Friday, September 30, 2016

The meat grinder

There is an imaginary line I draw between the first two editions of Dungeons and Dragons published by TSR and everything that came after produced by Wizards.  While there are many differences to be sure, the demarcation for me is the lethality of the games.   1st level was a very precarious position for any class in the TSR editions.  Games were lethal and a making it past first level was kind of a big deal.  The wizard editions went to grate pains to make it easy to have party level encounters, so nothing too difficult was ever encountered.  While generally I think this is a good thing, it does eliminate a certain caution amongst the players.  They don't every expect to interact with anything that could cause instant death, nor is there a concern that the dungeon may take more time and resources then they have. 

The last campaign I ran started off with the quintessential introductory adventure: The Keep on the Borderlands.  We pulled out the AD&D 2nd ed rules (which were a lot more clunky than I remember, but that is a story for another time) and had a run through it.  Most of the players were more well versed with 3rd edition rules, and so there was some definite growing pains.

The leader of the group kept on pushing the party farther and farther into what was in fact a very large dungeon without ever thinking to go back to town to rest or resupply.  Little things manifested as play continued as well.  At one point they asked where something they had previously encountered was and I asked them who had been mapping out the dungeon, they had just expected that their characters were doing it automatically (with their hands full of swords and shields etc.) and none of the players were making any notes.  So they were lost.  A lot of what I grew up with as a player was either forgotten by, or never experienced by this group.  So we had some talks about expectations part way though and things continued.  Then the character deaths started.  Some of it can surely be blamed on the luck of the dice.  One player in particular, ended up losing a character every session. Ultimately I decided that no amount of pre-briefing can change what a player expects an adventure to be.  There was a definite learning curve between the two editions.  This got me thinking, is there a way to introduce people into a harsh and deadly adventure without turning the players off?
Does this mean I should do away with the adventures that are by their very nature "hard" especially for 1st level characters?  No.  Though perhaps I should change my approach.

Two very clever ideas (neither one that I came up with) may provide an answer.

The first is the funnel method of dungeon exploration.  Instead of each player having a character and a handful of NPC / henchmen accompanying the party (because really, who wants to play a henchman anyway, after their PC dies) Every player makes two or three characters and the entire mob of adventurers enter the dungeon.  In this way the party has a fair number of combat ability, supplies, and redundancy of skill sets where loosing a character isn't a big deal either for the party or the player.  Lessons can be fatal and the game still moves forward and by the end of the adventure, perhaps only a few of the characters have made it through the dungeon, but those that survive and passed through that first crucible are the party that continues on through the campaign.  Natural selection of dungeoneering if you will.

The second is running the adventure through two different parties method.  This came from the Thulian Echos adventure by Zzarkchov Kowolski.  In the adventure the party finds a journal detailing the exploration of a dungeon.  The players then take the roles of the adventurers described in the journal and play though what the journal describes of the dungeon.  After getting a glimse of the dungeon and what it contains, the party then follows the journals instructions to delve through the very same dungeon having the advantage of knowing the lessons the previous party learned so painfully.  Of course the adventure itself has some wonderful twists and turns, but the concept I think is sound for anyone who wants to really set the tone of not pulling any punches, but having the players experience the feel of the game while keeping their characters relatively safe until the initial learning curve is past.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Spoilers ahead

Deadlands Classic is one of my favorite games.  It was around 1999 that I picked up the rulebook at a used bookstore in Berkley.  The freedom of the wild west mixed with zombies and other monsters just makes for something that catches my imagination. I was hooked and had to get just about everything I could for the setting regardless of how much playtime I could get.

I was impressed with the Doomtown card game that was already going out of favor by the time I found it.  With each of the games core concepts divided up into different fractions you vied for control of a single boom town.  One of these factions were "the bad guys" -The Whateley family.  They didn't beat around the bush with a subtle connection.  They Whateley family, much like their Dunwitch Horror counterparts mixed with things not of this world and were suitably creepy.

So here it is 2016 and I get a Deadlands comic "The Cackler" It is a suitablely creepy bad guy who as the comic goes on is revealed to be the progenitor of the Whateley clan.  Ok this guy is something to be reckoned with.  As the comic continues is reveals that The Clacker is in fact Mordrid the son of Morgan LaFey.  It turns out Shane Lacy Hensley (the creator of Deadlands) had planned this bit all along and had just waited about 20 years into the games existence to reveal it! Talk about playing the long game...

A "new" edition of Deadlands has been out for several years now. While I don't have anything against the Savage Worlds rule system, it is watered down compared to the Deadlands: Classic rules which I prefer.  I do like though that instead of just re-hashing everything from the previous edition, they continue to move the story of the game world forward with their Plot Point books, which satisfyingly let you encounter (and even defeat) the big bads set up in the classic campaign books.

In this way Deadlands reminds me of another lost gem of roleplaying: Torg.  In both of these the players are faced with a bleak world with enemies much larger and powerful then they are, and quite possibly ever will be, and yet they can affect the world for good, and bit by bit rally the human spirit to push back the creeping intrusion of reality.  It is a step away from the every popular grim-dark settings that let you valiantly fight against the inevitable dying of the light into the slightly silver lined realm of shall we say, grim-twilight, where the light may yet still be returned to the world.

Best of all they are running a kickstarter for a re-release of the classic version (something I totally don't need, yet need all the same) as well as a new plot point campaign for one of my favorite villians/settings in Deadlands: Dr. Hellstromme and the City of Gloom.

Why my favorite.  Well, firstly I like Dr. Hellstromme's style.  He knows what is really going on, and in a very Faustian way is willing to sell out the entire world to get his wife back (awwww).  That and Hellstromme represents one of the great sleeper hits of Deadlands, the weird science.  Deadlands was well into steampunk before it was even a thing (I dare say it is one of the un-credited founders of the genre).

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Adventures and World Building

I'm looking to add two things over the next couple of months.  Some adventures and a campaign world. 

The first adventure is up.  You can check it out by navigating to the "Adventures" tab at the top of the page, or directly to it here.  It is still in draft form, needs a name and some drawn maps.  But I would love to hear what you think, or how it worked out for your adventuring party. 

I'll post up others as they work into my brain.

The second goal is to post a campaign world.  I've always liked world building in principle and I've made several small settings for one off games.  So I've decided to compile some of my ideas and grow a campaign world here and see where it goes.  Part of the motivator for this is a game I played many years ago.  We were playing Tunnels and Trolls and the GM had an adventure planned based around an archipelago.  As we played I quickly found that the world was not pristine and just sitting there waiting for me to loot.  Instead several places were in the process of recovering from events caused by previous players.  I've decided to try to capture that feel and am going to set up a "living" campaign world.  So once I establish it, it will be permanently changed and evolved by the players that participate in each adventure or campaign.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What makes a monster?

Traps, monsters and treasure.  The big three of fantasy roleplaying.

Today I’m going to talk about Monsters. In full disclosure this was heavily inspired by another blog I’d read some time ago, and if I can ever find the article I’ll edit this and give credit where credit is due.

The quintessential monster of fantasy lore is the Dragon.  You don’t even have to look beyond the title of the world’s most famous roleplaying game, Dungeons and Dragons, to find them.  Why is this, perhaps because they are the combination of all the things primal man most feared in a predator. 
Combine the tearing claws of a Jaguar, the needle teeth of a wolf, the armored hide of a lizard, the ability to fly and strike from above like a raptor, a gigantic size that would make man’s tools seem feeble, and above all an inherent ability to produce on of the most amazing things to primitive man- fire.  The dragon is not only the sum of everything we fear, but greater than each of its individual parts. 
It is the culmination of the fear of a mighty predator.  This is different than fear of death in battle by another human being.  Because unlike being killed in combat by man where death is the end, in combat vs. a dragon death is just the end of your life.  This is followed by being eaten, chewed up, digested, and eventually being no more than a pile of dung.  

You might ask, so what?  You’re still dead at the end.  Physiologically it does two things.  One is that it is a reminder that we are not on the top of the food chain in a fantasy setting.  The second is that there isn’t much reasoning with a predator.  Sure there might be some dialog as a precursor, be it a dragon, vampire or other intelligent foe, but this is more akin to a cat playing with a mouse from their point of view.
This is the primary motive I like to have for my monsters.  With the starting point of humans=food I go from there.  I am more concerned about this than I am about is the monster “evil” 

Then there is alien intelligence.  Again this motive may be thought of as evil, but the point isn’t about food. However generally the outcome is the same or worse as they creature is making decisions completely out of line with the world it is existing in. A creature whose very nature cannot be comprehended by the human mind and drives others to madness is a threat to the PCs and the surrounding area, even if its very nature is that of a docile herbivore.  A creature with a hive mind that expects the humans it encounters to be part of a hive mind as well. These can be just as much a threat and a horror to the characters as one that means them to be food, but for completely different reasons.  The players don’t have to ever find out the “logic” behind the actions, and sometimes this is for the best as it keep mystery for both the characters and the players.  (As often I have found once a player identifies a pattern of behavior or reasoning for a monster it is far less frightening or interesting).

So what about evil monsters then?  Surely some actions of monsters from the predator motive above are considered evil, and there is some cross over in the choices they make- but these are more an offshoot of thinking of the PCs and other denizens of the world as food at some level.  I tend to relegate evil to the peer group of the players.  In most games this means other humans/demi-humans but may extend out if we are playing vampires/werewolves or things traditionally thought of as ‘monsters’ (thank you World of Darkness).  At any rate, evil is a conscious choice by individuals to exploit others for personal gain. 

The thing I have never cared for is the civilizing of monsters. The most common version of this I have found is the “noble orc” stereotype.  Making them an extreme warrior culture or so forth that is general just “misunderstood”.   If I want to have that in my games I can just make another human culture.  We do pretty good at misunderstanding each other already, or finding reasons to hate and fight each other even when we do understand each othe

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Green Faced Devil

Traps.  Monsters and Treasure.  These are the three things that are the signature occupants of fantasy dungeons.  Today I want to focus on traps. 

Long ago I heard the story of a brilliant party destroying trap.  It was the a wall decoration of a carved devil face with its mouth open, the inside was pure blackness.  The blackness was caused by a small sphere of annihilation being set inside the mouth, so anything that went into the hole just ceased to be- no saving throw, no damage, just gone.  There was no reason a party needed to interact with the object.  It didn’t block their way- but curiosity being what it was the story went that someone stuck their 10 foot pole into the hole.  10 foot pole was gone. The rogue stuck his head in to see what happened to the pole and lost his head.  They then tried to attack “the thing that attacked the now headless party member” i.e. hole and lost a weapon.  I would have thought that this would have made them learn the lesson, but the party proceeded to reach in after the weapon and loose limbs etc. This continued until the party was completely maimed or killed. Years later I would find out that this story was from a trap in the Tomb of Horrors module, so I ran out and bought it almost immediately. 

Traps fall into two varieties.  Those that are there are those that are hidden like the hidden pit trap in the floor or poison dart in a treasure chest.  And those that are obvious like the green faced devil from the Tomb of Horrors and can be readily observed by the players who can choose to avoid the object or investigate at their own peril.

While both have their place how I approach them when it comes to game mechanics is different.  One of the primary roles of a rogue in the party is to detect and disarm traps.  I use these for the more common, hidden trap.  So to speed up game play and make life (a little) easier for the rogues.  As long as the party is moving at adventuring speed, taking their time to observe their surroundings, I give them an automatic roll for checking for traps when they enter a room.  I leave it up to the player if they want to make this roll every time or if I should just make it for them as I give out room descriptions etc.  This way the rogue’s player doesn’t have to tediously ask with every door and room if there are traps.  I’ll afford the rogue a 2nd check for traps roll if they are specifically inspecting the item in question, again I don’t make them ask for checking traps, we just assume they are as long as they aren’t madly grabbing things and stuffing them into bags. I just tell them to roll and let me know if they beat the minimum threshold we establish.  This way they can take care of all the dice rolling while the other party members are giving their actions and it keeps things moving smoothly. 

The second type of trap is there to be solved as a puzzle or only activates by direct interaction.  These are not nearly as common and I don’t tell them that these exist even if they succeed in their roll.  The trade off is that it is always part of the room description. So they know it is there- just not what it does.  Think of the dart shooting walls from Indiana Jones.  It was obvious something was up in the room between the holes in the walls and the pressure plated floor.  So that would be a description of the room for the entire party.  Solving the problem isn’t just a disarm traps roll, it is creative thinking to walk carefully across the floor, have the wizard levitate across, or take another path through the dungeon.

While these types of traps are my favorite they take a lot more work to set up.  One of the reasons I like them is that they can be figured out by the non-rogues in the party as well.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

How playing Call of Cthulhu ruined gaming for me and why I love it.

How playing Call of Cthulhu ruined gaming for me and why I love it.

Like most folks, Dungeons and Dragons was the first roleplaying game I played. It was full of wonder and adventure and even though it was just my friend Ben and I it was amazing and enchanting beyond anything I had experienced.  Pretty soon I was hooked, and was making up my own monsters even though I didn’t grasp all the rules because it was exciting and could literally be anything!
Then my parents banned me from playing after they heard some bad press about Dungeons and Dragons.  My dad warned me about how guys in the Air Force would play the game all day long while on lock down during an alert.  I know this was an attempt to warn me away from something, but it had the opposite effect of just confirming that this game was THAT good.  But despite all that, I was a generally obedient kid, and so I told my friend I wasn’t allowed to play anymore and roleplaying died out for about a year.  Then I got introduced to the Star Wars Roleplaying game by West End, and I was hooked anew.  But this was good jedi and spaceships and not evil wizards and rogues so my parents were fine with it. That was my go to game for years.  Eventually D&D worked its way back in, and I encountered many other games, like Vampire: the masquerade and Shadowrun. 

But then one day a friend invited me over to play Call of Cthulhu. 

I was pretty excited to try this game out since about a year before I’d picked up my first Lovecraft short stories and quickly fell in love with the world that was created.  We investigated a haunted house, lost some sanity with the dead rising around us and the great thing that was being summoned in the basement and in the end closed the gate and lived to tell the tale another day, primarily due to some lucky rolls involving Latin. 
This caught my attention in a way that hadn’t been since my first dungeon crawl many years before.  These monsters weren’t a collection of stats to be beaten.  In fact at best we could stop them, but never really defeat them.  Orcs and Goblins and even dragons had just become stat blocks and often were just battles of attrition, you couldn’t do that with a thing that couldn’t die.

The next time I ran a Star Wars game it was with a new group (several from the Call of Cthulhu game) so I used an adventure I had run before and the group of rebels trying to defeat the mechanizations of the evil Empire.  I found though that when they encountered the giant sewer rats I wanted to take the game down a darker path.  I actually had to stop the game for a moment and poll the players –high adventure heroics, or dark and gritty.  They chose the high heroics and so I played out the adventure as I had before and everyone had a good time, but I really wanted it to be something else.

Since then I’ve found that most of the games that attract me have that dark overtone.  Be it Warhammer Fantasy Role-play or Lamentations of the Flame Princess there is an attraction I have found to these heavy metal inspired games.  If I wasn’t paying one of those games, I was generally finding ways to shift the tone of some other game or system so it was more grim and dark and perilous.

I think the reason why is the monsters.  As a young role-player every monster encounter was something new and exciting. As both a player and a character I never knew how things were going to react.  As time went on many of the foes became cookie cutter and even though there was threat presented to the character, it was just a matter of scale.  Every monster was SUPPOSED to be defeated, so I came to expect to always meet opponents of an appropriate difficulty.

Call of Cthulhu changed all that.   Now the answer isn’t that I always have to have a grim-dark setting.  But rather to present new and different threats to players.  Things that make them scratch their heads and wonder.  There is probably even room for re-tredding old monsters and just presenting them in different ways.  It has given me a push where in any genre or setting, I want to present new and interesting things to the players to push not the bounds of their characters abilities, but to elicit the best of the creativity and ingenuity of the players.

There was no greater motivator to start writing than finding that my blog had a view and I hadn't written anything yet.

I guess this is where I lay out the plan of what I intend this blog to be.  This would be great if I had a real plan instead of just a general idea and the thought "hey, I'll start a blog!"

It seems more often then not, I end up as a gamemaster of whatever group I play with.  Perhaps this is a list for power, but more likely it is the fact that I want to play and it seems to be the way to get a game to happen.

I have a couple of projects in mind.  I want to do some world building and this is a place for me to put up my ideas as they come and hopefully condense them into a rational product.

It is a place where I can work on my writing.  Because if writing more does not make me better, at least it will make me prolific.

So most of this will likely focus on weird horror roleplay, some call of cthulhu which is my current obsession but a little cyberpunk and streampunk will probably show up as well as I dip into the other gaming genres on my shelf.