Archive for April, 2011
Jenn just mentioned as an aside on her blog the existence of a room where she works that is called “Treasure Hall”, and her disappointment that it did not contain a sleeping dragon atop a pile of treasure. Brilliant! I’m so excited by this I had to write my own post rather than just replying to hers.
I feel the immediate need to create a room in a dungeon somewhere with a placard on it that says “Treasure Hall”. I have a million ideas for what might be inside, and none of them are treasure. The very idea of disingenuous signage in a dungeon I find really thrilling. Perhaps a series of signs that point in a direction for the “Exit”, that ultimately lead in a circle. Or perhaps a four-way intersection with a sign post full of labels in every direction but which is loose in its hole and spins easily. Are any of the labels pointing in the right direction? Who knows!
There’s a part of Stone Hell where there’s a signpost that points in the direction of a “Dragon” that ultimately only leads to the den of a rather large lizard. The kobolds who write the sign may simply not know any better, but it’s sure to scare a bunch of first level characters, the level the area is targeted at. Not my players though, they busted right in and were disappointed to find it was just a large lizard.
Hmm, now I want to make a dungeon that contains a room with a dragon. Perhaps with a sign on front that says “Treasure Hall”.
Delta posted a thought provoking comment on my last post, to which I started to write a reply. That reply got so long I realized it warranted it’s own post, so here it is. In his comment, Delta said about the adventure Into the Forgotten Realms:
Greenwood did really ring my “new school” bell with this adventure. The main bullets on that are (1) emphasis on character role-playing/acting (as I read the text & scoring system), (2) surprise on our part from how few monsters we were fighting, and (3) spotlight on NPCs.
#1 Emphasis on character role-playing/acting:
This is definitely present, but I would say not a major focus of the adventure. Each character has a paragraph or so of background which players may choose to portray during the adventure, but aren’t tied to the background of the adventure itself nor the other characters. The intro to the adventure does say that it has an “accent on roleplay” and there are significant points for the “best roleplayer” as voted by the other players and seen by the DM. However, I often wonder if “roleplay” during this time period really meant “play-acting” as it does to us today. If we consider the entire activity as a roleplaying game, then is not coming up with clever solutions to problems good roleplay? Does it have to really be limited to just play-acting? I suspect, but have no proof, that back in the day “good roleplay” was the whole package, not just talking in funny voices or doing unexpected things because it’s “in character”. There is an argument for tracing the roleplay empahsis of this adventure on towards stuff like the infamous Dragonlance adventures, but I would argue that it’s like comparing sipping lemonade to being crushed to death by a lemon tree.
#2 Less fights
There are definitely less fights in this adventure than many other more traditional old school adventures. However, I might actually blame this more on the tournament format than being new school. One thing I rather like about this adventure is that it can be completed in the 4 hour time allotment, unlike many other tournament games. It might be argued that this is specifically to guarantee that the players reach the climax encounter, which in turn argues for a pre-envisioned plot to the adventure. That’s tenuous though — does not G2 have a Frost Giant Jarl in it somewhere? I actually don’t know, I’ve never read it, but I assume it must. Would it be a better convention game if the party had a reasonable chance of actually reaching that encounter?
#3 Spotlight on NPCs
Yup, this adventure definitely has some interesting NPCs, ones that the party is meant to interact with in ways other than combat, though combat is not out of the picture. Let me compare this to another module that I know quite well and feel is definitely old school in format: L1 The Secret of Bone Hill. Specifically let’s look at the titular dungeon, the castle on top of bone hill.
In Into the Forgotten Realms, the party invades an abandoned school of wizardry, controlled by a lich who is described as insane, still believing the school is operational. The lich is designed to be too tough for the party to handle, and the hope is that the party will use his insanity to manipulate him in some clever way to either escape or possibly even destroy him. In The Secret of Bone Hill, the castle is controlled by an evil wizard and populated during the day by bugbears and at night by undead. The only description of their relationship is in the following text:
During the day the ruin’s upper level is guarded by a band of bugbears… supported by an evil magician. At night, the ruin is run by the undead.
That is all we get. I think it asks more questions than it answers. However, when I incorporated this into my campaign I didn’t bother figuring out more until the party encountered it. It came to me on the spur of the moment: the wizard is cursed such that enemies he kills will always return as undead to haunt him. He has hired bugbears to help defend his castle, thus circumventing the curse, however he continues to be plagued by old enemies he killed himself in the past. The party’s actions and a few other tidbits from the text informed this idea: the courtyard is scorched in a few places as if from fireballs (fireballs I decided the wizard regularly uses to blow away the annoying undead that gather there and get in his way, but they always return). The areas that lead to more powerful undead are all wizard locked (the wizard must have trapped his more irksome returning enemies in his basement such that they couldn’t harass him). The wizard did not kill one of the party members when could have easily done so (he doesn’t want yet more undead bothering him).
Did the author (Len Lakolfka) have any of this already in mind when he wrote the module? I have no idea. It’s possible, a lot of clues do point in this direction, on the other hand some of these clues, especially the last one listed above, arose directly from play that has nothing to do with the text. That, in my mind, is the essence of old school right there. Only the facts are included, the story arises from play not from preconceived ideas from the module author. Into the Forgotten Realms is full of preconceived ideas of how the adventure should go. The Secret of Bone Hill has none.
However, there is one other major difference between these two modules besides their dates of publication. The Secret of Bone Hill is clearly written for incorporation into a home campaign, while Into the Forgotten Realms is a tournament game written for one-off convention play. It’s much harder to create the kind of story I got out of Bone Hill when you only have 4 hours with your players, who quite possibly you’ve never met in your life before. Perhaps it’s even impossible.
Hmm, is it possible that the silver age grew out of convention play? Perhaps the need for story arose not from the home campaign, but for convention games, where a satisfying story and climax that can evolve slowly at home must be crammed into a single four hour session. When we played G2 at HelgaCon, it was very enjoyable, but more than one player was unsatisfied at the end when we discovered how poorly we had performed, and that we had been duped with a red herring. Discussion was had on what would have happened in a home campaign when we would have had enough time to make a second trip into the lair, but clearly that was not to be. We must content ourselves with the story of “the players got duped and the frost giant jarl wins”, a story I’m not sure everyone at the table was satisfied with.
What’s the trick? How do you create and run a satisfying convention game that includes the same elements as a home campaign but fits in a tiny bite sized format? Is it even worth pursuing this goal if it really was one of the contributing factors to the end of the golden age of old school D&D? My quest for answers will continue this August, as it turns out I am running two very different games at GenCon. One very much has a preconceived story at its core, while the other is filled with random elements with little effort made to tie them together. I am eager to find out which will produce a more enjoyable four hour experience.
OK, it’s almost a month later, time for me to put a cap on the HelgaCon reports. My last game was an AD&D tournament: Into the Forgotten Realms. Originally run at GenCon 1984, this module was written by Ed Greenwood at a time when Forgotten Realms wasn’t nearly as recognizable as it is today. There were no novels, no comic books, and not even a D&D campaign setting for the Realms. The only people who might recognize the name would be readers of Dragon Magazine, where Ed regularly talked about his home campaign in his column, and the players of that home campaign. Eventually this module was printed in Dragon Magazine #95, which is the version I ran.
The text tells the GM that “the accent in this module is on roleplaying and creative problem-solving”. However, the module then presents a pretty straight forward dungeon crawl, albeit with some interesting clues about the final encounter. The text also informs us that “it will become apparent to most referees that the characters could be easily destroyed by the single most powerful monster in this dungeon.” The point is not to fight it, the point is to come up with clever ways around it. OK, I guess I can’t dance around it, I’m going to have to spoil the adventure for you to talk about it. Turn back now if you don’t want to know.
As may be apparent from the image, the final monster is a lich, and an insane one in this case. However his insanity is such that he will be reasonably friendly to the players, giving them ample opportunity to come up with a clever way of dealing with him. The tournament even awards bonus players to a player for “devising a method of dealing with the lich without causing it to attack the group, and having that method adopted and used successfully by the party.” But what does “dealing with” the lich mean? Getting out with your skin, or actually taking the thing out?
Fact is, I don’t think it would actually be all that hard for the party to take on the lich. Sure, he’s got some nasty spells, but a well placed Silence spell in the narrow confines where that combat is likely to take place would prevent that. Sure, he’s got plenty of hit points, plus a paralyzing touch attack. But the party has 10 characters, plenty I think to absorb enough of the lich’s attacks to whittle down his hit points and take him out. Perhaps that’s the kind of planning the author expects though: corner the lich, toss a Silence, maybe a Prayer and Bless to up the paralysis saving throws, and have at it. Personally, I find it much more interesting if the party comes up with some other way of neutralizing the lich.
It’s an interesting group of characters in this game too. Every last one of them is human, and none of them has a single magic item (except maybe a rock with continual light cast on it). Their stats though, they would have even made 12-year-old me blush. Two fighters with exceptional strength, and everyone with at least half their scores above a 16. Seriously, despite the lack of magic, this group had enough hit points and combat pluses that I think they’d be pretty well positioned to take on a lich.
Both times I ran this game we never really found out. My first group (TotalCon), with only 4 players, decided to attack in a blaze of glory, and ran out the clock just as they were about to meet their doom. My second group (HelgaCon), tried their best to seal the lich into the underground, dispelling the magic bridge across the chasm and blocking up passage-ways behind them. I don’t believe I awarded the “dealing with” the lich bonus points in either case.
The scoring system in itself is interesting, awarding points by player rather than to the group at large. This jibes pretty well with my memory of playing such games at GenCon back in the early 90′s, but is very different from the tournaments Delta runs where the entire group gets a score. As I was not running multiple sessions of the tournament, I liked the idea of having a winner at the end, and even bought a couple copies of Dragon Magazine #95 to hand out as prizes. However, the scoring system is a bit odd. It gives awards for various clever things like searching specific areas for clues, theorizing the existence of the lich well before he’s encountered, and volunteering to go first in the most dangerous areas. However, there’s also some points that can handed out by player votes for “the best roleplayer”. Likewise, the GM is given some points to hand out to the best roleplayer.
Some points? Who am I kidding, the number of points given to the GM to hand out to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd best roleplayers are so lopsided that he might as well just pick the winner. In both cases I decided to ignore these points. I did let my players vote for their choices, but I took a pretty liberal view of what “best roleplayer” meant. I encouraged my players to simply vote for the person they felt contributed most to the game, whether it be through contributing clever ideas, portraying an interesting character, or just rolling the most 20s.
In the end though, I still felt kind of bad for all the “losers”. This is a team sport, how can one player win and everyone else lose? Ultimately, I don’t like ending on this slightly sour note, especially in a module that I think is otherwise a heck of a lot of fun. It’s got a clever mystery to figure out without being all about the mystery, if you know what I mean, and it’s pacing is perfect. I ran once with 4 players and once with 8, and in both cases they explored about 90% of the place in the allotted 4 hours. There’s a good balance of combat and problem solving, and two or three different NPCs they can actually interact with in ways that don’t involve stabbing (or at least don’t have to involve stabbing).
All in all, I’d say a very fun module. I’d be curious to run it again using Basic D&D or even OD&D with all the house rules I use these days, especially my interpretation of the Silence spell. As a module, I’d say it’s top notch. The tournament stuff, well, just ignore that part.
Saturday night we sat down to play BigFella’s Labyrinth Lord sandbox with an Arabian Nights theme that he brings every year. HelgaCon presents me with a rare treat to get to play with Delta again, now that we live so far apart. It’s an even rarer treat to have both of us playing side by side, as usually one of us is the DM. And even better still, BigFella held onto the characters we played last year, and so the brothers Jarib rode again.
Last year we encountered a medusa that turned her victims to solid gold rather than stone. We of course avoided her altogether, found a previous victim, hacked its hands off, and returned to town rich men. One of the first things BigFella told us this year was to scratch off the golden hands from our character sheets, as we had lost the money to bad business deals and untrustworthy women since the last campaign. As our characters we were of course irate, however inwardly I was quite happy with BigFella’s decision. I quite like the idea of playing the weaselly desert thieves who just can’t seem to quite ever catch a break. I talked BigFella into granting me a mule in exchange, with the obvious intention of finding and hauling back the rest of the golden statue, which of course would never come to pass.
Having four brothers, it’s very easy for me to roleplay that kind of sibling rivalry which makes these characters so much fun. When it was discovered that his character had two magical weapons and I had none, rather than accepting his loaner gracefully, I immediately set out to prove that the weapon was mine all the time. Thus, the “Jarib Family Enchanted Spear” was born. Hilareous.
And of course, BigFella gives us a great playground in which to bounce these characters around. He ended with a tense game of chess between another party member and Genie, and the dice loved him for despite a slight disadvantage on our end they kept things extremely close until the very end when we just managed to scrape out a victory. I was quite glad to give another player a chance to shine in this situation too, as I fear when Delta and I really get into these characters that we may accidentally overshadow the rest of the group.
All in all, and excellent game. I apologize if the details here are fuzzy, but by Saturday night the sleep deprivation is really setting in. Of course, this only helps make the roleplay that much more amusing. I remember gales of laughter throughout the game, but I couldn’t tell you what the heck it was we found so darn funny.
On Saturday afternoon I ran my first game, a Warhammer FRPG game with all skaven characters. I ran a similar game last year, using the same characters in fact. Last year the skaven were tasked with reclaiming some escaped slaves, who had hidden themselves in various locations in a small human village. The skaven players had to skulk about at night and reclaim the lost slaves while avoiding too much notice from the town militia. This year, the entire game took place underground, as the skaven were asked to explore a newly opened tunnel into an old abandoned dwarven complex. It was known these dwarves before they died out had some very interesting technology, and the warlocks in Clan Skryre wanted to reclaim and repurpose as much of it as possible.
It turns out that these dwarves had actually devolved into a form of worship of Slaanesh, who rather than appealing to traditional lusts in this case was warping the dwarves’ addiction to advanced technology in unpleasant ways. The complex contained some of the golem like war-creatures the dwarves had built, still powered by the insane dwarf spirits sacrificed to the chaos gods during their construction. In the forge room was a massive pool of lava which once heated the forges, and now was home to a demon that took the form of a huge golden dwarf. The players managed to skip past the part of the tunnels occupied by living dwarves also attempting to reclaim and went straight the golems and demon. I think they did quite well all things considered, and quite a few laughs were had as the skaven tried to avoid the seriously dangerous parts and backstab each other as much as possible.
And I think ultimately that’s the key to any skaven based game. Give the players some pretense for being together, and then let them enjoy trying to subvert each other while still ostensibly contributing to the central goal. It’s difficult to come up with roleplay situations for the players to interact with an NPC, but the built-in tensions in skaven society makes for some very funny interactions with the other players.
I tried to use “old school techniques” in this game. I wrote the adventure in the one page dungeon format, though I had to go to two pages to fit all the Warhammer related stats and just due to the raw number of rooms. I also tried to keep things fast by not letting myself get bogged down with specific rules, especially for skills. I’d call something as requiring an ability test (default at half), and if someone had a skill that was appropriate it was up to them to tell me and I’d let them use that instead. It worked all right, but I also don’t think a lot of skills really got used, which may in itself be an indicator that it wasn’t working as well as I had hoped.
Warhammer FRPG combat continues to be much slower than I’d like. The critical system is very fiddly, counting half and whole actions is annoying, and I ended up looking up special weapon types (snaring, impact, etc.) more frequently than I’d like to. And don’t get me started about the dodge/parry stuff. I mean, the players need something to make it a little less deadly, but dodge and parry really does slow down combats. I frequently “forgot” to have the enemies play combat smart by using a parrying weapon or taking a parrying stance just to speed things up, though it did give the players a bit of an unfair advantage. I wasn’t too worried in this case as some of the enemies were beyond the ability of the players anyway.
It’s a shame, because I really do love the setting of Warhammer. I still think an enjoyable game could be made in that setting with simpler, lighter rules, but Jenn seems disinterested in such and if she’s not interested than I see no reason to not just play D&D.
A very nice reader discovered recently that the background image on my blog was over 1 MB, and went through the trouble of optimizing it for me down to about 200 KB. The site is now using the optimized version and should be much faster to load for everyone. I also find it extremely encouraging to see random uses of the internet for good instead of evil. I figured the least I could do is send my thanks out publicly to Scott for doing this. You rock sir!
Book of War has been on my mind a lot recently, which makes it a happy coincidence that the next game I played at HelgaCon that I want to discuss is Delta’s Book of War round robin. Very oddly the players of this game worked out to be me and my two brothers, so we had a little war of succession. Delta wanted to run three total games so each of us got to play the other, but sadly due to time constraints we only got two done. He also wanted to play with bigger armies, which is likely the reason we ran out of time. We started out with a big 500 point game between me and Max, and then reduced to a 250 point game between Max and Christian.
I built my army around heavy crossbows and light cavalry. That gave me units with the longest range and fastest movement, which coincidentally is the same number: 24″. I then rounded out the army with a unit of pikemen, because I wanted to see how pikes operated in the game. I tried to punch through Max’s lines with my light cavalry to try and spook Max into moving into range of my heavy crossbows. Unfortunately I didn’t quite have enough movement for it and took some heavy losses in my cavalry. Ultimately I didn’t mind, as Warhammer has trained me to see light cavalry as disposable units best used for making your opponent make bad formation choices, but it did fail to get Max’s units up within range of my heavily defended hill full of crossbows and pikes. Though I later noticed that pikes don’t get all their excellent advantages when on the slope of a hill, so I might have been sorely disappointed if/when max actually charged in. Doh!
Anyway, we ended early due to time starting to really run out, and Max had me on points from having taken out so much of my light cavalry. Between this and a missed call that cost me half my cavalry, Delta was feeling a bit guilty and I had him giving me the benefit of the doubt in all subsequent calls. Honestly I really don’t blame him at all and I had a fun time playing, but I took advantage of it in specific case: that Max be forced to play the next game giving me the chance to go take a shower. Thank goodness for that, as I had a game to run in the next time slot and the extra time to get ready was really appreciated.
Seriously though, I had a lot of fun with Book of War. I was really glad just to get a chance to play the game with Delta there. It’s one thing to give feedback based on written work, but entirely another thing to actually play test the game. I admit I have an ulterior motive for helping Delta with this project as much as possible: I intend to use it in my own campaign to resolve mass combats whenever possible. As such I wish I could have played in his later Siege-based game, but I was glad to have whatever play time I could get.
Max and Christian had a great fight while I was in the shower. It really dragged out in a bloody mess to the last man. Personally I find games where the favored winner shifts back and forth repeatedly, and that’s exactly what was happening here. As we didn’t get to play the final game of me vs. Christian, I insisted that the war of succession remained bloody and unresolved for many more years.
Oh, why is Book of War on my mind now a week later? Well, as we’ve been packing up the office at work I’ve had to bring home my 10 mm minis and terrain. I didn’t trust the movers to pack and move it, so home it came. One of the coolest things about these guys is how portable they are. Between the size and the use of magnetism, it’s very easy for me to pack this all up and bring it home without it impacting the show-ability of our house. This got me thinking.
Delta plays a lot of quick one-on-one games of Book of War with his girlfriend and posts about it regularly. Jenn has on occasion been interested in war-gaming, and given how light and easy Book of War is, I was starting to think maybe she’d like to play the odd game with me. And as these guys are so portable, I bet I could leave them in the basement and pop them out for an odd game and then pack them back up even while we continue to show the house. Best of all, my painting area is still accessible, so I could even paint some more of these guys as needed.
I don’t know which is more exciting, a chance to play Book of War some more, or having something (anything) to do during this house selling process other than sell a house. It seems like a match made in heaven. Now I just have to convince Jenn of that.
HelgaCon started with a bang for me on Friday night with Delta’s running of G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl. Last year Delta ran G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and now it looks like he’s going onwards with the whole series, and I couldn’t be more excited. OK, maybe I could be a little more excited — if only he were running these a little more frequently than once a year. Still, some is better than none.
Seriously though, I love that Delta is running this series. It’s a classic series of some very good modules, and best of all I somehow have managed to not read a single one of them. Add in Delta’s own unique flavor of OD&D, and the whole experience really captures the mystique of D&D I felt when I was 8. There’s something both familiar and foreign about these games, and it combines into a strange ephemeral feeling that I just can’t describe, but also makes my palm itch for a d20.
Also, I love Delta’s pre-generated characters. We used the same ones as last year, and I got the same exact character as last year, a human fighter/wizard called Ezniak of the Myriad Rings. My brother took the single-classed wizard, and while a level 9 vs. a level 10 wizard doesn’t seem like much of a leap, Delta really made the play between the two feel very unique via the contents of their spell books. I don’t know if he intentionally planned it this way, but the multiclass character ended up with a lot of utility spells (read languages, fly, etc.) while the single-class wizard got the big guns (fireball, lightning bolt, etc.) Combined with his wand of fireballs, the straight wizard really was the star wizard of the show, while my character filled a very interesting niche as not the best wizard and not the best fighter, but still a pretty awesome and powerful character in his own right. It was a really nice balance and I really enjoyed it.
If I have one complaint about the game, it’s a minor one: Delta tried an interesting house rule of not allowing memorization of the same spell more than once. At the time I just found it curious, but now looking back I realize I didn’t care for it very much. What I love about wizards is their versatility, the ability to customize your powers each day based on what kind of situation you think you’re heading into. This rule takes a little of that away, and I found myself packing a few spells I would have never taken otherwise, ones I knew would be of no use whatsoever in this module. Mostly this is lower level spells like hold portal or sleep, useful spells to be sure when you’re low level, but when you’re level 10 taking on frost giants, they just feel like a waste. I wouldn’t have minded an extra magic missile or two in their stead.
All in all though, a really solid game. I got Delta to do his “big dumb chaotic creature” voice at least twice, which is a sure hallmark of a fun time. I really can’t wait for next year. Bring on the Fire Giants Delta.
At HelgaCon someone mentioned an interesting idea to me that’s stuck in my head. So much so that I find I have to post about it before I can post about other HelgaCon stuff. The idea was simply this: run a D&D game where the players are anthropomorphic mice. It’s not the originality of the idea, but the simplicity of that’s really grabbed me.
The idea started when discussing Reaper’s excellent set of mousling miniatures. When Reaper first introduced it’s Legion of Justice and Caeke line, I bought the first one for Jenn as something interesting for her to paint. This led to picking up the second one in the line at GenCon, and then discovering the mouselings and purchasing those as well. Not only did she buy the full set, but I also ended up with an extra wizard-mouse when it turned out to be the model used during my round at speed-painting. You can see my entry here.
Well it’s hard for me to be around miniatures without trying to find an actual gaming use for them. Thus, I bought Jenn a copy of the Mouse Guard RPG, which I had heard of in passing but knew little about except that it’s apparently based on Burning Wheel. It’s a beautiful book, and I’m sure Jenn read through the entire thing, but that’s pretty much where that ended. I haven’t had a chance to really read through it, and given the heft of the book and Burning Wheel’s reputation as a “crunchy” game, I knew it would be a stretch for me to get around to running it.
The idea of just playing standard D&D with mice for characters for whatever reason never struck me until someone (was it BigFella?) mentioned it at HelgaCon. It’s so simple and obvious I can’t get it out of my head. The only real difficulties with the idea is the question of how much to warp D&D to make it feel more mousey. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of inspiration to draw from. Basically there are two:
I’ve read a couple of the RedWall series, but haven’t read any Mouse Guard yet. I understand though that both ultimately completely eliminate the presence of humans. I’m not crazy about that, I think a Borrowers-esque kind of setting would be far more amusing. If I included humans, I’d love to have the “dungeons” actually be the inside of the walls of a normal human castle or similar. That begs the question of how to orient the map though, it almost cries out for side-view instead of top-down, though that may push my map making abilities.
RedWall also introduces other anthropomorphic creature types. Would I want to include that? It might make an interesting way of handling demi-humans (demi-mice?) I’d also probably have to come up with some other creature to use for the evil humanoids (no orcs, goblins, kobolds, gnolls, etc. in this game). Monsters are easy – just use regular creatures. Bigger lizards would make great dragons. Would I want to push more fantasy elements? Maybe, certainly there should be spell casters given the first mini painted was a wizard.
If anyone has any other ideas for inspiration I’m all ears. Especially art that might depict labyrinthine mouse corridors behind normal human walls. I don’t think I could seriously consider such a game without at least some ideas for a few dungeons.