Sunday, January 29, 2012

Go to Hell!

I can remember at least two campaigns in ye old high school days which culminated in journeying to the Nine Hells and taking on all the big devil-bosses in a big melee.

Also, occasionally someone would pull a bad card in the Deck of Many Things and we'd have to go rescue them.

But, this is not something I've played or run since - Hell, that is.

I kind of miss it.

Ever adventured in your campaign's underworld?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Some more 5E tidbits

More intriguing bits from here. I have to admit my curiosity is growing, despite my natural skepticism (though its amusing to see someone describe a game like below as if it were an alien experience. Which, perhaps, if you've never played an earlier edition, it very well may be).

"There was a LOT of talk at the table. In character at times! I’ve never been at a D&D table where players were more invested in figuring out their next move.

On that topic, your next move isn’t on your character sheet. You don’t go paging through all your stuff thinking, “Well, I could Bluff this guy.” Nope. We were doing what we thought our characters should do, even if that involved our very NOT charismatic half-orc fighter trying to be a charismatic leader of a band of skeptical savage orcs. Multiple times. In other games, it’s “Okay, who has the highest Charisma? You? Okay, you go talk to those orcs and get them to help us.”

Everything was fun and fast and fluid. I didn’t feel like the game got bogged down at any time during our session, even when we had a few rules questions for Monte. Things just happened and they flowed with the story and the story was awesome because we made it that way."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pic from the 5E demos at DDXP

Keep on the Borderlands with no battlemat/mini's?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sweet, sweet, Vanguard

Man, I used up a lot of quarters on this bad boy back in the early 80's.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A few bullet points

- Have you been by the Warriors of the Red Planet blog lately? Thomas has posted an example page of how the book is looking, which is simply amazing!

- Have you been paying attention to the open beta of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG? Since I had a chance to playtest the game, I've been cautiously optimistic about this, and it is definitely growing on me. To the point that I'm thinking about running a one-off with my group to try it out from a DMing perspective. There's plenty of nice old-school nods here, like race-as-class and level titles, but one of my favorite elements is what they call the character generation "funnel".

In a nutshell, the "funnel" means everyone rolls up 2 or 4 0-level characters to start, and (if any survive the first adventure) you pick your favorite to move along to first level. While my kneejerk reaction was that this was just a way to let everyone enjoy a meatgrinder adventure without fear of ending up character-less five minutes into it, the implications are actually a lot more interesting. Its actually a clever way to avoid the d20 rabbit-hole of min-maxing - you aren't carefully crafting a bonus-master PC, you're picking an average joe that you have an emotional and time investment in. Character development through actual play, rather than number-crunching - how can I not love this?

- Also on the DCC RPG front, Joe's been posting some artists galleries showing off the awesome art for the game, and the latest feature is Erol Otus, so check that out.

- Have you been watching all these movie trailers? 2012 is looking like its going to be a banner year for genre movies: John Carter, The Hobbit, Prometheus, Avengers (to name a few). Lets just say I was less than impressed with the last couple of years worth of cheap remakes and knock-offs (I think Tin Tin was actually the best adventure film of 2011), and I'm looking forward to something with a little effort put into it.

- One movie we won't be seeing, though, is Elfquest. Because someone at Warner Brothers decided its the exact same thing as the Hobbit. Wtf Warner Brothers? Did I mention the last couple years of cheap remakes and knockoffs? Maybe this will free up some cash to work on that remake of Soylent Green with Seth Rogen and Jennifer Aniston.

- Lastly, I once mentioned ( a loooooong time ago) talking a bit more about health: "...we all joke about "Gamer's Disease", and it's no secret our hobby doesn't involve a lot of healthy eating/exercise, and many of us are soon-to, or have long-since, passed the dreaded, evil, forty-mark. There have simply been too many health-related tragedies in our hobby in the last few years to pretend there's not a problem. Is there a way to effectively promote healthy living hand-in-hand with gaming?"

I still think health is a huge concern in the gaming community - diabetes, obesity, and depression, especially, seem to have a constant (but politely ignored) presence. If I put together a "Healthy Gamer" resource page, would any of you be interested in that? Or if I were to post monthly "guest columns" from readers about exercise, recipes etc, would you be interested in reading or contributing? Please let me know in the comments below.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Player Driven Campaign

It seems to be the nature of gaming blogs that they are largely DM-oriented. We do a lot of dissecting what makes our games work best, the ideas we have for making them better, campaign setting details, houserules, and, especially in our old-school corner, the "lost secrets" of how the first DMs and game designers made things work. What's often given short shrift, however, is the player's role in all of this.

Is it simply a given that the player's in everyone's groups are just as involved in the development and growth of a campaign's setting and houserules as the DM is? I kind of doubt that.

Personally, I've found that players that are more interactive than reactive are pretty hard to come by. I've DM'd at more than one table where I've felt like some sort of performing monkey, doing my best to provide an engaging game while being met with blank looks and bored expressions while players just wait for me to tell them when to roll some dice.

The best groups I've played with or DM'd have not just been the games that were run the best, or offered the best adventures or settings, they were the games wherein the players were just as interested in developing the game as the DM. My current group, for example, is primarily writers and artists, and the effect they have on the game is profound. They are not shy about expounding on the possible uses of weird magic items they find, they're specific about the things they look for in cities and settlements, they tend to think outside the box when it comes to defeating powerful foes and obstacles...

It makes me wonder if there is a way to quantify what makes the best sort of players - would this help make bored or reactive players more involved in the game? Or would it be seen as an affront to a particular player's creativity? It seems like having a way to briefly describe the players' role in the development of the best campaigns would be a good thing - just as important as providing a good setting, good adventures, and the best suited ruleset.

In the notes or on your own blogs, please tell me a bit about what you like best about, or expect from, the players in your game.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What works in D&D - part 4

So we've looked, separately, at some interesting elements I think make D&D "work": a solid baseline, an experience point system that rewards play beyond the realm of combat, and an achievable "end game". As most of folks reading this particular blog will already know, the gradual erosion of these elements over the later editions of the game led some to keep playing, or return to, the older editions, or produce retroclones or variant d20-based games like BasicFantasy RPG and C&C.

An interesting alternative to that mindset was proposed, back in 2007, called E6. What this did, in a nutshell, was to take the existing 3x rules and pull them in nice and close to the baseline - characters topped out at 6th level and gained only feats from then on. This had a neat effect on the assumed universe of an E6 campaign; everything was at a power level much closer to what we would think of as "normal" in a sword & sorcery setting - the scary monsters like dragons and giants stayed scary rather than becoming mere stepping stones to get at challenges of an ever increasing power level ("Epic!"). This approach holds a lot of appeal to me - it acknowledges the strengths of a later ruleset (which I think we in the old-school community are often too reticent to do) while finding a clever and effective way to reign in the obvious problems with that ruleset. It neatly recreates a more traditional rpg experience by having a period of dungeon crawling followed by a period in which more high-concept campaigning will come into play.

But, I would be remiss if I concentrated solely on rules when it comes to "what works in D&D". As the revolving door of editions spins increasingly faster, something extremely important tends to get forgotten. If you've been following the whirlwind of 5E newsbites, you've probably noticed some familiar names keep getting mentioned: "Keep on the Borderlands", "Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth", "Tomb of Horrors", and so on.

Yes, I'm talking about Adventures!

One of the biggest things that is simply missing, from late 2E on up, is memorable adventures - the kind that everyone you know who plays D&D has played, the kind that becomes a part of the whole gaming vernacular and a measuring stick to gauge other adventures by. Since WotC's acquisition of the brand, only three titles come to mind as having any lasting impact on the collective mind of the gaming community (Sunless Citadel, Red Hand of Doom, and Keep on the Shadowfells), which over a course of 10 years is a stunning failure. The best adventures have a way of making players not care a whit what ruleset they are using. Companies like Necromancer Games, Goodman Games, and Paizo were able to step into this gigantic hole left by the game's official publisher, and build a nice business around giving folks what they needed - great adventures. While many like to blame 4E's perceived failure on its rules, I tend to lay the blame equally on the fact that WotC didn't pursue an aggressive publishing schedule of consistently engaging adventures, and at the same time refused to add their new ruleset to the open license that enabled third parties to produce adventures to go along with it.

As 5E begins its open playtest (you can sign up for this here, btw) in a couple of months, I am hoping that the discussion of rules does not completely crowd out a discussion on what players will get to do with these rules - will there be a renewed emphasis on adventures?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Wikipedia and other sites are blacking out today.


Because if SOPA passes, any complaint of copyright infringement (and yes, I said "complaint", not "violation", much less "proven violation") means your site gets shut down, no questions asked, until you feed enough money into the legal system to maybe be allowed to speak again some day.

Can anyone think of any particular niche genre of adventure games fan sites that might be easy prey for such a witch hunt? Hmmm? Yes, the OSR will be SOPA's bitch-boy, no free cigarettes or lube recquired.

As per Wikipedia:

"Call your elected officials.

Tell them you are their constituent, and you oppose SOPA and PIPA.


SOPA and PIPA put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won't have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn't being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won't show up in major search engines. SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.

In a world in which politicians regulate the Internet based on the influence of big money, Wikipedia — and sites like it — cannot survive.

Congress says it's trying to protect the rights of copyright owners, but the "cure" that SOPA and PIPA represent is worse than the disease. SOPA and PIPA are not the answer: they will fatally damage the free and open Internet."

Monday, January 16, 2012

What works in D&D - part 3

Just as older editions of D&D had a firmer baseline, they also had a more defined cap. I hate to use the word "cap", because its not exactly true, but the way the experience point system is set up, there is a point when character development stops having such an emphasis on leveling up, and more of an emphasis on how the character influences the game world (we'll call it a "soft cap"). There comes a point, typically between 200k-400k xp, when a character reaches "Name" level. The actual level may vary (9-12) but this is when a character stops rolling Hit Dice, and is presumed to have reached the upper limits of power, with further advancement being a lot more incremental in terms of hit points and armor class. From this point, goals become more obscure and narrative-driven - establishing and maintaining strongholds, attracting followers, carving demesnes from the wilderness, researching more obscure and powerful spells, and so on.

This could also be seen as a time to let those name-level characters essentially retire, fading into the background of campaign setting politics and such, letting players start new characters and reserve those high level PCs for only the most earthshaking missions. In a way, successful players "win" the game by getting to this point, or by tapping some later resources to poke a finger into the strange waters of attaining demi-god or "immortal" status.

Later editions would remove the "soft cap" of 10th level and push it up to 20th (or 30th in "epic" play). To facilitate that, the options of the game would have to get so far from the baseline as to become nearly comedic. Where once an armor class of "0" (or 20 in ascending terms) was a watermark only breached by the toughest dragons (or high-dex elves in magical plate mail), armor classes in the 40's (or -20's in descending terms) had to become commonplace. To challenge a party of say, 18th level characters, who are now presumed to continue regular dungeon crawling, you have to have dozens and dozens of extremely powerful (yet mundane and common) monsters to stock those dungeons, begging the question of how any lowly orcs, beggars, or 10th level paladins for that matter, can even exist in this nightmarish apocalyptic world.

In case the implications of the removal of the soft cap are not immediately obvious, this basically means that, no matter how powerful your character gets, there will always be a multitude of more powerful foes out there. Not one or two, mister 12th level ranger, but hordes of stuff designed to make much higher level characters wet their pants. In eight years of running and playing 3x, this seemed to convey to the players and DMs (in my experience at least) a growing feeling of "nothing's ever good enough". There was no built in mechanism like Name Level to attain, no gradual high-level power curve to ride gracefully into a well-deserved retirement and notorious spot in tavern tales and the epic poetry touted across the realms by any bard worth his salt.

The term "grind" is one often used to describe later edition combat - hours of PC bonuses and modifiers striving against heaps of monster hit points and star-trek-spaceship-force-field-level armor classes until one emerges the statistical victor. But its not too much of a leap to describe an entire 20 or 30 level 3x or later campaign as a grind - when does it all end? In my experience, these campaigns ended when everyone got fed up with the needless complexity of high-level play.

If I had to pick the best publisher of contemporary edition adventures out there right now, I'd pick Paizo, hands down. Their Adventure Paths are consistently well-thought out, entertaining, with high production values and interesting plots that make you not mind the odd railroad car so much. Yet, scanning message boards out there, you will find a whole lot more "just started Adventure Path X!" threads than you will "Just finished Adventure Path X!". Actually, I couldn't find any of the latter, but I'm assuming there must be some, just harder to find maybe. What do you do when the rules themselves are the biggest challenge to overcome for even the best adventures?

To be continued...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What works in D&D (continued)

The next item I'd like to cover is experience.

The experience point system is something I think had a greater effect on the play style of older editions than is immediately obvious. Not only did it emphasize a different type of adventuring than newer editions did, it also had a built in balancing effect.

In older editions, experience points were awarded primarily for the successful acquisition of treasure and, to a much lesser extent, defeating monsters. For example, a group of 6 orcs might be in possession of a gem worth 500gp. In terms of experience points, this would, altogether, net the party about 590xp; 500 for the gem and 15 or so apiece for the orcs.

That's a huge difference there, the gem is obviously worth a whole lot more to the party than killing the orcs would be. Effectively, it changes the whole goal of the encounter - simply fighting with and defeating the orcs is not the point, getting that expensive gem is the point, the gem is what allows the party to increase in power, and gives them funds to spend on carousing and training. Killing the orcs may simply not be worth the risk of getting killed.

Realizing this suddenly opens up a world of new options to the players - getting that gem by guile, stealth, or cunning may be safer and even easier than going toe-to-toe with the orcs.

This sort of experience system became another baseline of older edition games - this was a game of exploration and player skill as much as, if not more than, it was about kicking in doors and killing orcs. And yet again, future editions would erode this core concept.

Beginning with 3E, a new experience point system was introduced. It was mathematically coherent, followed a progression, a formula, and would largely turn the game into Fantasy Fight Club. Experience from this point on was awarded almost exclusively for killing monsters. Now, the encounter with the six orcs holding a 500gp gem was worth 900xp, 900 for the orcs, and butkis for the gem. Getting the gem through guile, stealth, or cunning now had absolutely no effect on advancing your character's abilities - killing orcs is what makes you level up.

There is a "story" xp award for 3e, by the way, but it was largely small and arbitrary, and did little that I could tell to emphasize exploration (or even story) over combat.

Experience also had an effect on how characters progressed. In older editions, the experience total needed to advance a level basically doubled at each level - for example a class might need 2000xp to advance to 2nd level, 4000xp for 3rd, 8000xp for 4th, and so on. An interesting effect this system had was that, if a player lost a PC, their new character was likely to "catch up" with the group fairly quickly even starting all over at 1st level. While those surviving fourth level characters need 8k over the next few adventures to level up, the new 1st level character can use his 8k share of those adventures to advance all the way up to 4th (provided he survives, which is much easier to do in an exploratory game than a combat game).

3E introduced a more algorithmic advancement - characters needed 1000xp total for 2nd level, 3000 for 3rd, 6000 for 4th, 10000 for 5th and so on. What this meant was that, as the party average level increased, a new PCs chance of ever catching up with the rest of them decreased. Not only did a 1st level replacement for a dead 5th level character stand very little chance of survival, that disadvantage would remain with the character for the rest of its career. What this did was pretty much force DMs to either allow players with dead characters to bring in new characters at the same (or close) level to the rest of the party, or risk either killing off the new characters over and over, or worse, lower the challenge level for the rest of the group.

By the time characters reached higher levels in earlier editions, say 9th or 10th level, there was no question of newer characters catching up with the group - when the rest of the party needs 100k or even 200k to level up, even the lowest level characters are going to catch up before that happens.

Which brings us to another interesting artifact of older editions, "Name Level".

Next time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

5E - What works in D&D

With all the speculation floating around about what 5E could possibly look like, or what folks would like it to look like, its interesting to ponder what exactly makes D&D work in the first place. The simple fact that people are out there still playing the earliest iteration of D&D means that there are some definite "core" elements that keep this game alive.

One of the first things that springs to mind is the Hit Die. This is, I think, the most important baseline of the game, and what everything else is built off of. Starting with OD&D, the baseline is this: a creature has 1 HD, or 1d6 hit points. An attack against it with, say, a sword, does 1d6 points of damage.

This is deceptively simple, but its an important reason why D&D works. Starting with this baseline, a regular sword has a chance to kill a regular guy in 1 round. The randomness of tossing dice to determine the regular guys hit points, whether or not you hit the regular guy, and how much damage you do if you do hit the regular guy, means nothing is predetermined, nothing can be taken for granted, and there will always be an element of risk.

As a baseline, this means you have something to measure against when someone gets better than the average guy (or "levels up"). More hit points, a better chance of hitting, etc. Or maybe your magic sword gets better than the regular sword. It lets you quantify tough concepts in a simple way that doesn't take hours to figure out, or bog down your game resolving simple combats so you can get on to the rest of the session.

For old school gamers, this can be taken for granted. Subsequent editions have gradually eroded away this essential baseline. 3E emphasized things like ability modifiers for monsters. A sword still did 1d8 points of damage against an orc, but that orc was now likely to have a Con modifier to its hit points and do a whole lot of damage, often more than that 1st level character could withstand. This created the expectation that in order for one's 1st level character to survive and succeed, its player would need to do some serious min/maxing, arranging scores and abilities for the optimum number of high modifiers to boost damage and hit points. Characters became a lot less randomly generated, and lot more "built", carefully constructed to counter an increasingly spiky baseline.

4E further eroded the baseline. Some might argue it practically washed it away. Orcs and PCs alike start out with 20+ hit points. Yet that sword is still doing 1d8 points of damage. The simplest element that made D&D work was removed: in one attack, a sword has a chance to kill you. No longer. In this latest edition, in addition to min-maxing a character, now groups had to min-max adventuring parties! It was necessary to have the best combination of striker, defender, controller, etc, so that those four or five PCs could carefully coordinate their attacks on the game board to kill that one orc.

The farther you get away from the 1 Hit Die baseline, the farther you get from quickly resolved combats, abstract resolutions that lend themselves to imaginative interpretations and descriptions, and sessions that emphasize goals and explorations over the minutiae of combat.

We'll look at another element of what makes D&D work tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reading the 5th edition right now!

With all the buzz around the internets lately, I figured I should track down a copy of this. Its just as well-written as I expected, and the maps are fantastic! Best of all, it includes a lot of the author's own original artwork. I highly recommend that you track down your own copy. It'll be interesting to see how closely the film follows this book.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Lost Castles of England

This is one of the best documentaries on castle construction and use I've seen. It focuses primarily on the early original wood-structure construction of English (Mott & Bailey) castles, and gives a great breakdown of their evolution into the great stone edifices we still see today. Seeing how they functioned in everyday life, how people lived in the little villages they defended, is certainly all useful for your gaming experience, especially in "howling wilderness" settings like WoHF.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...