Saturday, February 28, 2009

New Campaign, Part II: Taking it out for a test-drive

Starting about four weeks ago, my friend Adam was the first player I recruited to play in my Southlands sandbox campaign. Due to vagaries of schedules, the one time I knew I had for game-playing was on Monday afternoons. I knew this would be consistent from week to week, even though it limited my potential range of players. It also happened to be one of the times during the week that the game room was available for open gaming at my FLGS, Mayhem Comics. Knowing that I was starting small, I gathered up my bricolage of gaming materials and headed off to Mayhem to get things underway.

Character generation took longer than either Adam or I expected. Because he was by himself, I suggested that he generate two characters. Adam was a bit taken aback by this, used to running only one character at a time. Used to having more structured options, Adam also took some time to decide what he wanted his characters to be. One of the things I learned from this was that a BIG difference between old school gaming and later versions is that the sheer amount of time necessary to generate a character in more recent versions has created its own dynamic shaping how players think about their characters - they get attached more quickly, and they tend to "center" on their characters much more than thinking about themselves as players.

In the end, Adam came up with Solistrae, the elven fighter, and Kaleb, the human cleric. I also generated a few NPC adventurers that might be available as companions, if Adam was interested. Then I made my first mistake: I introduced the campaign through Adam's characters arrived at the town of Westguard. Why was this a mistake? Because it meant that Adam had to figure out what to do - and players of more recent versions tend to wait for the plot to come along and tell them what they should be doing.

Realizing that Adam was unfamiliar with the patterns and tropes of old school gaming, I had to think quickly about how to move things towards adventure (which was mistake #2). Having borrowed the religious pantheon of the Grand Kingdom from an excellent source (see right), I decided that the local temple to The All-Highest, Yirtta All-mother, and Galzar Wolfhead (the main gods of the Grand Kingdom) wanted a ruined monastery investigated. All well and good? Not...quite. Adam's characters spent some time adventuring around town, before finally getting on a boat and heading to the monastery upriver. While fun, it meant that the entire first session of the game was spent just getting to the dungeon. As the afternoon drew to a close, I asked Adam what he thought of the session.

  • Adam was intrigued by the very open nature of old school rules. He wasn't used to the idea that if he wanted to try something, he could just try it and a ruling could then be made by me if it worked or not.
  • He liked having some sense of direction, and he liked all of the in-character interaction with the people in Westguard. This was understandable, but it also meant that he was getting attached to his characters almost instantaneously - not necessarily wise, given how deadly dungeoneering can be.
  • He also admitted to me that he really identified more with Solistrae, a fellow armed with a sword and a brace of throwing daggers, than with Kaleb the priest. This was understandable, and more evidence of the influence of more recent versions of our game.
As a "test drive" it was a very good session. I had not expected just how much I (as the referee) was influenced by more recent tropes of "proper gameplay." This meant I had to consider very carefully how to run the game in the future. There's nothing wrong with flirting with the barmaids, but at some point there needs to be some goblin-cleaving going on.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Clerics and conversion

So there I was thinking about clerics, gods, and worship. Part of the idea behind clerics is that they are defenders of their faith, right? And the gods do desire worshippers, right? But where do those worshippers come from? Eventually, Patriarchs get lots of loyal followers, but there's not much there before that. But the idea of having a group of the "faithful" is there.

Recalling an article in an old White Dwarf about "conversion" as a clerical ability, I thought about this a bit more deeply. If you think about it, each of the other four "archetypal" classes have something they do that is part of how each is defined: fighters engage in combat, wizards engage in magic, thieves steal things. But clerics? Clerics - in an uncharitable view - are a kind of sub-standard fighter who doubles as an EMT. Faith and religion are part of the back-drop for their activities, but rarely come into play. But isn't one of the roles of a cleric to convert people to their faith? So clerics might benefit from this - or so it seemed to me.

In the interests of keeping mechanics simple, I would like to suggest the following:

Conversion: Starting at 4th level, clerics may attempt to convert persons to their faith. This requires a sufficient period of time to converse with, or preach to, a person or group of people, usually 2-5 turns (d4+1). While a friendly audience is favorable, it is not required; even those who are indifferent in their initial reaction are potential converts.

To determine the possibility of conversion, use the "Turning Undead" table in your favorite set of rules. For the purposes of conversion, a cleric is treated as being three experience levels lower than their current rank, e.g. a 5th level cleric is treated as being 2nd level for the purposes of conversion.

To interpret the results, proceed as follows: the cleric converses with a group of listeners. Those of the same alignment as the cleric are treated as 1HD undead (or the lowest sort of undead), while those of different alignments are treated as being two or four levels higher, e.g. a Chaotic audience listening to a Lawful cleric would be treated as having 5HD (or the fifth rank of Undead).

A result of "T" on the table means that the audience is willing to think about the faith of the cleric, and is open to potential conversion (further results of "T" should be eventually treated as "D"). A result of "D" indicates the audience is definitely open to conversion. If a number is given, a roll is made for the cleric. If the roll is made, then the audience is willing to think about the faith of the cleric, as above. Another roll is then made for the number of people so affected. For both the success and number affected roll, a cleric may use their WIS bonus (if any) as a positive modifier.

It is up to the referee to determine how many times are necessary for conversion to the cleric's faith to take place. In areas with many clerics preaching, such as large cities, an audience might be resistant to change, and therefore might be treated as several levels higher or require many more attempts at conversion for this to actually happen. Differences in native language, species, relative resistance to different religions, etc. may also contribute, and so on.

Actual use in game play: as is immediately evident, such a system could result in the fantasy equivalent of the Thirty Years' War, if overplayed or abused. What this system is suggested for is determining the relative success of a cleric in attracting personal followers, maintaining their congregation (if charged with such a duty), or acting to spread their faith in new lands. Potential adventure hooks include the following:

  • A cleric with congregation may end up having to deal with a hidden cult converting people to a radically different faith and alignment.
  • An imprisoned cleric may attempt to influence their guards so as to effect an escape.
  • A noble or ruler has asked for a convocation of clerics to guide him in his choice of proper religion.

I am quite sure there are some referees who would not want to get into this issue at all. However, it may be of use to those wanting to add some depth to clerics and their role in the game world, if used effectively. As part of an on-going campaign it might help in determining who a cleric's followers are, and the degree of their adherence to the faith. It might also give clerics more to do than being "first responders" after melee is over. In all of this, a light and deft touch is probably required of the referee to ensure that it doesn't end up going badly.

(A slightly shorter version of this was posted on the odd74 forum earlier)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Like Banquo's Ghost: Edition Wars and the One Right Way to Play

I like reading Grognardia. I suspect a lot of other gaming aficionados do, as well. One of the things I appreciate about James Maliszewski’s exploration of gaming topics is that he’s quite clear that all he is doing is expressing his personal opinion and preferences. “This is what I like – you might think differently.” So it has always struck me oddly when people object to his preferences (like here and here), just because they are his, well, preferences. It struck me as particularly odd that people have been showing up to deride his preference for older versions of D&D because the latest version is somehow “better.”

How is one edition of D&D “better” than any other? Well, it depends on the standard you are using. If you use the standard of “what’s currently published as D&D?” then certainly, Wizards of the Coast’s latest offering is “better.” If you use the standard of “what was the original expression of D&D?” then you have a variety of choices, because D&D itself was originally an evolving creature – but there is a clear demarcation line: “Original” D&D was the three little beige books, supplements I to IV, and some clarifications and additions found in The Strategic Review and The Dragon. Some people like the first edition of AD&D, and that’s another example we can point to. The problem with trying to debate the choices of other gamers using these standards is that they are really expressions of personal preference. What’s better for you is not necessarily going to be better for me, and vice versa. The only way we can resolve this is by negotiating what we want to play, when we sit down to play together, then and only then. In other words, we need a social contract for game play. Please understand I am not talking about GNS theory here, specifically, but the idea that there is a set of implicit and explicit agreements made amongst game-players about the game they want to play. This includes everything from when and where to play – and for how long – but also regarding what rules to use for the game.

Now a lot of writing has been done on the nature of the social contract in gaming – examples can be found here, here, and here. These are decent as far as they go (and there are more), but many of these articles touch only abstractly or in passing about the issue of the rules of the game itself. This is where there is a ghostly third party at every gaming table – the game publisher. “How is the game publisher at the gaming table?” you might well ask. The game publisher is at the table through the rules for the game – and then later through rules clarifications, additions, subtractions, and later editions of the game. The more that a game publisher does of the latter, the more “present” they are at the gaming table. But the publisher isn’t aware of what you are doing at your gaming table; they are simply managing their product in the best way they know how to stay in business. So their reasons for making changes (“improvements” some might say) to the game are almost entirely separate from whatever on-going social contract you and your friends have with each other as players and referee(s). But many people use published changes as justification for making changes in their game-play. This is problematic, because we can’t assume everyone agrees on the standards used for making changes or even that there might be some end goal of “perfecting” the game rules. I would submit that a great deal of the “edition wars” problem lies in the interpretation – or rather, mis-interpretation – of the place of the game publisher at the gaming table.

At one point I might have agreed with Tim Kask about the nature of this problem – “it’s those darn kids on my dungeon lawn!” (or something similar) But it wasn’t the players that were solely responsible for all those anxious calls to Lake Geneva for rules interpretations – Tim’s memory must be playing him false. There were no small number of referees who wanted “the official ruling” on any given subject. Why? To bolster their authority in the social contract! Little did players and referees back then realize what this might do.

You might ask, “So where did such behavior come from?” Wargaming and miniatures play, for one – just take a look at WRG miniatures rules and their history, and you will see what I mean. But this was just as much about a lack of clarity about that social contract between everyone at the table. When disagreements arose, as they inevitably would, some players and referees saw it as easier to appeal to an external standard – the publisher’s official ruling. This was done for entirely innocuous reasons – reasons like seeking clarity, genuine confusion, and looking for helpful advice. But like Banquo’s ghost at the feast, such appeals were often used as a reproach to how things had been done up until that point – and both players and their referees granted the ghost far more authority than Gygax or Arneson (or anyone else) had ever intended. Well, up to a certain point in time.

Submitted for your consideration: “Role-Playing: Realism vs. Game Logic; Spell points, Vanity Press and Rip-offs” From The Sorcerer’s Scroll, by E. Gary Gygax, pp. 15-16 and 21, The Dragon #16, July, 1978.
“Many seek to trade on D&D’s popularity by offering ‘new’ or ‘variant’ systems which fit only with D&D, even though the game is not actually named. Buy them if you have money to throw away, but at peril of your campaign; do not use material which alters the basic precepts of the game….Use your imagination and creativity when you play D&D, for there is much room within its parameters for individuality and personalization; always keep in mind that everything in the game is there for a reason, that major systems are carefully geared and balanced to mesh together to make a workable whole. Changing one part could well ruin the rest, and then what would you play?”
What makes this passage problematic is not that Gary was defending TSR’s product. That is perfectly understandable. What makes it problematic is that he is using an appeal to the publisher's place at the gaming table to bolster his position, i.e. “You’re doing it wrong if we say so.” This is a far cry from Gary’s letter published in the second issue of Alarums & Excursions (and which appeared about two years before), edited by Lee Gold, in which he says,

“If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another....I desire variance in interpretation and, as long as I am editor of the TSR line and its magazine, I will do my utmost to see that there is as little trend towards standardization as possible. Each campaign should be a 'variant', and there is no 'official interpretation' from me or anyone else."

Now it is possible that Gary changed his mind, which is perfectly fine. It's pretty clear that Wizards of the Coast has followed Gary's later advice as part of maintaining their business model. What isn't all that smart for everyone else is to continue to let the publisher go unacknowledged at the gaming table. There is no reason why such a position should be accepted without consideration - the social contract you have within your gaming group doesn't require adherence to an "official" version of the game, unless everyone agrees with it (and if you have, then more power to you). If you reject the necessity of "official" status, then the best edition of the game is the one you collectively like to play.

And that, my friends, is what Gary originally intended, anyway.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"There are runes on the blade...."

This particular thread on the ODD74 forum got me thinking about magic items and how to identify them. I'm not fond of the "automatic identify" option, simply because I believe magic items should be special, weird, and mysterious. I think some of this stems from having played with referees in the past who weren't very good at limiting magical item acquisition and the campaign descended into the territory of "Jeeves, it's a Red Dragon; hand me the +1, +3 Frostbrand from the golfbag - there's a good fellow."

So, identifying a magic item should be a chancy business. The first thing to do is to see if the item is marked in any way. Roll 2 dice:
  • 2-7: Item is unmarked; no identifying features of any kind
  • 8-10: Item has some kind of marking or identification on it, roll on the table below.
  • 11-12: Item has 1-3 markings of identification, roll on the table below.

Obviously, you can adjust the probabilities to fit your campaign. In general, though, the above roll should be adjusted by the relative fame and/or efficacy of the item. The “plus” for a magic weapon or armor should act as a plus for the first roll (above) and, optionally, the second table (below). A “minus” (such as for a cursed weapon or item) ought to be used on the table below, alone (since creators of cursed items often want to maintain plausible deniability). Roll two dice again:

  • 2: Item has a symbol unrelated to its purpose (up to the referee to decide what that symbol is and how to decipher it). This symbol might be for inventory in the tower of the wizard that owns it, or the symbol of the god to whose temple it was donated, or…
  • 3: Item has a symbol on it related to its purpose (up to the referee to decide what that symbol is and how to decipher it). The symbol may be indicative of the item’s function, or purpose, or owner.
  • 4-5: Item has a word inscribed on it; it may be unrelated to the nature, purpose or identity of the item, or it may be related in some indirect or obscure fashion, e.g. what sort of creature it is efficacious against, etc.
  • 6-7: Item has a word inscribed on it; it may be part or all of what is necessary to activate it (care should be taken by somebody saying the word while grasping or holding the item).
  • 8-9: Item has the name of a previous owner on it. It is up to the referee to determine how famous or obscure the previous owner was.
  • 10-11: Item has the name of its maker inscribed on it. It is up to the referee to determine how famous or obscure the maker was.
  • 12: Item has its own name on it. If so, it is the proper name of the item and may awaken the consciousness of the item (if present).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Tucker's Kobolds

How many times have you heard a player say, "but they can't be THAT smart! They're just dumb monsters!" - or words to that effect? Translated, what that really means is, "I can't believe monsters would use every tool at their disposal to survive!"

It is essentially an argument for making life easier for the players. Hey, c'mon, we're the heroes - gimme a biscuit. I don't like this argument for at least two reasons. One reason is that it stems from the information given in The Monster Manual for AD&D 1st Edition - every monster got an intelligence rating, and players memorized that information to use to argue with the referee. As has been noted elsewhere this is the sort of thing that leads eventually to every monster having a stat block and the game turning into an exceedingly complicated simulation (but potentially not a very fun game, or so it seems to me).

But there is also a deeper philosophical argument here I want to make: the player characters are NOT heroes. Far from it, insofar as D&D is concerned. If anything, player characters have the chance to become heroes, by displaying heroic behavior. And heroic behavior should not be easy. Monsters ought to be implacable foes, ready, willing, and able to do their worst to survive. Otherwise you might as well let the players do whatever they want.

After reading some of the background on Tucker's Kobolds, I immediately thought of players making the argument that monsters simply would not be smart enough to be a "real" challenge. Such an argument actually cheapens any accomplishment by the players over their foes, so I found myself beginning to think more about how to make monster encounters tougher - if that's the direction required. After all, player characters need to be able to tell the difference between knowing when to fight, and when to fight another day, if they really want to be heroes.

Friday, February 6, 2009

New Campaign, Part I: Setting everything up

So over the past two weeks, I've decided to set up a campaign, using the Labyrinth Lord rules. One of the reasons why I settled on Labyrinth Lord was that it is available through game distributors - just like Points of Light, by Robert Conley - I also decided to use the Southlands as the "sandbox" for the campaign.

I wasn't sure about either of these choices - at least initially. Labyrinth Lord is Moldvay B/X - and I was brought up on Original D&D; Dan Proctor's rules were just enough different to have me double-checking things frequently as I was setting things up. Being an inveterate tinkerer, I found myself coming up with house rules almost instantaneously - for example, adding an Archer sub-class for fighters, making hit dice for thieves a D6 instead of a D4. But I decided to not mess with a lot of the rules - why bother players with a lot of fiddly changes which may or may not really add up later? This ran counter to my prior style of playing D&D; my old self would have wanted to use all of Paul Mason's "Designing a Quasi-Medieval Society for D&D" series from White Dwarf or The Perrin Conventions as a combat system. I also adapted some interesting additions from Brave Halfling Publishing and The Scribe of Orcus, including additional classes (though I did start off the campaign with just the "traditional four" - fighter, magic-user, cleric, and thief).

As for the setting, using the Southlands from Points of Light was fairly easy - even though it meant not coming up with my own setting, at least initially. Despite some fulminations on James Raggi's blog about such choices not being very creative, I went with the Southlands as a strategic choice. I'm the sort of referee who will tinker anyway, and tinker rather extensively, so it saved time and creative energy for me to focus elsewhere by adopting this relatively "normal fantasy" backdrop (weirdness can come later). This also applied to having places for adventurers to go, at least initially. I took advantage of material from Fight On! as well as White Dwarf for some "mini-dungeons" and related inspiration. What this did for me was to give me a campaign ready to go, pretty much out of the box. I therefore had much more creative energy to devote towards two things: stitching the various pieces together, and designing a mega-dungeon to go along with it all.

Some of my preparation ended up being very revealing. I was surprised at how much I wanted a decent looking map to use for reference. I downloaded the players's map for the Southlands from Goodman Games, printed it out, and promptly began to color in various terrain features using colored pencil. I then slipped it into a sheet protector, along with an enlarged map of Castle Westguard and environs. I also had to stop myself from pawing through the detritus of prior campaigns to find the right set of articles, additions, subtractions, etc. - the name of the game is playability. I remembered just how much I had gotten tired of lugging around a bunch of hardcovers to every game session, so keeping everything portable and minimal actually helped in maintaining momentum (and not get bogged down trying to create the "perfect campaign").

I'm still working on various aspects of the game, and expect that to continue. My first actual gaming session with my friend Adam was just as revealing as my own preparation - but that's for my next post.

Coming up: New Campaign, Part 2: Taking it out for a test-drive