Archive for February, 2012

Thoughts on the Slave Lords

So I ran three more sessions of the A-series.  I wanted to run only first rounds, as I liked the idea of all the scores being comparable.  I ended up running just stuff from A1, mostly as it was familiar and easy.  I would like to run the first half of A2 some day, but just wasn’t up for the extra challenge of running something brand new at the con, and the second half of A2 and first half of A3 aren’t super exciting to me.

Two out of three games were good sized ( 9 and 8 ) while my first group was half-sized (only 5).  For that group I let them choose one extra character to bring along as a dumb henchman (dumb as in he would just attack unless given explicit instructions) and they chose Eljayess, the F/C.  Interestingly they had the other cleric with them but totally missing was all the magic-user characters (Dread, Phanstern, and Kayan).  I also scaled down the encounters by about 33%.  Despite these challenges they did pretty well.  Actually I think they were the ones to do the sewer bit, and ultimately not having a Dread Delgarth player trying to shoot fireballs in 5′ corridors probably helped them.

All in all though, I’m starting to get the suspicion that the scoring is really more strongly directed by luck than by any kind of “player skill”.  I felt all three groups played pretty intelligently.  That said, the last group had terrible luck against the ghouls encounter, failing both surprise and initiative thus giving the ghouls two full rounds of attacks, during which they managed to paralyze both Dread Delgarth and Karaway.  They then followed this up with a miserable turn attempt from Eljayess, and by the end of it they were down to just two characters left (the elf and the dwarf) against the ghouls.  They managed to squeeze out a win, but had to burn their raise dead scroll and pretty much every ounce of healing they had to go on (this was the group of 8, and I even gave them the missing Phanstern’s potion of extra healing).

Compare this to the Friday group that faced the exact same challenge and walked just as blindly into the same trap.  They passed the surprise check, won initiative, and in pretty short order had half the ghouls Slowed and pretty much all of them huddled in the corner cowering against the pair of held up holy symbols.  That group got almost a perfect score, by the way, only missing out as they let one of their party die along the way.

I may very well be over the whole scored tournament thing now.  The one thing I do like about these modules is that the content is clearly scaled well to fit into the 4 hour time limit.  Clearly with the combination of good luck and skill a party can clear through a round in about exactly 4 hours.  I may down-play the scoring part in future.

As for the A-series specifically, I think I’ve likely had my fill.  I could be convinced to run them if a group of players wanted to play through more of it, especially if the same group wanted to try and push through the later rounds as well.  Perhaps though it would be more fun to just let them play out all the content, and if they really wanted just tell them after the 4-hour mark what their score would have been had we stopped there but push on and play it out to the end.

Actually, that’s exactly what I did for my last group, and we played about an extra hour to get them to the end room.  Given that all 8 players stuck around for the extra hour, I think I must have been doing something right.

You Win This Round TotalCon

Let me start off by saying, lest it appear otherwise, that TotalCon was a great success this year.  I had a really great time.  That said, you may be wondering why I’m posting this on Sunday afternoon when I should still be there.  Well, for a variety of reasons this year the convention totally kicked my ass.  The thought of being there all day today and then going right back to work tomorrow was just too exhausting to contemplate.  As I was only signed up to play one game today and wasn’t running anything, I decided to just throw in the towel a day early.

I may post more details about certain parts of the convention later, but let me start with just some quick highlights, lowlights, and observations about my time at the con:

  • Ran three good runs of the Slavers modules.  Pretty much stuck to either half of A1 as I got a unique set of players for each game (no repeats).  I’ve posted their scores to my collected scores here.  I will undoubtedly have more to say about these games later.
  • Arrived first thing Thursday an hour ahead of time and was sitting all by myself in the old school room waiting to play when Tim Kask popped his head in and chided me for being an hour early.  We then chatted for a bit, which lead to him inviting me up to his room to see some material he’s working on, and then my only barely making it back down in time for my game.  Kind of pleased with myself for having a rapport with Tim, who is a genuinely nice guy and a very fun DM to play with, tinged with a  slight disappointment that he keeps showing me material before I get a chance to play it!
  • The Friday group I DMed for really hit the module hard and had a great time doing it.  They were just 1 character death short of a perfect score.  Everyone looked really engaged, and at the end two of the players turned out to be the hosts of Not Just Another Gaming Podcast, which may include in a future episode an interview with yours truly.
  • Some players in my Saturday game turned out to be organizers of a convention in NY, and were interested in recruiting me as a DM for that convention.  I know very few details about their con but have a business card and intend to email them and at least hear their pitch.  I guess this was the convention for gamer-networking!
  • My 10-2 time slot was very awkward, and though I never had too few players, I think I may have lost some due to it.  Also, it left me with funny time-gaps between 3-5 PM each afternoon with nothing to do.  In two cases I filled my time playing some pick-up board games (Cosmic Encounters on Thursday, demo of the yet-to-be-published ZPocalypse on Friday).  Also it totally screwed up my eating schedule with very late lunches, or skipped lunches.  Next year I think I will just run afternoon/evening games and leave the mornings for sleeping in or light board gaming.
  • Speaking of sleep, yeah my plan of getting “good sleep” at home did not pan out.  Had nasty insomnia Thursday night, and then never really recovered from that.  Even though I live less than 30 minutes from the convention, driving to and from definitely gave the whole thing a weird vibe, and was not fun to do when suffering from sleep deprivation.  Also I felt a bit like a hobo living out of my car, it sure would have been nice to have a hotel room to sneak back to for an hour of TV watching or a quick nap during some of those time gaps.  Next year, I think I will definitely opt for getting a room at the convention.
  • Played in three games as well, two AD&D and one OD&D.  Two were excellent, one was not bad.  Will likely post about these as I try to put my finger on what exactly makes for a good vs. bad con game for me as a player.  Kudos to Tim and Travis, who ran my favorites and will remain on my list of DMs to make every effort to play with next year.
  • Pretty much every game I ran or played in included one or two people who had never played old school games of any type.  Typically their only experience was with 3rd edition or later.  I was gratified to hear pretty much in every case they always seemed very pleased with the outcome, enjoying how “fast” or “open” the game felt.  Perhaps they were just being polite to the DMs in some cases, and I’m not sure how many of these will become real old school converts, but it gladdens me to see people getting exposed to the old styles and discovering the exact qualities that I love so much about them.
  • The dealer’s room has one booth there every year held by a merchant called “Old Fart Games”, which I can simply not find any reference to outside of TotalCon.  Is it a store?  Is it just some dude’s old collection being personally sold?  I have no idea, but I always find good stuff there.  This year’s purchase included a copy of Outdoor Survival in excellent condition (not even punched!) for $13, and another Avalon Hill game from the late 70’s (already forgotten the name) for $20.  The proprietor even then knocked the whole purchase down to an even $30 for me, what a steal.

That’s all that’s in my head right off the bat.  Will try to post more details later, but right about now I think I could use a nap.

Pre-Con Thoughts

So tomorrow starts TotalCon.  I’m trying quite a few new things this year.  To start, I’m attending the entire convention but did not get a hotel room.  The new house is only 30 minutes from the convention, and last year I got a hotel room and had terrible insomnia combined with annoyingly loud neighbors.  I figure any lost sleep due to travel will be made up by actually sleeping well in my own bed.

Last year I ran several 8 AM games.  Frank and Tim draw the biggest crowds in the old school corner, and I didn’t think there were that many players interested in old school to go around, so I picked the time those guys don’t run anything.  Turns out Frank and Tim are not the only late risers at the convention, in fact I regularly struggled to get enough players for my games.

Actually, this was fairly common in the old school room.  Usually there were about 4 games running, which condensed down to 2-3 once things got rolling.  Good news is, by having us all in the same room if I didn’t get enough people to run a game it was easy to just join in whatever else was running nearby.

This year I decided to push my games a little later.  The next available start time is 10, so that’s what I went for, without realizing that it makes for a kind of awkward time frame of 10-2.  And of course this meant I would slightly overlap Tim and Frank’s 1 PM games.  Hmm, perhaps not the best idea, but I decided to just go with it just to see how it turned out.  Again, worst case I don’t get enough people to run the game and I go find something else to do.  Now there’s one more little wrinkle: it turns out Frank can’t make it this year.

So, I’ll be very curious to see how this all turns out.  News to follow…

My New Valet

When we first moved in to this house back in July and I realized I would have space for a dedicated game room, I placed an order with Geek Chic for one of their excellent GM Valets.  While most Geek Chic furniture is overkill for my style of gaming (being extremely miniature light), I frequently put some kind of surface to my side for holding extra books when DMing.  So why not have a dedicated piece of furniture customized for the task?

It wasn’t the fastest process, I suppose custom furniture never is, but it finally arrived yesterday.  I’m so excited, it really is an awesome piece.  I can’t wait to run a game with it. The only hiccup was that the removable bin that should live on the right side was missing, making it look a little lop-sided with the two cup holders on the left, but I was assured the error would be rectified quickly.

The very first thing I did was run out to Staples to buy some hanging folders for the filing compartment in the back, and experienced a wonderful bit of serendipity while there.  Right out front was a table of bargain items, and I noticed as I passed a pile of cardboard magazine containers, marked down from 5.99 to 50 cents each.  I immediately bought them all.

You can see in the first picture of the GM’s valet on the bottom is a big white box, which contains all my old D&D modules.  I put it there as the valet needs some weight in it to be less tippy when opened.  It used to be on one of the bookshelves, but it’s always been a pain to pull out to get at the modules.  You can see in the later pictures the white box has been replaced by a big group of magazine holders, much nicer and easier to access, and with plenty of room for more modules in the future!

Anyway, on with the pictures:

AD&D Open – 1980

Next week I will be running some of the A-series modules at TotalCon, originally run as the AD&D open tournament at GenCon XIII in 1980.  Coincidently, I’ve been reading old Dragon Magazine articles and last night I reached issue #49, which happens to include some articles about that very tournament.  Philip Meyers wrote an article called “The Slave Pits revisited: Suggestions for ‘saving’ the AD&D Open”.  It’s a critique on the format for that tournament, which when reading between the lines sounds a bit like sour grapes from someone that didn’t do as well as he had hoped.  Interposed directly between the pages of this article is a reply by Frank Mentzer, titled “Mentzer’s reply: It isn’t that easy”.  Together, they present a really interesting view on the tournament scene of that time period.

Meyers asserts that the goal of allowing as many people as possible into the tournament (in this case it sounds like around 800 played) has superseded those of assuring every player has a good time, and that the best players advance to the final rounds.  I think he has a legitimate complaint about the chances of getting stuck with a “bad player” that ruins it for the rest of the group, though I think that’s part and parcel of playing any convention game.  That said, Meyers focuses much more on the impact this has on allowing a truly good player to advance.  In his words:

Some alterations need to be made in the AD&D Open to minimize the role of group dynamics and luck and maximize the role of individual skill and enjoyment, within the physical limitations present. Only then will the AD&D Open truly be a tournament.

I find this particular argument fascinating.  The very terminology “open” and “tournament” suggests an inspiration from sporting events like golf, which is “open” to any participant and the ultimate goal being to determine which individual is the most skilled.  Golf is an interesting comparison point, as like D&D there’s no direct competition, it’s just the individual players vs. the game itself, embodied in D&D by the DM.  That said, golf is an individual’s sport, and I would argue that D&D is clearly a team sport.

It gets difficult to follow this analogy through then, as I have to dig really hard for team based sports that are not direct competitions against other teams.  Winter Olympic sports come to mind, like tobogganing, where each team is judged solely on time to get down the course.  Though I suppose it would be possible to have a “tobogganing open”, one would still expect teams to come having already trained together and ready to perform as a team.  I doubt anyone would want to get into a toboggan with some random guys he just met.

In Mentzer’s reply, he grapples with this too, and comes up with an unusual conclusion: to introduce opposing teams.  He mentions developing a scenario called “Battle Royale” in which a single DM overseas two teams of 8 players who are directly competing against each other in a single game.  While he rightly chides Meyers for his idea of having very short 1-hour rounds as untenable, I would think that likewise a single DM dealing with 16 players organized into two opposing groups would be just as taxing on the poor DM.

Part of the problem they were tackling back in 1980 I’m sure stems from the explosive growth of the hobby.  Tournament reports always seem to marvel at the numbers of players that show up, and I’ve yet to read one where it isn’t mentioned that the tournament filled up and some players had to be turned away.  Meanwhile, around convention time every Dragon Magazine seems to include ads practically begging for DMs to run tournament rounds, and even Mentzer’s article here ends in such a plea.  Even the numbers for the 1980 Open: 800 players and only 40 DMs, suggests that they were struggling to keep up with demand.

This also points out an interesting fact: the reason there are multiple different first rounds in these modules stems from having to time-shift when the first rounds were run.  Each DM likely had to run multiple first rounds, and as Frank says in his article, players who run later first rounds must be prevented from “illegally gaining information on the scenario used”.  While I have romanticized the idea that many different mutiple rounds gives the feeling of some kind of meta-setting whereby many teams were sent out to invade the slavers at different locations, ultimately it looks to be merely a symptom of not enough DMs or physical space to run all the first rounds at the same time.

One of my greatest disappointments in researching gaming history is knowing that I will never be able to know what it was like to be part of the D&D tournament scene in those early days.  Clearly they were a product of their time.  Even were we to attempt to recreate the experience, as I am somewhat doing myself next week at TotalCon, it will never really be the same.  I’m certain we’ll never see those kinds of numbers again, and what’s more I think the ratios have changed.  I bet at a modern convention if you got all the folks interested in old school D&D together, there would likely be a much higher ratio of DMs to players than there was back then.

Still, I find it fascinating to read any account I can find on what the tournaments were like back then, and see what impact they had on the materials being produced.  I know anecdotally that the A-series were pulled together from material used in various TSR employees’ home campaigns.  When I purchased them last year at the GenCon auction, the guy working the till who took my cash was none other than Harold Johnson, co-author of A2, and he told me a little about it as he signed my copy.  I wish I knew then what I know now, I would have grilled him for more info on what that original tournament was like.  That said, I’m certain that the demands of the tournament format ultimately had a significant impact on how these modules were edited and put together.  It would be really interesting to see the actual materials used at the tournaments to compare with the final printed modules.

And I cannot help but ponder what I’d do differently where I to be part of some effort to organize a modern tournament.  How would it differ from the tournaments of the late 70’s and early 80’s?  What lessons can we learn from those past experiences?  And of course the most pressing question: would anyone actually show up?

OSR Products You Should Own

I generally don’t do product reviews here, but I feel I need to point out two OSR authors whose contributions have had a major positive impact on my home campaign.

Jeff Rients – Carousing

I’ve been using Jeff Rients‘ carousing rules, specifically those printed in his book Miscellaneum of Cinder, but I’m sure the free version on his site is just as good.  There’s lots of other good stuff in the book, but the carousing rules are just fantastic.  I use a pretty straight-forward system for XP in my game: 1 XP per SP (the new GP in my world) and 100 XP per HD of monster defeated.  I award XP at the end of every single session, which are 3 hours long once a week.  Frequent but short sessions means the XP haul varies quite a lot.  Some nights they find a sweet horde of treasure and earn thousands of XP, and some nights they spend a lot of time talking to NPCs, dickering around town, etc. and barely scrape together a few hundred XP.

The carousing rules add a nice XP bump for those nights when the players want to hang out in town and interact with more NPCs and do planning on the like.  It also is a nice money sink to get extra cash back out of the players’ hands.  Most importantly though, it just leads to more awesome stuff in my game.  Here’s an example:

The group had just returned from a long dungeon crawl, and wanted to blow off some steam: so everyone goes carousing.  Two players fail the save and roll the same result on the chart: “You couldn’t really see the rash in the candlelight. Roll Constitution check to avoid venereal disease.”  Hilarity ensues as I tell them they wake naked in bed together the next morning.  Even better though is the thief who rolls “Beaten and robbed. Lose all your personal effects and reduced to half hit points.”

Now that sounds pretty harsh.  That character recently acquired a much coveted ring of invisibility, and I decided to give him an extra save to hang onto it, which I decided he must have used to escape the beating.  He did lose a very nice magic sword though.  The best part of this chart though is what it leads to.  To take the sting out I point out to the party that losing all his gear doesn’t mean it’s vanished into non-existence, merely that he no longer has possession of it.  So the party retraces their steps, heads throbbing, and I make up a story from the bar-tender of how the thief was seen gambling with a group of dwarves the night before.  The town is near the known location of an ancient dwarven temple, so I figured these dwarves are adventurers who set out early that morning (they didn’t fail their carousing saves).  The party learns this second part from the hostler, and immediately the chase is on.

We then have an awesome fight between two groups of adventurers outside the entrance to the ancient dwarven temple.  The players kill most of the dwarves, but save one for interrogation, who happens to be a thief.  They get some info out of him before they push him down the slope of the hill, and he manages to both not die and make a hide-in-shadows roll, thus escaping the party.  The party then decides since they’re here, they might as well explore the dwarven temple some more, and actually managed to find a hidden part of it they hadn’t found the last time they were here.

Results: the party is back in a dungeon perhaps a little sooner than they anticipated and a bit less prepared, which is awesome.  They have questions about the motives of those dwarves: who were they, were they really evil or just assholes, etc.  Also, somewhere out there is a very angry dwarven thief plotting revenge.  All amazingly interesting twists to the campaign that would have never existed without Jeff’s excellent tables.

James Raggi – Hammers of the God

That dwarven temple, by the way, is James Raggi‘s module Hammers of the God.  This module is not only a really cool dungeon, but it also contains a bunch of background info about ancient dwarves which I’ve found very easy to roll into my campaign.  I didn’t have a history for the dwarven people yet, so this filled a very nice gap in my world that I hadn’t really been paying attention to myself.  That said, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to ditch parts of that background and just use the adventure if you wanted, though you might have to tweak a few rooms.

Raggi’s module has several things in it that I now associate with good dungeon design:

  • Multiple distinct parts, some of which are hidden.  This makes it really great for a long term campaign, as players can return to it a couple times and find new stuff each time.
  • Custom monsters that are really out there, which really amps up the terror of “monsters in the dark” that standard dungeon encounters start to lose due to familiarity.
  • Very interesting terrain.  Sure, there are some square rooms, but there’s also a beach in a cave with a huge crane at the top of which is a metal box containing a zombie.  Zombies are pretty straight forward, but have you ever tried to kill one that’s hiding in a metal box 75′ in the air?

If I could make one criticism, it’s that Raggi’s descriptions tend towards being large blocks of dense text.  Each room is several long paragraphs of description.  This is awesome to read, and kind of necessary to get across all these unique features.  On the other hand, when the players ask “Is there any decoration on the walls?” and you don’t know the answer, trying to dig that out of the long sections of text can be onerous.  I’m not sure what the solution to this would be, maybe a quick bullet point list at the top listing the important facts of each room at the top (dimensions, exits, decor, inhabitants) before continuing on with the text?

So kudos to both those authors for their excellent work.  I highly recommend anyone reading this to check out either or both works.  They’re well worth the time and money.