50K dragon hoard split amongst eight survivors is a nice chunk of change: enough to raise a 6th level fighter to 7th or make a good size dent in a higher level character's x.p. needs.

4. Provide options for PCs of higher levels. Reducing the x.p. needed to advance alleviates some of the pressure to provide overflowing piles of gold and gemstones, but players must still have monetary needs to drain their coffers and perpetuate the cycle of treasure seeking. Here, solid world building will help, providing all manner of costs and expenses as well as delightful ostentations for purchase. DMs can, of course, adopt upkeep costs, item saving throws, and training fees from the 1E DMG...but then, why not just play AD&D?

More than that, game play needs to be scaled so that it remains interesting  even as play progresses...players should not be taking the same approach to monster fighting at 8th or 13th level as at 1st and 2nd. Here, a DM might well want to look at the later BECMI books (Companion and Master) for rules and procedures that are adaptable even down to 9th level (I would NOT however adopt the weapon specialization rules for low-level characters as it can disrupt game balance in the same way the UA's weapon specialization rules do). Likewise, DMs might wish to take a look at my own B/X Companion which provides a great deal of material specifically geared for high (15th+) level B/X play. Both "companion" books provide a number of new procedures (including unarmed and mass combat rules) in addition to a ton of new "content" (spells, monsters, magic items). For that matter, DMs looking for content might want to look at my last book Comes Chaos for a host of demonic entities and corrupted magic items, great for tarting up one's mid- to high level B/X campaign.  

The main thing, however, is to understand that there's going to be a lot of work involved in adapting a Basic rule system to the needs of long-term campaign play. While AD&D has requires a bit more work up front (learning to use its system) in comparison to the basic games, once learned it provides depth of game play from 1st up through the highest levels, needing only world building and adventure writing on the part of the DM to maintain solid, satisfying play. The basic system is incredibly easy to learn and run, but to make it an enduring form of play (i.e. the kind of play worth spending time out of our busy schedules) requires far more effort, not just in tweaking and experimenting with modifications to rules, but in designing adventures and developing content. Sure, there are sources for this content to be found: bestiaries, tomes of magic items, or various retroclones (and their supplements) with setting specific particulars...but searching out that content and curating it requires work. By contrast, I've yet to use every monster presented in original 1E Monster Manual, let alone the Fiend Folio and MM2, and there are spells and magic items from the original PHB and DMG that haven't yet been seen at my table...after decades of play.

Just saying.

That work, that effort that goes into making a basic game system a sustainable form of play can be fun at first...look at my blog as evidence of that! All the tinkering I did with B/X over the first 10-12 years of its life...but over time can lead to frustration and (in my case) ennui. The mature, adventure focused Dungeon Master wants to spend his or her time on world building and scenario creation, not hand holding and system modification, but the shallowness of basic game play requires BOTH those things in order to make it last and function ("hand holding" being a shorthand for customizing the game in a way that it doesn't kill the PCs nor bore the players out of engagement). YES, it CAN be done...but do you want to? Is that a price you're willing to pay just because you don't want to spend some time parsing the AD&D rule books?

There's a reason I'm not playing B/X these days...and it's not because I don't still think it's a great simple system that can be readily taught and is easily customizable in a multitude of ways. B/X IS a "fantasy adventure game;" it's just not a great one when it comes to sustained, long-term play. And at this point in my life, that's pretty much the only type of game play I'm interested in. 

Monday, June 24, 2024

Jolly Old England

5:18am local time. Not unusual for me to be up this early which, hopefully, means I’m somewhat adjusted to local time. But the kids just woke up which would prove the lie, as they’re three hours ahead of schedule.

Jet lag’s a bitch.

So is typing blog posts on a phone. I left the laptop at home this trip, so this will be a short one. Staying in a London flat, in a part of town full of flats, I’m struck by just how different, culturally, it must be to grow up in this environment compared to my own home town in Seattle…and how that would color one’s approach to the gaming hobby.

In Seattle, families of even modest incomes (that is, the place where I see the D&D hobby tending to “land”) tend to gravitate towards dwelling in houses, not “flats” or apartments. Apartments and condos are homes for singles or couples, or (in the case of families) parents with really young children. But families with children over the “toddler” age…even single parents…start looking for a “house” space, something with more room, more space, some yard. It is a very “American” way of life…the backyard barbecue kind of thing…which I will admit probably doesn’t pertain to ALL Americans (including ones who grew up in the densest parts of cities like Chicago and New York). But even in a moderate sized city, like Seattle, there are residential neighborhoods and, of course, suburbs.

But perhaps I’m just being idiotic again…there’s plenty of England that doesn’t look like London. Yeah, most likely I’m just being silly. I’m going to blame the jet lag. I’ll think smarter in a day or two.

Cheers!

Saturday, June 22, 2024

"D&D Is The Best"

My family will be leaving town on Sunday, and I don't plan on bringing my laptop...it'll be a couple weeks before you see much (if any) blogging from Yours Truly.  But I want to leave folks with something to chew over...

We've been continuing our play of Dragon Wrack this week...session #5 was Friday, and we put in a solid four hours, though I'd estimate the total play time prior to be something in the 10-12 hour range. Kids are having a great time, the title of this post was an un-prompted quote from my daughter towards he end of the session, after a pretty good battle between the party and some 14 elite gnolls. 

The running has gone much smoother, now that we're into the heart of the thing; I am much more pleased with the adventure than my initial impression. Yeah, there are still frustrating bits: it really needs some organization with regard to which troops are where and when and available, and responses to invaders (like the PCs). But MOST of this is there already, and I've been able to dig it out...just procedurally slower than I like (due to the lack of organization). Yet another reason not to write your adventures too big.

The time pressure aspect is great. Heck, the scenario itself is pretty great. But best, perhaps, to describe the action in specifics for the interested, rather than gush without context.

*SPOILERS* to follow.

As I wrote before, the players decided to leave the majority of the party behind in order to scout the temple-fortress of Tiamat using Salamander (elf assassin) and Potter (half-elf fighter). These are my kids' most successful PCs to date; they break them out for tougher adventures, and they've had more than their fair share of good luck in surviving. They took a total of eight party members with them, replacing Tanin and Teek among the pre-gens with their own PCs, and bringing along Carnen, Father Ellis, Goldie, Gythwynn, Hasslehoff, and Raistel...a good mix of fighting, magic, thieving, and healing. Because of their party selection, their adventure started on June 11th of the scenario timeline, the same day the Black Wing of the Dragon Army was scheduled to arrive from the south (although the players got to start their day at dawn, and the Wing wouldn't arrive until afternoon).

Not that it mattered, as they ended up waiting for the army's arrival and joining the train of orcish troops filing into the fortress. Gythwynn cast invisibility on Potter, Sal disguised himself, and the two were able to skate their way through the section reserved for the Black Wing...up until they were confronted by an officer and some troops and decided to blood themselves. This led to a frantic flight through a (fortunately) empty section of the fortress, eventually ending up in the dungeons below the main temple level. 

Despite the Black section being on alert, the training grounds were still somewhat understaffed (the Black Wing only having just arrived) and Salamander managed to bluff his way past the skeleton staff in the dungeon area as 'just another orc' informing the troops about the alert. Potter, at this point, was STILL invisible, just tagging along with Sal (i.e. staying close at hand) without breaking the enchantment. Together the pair found their way into the massive Hall of Obeisance, (rightly) guessing they were on the precipice of Tiamat's lair...and turning away as quickly and quietly as possible.

Instead they found themselves in the Court of Inquisition where the Grand Inquisitor was sharpening his knives. Un-fooled by the assassin's disguise and paltry excuse, a melee ensued with Potter breaking the invisibility spell and landing several devastating blows. The wizard was unable to get a single spell finished before being gutted (he lost initiative every round, despite using 1 segment spells). After looting the body, they first tried disguising the fighter (this failed miserably) before the assassin decided to imitate the G.I. himself. The pair then decided to split up in order to look for their imprisoned companions.

[the adventure contains 12 pre-generated characters. Players choose which character they will use to a maximum of TEN; all non-used characters are considered imprisoned and can be found and freed to create allies...or replace dead PCs...in the adventure]

Their idea being to add "muscle" to the party on the inside. At the same time, they had told their companions outside the temple to wait until midnight when Sal and Potter would drop a rope down from the roof, allowing everyone to scale/invade the place from the top. At this point, they still had 4-5 hours till the appointed time.

Splitting up proved...not terribly effective. Salamander did find the Inquisitor's chambers (treasure!) and secret laboratory, along with the G.I.'s apprentice (a 12th level magic-user). Another fight ensued and the assassin had to make several saving throws versus wands (paralysis) before finally dispatching his foe. Fortunately, his bag of holding was far from full, as he carefully wrapped and stored more than a dozen potions of unknown type.

Potter meanwhile, had found himself in an upstairs shrine, before somehow managing to end up back in the Hall of Obeisance, just in time to encounter a huge congregation of Dark Priests (more than a dozen) preparing for their evening services). Running through the twisting corridors, he managed to avoid being pinched, but ended up back in the Black Wing section, where he was forced to butcher a few temple guardsmen as well as a pair of orcs guarding the armory.

He then stumbled into the lair of Umudabrutu, the ancient mount of the Black Wing's dragon lord.

Surprise was rolled and, unfortunately, Potter was surprised. Even more unfortunately, 'Blackie' (as the orcs call him) was not surprised, nor was he asleep (50% chance). Having heard the alarm horns above and now seeing a half-elf warrior, bloody sword in hand, the great beast uttered but one word ("No.") before unleashing a stream of acid at the adventurer. Potter had 61 hit points; the dragon's breath weapon did 64, reducing him to -3 (failed saving throw)...still alive, but just barely clinging to life.

Several of the PC's magic items were destroyed by the acid, including his boots of elvenkind and ring of free action. However, his ring of regeneration (just acquired from the Grand Inquisitor and worn, but unidentified) DID survive. I ruled that the ring could do nothing to heal the acid damage (acid being acid), but the ring would prevent the character from losing further hit points from pain/trauma. A perpetual state of suffering...until Umudabrutu decided he wanted a snack. At this point, the dragon was content to return to his slumber, assuming the intruder had been dealt with.

Meanwhile, Salamander was still exploring the dungeons, disguised as the Grand Inquisitor (I gave a higher chance of failure for attempting to imitate a specific individual). He bluffed his way past the skeleton crew of hobgoblins in the Green section, and found his way into a dragon cave of his own...albeit one without the dragon (the Green Wing of the army still marching back from Coeur D'Alene, and not expected to arrive till June 16th). Dumping most non-essentials from his bag of holding, Sal proceeded to search and fill the thing with all the choicest goodies he could find...after several hours spent digging through the piles (I wrote up some procedurals in the module for searching dragon hoards...given that there are several in the adventure); he'd manaaged to catalogue several dozen pieces of jewelry and fine gem stones, a number of "unusual" (read: magic) items and some 10,000+ coins of gold and/or platinum, filling the thing to bursting. He then threw the (now large) duffle over his shoulder and left through a long, natural tunnel which...after about an hour's walk through filth and excrement...exited in the the dragon pits dug outside the city walls, the designated area for the Green army to bivouac.

From there he hiked back to town, scaled the wall, pulled his sack up with a rope, and made his way back to the inn where his compatriots waited.

Now for the bit "particular to JB's campaign:" I have written before that I allow PCs to advance in level without training (after a period of rest/reflection, though only between sessions and generally once they have left a dangerous environment). However, we have an additional, long-standing house rule with regard to players who have been "zeroed out" on their HP totals: if advancement and level increase brings enough hit points to raise a character above zero HPs, then they do NOT require the mandatory week of rest (or use of a heal spell) to get back to adventuring shape. Call it our 'homage' to literary/heroic adventure fiction stuff. 

Anyway, when we calc'd the x.p. at the end of the session, we found that Potter had leveled up to 8th, based on combat experience alone. A roll of the D10 gave him another six hit points, putting his total back up to three, allowing him to 'get back into the fight.' The ring of regeneration still wouldn't function with the acid burns but the half-elf had a potion of extra healing stashed in his backpack (which had miraculous made its save versus acid) and...at the beginning of our next session...was able to sneak away without waking the dragon.

Potter thence made his way to the armory...still unguarded at this point...where he found replacement boots, a closed-visored helm, and some Black Wing livery, before moving on. In the training hall he encountered a large troop of Black Wing soldiers marshaling into patrol groups to look for "the intruder" and was able to pass himself off as one of them, thanks to his fluent orcish and rather scarred and discolored (as yet unhealed) flesh. 

Potter spent the next several hours marching the halls before being relieved and sent to the barracks for rest, where he was able to grab a bite to eat and retire without being discovered...the other troops generally exhausted from marching all day and then the late night alert duty.

While the half-elf slept, Sal and Co. formulated a new plan of action: they would use the dragon pits as their way of ingress into the temple complex, find their missing (imprisoned) companions and sack the place from below. The bag of holding was emptied into several trunks and armoires, which were moved to a single inn room and wizard locked. The party left the city through the northern gates before first light, hearing rumors that the Red Wing was on the march and would be arriving sometime that day (June 12th). Coming in through the (still vacant) Green camp, they made their way down the tunnel to the 'hoard cavern,' and then up a set of stairs back to the main level of the temple-fortress.

Luck was with them as they encountered no patrols, despite the place still being on alert. Finding their way back to the throne room, Sal deduced that there may be SEVERAL un-guarded dragon hoards worth plundering, and they cautiously launched a systematic approach to finding these. Still disguised as the Grand Inquisitor, a squad of frost goblins were bluffed into letting them past, where they discovered the assassin's theory was indeed correct and they uncovered another hoard...though a paltry one in comparison to the earlier offerings. Still, the use of detect magic allowed the group to sus out any enchantments buried in the pile, and they spent a good deal of time collecting the best the hoard had.

Potter, meanwhile was awakened and fed, before being assigned to patrol duty again. "Our spies tell us the Allied host will be here in three days time, and we still need to drill and prep. The Red Wing should be arriving this afternoon and we don't want to look like fools!" On patrol circuit, the half-elf was able to sneak away as they passed through the Grand Hall and hid himself in an empty antechamber, trying to figure a way out of his predicament.

20 minutes later, the sounds of booted feet entering the Hall heralded the arrival of a motley crew of adventurers, reuniting the invaders.

After swapping stories and sharing intel, "the Plan" continued: the group made their way to a new section of the fortress, intent on finding the red dragon's hoard before the Red Wing arrived. What they encountered instead were mailed duergar clad in blue livery...soldiers who were not fooled by the inquisitor's act. Spurning caution, the party cut down the dwarves and then descended a stairwell which did, indeed, lead to a much larger hoard. Overjoyed, the party began looting the place of gems, jewelry, detectable magic and valuable coins, while Potter (quite healed by his clerical companions) kept a lookout at the top of the stairs. 

The attack, however, would come from below: a side passage through which streamed a dozen or so duergar soldiers.

The melee that ensued went well for the thiev...er, "heroes," and minimal damage was sustained. After inspecting the corpses for loot, they hid the bodies beneath piles of copper and silver, and spent another hour or so filling their bags of holding (the party had two) to capacity. However, rather than escape through the (presumably empty) blue dragon pits, they decided to once again go back to the main level and seek out the final hoard, deciding it was probably the biggest prize in the place.

Again avoiding patrols, they investigated the one section not yet explored...and blundered into the gnolls guarding the Red Gate. Horns were sounded and battle was joined...and then 10 more gnolls up from the training grounds below attacked from both the flank and rear of the party. Sacks were dropped, loot was scattered. The battle was fierce (elite gnolls are no slouches), but a well-timed (and well-placed) fireball from the mage wiped out half the beastmen. The remainder died to the last, stoutly passing their morale checks. 

And that's where we left off. 

It is almost noon on June the 12th. The fortress is in a state of alarm. Although currently under-staffed, the Red Wing is fast approaching. The party is currently standing in the midst of a massacre...and 120' away from the stairs that lead down to the hoard they've been searching for. Lord Hurneth, high comander of the Red Wing, will arrive at the fortress at approximately 2pm. When he does, it will be astride Usumgallu, his ancient red dragon. Tired from the long journey, the huge red will crawl through the gate and go down to his hoard, hoping for a good rest. If he finds his hoard disturbed (or in the midst of being looted) he is likely to be...unhappy.

[Lord Hurneth will be at the head of his elite soldiers: some 300 gnolls, brigands, ogres and officers, as well as 100 of the hell-fueled Red Berserkers, his crack terror troops. These will quickly take up residence in the section designated for their wing]

Escaping from Usumgallu's cavern through the dragon pits (as Salamander did the evening before) will be problematic, as the Red camp will be occupied by the remainder of Hurneth forces, including hill giants, trolls, and another five red dragons. Prospects for survival in that direction appear...grim.
; )

[something-something 'enough rope to hang themselves'...]

All right, that's enough. Apologies for the length of the post but, as I said, I'll be out for a while. I doubt we'll be getting in another session before we leave, so notes like these will help me remember the situation when we get back into town. Thanks for the indulgence, and I'll write when I get back.

Current Party Status:

Salamander (9th level assassin): 26 of 52 hit points
Potter (8th level fighter): 54 of 67 hit points
Carnen (10th level fighter): 77 of 92 hit points
Father Ellis (10th level cleric): 49 of 54 hit points
Goldie (11th level bard): 84 hit points
Gythwynn (5th/9th fighter/magic-user): 33 of 40 hit points
Hasslehoff (12th level thief): 33 of 52 hit points
Raistel (11th level magic-user): 34 of 38 hit points

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

"Dragon Wrack"

Hope folks had an enjoyable Father's Day this last weekend, whatever your relationship to "fatherhood" might be. Speaking for myself, it was delightful, due in large part to my family bending over backwards to make Sunday a special day for Yours Truly.

Doesn't mean it was perfect, of course. I wasn't able to get the dinner I wanted (not for lack of trying...we won't go into that), and I did still have to do some dishes (though not nearly as many as usual), and I would have preferred a different pie than "Key lime" (it's not bad, just not my favorite). And then there was the gaming....

SO, one thing I forgot to mention the other day: the latest installment of Prince's No ArtPunk contest has been published. NAP 3 is available as an absolutely enormous, 'pay what you want' PDF file

How enormous? 694 pages. Yeah. Granted, it contains 14 high level adventures (including maps) interspersed with some half dozen essays relating to "high level play" (the theme of this year's NAP competition) and a few pages of art, but still...it's big. The adventures are big. Prince included his own most recent module (Slyth Hive) in the compilation, and that's damn near 100 pages itself.


But laptop memory eater or not, slog or not, it's a pretty amazing compilation. A lot of creativity on display, a lot of enthusiasm. Folks really attacked the NAP challenge with gusto, and the sheer volume and variety of submissions is...well, as I already wrote, "amazing." I plan on doing a read through over the next couple months (slog, remember?) and will probably pen some 'capsule reviews.' At least for the AD&D modules.

Now, about that gaming...

The last couple-three years, my kids have been really good about making sure I get some serious D&D play in when Father's Day rolls around. That's just what Nerd Dad likes doing: I'm not (much of) a golfer, so I don't want to hit the course or (even) sit on my couch watching the U.S. Open. D&D (or other games) is the main event on the docket and, what with being a weekend (and usually one that's OFF from other activities), we can carve out a nice large chunk of time for ourselves, rather than the couple hours snatched here and there during the week. Often, my kids will run a game for me, but this year I wanted to DM because I had something specific I wanted to run: Dragon Wrack, my high-level entry for NAP3.

If you pick up the NAP3 book, you'll see the adventure, as it made the cut as one of the finalists. In brief: it's a re-writing/re-working of the old TSR module DL14: Dragons of Triumph. Yep, I'm still on that whole 'rehabilitating DragonLance" kick, though in this case I redrew all the maps and chucked pretty much everything from the original module save for the general concept (Tiamat's temple-fortress, surrounded by her armies, PCs doing an infiltration gig, while the Forces of Good are marching on the place). I mean, I even wrote the thing for use with CHAINMAIL, including an appendix of new AD&D specific adaptations, since I never was into "BattleSystem."  Sure, it includes pre-gens bearing a passing resemblance to certain "heroes" of the DL novels and, yeah, it has some Dragon Lords...but it's not really the same adventure. It's not set in Krynn, but in my own PNW world (Moscow, Idaho taking the place of "Neraka"), and you certainly won't find any "draconians" or "kender" or any bars of gold that have been completely devalued by the setting. Au contraire, what you WILL find are heaping piles of treasure, as well as Tiamat who never makes an appearance in the original module, despite featuring prominently on the cover. 

Illo by Clyde Caldwell
Why did I want to play Dragon Wrack? A couple reasons. First, I never had the chance to play-test the thing when I first wrote it (I was under serious time pressure just to get the thing out by the submission deadline). Second, I wanted to take a break from our current campaign...as a test for a future publication, that adventure is requiring a bit more work and attention then I really have time for at the moment. But mainly, it's just that...now that NAP3 has been made available to the general public...I figured I should at least say I've given the thing a spin myself.  And this was as good a time as any.

Hoo-boy.

Problems, problems, problems...abounding, right from the get-go. 

First, there's the premise. Unlike a normal "explore and loot" scenario, DW has a fairly specific objective: find a way to disrupt the Queen and/or her forces so that the Allied army can win the day. Okay, but how? The party is basically the equivalent of a high level task force / commando squad (or the generals of the Allied host...if you want to play it that way)...but this needs to be spelled out a bit. "Intel" could be better: what the players know (and don't know) needs to be very specific, because the time crunch, the time pressure of the thing, is very real once you sit down to play the scenario. My players have been trying to get intel AND formulate plans at the same time, all on the fly, with very mixed results.

The whole intro/background section of the adventure needs rewriting, in other words.

Then there's the town of Moscow: my original idea for the adventure was to include at least a rough sketch / layout of the place, based on actual city maps of the town circa 1890. Unfortunately time constraints caught up with me (I had less than a month to write the whole thing, start to finish), and this got 'cut' from the final. But without something to show the players, keyed or not, it's hard for them to really visualize the situation they're in. Besides which, I hadn't even bothered to decide the answers to questions like 'how open is the town?' 'What are the streets like?' 'Are there dragon army patrols / town militia / etc. and what is their composition?' Once again (as many times before) I was struck by the inadequacy of the game to provide procedures for running a town or urban environment.

The adventure has a decent timeline of events that is based on the specific pre-gens the players choose to use on the adventure. For my players, they wanted to bring their own characters as well (a provision accounted for in the adventure) despite being a little under-leveled (8th and 7th) for the scenario. Because of the particular party composition chosen, the players found themselves just a few hours ahead of the Black Wing of the Dragon Army. However, rather than try to get into the temple first, the players decided to sit and wait, giving the army a chance to enter and occupy the fortress. 

Why? Because they decided to scale the temple/fortress from the outside and wanted to wait till the dead of night to do so. And here again I see things missing from my scenario that would have been useful: pieces about foot traffic in and around the temple, patrols in the grounds, locations of guardsmen, numbers and weapons. Yes, some of this is there...in the form of wandering monster tables and percentage chances for room occupants depending on whether or not the army is present. But, as written, it needs more. And probably needs greater specificity. Also, how long a Wing takes to enter the place and in what order (as well as where they go from there)...all things I ended up needing to work out at the table during play.

Because, at the last minute, the players decided it would be easier to simply infiltrate the place as part of the army; Diego's assassin disguised himself as an orc soldier, the magic-user cast invisibility on Sofia's fighter, and the two joined the back file of grunts marching through the Black Wing's gate.

At this point, we've been playing for two days now (I'm typing this Tuesday morning; while we started the game on Sunday, it ended up continuing to Monday). The lack of clear objectives has meant the players are kind of running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They're divided on whether or not they want to find a way to the roof (to let down their ropes to the others), or find their imprisoned companions (also part of the scenario), or find Tiamat herself (though I'm not sure what they'd do if they did!). They've been wandering about, blundering into places, and then having to explain why they're in the wrong areas/sections (again, notes on how the temple's inhabitants react to such blunders should have been included in the adventure). 

All in all, I'm rather disappointed in how the thing is playing out...so much so that the original title of this post was "Dragon Crap." It IS tense and pressurized, but as written the adventure lacks focus or a clear path of action for the players...and that has meant the pace of the thing has been slow. I'm used to a brisker adventuring style, not this cautious, tentativeness (caused by the lack of direction). It's frustrating; I wish I'd had a chance to play-test before submitting the thing for publication. 

Ah, well.

We'll see how it goes today: last week the kids finished up school for the year, and we ain't got shit to do (at least, not till soccer practice this evening), so I'm sure it will be "game on" after breakfast. The players finally stumbled into a fight (right at the end of yesterday's session) and it seems pretty clear they've managed to alert the section they've been poking around.  I'm going to try spending a little time organizing the pages this morning, to see if I can get some semblance of what organized resistance to the PCs' intrusion. Hopefully, things will go smoother.

Later gators.
: )

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.

; )