Archive for May, 2010

I’ll Take Pleasure in Guttin You, Boy

If there’s one quality old school GMs seem to be known for, it’s a certain level of sadistic deadliness.  Players under these GMs will shake their head in rueful wonder as they tell of the horrors visited upon them.  Listeners to these tales, especially gamers used to more modern style gaming, may be confounded by these tales.  Not so much due to the sick delight the old school GM appears takes in wiping out his players, but perhaps in how much the players seem to respect and perhaps even enjoy the treatment.  At face value, something appears to be very wrong here.  In fact, things couldn’t be more right.

To play in the old school style the GM should engage in a certain level of sadism against his players.  He must delight in the traps they trigger, the monsters they under-estimate, and the foolish plans they make that prove their undoing.  He must do this as a defense mechanism against the real foe to just about every RPG campaign out there: predictability.

As GMs, we spend every session observing the plights of the players, who really ultimately are the heroes of our shared fictional experience.  There might be the odd important or interesting NPC we get to explore for a few sessions running, but the player characters are the only real constant — they’re at ever single game.  Because of this, there’s a real danger the GM may start to care a little too much about their survival, may fear a little too much their failures, and may start to actually attempt to help ensure their success.  It’s only natural, we all want to see the heroes succeed.  As GM, we keep the enemy’s HP tally, we know their ACs, we roll their attacks and damage rolls.  It’s very easy to smooth the bumps, the irregularities of randomness, just to ensure the drama stays high and the resolution satisfying.

But that road is difficult to maintain.  Who’s to say which roll is the roll that tips the battle one direction or another?  What if the dice continue to work against you?  How much fudging before the players catch on?  Eventually they’ll see there’s no real challenge, no real threat of failure, and then the magic is gone.  The game has become trite, the excitement has died.  It’s just not as fun anymore.

As much as they may complain or insist otherwise, players want that adversarial side of the GM.  They need it.  Now  you don’t want to go off the deep end, eventually you’ll just be fudging the dice in the opposite direction which is just as bad.  In truth the GM should be more of an impartial judge.  Let the players dig their own graves, let them succeed or fail against the game.  The GM simply implements the rules as written and provides the tactics and rolls for the other side.

But really, he’s got to rooting for the other side at least a little.  Somebody has to.  The heroes’ victory wouldn’t be nearly as sweet without it.

He’s an Egyptian!

When I moved this blog back in January I decided I was not going to make it a blog just about gaming, yet somehow since then I’ve managed to post about nothing but gaming.  Well, I’ve had some photos piling up that I’ve meant to post, so what better to break that trend than some random pictures?

Here’s a collection of pictures I took a couple months ago when Jenn and I visited the Egyptian exhibit down at the MFA.  It was a very cool exhibit, and I believe we got in for free thanks to Bank of America’s Museums on Us program.  In case you didn’t know, if you have a BoA account you can get into a lot of museums for free on the first full weekend of the month.

Anyway, on with the pictures:

Helga’s Heroes: a History, Part II

Picking up right where I left off:

October 20, 2006Adam’s 30th birthday party, or as I like to call it, Helgacon 0.  In celebration of Adam’s 30th, Brenda invites all his friends up to a vacation house in Maine for the weekend to play RPGs, board games, etc.  While it’s very casual and we make some scheduling mistakes (I remember GMing the first game and discovering that I had all the other GMs in the game, leaving a few people high and dry), we all still have a great time.

August 20, 2007 – Returning from our fourth annual GenCon trip, I feel disappointed in the poor attendance Helga’s has had of late.  I realize that most folks in the group are more interested in RPGs than board games, but unfortunately our time format favors the latter.  I figure, how about having a big weekend event focused on RPGs instead.  Interest is actually pretty strong, even drawing Delta back from his exile in NY (as I like to think of it).

April 5, 2008 – HelgaCon I.  We all hang out for the weekend in RI playing games.  We have a great time, though we’re still working out the kinks in scheduling.  We spend all of Friday night just figuring out what to play.  This will be remedied in future by advance scheduling the games.  Delta runs Tomb of Horrors as a tribute to the recent passing of Gary Gygax (March 4, 2008).  This is likely the catalyst for the interest in Old School gaming that will sweep our little group.

May 8, 2010 – Our most recent Helga’s gathering at BJ’s, one month after HelgaCon III.  HelgaCon continues to grow, I think we were at 14 or 15 people this year.  The club has benefited from an influx of members from new job, which is also growing.  I think we had around 8-10 people show up to the last Helga’s, and I’m already letting myself fantasize about a return to the hey-day of 12-15.  We shall see.  In the meantime, GenCon is on the horizon, and there’s always HelgaCon IV.

Our little club has officially existed for almost 5 years now, though the core members have been playing games together for over 10.  I think it’s safe to say that while we may not become the next RPGA, we can at least expect many more years of gaming together, which sounds pretty good to me.

Helga’s Heroes: a History

This morning on my walk into work I found myself reminiscing about the early days of my gaming club, Helga’s Heroes.  I started to make a mental timeline of its formation and growth through the years.  Funny thing is, it seems like most of the major changes in its life were happy accidents.  Anyway, I started digging into the old email archives and my blog to remember when things happened, and figured I might as well write it up in a post.  Probably only interesting to my readers that are actually in the club, but here it is, a brief time-line of the history of Helga’s Heroes:

October 4th, 1999 – My starting date for my new job at Genetic Anomalies.  I had just graduated college the summer prior, and I was totally psyched for what I saw as my dream job.  I moved up to the Boston area just a week or two prior to my start date.  If memory serves, I believe Joe also started that day, and BJ perhaps a week later.  I had no idea that the friendships made at this company would last way longer than the company itself.

November, 1999 – Jenn hadn’t moved up yet, and I had a good amount of free time.  Adam, a friend and fellow gamer from college, lived in the area.  We got together and decided to form up a D&D game, using cork boards at local gaming stores to recruit players.  Joe, whom I shared an office with, expressed interest and joined up as well.

One day Joe and I were discussing this game when a fellow coworker overheard us and said something like, “You guys are playing D&D?  Man, I want to play.”  This idea was echoed by many more co-workers, and it became apparent that a work group was going to form up, whether I was involved or not.  So I organised it, a round-robin GM game with myself GMing the first batch of sessions.  I remember at our first session taking down a white board and laying it on the floor or a desk to use as a battle-mat.  This work game would become the core of Helga’s, lasting well longer than the other game that spawned it.  Though that other game introduced us to Emily, a gamer we still love to play with, and who just ran an excellent Toon game at the last HelgaCon.

Early 2000’s? – That group was the most dedicated group of gamers I’ve ever played with.  Our campaign ran for several years, through the edition change from 2e to 3e, and well past the closing of the company that we all worked for.  We almost never cancelled a game, even Jenn noted the strangeness of how dedicated we were.  I thought perhaps it was because of the fact that we all worked together and played in the company meeting room after hours, but the fact that we continued to play at my apartment well after the company closed its doors belies that.

Anyway, one night while the company is still around (must have been between 99 and 02), Anthony is GMing a game where we’re being entered into some kind of gladiatorial competition.  Delta is playing a bossy cleric by the name of Heregar, who insists is the party’s leader, which always causes the rest of the group to roll their eyes and make snarky jokes.  An NPC asks for our group’s name, and Delta pipes up with “Heregar’s Heroes!”  Anthony has the NPC mis-hear and call us “Helga’s Heroes”.  The rest of us enjoy the mistake so much that we keep the name.  At some point Joe even has his bard create a company standard for “Helga’s Heroes”.

February, 2004 – I had set up an email list for organising the game when GA went under, and we still use it for game logistics and generally just to keep in touch.  At this point the game has been re-set, and now Delta and I are co-gming a new D&D game, but with many of the same members, and the email list is still called “helgasheroes@…”  When someone leaves the group I offer to take them off the list, but they always ask to stay on, so the email list is larger than the playing group.

Jenn surprises me and tells me she actually wants to go to GenCon.  I had gone several years running in high school and college, but Jenn had never come along.  Lately I hadn’t gone due to expense and the expectation that she wasn’t interested.  So we organise a trip with our gaming friends.  We plan to rent a van and drive out, staying at BJ’s folks place.  Five of us will end up doing just that, and Jenn is subjected to four lunatics talking for hours on end in bad Scottish accents as we put together our Living Greyhawk band of dwarven brothers.  Adam and his wife Brenda take a plane and meet us there.  We all have a blast.

August 2005 – I’ve left the current D&D game, which has changed in make-up quite a bit since the original Helga’s Heroes, but still maintain the email list for the group and to chat and keep in touch.  We attended our second annual GenCon trip, this time with even more people.  When we all return we marvel at the number of board games we’ve all bought and regret the fact that we’ll likely never get together to play them.  So on Saturday the 27th we gather together to do just that, and a good number of folks show up to play.  The idea is tossed around to do this with some regularity.

August 29, 2005 – The official birth of Helga’s Heroes Gaming Club.  Our email list is still going strong, supporting a variety of game playing and generally acting as means of keeping in touch.  I send an email to the list suggesting that we formalise this by opening up the list to all gaming friends, and also planning to meet once a month for board gaming and socialising.

September 10, 2005 – The first official gathering is held at John’s house.  I believe we had to actually organise the bringing of chairs to make sure everyone had a place to sit.  We had 11 or 12 people show up.  The email list had 19 people on it, and despite more than doubling in the future (current count at this writing: 41), the first few months would draw the most people, averaging around 12-15 each.

Wow, this is getting long, and we’ve only made it to the first meeting.  I think I’d better break this post apart, and this point seems to make the most sense.  So tune in next time for the continued Helga’s Heroes timeline.

Observations from the Front

We had another very enjoyable D&D game last night.  I feel like the campaign is really rolling now.  The players are in the level 1-3 range, with some getting close to 4th level.  Interesting enemy plots are starting to be uncovered, and the players are making a lot of decisions about how to involve themselves.  Here is a hodge-podge of observations from last night’s game, any of which I may sprout into a larger post in the future:

Little Books – I made a DM’s reference book, similar to the red player’s guide I posted recently, that has the rest of the LL book in it.  It’s mostly monsters and treasure, with a few extra rules like naval/aerial combat and hireling stuff that didn’t make it into the player’s guide.  Both books are spiral bound 8.5″ x 5.5″.  Having one of each behind the screen is fantastic.  The spiral binding means I can leave them open to a specific page with the rest of the book flipped completely around, thus taking minimal desktop space.  The division of what’s in each book is perfect, I found myself frequently with the DM’s ref flipped open to the current monster the players were facing, and the Player’s Guide open to combat rules.  Both were easy to shuffle around with my large binder of notes, and those three things plus dice are pretty much all I need behind the screen.

Screen – Speaking of my DM’s screen, I’m very sad to report that one of the hinges on mine is starting to split.  I’ll try to repair it, but I’m worried it will never be the same.  I’m tempted to order a second backup one for when this one finally goes.  Yeah, that’s how much I like these screens.

Oracular Dice – I’m following Delta’s Item #3 here, and whenever I don’t know the answer to something immediately I give it chances on a d6 and roll.  I’m finding it is really easy to make up chances on a d6 on the fly, and some of the stuff this has led in the game has been really fun.  I expect to lean on this even more as we continue to play.

Wandering Monsters – Why did I ever dislike this concept?  It’s fantastic.  I roll for them now whenever the party is traveling through wilderness or in the dungeon.  In the wilderness I vary frequency (1-3 times per day) and die type (1 on d6, d8, d10) based on the danger level of the area the players are in.  Last night the players set up a trap for some monsters in a dungeon they knew were going to be by in three hours and laid in wait.  I started flipping my turn counter, rolling a wander monster check for each turn that had to pass (18 turns for those counting).  Though it seemed inevitable one would show up, many of the players felt the tension as I flipped the turns, and everyone hooted with laughter when after 15 some hungry lizard men finally showed up, approaching the party from the opposite direction.  (“Shh, the hobgoblins are coming soon,” one player quipped.)  I think the players are now taking the lesson to heart, realizing that a dungeon is no place to hang out for long periods of time.  Hopefully they will get a similar sense of what wilderness areas are also too dangerous for such, which I think will really help breathe some life into the setting.

Turn Counter – Somewhat related to the above, I love the way my manual turn counter gives the sense of actual passage of time.  I don’t think the party realized how long 3 hours of game time was until I started flipping through the turn counter.  It’s nice to have a way to give them that sense of time passage quickly without have to just convince them verbally.

Save vs. Secret Doors

There was an interesting discussion over on the DF forums about perception rolls, covering everything from Wisdom checks to secret door and hear noise rolls.  While the topic was pretty broad and the conversation rolled from one element to another (and teetered on the edge of  a “what is old scool?” flame war), I found a couple quotes on the hear noise/secret door side kind of thought provoking.  I thought I’d explore them more in detail here on my blog.

First, from nagora:

But it’s better for the players to ask about the environment than for the DM to simply feed them clues based on dice rolling. If a player says that they’re hanging back from the party and listening for footsteps behind them, then I’ll let them know if they are being followed. Otherwise, I’d be inclined to just give them their normal listen-at-door roll which is usually pretty low, for example.

And next, from redbeard:

I’d much rather see the various character spotting abilities* as ‘saving throws’ against failures of role play. If you have to get the dice out, you’ve missed something, made a mistake, or done something wrong. Like Nagora says in his example I quoted, if the player was smart enough to state that their character was listening, they succeed. If they did not have that foresight, then they get a die roll to save. The kind of dice mechanic you use for that die roll varies according to game system and circumstance.

*Character spotting abilities include such things as elf secret door detection, ranger surprise bonuses, surprise rolls of any kind, thief skills, dwarf stone abilities, etc.

This is really fascinating, as it does approach an area I’ve found somewhat irksome myself.  Say for example that you have a large oddly shaped room with various alcoves, columns, and other features.  Perhaps there’s a secret door in the back of the third alcove from the left, and a player specifically states that his character searches that particular alcove for a secret door, perhaps due to some clever clue he picked up on that pointed him in that direction.  Do you roll the dice?

Compare this to say the entire party stating that they’re going to fan out and search the entire room for secret doors.  If there are six party members, do you just grab 6d6, give them a roll, and if any comes up a 1 then they found the secret door?  Or do you force the players to specify exactly where they’re searching (a bit of a give-away in my opinion)?  Or perhaps just roll 1d6 figuring only one of the 6 players is going to search that particular spot.

I personally find it rather irksome in the case where the player is searching the exact right spot to roll the dice and give the player just a 1 or 2 in 6 chance of finding the secret door.  I mean, they’re looking in exactly the right place, shouldn’t they be rewarded for that?  I find it very dissatisfying as DM to see that roll fail when I know the player is exactly right.  On the other hand, what if the player says he searches each of the six alcoves in turn?  Should that garner the same non-roll?  What if he says he searches every 10′ increment of wall in turn?  Granted the latter cases here come with the detriment of spending many turns and possibly enduring many wandering monster rolls, though a clever party will split the work between all members to reduce the total time spent.

Clearly there’s a fine line here.  I’m not sure there’s a good general rule of when to roll the dice and when to just give it to the players.  Taking it case by case means though that I’ll probably always be second guessing my decisions.

Hmm, I was hoping by forcing myself to write this out as a post I’d come to some conclusion, but I have not.  I’d love to hear more opinions on this one.  Anyone?