King Arthur Pendragon

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Trying a New System: GURPS

As I approach the end of the year, I review the last twelve months in game terms. The truth is I didn't play a whole lot. The first few months are a blur, then I started a Deadlands Reloaded campaign which didn't end well and then a short hiatus from September until now during which I ran a short Eclipse Phase one-shot. It was not a very productive year in terms of roleplaying games, which was worse than last year (at least, I completed a short Trail of Cthulhu campaign).

Between March 2011 and today I have played The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep for Call of Cthulhu (which ended abruptly), Cthulhu Apocalypse for Trail of Cthulhu (successfully completed). Our group tried Primetime Adventures in a steampunk setting. The system didn't work for us. We also tried Strands of Fate and never made it past the first session. This year I returned to a more classic system with the aforementioned Deadlands Reloaded for Savage Worlds. We played around 6-7 sessions, before I pulled the plug.

Now, I find myself reading GURPS aka Generic Universal Roleplaying System. I think I've been trying too hard to find a game that suited my group's tastes. We never played more than a half a dozen sessions of a particular system, and I attribute that to the disconnect between us and the systems we have tested so far. It's not that my group is devoid of creativity and imagination. It's just that some systems are ill-suited to our playing style. The bottom line is: our group enjoys classic systems, you know, the ones where the game master really acts like a game master, by introducing scenes and directing the story (don't confuse this with railroading), and running the world with the players playing their characters and influencing the world through their actions.

Of all the systems we tried this past year and a half, only Savage Worlds and Call of Cthulhu fall into this category. And, in the former, I ended the campaign abruptly for reasons that have nothing to do with the system qualities and everything to do with the awful "railroadiness" of the published campaign we were playing (The Flood, if you must know) and, in the case of Call of Cthulhu, the campaign just fizzled when one of the players couldn't play anymore.

Instead of trying to find the perfect system to play (whatever that means), I tried to find the perfect system for us. And that system, ladies and gentlemen, is GURPS. Yes, the venerable and old generic system from Steve Jackson Games finally fell into my hands, I read it from cover to cover (actually, from covers to covers since the system is two books) and I really enjoyed it. In fact, I am running a fantasy one-shot called A Caravan to Ein Arris, which was included in 3rd edition, now made available for free in SJG site and the group is involved and having a lot of fun. I'm already planning a space opera campaign, a steampunk campaign stealing ideas from our PTA game and a cyberpunk campaign.

The main reason to use a generic system is one of practicality and convenience. Each time I want to play a new setting, I have to read a new system. Sometimes, this means reading a 300-page rulebook for a campaign that may or may not materialize. This way, even if we only play a one-shot or a small campaign, we can relax in knowing that the rules won't change and the players won't be forced to learn a new set of rules for our next campaign.

So, from now on, this blog won't be so focused on AD&D. You'll read a lot more about GURPS and my experiences with the system as I develop the campaign. But I also intend to cover many RPG topics as suit my tastes. Hopefully, our group will have fun once again playing and I can write here on a regular basis.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Literature: The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

I really like the Savage Worlds system a lot. It may seem odd starting a review of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane with this statement but it's all connected. A few years ago, I did not know the Solomon Kane stories, even though I knew who Robert E. Howard was. Pulp fiction was not something I dwelt upon as I was rather focused on Call of Cthulhu and, especially, it's iteration Trail of Cthulhu. As I said before, I tend to gravitate towards books that I can use to actually feed my inspiration on what I'm currently playing. Then, quite by accident, I found an enthusiastic review on the net by one Kurt Wiegel about a "then unknown game to me" called The Savage World of Solomon Kane. I don't know if it was Kurt's genuine excitement about the game or the theme of the game itself, but something struck a chord.

I immediately snatched a copy and proceeded to devour it from cover to cover. It was an absolutely awesome game, using the Savage Worlds system and the Solomon Kane setting. As I prepared my first session, and persuaded my players to try the game, I started reading all of Robert E. Howard's stories about the 16th century puritan who stomps evil with a sword, a gun and his righteous fury. In one fell swoop the game introduced me to Savage Worlds and to the worlds of Robert E. Howard: Solomon Kane and, later, Conan, El Borak and his Mythos tales. And we go back to the beginning: I really like the Savage World system. But this isn't about the system, but rather about the literary source.

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane collects all of the eponymous character's tales, included some unfinished fragments. And like Howard's more famous character Conan, these tales are excellent in their simplicity. Plots are not complex, but the stories are good in evoking mood and atmosphere. Solomon Kane is a puritan who wanders the world, fighting evil. Howard is a master of wedding vivid descriptions of places with the complexities of his character's behavior. It seems, at first, that Kane is a rather straightforward character, who just slashes his sword at anything who is even remotely evil, but he is driven by an inner force, something he can't quite explain, a restlessness that impels him to wander the world. And even though Kane is a rather religious fellow, who considers other races inferior (yes, the most dreaded racist overtones in Howard's stories are also present here), that doesn't stop him from accepting the aid of N'longa, an African shaman.

Some of the tales are set in the black forest in Germany and England, eliciting a Gothic atmosphere of horror. In a few short sentences, Howard evokes the darkness and mystery of medieval Germany. His best tales, however, are set in Africa. Here, we find significant similarities between elements in Conan's and Kane's stories. There are ancient civilizations of primeval evil, sorcerers and sorceresses of dark power, supernatural creatures and pulse-pounding action. There are hints that Conan and Kane share the same literary universe as Howard mentions Atlantis in one of Kane's stories. The tales set in Africa allow Howard to go wild without the constrictions of historical research. This isn't Africa from the real world but some fantastic realm of adventure and fantasy. It's a pulp dream come to life.

Of course, this being Robert E. Howard, there is racism but Kane is different. He is unconsciously drawn to Africa. He views himself as a kind white savior and his best ally his a black shaman who offers him a magic staff to aid him on his quests. This isn't an amoral character like Conan, but someone who will help anyone. It is very definitely a good character.

Like the Conan anthology, the Kane's stories are arranged in chronological order. The last one, a poem, depicts an elderly Kane returning to his home and a long lost love, and it goes a long way about hinting at what makes Kane tick and what he has lost in the process. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is not only a fan of Robert E. Howard, but to anyone who enjoys a good pulp adventure yarn.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Strands of Fate and Other Things

The last entry of my blog was posted on May, 16th, more than a month ago. It was so little ago and so long ago. Much has changed since then. Life intruded for once, and the group changed for another. It is one of the vissicitudes of life. Nowadays, groups are less static than they were a few years ago, or at least mine is. The core group remains unchanged but others come and go. Either family, work or any other element forces a change. In other cases, I burn out of a particular game.

Let's face it, I was never a single-game player. I like to play things, I like to try out new things. Not everything suits me, but had I the time, and more money than I could shake a stick at so I wouldn't have to work, I would buy a lot more than I have gathering dust on my shelves. And I would play a lot more. Don't get me wrong. This is not a compulsive desire to have something that looses its appeal once I buy it. I genuinely enjoy reading new systems, to try out new things, to change genres, much like I never go see the same movie genre all the time.

Change is good, at least for me. It keeps me from burning out. And so, taking a break from out game of AD&D, we decided to try other things. I am a fan of wuxia (chinese martial arts fantasy), and I love the Chinese mythology and ancient culture. I have played Chinese-themed games in the past like Qin or Weapons of the Gods. One of my best campaigns was set in ancient china during the Warring States period, so when some of my players began pressuring me start a new wuxia campaign it was just a matter of finding out the best system to do it.

A few years ago, I became also a great fan of FATE, but none of the current iterations of the system were quite what I was looking for: Spirit of the Century is pulp in the 20s, Diaspora is hard sci-fi and the Dresden Files is urban fantasy. Only Legends of Anglerre with its fantasy tropes could fill the void, with enough changes and adaptation as it is more suited to any type of classic fantasy campaign. Then along came Strands of Fate, and I glimpsed immediately all sorts of potential genres that could be emulated by it. You see, Strands of Fate, or SoF for short, is FATE-based, highly changed generic system. I created several characters in several genres and I like the result. The players seemed curious enough to try it.

So, a new page turns. Gone are the days of warriors and wizards, of orcs and goblins, of fallen kingdoms and might realms, of worlds of dragons and dungeons. On a more specific note, I will expand the blog to talk about anything game related, not just AD&D. I love roleplaying games too much to limit myself to one specific topic. So, while I may be playing a particular game, in any given time, I will talk about anything that strikes my fancy. I also enjoy writing on this blog (more than I anticipated). That's one more reason to keep it going. I hope you continue enjoy reading it and enjoying it as much as I do writing it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Burning Wheel - A New Beginning

In a rapid turn of events, but not completely out of my control, our Friday night Skype game was changed from AD&D to Burning Wheel. Yes, I know. It was not supposed to be but I came to the conclusion our group, as a whole, is more into games where they have a larger degree of narrative control and where story trumps random events.

This was barely noticeable in our first sessions, but as  time went by, I become more and more aware that they enjoyed the game while they were at the Keep on the Borderlands than when they were fighting monsters and looking for treasure. This is not to blame the game itself, but the group subconsciously gravitated towards situations they wanted to see in-game. Now, we all know AD&D has lots of interaction with NPCs, but at the same time, the exploration element, the mapping of the dungeon, the loot and all the little quirky rules contribute significantly to one's enjoyment of AD&D 1E.

However, the players tended to stay in the fort, talking to NPCs, finding more about the realm's religions and trying to weave their little tales of intrigue around the place. I dangled a few carrots in front of their noses, and for the most part went along, but there's a significant diffence between a highly motivated player and one that, while still enjoying the game, is merely following the gamemaster's hooks. So, after inquiring around, we came to realize that the players really wanted to weave their own tales, in their own setting, while still retaining a sense of fantastic adventure. For all that AD&D does well, it does not do what we really want out of a story. Some elements do not mesh well with our creative sensibility (alignments being one and the rigid classes being another). It's not a bad game, in fact I still enjoy it immensely, but it's not for my group.

Therefore, we decided to turn our attention to Burning Wheel, a game where the players and characters fight for their beliefs. What does this mean to this blog? Nothing much. I still continue reading the Dragon magazine, I still read retro-clones and AD&D 1E so I'll keep writing about that and whatever strikes my fancy. After all, The Paladin in the Bag isn't just about AD&D but also about roleplaying games in all forms.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Inspirational Reading

Has it already happened to you to read something because of the game you play? This happens a lot to me. I'm a person with eclectic reading tastes, and some of it stems from my passion for roleplaying games. Until I started playing The Savage World of Solomon Kane, I did not have a clue who Solomon Kane was, and Robert E. Howard was just a name I had heard before mentioned in the same sentence as Conan. After I read the excellent Mongoose's Conan RPG, I devoured all his stories and then some such as El Borak's.

I guess this started way back in 1992 when I first bought the 5th edition of Call of Cthulhu. I didn't know who Lovecraft was but after playing a few sessions I had already bought and read many of his stories. I was also a avid reader of Mythos literature, and I was fortunate that Chaosium published a series of anthologies from various Mythos authors and associated inspirations from Clarke Ashton Smith to Lord Dunsany. After that I created the habit of reading literature associated with the game I'm currently playing.

Thus, in the intervening years, I read many of Louis Cha's wuxia stories (Qin: The Warrying States rpg), Fritz Leiber's Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser and some of Michael Moorcock's Elric's stories (Conan RPG), some Tim Powers (Unknown Armies rpg) and even La Morte d'Arthur (Pendragon rpg). In many of these occasions, the literary aspects even surpassed the gaming aspects. I never finished reading the Unknown Armies rpg or Pendragon.

In the end, even if I consciously try to rationalize my literary tastes as deriving from my gaming tastes, I read because I love to read. It just happens that I can use whatever I read in my gaming sessions.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What Your Players Want - Part 1

I decided to write a series of articles about how to prepare a campaign according to what your player want from the game. Perhaps others will find this useful or, at least, entertaining. I am fortunate to play with the same people for several years to this date, so I know them pretty well. Even so, there are times when it is particularly useful to know what they want from a game so they can be entertained.

In his masterful book Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering, Robin D. Laws tells us that it is useful to identify what type of player each person is, so the gamemaster can create scenes, situations, events, non-player characters and anything to support their play style. It's a very good book with useful tips so I highly recommend you grab a copy and read it cover to cover.

Even if identifying what type of player each person is may not impact on the genre the group is going to play, it will ultimately impact on the structure of the game itself. Robin identifies the following types:

  • The Power Gamer: This person wants to be the most powerful, the most rich, influential person in the game. He wants to be the best fighter, have the most powerful magic items, have lots of influence and, generally, have a tremendous sense of power, be it social, intellectual or physical.
  • The Butt-Kicker: This person wants to kick butt. It doesn't matter why, he just wants action scenes, mayhem, combat, etc. He may not feel the need to be the most powerful, as long as he's engaged in combat.
  • The Tactician: This person revels in methodical play, planning things in detail, focusing on minutia. He delights in facing problems and puzzles to tickle his intellect, to see his plans come to fruition.
  • The Specialist: This person likes to play the same type of character over and over again and be good at it, like someone who only plays rangers or elves.
  • The Casual Player: Generally speaking, this person avoids being the center of attention. He plays the game because he enjoys the company of his friends. If they would rather spend the evening at the movies, he wouldn't mind, as long as he can tag along. The most valuable asset of the casual player is that he will play almost anything.
This categorization is not hard and fast. Some players can be multiple things. Some aren't even any of these types but, as Robin says, it's a good starting point. The process of identifying each of your players is useful insofar you know them well. If you're playing with people you never met, you'll have to adjust your methods until you can determine what type of player they are. This shouldn't be difficult as most players show their play style during the first couple of sessions.

Even when choosing a game, it is important to keep this in mind. Not everyone will enjoy Call of Cthulhu, but Butt-kickers, Tacticians and Specialists will. AD&D 1e will draw most, if not all, of these types if done well. A game like Burning Wheel will draw the Tactician, Specialist and Casual Player, perhaps the Butt-kicker if the game structure allows for more focused combat scenes. However, since some players will fill two or more categories, choosing what game to play and what scenes to create will be easier.

This does not preclude a more improvisational style of play. As long as the gamemaster keeps in mind what types of players are at his table, he can conjure up situations on the spur of the moment to entertain his players. Sometimes, this is more desirable as the gamemaster can adjust the flow of the session according to how players are enjoying themselves ("We just had an intrigue scene where they persuaded the orcs to help them, now the zombies attack!") If pre-planning a sessions the gamemaster should balance the scenes to focus on each player's style, thus bringing him or her to the spotlight.

One does not have to limit his consideration of player types to the categories above. Even a player choice of game reveals much about him or her. If a player's favorite game is Savage Worlds, he enjoys fast-paced, action games. If his choice is Primetime Adventures, then he wants to involve himself in scenes of interaction, some action, with moral and ethical dilemmas. Thus, the gamemaster would do well to discuss beforehand what game he intends to play to gauge his players' interest. Some will say so outright, others not so, but a frank discussion can avoid much future aggravation. This includes the premise of the campaign. A well-pitched campaign will attract even the most jaded player. This should leave the players excited to, at least, try out a few sessions.

After the gamemaster has determined all of the above elements, it is now time to roll up the sleeves and start rolling characters. Much can be glimpsed from a player character sheet but that will be the subject of a future article.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Having Fun With The Game

On his blog, Alexander Schiebel writes about knowing your players to make sure each and every one of them has fun at the table. In other words, knowing what they like and want from the game and provide it. It's indeed the gamemaster's responsibility to know what the players want from the game he is currently running, whether that is an old-school dungeon crawl, a space opera with lots of action and derring-do or a game of intrigue and conspiracies. A story should be based on the players' wants and somehow tied to their character concept. The players' involvement in the story is proportional to how deep they relate to it.

Even if the gamemaster sets a baseline ("My campaign will be about a group of fortune seekers and treasure hunters exploring lost ruins and underground temples"), the players should have a lot of leeway on how to play this type of game. One could favor combat and want to see lots of action, another could seek magic items because he wants to feel powerful, and yet a third could want to flex his creative muscles and solve puzzles. Short of asking outright, how does a gamemaster figure out what each player wants from his game? Simply by looking at their character sheets. That player created a fighter? He wants action scenes, to face oponents in battle and be the group's defender. How about that player who spent his points in Knowledge skills and Lost Artifact Lore? He wants to figure out things, to delve into the past and find powerful artifacts. A player created a courtier and has high charisma? He wants to interact with NPCs, to manipulate them, to make or break alliances, to speak for the group.

Sometimes a player will create a character that he does not want to play just because the group needs one more fighter or magic-user. Resist the urge to do that. Never force a player to play something against his will. An unhappy player will not have fun at the game table and will, possibly, drag down the campaign. Always try to accommodate the player's tastes within the context of the campaign. In my AD&D 1 ed. campaign, I even let players be assassins and half-orcs if they want. That provides an interesting element of conflict both within and without the group. Perhaps in my world, half-orcs are accepted but somewhat feared. Perhaps an assassin can find a compelling reason to associate with good characters. Strive to find what it is that the player wants from the game, give it to him and he'll be happy.

Weave stories or events around the player-characters not the other way around. Even in the most simple of stories, you can find something to hook the player. For instance, in my current Greyhawk campaign, one of the players - a fighter - was attacked by an evil cleric. The player realized the cleric was possibly wearing a magic plate mail armor. He immediately wanted to have it. He set himself that goal. As a gamemaster, it is my job to make sure it is possible for him to get the armor but also to make it difficult. That NPC will return. Perhaps the characters will hear from him again, either through his minions or in person. His story will be interwoven with that of the player-character. Perhaps he will become a recurrent villain.

But here's a crazy notion: it is also the player's responsibility to entertain the gamesmaster, to create interesting characters and play with gusto. Players should have dramatic flair or be creative. They should follow the gamemaster's hooks (after all, they are there so that the players are happy about the game). Failing that, they should set their own goals. Keep the story moving. As a gamemaster, I want to be surprised. When something happens that I was not prepared for, it is much more fun for me. It keeps me involved, trying to follow what the players are doing, to come up with things to stay one step ahead of them. Each gamemaster will be entertained in different manners. Find about yours, tell it to the players and you'll have much more fun if the players play with you, not against you.

In order to entertain the gamemaster, the players must accept his campaign premise. After all, the gamemaster also wants to play a game and a certain type of story and it won't be much fun for him if he's running a game of investigation when he would rather be playing a game of fantasy and action. The campaign premise should satisfy everyone at the table and, in order for that to happen, a certain amount of give and take must occur until everyone is happy. Then, the players must play their characters within the context of that premise, being funny, serious, dramatic, proactive, reactive, and so on, but still respecting what the gamesmaster wants to play. They should not be disruptive, accept each other's ideas and feed on each other's energy at the table to create an entertaining session.

In the end, at the table, all are responsible for the success or failure of a campaign, and it's not fair to blame just the GM or the players. I end with a quote from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition Player's Guide. It applies to every campaign I know of:

"There is nothing quite like a successful D8D campaign, and its success is based upon the efforts of all participants. The Dungeon Master is pivotal, of course, but the players are just as important, for they are the primary actors and actresses in the fascinating drama which unfolds before them. For that reason, their outlook and their conduct will greatly affect the flavor and tempo of the campaign. Accordingly, they should do their best to further the success of the entire undertaking."
Gary Gygax

Monday, May 7, 2012

Megadungeon - First Maps

Detailing an entire megadungeon isn't an easy task, but it's a very enjoyable one. This weekend I was able to complete two maps: level 1 of both the crypts and the dungeons. I used A4 graph sheets for each level, much like the original modules. My reference is the Caverns of Thracia by Paul Jacquays which, in my opinion, has some beautifully drawn maps. I don't like cluttered maps, so I divided the upper levels in three distinct areas: the crypts, the dungeons and the magic sanctum (which I have yet to draw). Bear in mind that these maps are still drafts.
I haven't decided on how to connect them all, but for the time being they are three separate level 1 maps. The Crypts may be connected to the Dungeons by some side passage or sewers but I'll have to decide on that latter. The Magic Sanctum is most definitely sealed off and the only way in is by using a magic key (scattered about the other levels). We'll see how this plays out.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

In Praise of: Tom Baxa

Yes, I am an unapologetic fan of Tom Baxa's work. Reading many of the blogs and websites out there, not many people enjoy his work, especially in roleplaying games, but - in my opinion - he is a great artist and quite a mood-setter. Allow me to illustrate.

I believe art is important to setting the tone of a roleplaying game. It may not be as important as its contents, but its importance cannot be denied. Art sets the tone of the game, it illustrates hard to describe creatures, it depicts parts of the world and important scenes. This is why I enjoy the earlier works of TSR such as AD&D, and the works of Erol Otus, David Trampier and David Sutherland, among others. I even think some works are as much defined by art as by content. Two of such works are Planescape and Dark Sun.

I first saw the images created by Baxa when I purchased a copy of the Dark Sun boxed set (1st edition). Some of the interior art was Brom's but it was Baxa's rough depictions of Athasian people and creatures that drew me in. It perfectly captured the mood of the game for me. I know I may be the minority here, but his black & white drawings, hard, thick lines and edges, show me what Athas is all about: a savage, violent world where only the strong survive. There is something raw and primordial about his Dark Sun drawings, some element of grittiness that left an indelible mark on the setting. Some of it is even reminiscent of certain Marvel authors of the 70s.

Even though Brom's color work in Dark Sun is unsurpassed, Baxa's black & white depictions of Athas are the best, even though he also worked in color, and it's also very, very good. To me, Dark Sun and Baxa will always be inextricably linked.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Creature Spotlight: Carrion Crawler

I have a special fondness for this creature. As it happens, back in the winter of 1988, when I bought the red D&D box, I ran the scenario from the DM book, the one that takes place in Castle Gygar. It turned out the carrion crawler was the first creature the group faced when approaching the castle. Invariably, the creature killed every group in combat since the odds of it striking at least once with one of its eight attacks and the victim failing a saving throw are quite high. I don't remember how I ran the combat or if I was doing it wrong, but the players kept rolling characters and kept bumping into that carrion crawler from hell and kept dying.

I even inflicted the same deaths on a second group I managed to recruit during the following summer vacations. It was the same story all over again: roll characters, approach the castle, fight creature, and die. Rinse and repeat. After a while, nobody ever tried to create fully realized characters. They first wanted to see if they could survive the damn creature before investing on their personas. Amusingly, nobody ever considered avoiding the creature and go straight to the castle. We were young and still learning the game.

As a DM, I was bad. In my defense, I was learning the game, too. I had no one to teach it to me not even other players. This was Portugal in the 80s when roleplaying games were a thing almost unheard of. I get the feeling that it was much the same situation for a bunch of people, 15 years earlier when trying to learn how to play D&D. My only contact in the weeks I was reading the game were a group of players playing demos of the game in a local store, and they were as bad as I was.

Ironically, when I returned to D&D a few of months back, I used the red box again, though I switch to the Moldvay version a session later. And the players also faced the carrion crawler in its hole but this time, they managed to kill it. Today, I am a much better DM as my players are better players, although these are not the same players I started playing with 24 years ago. The carrion crawler will always stick in my mind as an initiation ritual of sorts for my players. Hopefully, the next time I start a campaign, I'll use a different creature... or maybe not.

Monday, April 30, 2012

What is AD&D 1st ed. worst rule?

A question to all of my readers: what is, in your opinion, the worst rule or rules in AD&D 1st edition? Additional kudos, if you justify your choice(s). I admit that initiative is a bit confusing but I don't really enjoy unarmed and grappling combat. I will use it to test it in combat, although the situation never came up in play, but as written, they are a mess. What is your worst rule or rules?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Randomness of NPC Reactions

This was a point of contention last night as we played our 4th session of our Greyhawk campaign. Eventually, I'll write a more detailed post about it, but the specific situation was as follows: the group stumbled upon a group of lizard-like humanoid creatures living in a swamp. Their first reaction was to parlay, having won the initiative. The ranger was the only one who could speak fluently their language. I decided that he was translating what the lizard folk were saying, so everyone could speak normally instead of having the player unnecessarily repeat the other said. It was just a minor fudge in order the keep things flowing. What initially appeared as a peaceful encounter turned into a vicious confrontation when the creatures attacked.

One of the players didn't take this too well. In his opinion, a "roleplaying encounter" should be fully verbal, with the players speaking in character, and never let random dice rolls dictate the outcome. He wasn't very happy when the creatures attacked out of the blue after a few trinket exchanges. He also died during the encounter so I believe his opinion was more of a knee-jerk reaction to a very sudden and unexpected death than a rational one.

This notion encounters with other creatures should be fully "roleplayed" and never dictacted by dice rolls is totally alien to me. It presupposes three factors that are flawed to begin with:

First, it implies that roleplaying and dice rolling are somewhat mutually exclusive. Either you are roleplaying or you are dice rolling. This could be not be farther from the truth. You can roleplay and still decide things with dice rolls. In fact, roleplaying provides a clear rational why the dice are being rolled and why the random results are what they are. They justify, in our minds, the randomness of the game. In this case, the creatures attacked because they were offended when one of the characters refused to reliquish a sword the creatures wanted.

Second, this notion assumes that when one initiates an encounter by roleplaying, this aspect alone is sufficient to propel things. In my opinion, this disregards one important factor: Charisma. The truth is that, with very rare exceptions, the character's Charisma IS NOT the player's Charisma. The player can be highly conversant and rich in vocabulary, and have an appealing personality, but the character can be a rude lout who grunts and snarls his way around, or vice-versa. The roleplaying must be filtered through the Charisma attribute much like one's combat ability in real life isn't a direct equivalent of a character's combat ability. And how else to decide if a player with a low real life Charisma but has a good game Charisma impresses the NPCs? Using reaction rolls, of course.

Third, this notion assumes that most of the races understand each other and can reach a mutually agreeable compromise. The truth is, most the creatures' norms of behavior and conduct are partially, if no completely, different from humans' and demi-humans' norms. Even if we can trace similarities between orc and kobold societies with human ones, it is much more difficult to roleplay a lizard man or gelatinous cube. Of course, it's easier to parlay with lizard men than with a gelatinous cube, which is a completely impossible proposition, but even lizard men are far too removed from the human society standards to let things be decided by roleplaying alone. And once we enter the "GM fiat" territory, it can be a slipery slope if not handled correctly.

I could play the "DM is the final authority" but I feel the need to explain such things so as to make the player understand my play style. Dice are not the be all and end all of roleplaying games but neither is roleplay. Both are different faces of the same coin and both much be balanced to create a reasonable doubt in each situation. A small degree of randomness not only keeps the players guessing and situations tense but it also guarantees a certain degree of impartiality, much like a failed attack roll in AD&D can spell the difference between life and death.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Greyhawk Campaign - Session 3

This time, two of the players couldn't make it. The party was reduced to Sidimatus (the human figher), Areth (the human ranger) and Lyrial (the elf thief). After last session, Sidimatus and Lyriel had to recover for a full week, having been viciously beaten by a band of kobolds. While at Windark Keep, they enlisted the aid of Tivor, a cleric of St. Cuthbert, and his two acolytes. They also recruited some hirelings -  a band of mercenaries. Since this is the players' first time playing AD&D, the concept of hirelings and henchmen is still a strange one, being as they are used to the more traditional model of PC group alone in the adventure.

Returning to their place where they last confronted the kobolds, east of the keep, Areth tried to follow the creatures' trail. He was successful. It was a long trail that wound through the forest, until they reached a dark wooded ravine where they could see many caves on the rock walls. Lyriel and Areth approached one of the tunnels to peer inside. The mercenaries and clerics and Sidimatus kept hidden in the surrounding forest. When Areth and Lyriel returned, they discussed what to do. After some minutes of deliberation, they decided to enter the first cave on the left.

Lighting a lantern, they proceeded inside, with Lyriel and Areth leading the group, and Sidimatus among the hirelings claiming his armor wasn't any good so he wasn't going to die this time (a bit of a trauma, after last session). Tivor and his two acolytes closed the rear. It was an unfortunate decision as you shall see.

The cave was dug into the rock, cold walls of irregular stone, but the ground was smooth by the passage of many feet. They explored a few corridors until they entered a large chamber. Inside, a group of goblins awaited spears in hand. No surprise rolls were made for the creatures but the group rolled. Alas they were successful thanks to the ranger. Winning the initiative, they decided to attack. Combat was confusing with Lyriel trying to use her sling against one of the goblins and hitting one of the mercenaries instead, Sidimatus surrounded on all sides and Areth trying to protect the rest of the group. The mercenaries fought well, but then Tivor initiated a spell. No one was expecting treason but that's what happened. One of the mercenaries, started contorting, nasty gashes opening all over his body. He dropped dead.

Confused, Sidimatus tried to speak to Tivor, while fending a goblin's attack, shouting above the clang of sword and spear against shield. The cleric just cried out something about Snarga and that the adventurers' bones would be filling these caves soon. Tivor's acolytes attacked from behind against the mercenaries. In the confusion, the group tried to outmaneuver them, but the goblins still harassed them. They were lucky. They killed some of the creatures and the rest fled in fear.  One of the acolytes was felled by a powerful blow but Tivor and his other follower were more than a match for them. Two of the mercenaries were already dead, when the group decided that a hasty retreat was wise.

Lyriel bolted for the exit while Areth covered her escape by blocking Tivor's way. This was unexpectedly heroic of him. It allowed for the rest of the group to leave the caverns. But the mercenaries were none too happy to see their leader (Lyriel) escape in haste, leaving them behind. Both mercenaries decided what they were being paid wasn't worth dying here, especially with such spineless leaders. They both ran, but one of them was struck by the surviving acolyte and died. Still blocking the way, Areth waited for his companions to leave and then ran out. They weren't pursued.

In the next session, they must cope with the consequences of their decisions. The surviving mercenary is not too happy and their reputation may be stained. There's a lesson to be learned: never accept the offer of a cleric if he readily agrees to help you without some sort of compensation. There is always a catch. On the bright side, Areth decided he wanted the plate mail the cleric was wearing. According to him, there was something fishy about the almost supernatural way the cleric evaded his blows (he rolled a 18 against Platemail + Shield and failed).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Comment Area Changes

I apologize to all, but I'm in the process of setting up a new comment form in each post. Hopefully, this will allow everyone to comment with no problems. It is also a much more intuitive system that allows me to comment on other blogs using the same profile. If you don't see any comments right now, don't worry, I have imported them but it will take up to 24 hours to become visible again. You can post comments now. It won't disrupt the system.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Dragon Magazine - Up on a Soapbox

For my ultimate quest to create the best megadungeon I can possible create for my group, I returned to the roots of it all: Castle Greyhawk, the most famous of dungeons. Because it never saw the light of day outside Gary Gygax's and Rob Kuntz's game table, it acquired an almost mythical status. I've recently heard quite a bit about it and what I heard made me realize that it was exactly what a good megadungeon should be: not completely realistic, but whimsical, filled with fiendish traps and puzzles to entice the players AND the characters. To learn more, I tracked down several sources, some of which were easier to acces than others. One of these sources is the complete series of Dragon articles written by Gary Gygax: Up on a Soapbox.

The first article was published in issue 287 (September 2001) and the last one in issue 320 (June 2004). In them, Gary describes his experiences running and playing in the Greyhawk Campaign, mainly in Castle Greyhawk, a megadungeon than spanned several levels. These are uniformly excellent articles because they open a window to a past that most of us have almost forgotten, but also because they give us glimpses of a long-lost campaign that - to most of the old grognards - is a kind of Holy Grail, lost in a mythical time. Only elements of it have surfaced since then in different mediums. Now that Gary is deceased, these articles and a handful of other materials are the only link to the original Castle Greyhawk.

The articles themselves are not connected in any way. The author tells us about several situations that cropped up during his and Rob Kuntz's campaign. Thus, we have mainly independent accounts of various moments, involving different characters. One article describes a group's efforts to solve the riddle of "a towering block of carved stone" that radiated magic. In another, the adventures are befudled by the appearance of a mysterious man whose skin is gold encrusted with jewels (according to Gary, no group ever caught him, and it continues to be a mystery to this day). There are accounts of Robilar going solo, and how he was teleported to the other end of Oerth. One article even describes how pit traps evolved from simple pits, to pits with trapdoors and, finally, pits with spikes. Without exception, every one is a small diamond in the rough and a joy to read. I say diamond in the rough not in a derrogatory sense, but because these articles are an account filtered through the mind of the man who lived it and is trying, to the best of his abilities, to describe what was like to be a part of that game. We can only imagine how things were.

From Gary's writing, I have extrapolated several elements that I will incorporate in my own megadungeon. It is also implied that Gary and Rob played with several different groups in the same setting. Therefore, parts of the dungeon were explored by different groups. Most of the puzzles and traps were not designed in a manner consistent with real world logic or even, sometimes, any kind of logic, but prepared only to confuse the players (the aforementioned trapdoors that changed as the groups learned to bypass them and the infamous ring of contrariness). In this sense, there was a sort of duel of wits between the DM and the group, with the former creating increasingly fiendish traps and puzzles and the latter trying to "beat" the obstacles set before them. I like this sort of adversarial/collaborative duality. Let us not forget that these were different times, and gameplay has changed a lot in the interim.

Castle Greyhawk also evolved, as different groups left their marks. Creatures would be slain or move away, allowing the characters to set up camp inside. Some mysteries were never solved and the characters would move on or return to them again and again. In the end, Castle Greyhawk, like any megadungeon, was never intended to be complete cleared or solved. It was a work in progress that constantly tested the characters AND the players' wits and problem-solving capabilities.

Up on a Soapbox is highly recommended reading not only to those who are interested in the history of our hobby, and the origins of the first megadungeon, but also to those who seek inspiration for their own dungeons and settings, like me.

A Change of Name

I never quite liked the original blog's name to begin with (A Ludophile's D&D Corner) so it was always a tentative title until I found a better one. The new title is about an old story I heard about a group of AD&D characters who were exploring some nasty, old ruins, and they had, not surprisingly, a paladin among them.

The details are very vague but at one point the paladin died fighting a monster or by a trap. Since the character was loaded with too much treasure for anyone else to carry, and the group did not want to leave the treasure and the paladin behind, they were faced with a dilemma. Someone jokingly suggested that they put the paladin inside their bag of holding so they could manage to transport all that weight. It was never intended to be taken seriously but the idea of a dead paladin inside a bag of holding with his feet sticking out was memorable enough that the story became a private joke: whenever anyone needs a paladin, just open the bag of holding.

I felt this title was catchy enough for this blog. So, new title, same blog.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Own Megadungeon

As I continue to run the Keep on the Borderlands, and I'm having a great deal of fun with it considering none of my players ever played AD&D 1st edition old-school style, I am missing something: a creation of my own. Enter the MEGADUNGEON. This is a term that was new to me, although, in retrospect, I had already read a few large dungeons even before considering playing AD&D. I own the super-module T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil and I have heard of others like Greyhawk Ruins, Ruins of Undermountain or the mythical original Castle Greyhawk. I read Joseph Bloch's definition of a Megadungeon on his blog and although I don't know if this is the universally accepted definition, it appeals to me.

I want a place that the group or several groups can return to time and again to explore, a place of such profound depths and complexity that it will take many adventures just to skim its surface, a place that will never be depleted of monsters, traps and puzzles to tantalize the players for months to come. To this end, I have decided to start my own megadungeon. I will start posting regularly about the creation of this new dungeon which I have yet to decide if it's set in Greyhawk or a world of my own creation. I have no title yet, only a vague notion that it should be a castle set on an island in the middle of a river (taking a cue from Gygax and his own Castle Greyhawk superimposed on a map of the U.S.A. I have decided to use a specific part of Portugal, inspired by a real castle).

Some notions about it:
  • It will not have an overall plot. The plot will evolve naturally as the characters explore the dungeon and interact with its denizens. It will be whatever happens during the adventures. In other words, no preconceived results or storylines.
  • It will have an overarching theme, and several parts of it will have their own thematic elements to make them distinct.
  • It will have several factions living inside that will be enemies or foes depending on how the characters react to them.
  • It must evolve with time. The characters' actions will impact on it and it will be a very different thing after many months of play than it was at first. However, it will never be depleted.
  • It will have many levels and, using my Less Is More approach and my notions on how a dungeon should be, I will expand it little by little, with many new levels, new subareas, etc.
I think these will give me a solid basis to start this new project. I find it very exciting as it tickles my creative bone, a thing I sorely missed for a long time.

Rules By the Book

I am a by the book DM. This implies that I apply the rules as written with little deviation from their original form. This also implies a certain degree of impartiality and a lack of DM fiat to override the result of a certain dice roll in order to keep the story flowing, in other others, not to kill the characters too prematurely in order to end the story. Many will abhor the idea of letting the rules decide what happens, but to me this is an important part of DMing an AD&D game, as I see it. Is it the only true way of playing AD&D? Certainly, not. It's my way of playing AD&D. But there are certain preconceptions attached to this sort of thinking.

The first one is that I don't house rule very often. As it is, I tend to choose systems which perfectly suit my gaming style in a certain genre. It's not a blind choice. I usually read a few systems before settling with the one that I like most. This is a choice part intuitive, part based on the rules. Therefore, when I start playing with a specific system, I already know that I like it, although there are other elements that impact on whether a campaign using that system will fly or burn, not least of which is player acceptance of that system. In my 20 years of playing, I must have house rules once or twice, which speaks well about the way I approach the systems I use.

The second preconception is that if I am going to use the system I should use the most of it. If I start house ruling everything, I am deviating from the original system. If I am deviating from the original system, why am I using it? If I'm not playing AD&D anymore, why am I using the rulebooks and not my own system or any other system? Therefore, I choose carefully the system that I'm going to use before deciding on what is best for me.

I could never quite understand people who even start changing the rules BEFORE they actually sit down and play the game. No matter how well you understand a system, certain rule interactions are only made apparent at the table with real people using the rules in unforeseen ways. I've seen this time and over again: DMs who start changing numbers, values, difficulties, whatever, even before the very first session. If you have to house rule something, at least see how it works in play.

Now, is running a game by the book the antithesis of creativity? Again, to my mind, certainly not. No system is complete. No system can ever hope to cover all the situations possible in game. The players will always think of something that they want to do that is not covered by the rules. That's when the DM needs to be creative and improvise, to strike a balance between what's in the rules and what is not. To follow the rules by the book and yet to be able to see and judge beyond those rules is truly an art. Most DMs either choose to follow the rules to the exclusion of all else - even ignoring the players' whims if no rules exist for - or they choose to ignore most of the rules for the sake of history and fluidity, only in this case they are not playing the same game anymore. As for my, I walk between the two. When running AD&D I will strive use the rules as written. What about you? Are you a "by the book" DM, change the rules a lot or somewhere between the two?

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Greyhawk Campaign - Sessions 1 & 2

Tomorrow I run the third session of our group's campaign set in Greyhawk. I had little time before to write about our first two sessions so I collect my thoughts on this post. We are playing the Keep on the Borderlands, set in Greyhawk, most specifically on the border of Ulek and Pomarj. The group was Edralas (half-elf fighter/magic-user), Areth (human ranger), Lyriel (elf thief), Eric (human cleric) and Shivar Vir (a human monk). I say was, because they players changed from the first to the second session, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The group approached the gates of the Windark fort, a lonely keep, on the mountains that border Pomarj. The guards observed the group as they approached, crossbows at the ready. Someone demanded their identification and purpose. I always ask the players to introduce their characters by saying their names and describing what the others see. After introductions were made, the portcullis was slowly raised and the gate slowly lowered to bridge the gap between the road and the keep. Inside they were greeted by a rather gruff dwarf with a eye-patch and plate mail, called Gwyron, and a slim and tall human with a tunic and hood and white beard, the scribe Master Edwyn, who registered each of the character's names in a book. After handing over their weapons that are strictly forbidden inside, Gwyron warned the characters to keep on their toes as the guard wouldn't tolerate violence or crimes of any sort.

The group was directed to the local inn, The Black Rooster, owned by a cheerful fellow called Rolo. The characters were forced to accept lodgings in the common room as they were low on coins After that they explored the keep and the tavern, The Royal Retreat. Although it was a rather uncomfortable place with a low ceiling, the guards on leave were happily drinking away their hard earned pay. There were other costumers, among them a rather unsavory fellow who didn't like elves and tried to sell his sword to the group by trying to persuade them that they were better off without the Lyriel, and a merchant - Redoc - who had been attacked outside the keep by goblins. He had lost all his goods and hands, including his brother, and he was looking for people to rescue his brother. This seemed like work and the players decided to purchase equipment and explore the wilderness. Since this is a sandbox of sorts, I never once guided the players. They were free to roam however they wanted and do whatever they wanted within the confines of the area.

They picked up a few rumors on the keep, mainly about some caves of chaos where, some said, lived all manner of beasts (orcs, goblins, hobgoblins and kobolds). No one knew where the caves where as the region was too wild and the keep so undermanned that they didn't have enough men to do a thorough search. There was also a rumor of a beautiful maiden imprisoned in the caves.

The group started their exploration from the point where the caravan had been attacked, some distance away. Eventually, they entered the surrounding forests. The ranger player wanted to follow the goblin trail but no tracks were seen so the thief player had the idea of climbing a tree and checking their surroundings. They noticed a thin column of smoke rising from the northwest. They followed it and entered a clearing with a tall oak in the center. Someone was moving inside the oak and a mountain lion was lazily sleeping on a branch. An old, haggard man confronted them, rambling about lost crops and Mielikki (whom the characters recognized as goddess of the forest). Eventually he became violent, believing the group wanted to steal his treasure and food. We had our first taste of combat but the thief played it cagey (she has only 3 hp) and decided to search the inside of the tree. Perhaps she could barter with his treasure. She eventually stole his coins but decided to return them when the group finally subdued the old hermit and released him when he was calmer. He was so incoherent that they could not find anything about their surroundings or the goblins. They decided to walk to the east in the direction of some rock outcroppings.

At this point, the monk player left for personal reason so I ruled he had been killed during the combat by the hermit, but a human fighter - Sidimatus - joined them. He literally ran into them on his way to the fort. After some brief negotiations, they decided to join forces.

The group eventually left the woods and made camp in the rock outcroppings. Night was quickly falling. They took turns on watch. A wise decision as they were attacked by a group of wandering kobolds. I previously agreed with the players that whenever they would say something would happen, it would happen. For instance, when entering a dungeon, if no one says he's drawing his weapons, then when combat occurs, he still has to drawn them. In this case, the kobolds noticed the light campfire and weren't surprise. There was a quick combat that showed the players how deadly and gritty combat can be on the lower levels. Lyriel and Sidimatus fell to the creatures' blows. Fortunately, in AD&D one doesn't die when they reach 0 hit points, so the group's cleric stabilized them until he could study his Cure Light Wounds spells and cast them (he had previously spent them during the combat with the hermit).

The group returned to the keep where they were forced to rest for a full week. So, they spent this time interacting with the locals. Sidimatus, in particular, showed a great deal of interest in the local chapel dedicated to Obhalan, god of warriors, soldiers, explorers. The player is playing his character like a sort of barbarian-like fighter with an intense curiosity in other cultures. Redoc, the merchant, was none too happy that the group had to spend so much time recovering, so he decided to seek help elsewhere. The group also met Rogobar, a scholar, who was seeking artifacts from an ancient culture that supposedly occupied the entire Pomarj peninsula and parts of the wild coast. He had a small book of notes with ancient maps of the area that the group was interested in (perhaps they could pinpoint the location of the caves of chaos using old references). Lyriel pilfered the book but then Rogobard decided to show them his notes. When he found the book missing, hilarity ensued. The group denied having stolen the book, the guards were brough in. It all ended when Lyriel disposed of the book in a corner of the room and Rogobar found it. He was confused so he suspected the characters but he had no proof. On the other hand, he was rightly confused so he he wasn't sure if the book had been stolen or lost.

Finally, the group decided to enlist the help of some locals. They learned of a like-minded cleric who was staying at the inn with his acolytes. His name his Tivor and he showed a great deal of interest in the caves of chaos. He immediately asked to join the group with his two acolytes in fighting the creatures. Thus the session ended with the players happy with their new found ally.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Dragon Magazine - Realism in D&D

A very small article in Dragon #8 (1977), penned by Brian Blume, titled Realism in D&D, caught my attention for two reasons: the first is related to the always constant demand of certain players for realism in fantasy; the second because I've seen people do what the article proposes to do albeit in a different manner. The article describes a new system to generate attributes to replace rolling the dice. Here are the two most funny examples:
"WISDOM
To determine your wisdom, calculate the average number of hours you spend playing D&D or working on your D&D Campaign in an average week. Subtract the resulting number from twenty and this is your wisdom."
Some DMs already complain that much time is spent generating stat blocks for high-level NPCs, let alone preparing scenarios. If we take their word for it, then many of us would have very low wisdom scores.
"CHARISMA
To determine charisma, count up the number of times you have appeared on TV or have had your picture printed in the newspaper. Multiply this number by two, and the result is your charisma rating."

Again, I suspect many of us would have very low charisma, particularly in the single digits. I don't spend as much time preparing the adventures, either because I'm lazy or for lack of time, so my Wisdom would be high, around 17 or 18, but my Charism would be very low, like 0 or 1 low.

I don't pretend this article to be anything other than a harmless stab at those who seek realism in their games, especially OUR own world or personal concept of realism. On the other hand, I have seen players trying to play themselves in AD&D with amusing, albeit unintentional, results, so perhaps this article will be of any use to them. Let's not hope anyone out there took this article seriously.

What do you think your wisdom and charisma attributes are? Please comment.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mythical Underworld

Someone who read my article pointed to an interesting website that complements many of my ideas. This site called Philotomy's OD&D Musings is dedicated to, obviously, the three little black books TSR published in 1974. The part that is particularly relevant to my last post is Creating a Mythical Underworld Dungeon, wherein the author discusses at length some guidelines on how to create a true megadungeon. Go read it as it's a very enlightening and entertaining piece of work, but there's a particular passage I'd like to transcribe since it perfectly illustrates the point of my last post:
"When creating your first three (or so) levels, there are a few general concepts that you should keep in mind. First, remember to offer the players plenty of choices. Even at the entrance to the place, don't give them one path to follow, give them four or five choices to make, right off the bat. For that matter, there needn't be only a single entrance. Have several ways in, with a few of the entrances going directly to deeper areas. Maybe new entrances open up or are discovered as play continues. Another important way to give players choices is to offer them many opportunities to move up and down through the levels. You want the players to decide when they want to go deeper. This isn't a video game where you play through the level to the end with the boss monster, then find the stairs. If they're a group of 1st level PCs, but they want to try their luck and skill on the 4th level of the dungeon, that's their decision."
This is a perfect example of a non-linear game that does not force the group into a particular path, and how to design a challenging and fun dungeon.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Dungeon Is Not Railroad

When I returned to the roots of our hobby, I made a conscious decision to focus on the dungeon as main environment of the game. This doesn't mean focusing entirely on the dungeon but it will play a bigger part than wilderness and city adventures. In fact, in the early days the dungeon was the basis of all adventures from Gygax's mythical Greyhawk Castle to Descent into the Depths of the Earth and all the modules in between. Books like TSR's T1 - Village of Hommlet or Judge Guild's City of the Invincible Overlord were exceptions. But I digress.

As I conceived my campaign, I came to understand the dungeon as one of the least railroading environments to game with. It's also a highly controlled environment, which can give the DM considerable freedom within its artificial boundaries. Some of the most ardent opponents of the dungeon as an adventure centerpiece will say that the dungeon will be, by its very nature of narrow corridors and rooms, highly railroading but they could not be farther from the truth. However, before I go any further, let me tell you that the following only applies to well-designed dungeons, which provide multiple choices to the players, not the random, "one way in, one way inside, and one way out" dungeons. The kind most of the players consider bad dungeons when they say "I don't play dungeons because we kick the door, kill everything inside, go into the next room, kill everything inside, and so on."

Why is then a well-designed dungeon one of the least railroading environments ever conceived? Consider this: railroading, by its very definition, forces the players to follow a path the DM created. Whatever the players try to do, it won't have any impact on the story or environment because the DM already predetermined what the outcome is. One of the best examples of this style is the Dragonlance series (DL1, DL2, etc.). Not only the players were forced to live a predetermined story, they were also forces to play the pre-generated characters provided and no matter what they rolled, certain events were already set in stone. Whatever qualities these adventures have, it's not what I want for my game. I want my players to impact the story; I want their choices to affect NPCs, events and even the dungeon.

The structure of a dungeon should provide plenty possibilities of multiple choice. The players should not feel they are forced to follow any given path. Consider a more story-oriented game. It is divided into scenes. In each scene, the players have multiple choices and those choices lead to other scenes. Their choices impacts on the scenes' outcome and how they interact with scenes further down the storyline. To give a more concrete example, let's assume that, in the first scene, the group is investigating the death of a city magistrate. They are in his house. At this point they have any number of choices: they could interview the staff, look for clues, examine the body, check the neighborhood, talk to the authorities, etc. Each of these options will, likewise, develop into a full scene and influence the story. If they find the magistrate was poisoned, they could trace the poison to a death cult which leads to another scene. Interviewing the staff reveals the magistrate was seeing a prostitute in a brothel, which leads to another scene. And so on.

If we apply this logic to the dungeon, we can consider each room a scene linked to other scenes by corridors, secret passages, doors, ramps, etc. Each room should have two or more different exits that lead to other rooms or places of interest. If we develop a fully fledged dungeon with this in mind, then the group is faced with multiple choices on where to go. Check any well-designed dungeon and you'll see that this is the logic applied toit. Each choice is not the correct or wrong one, but a choice like any other.

And what happens in each room (scene) should definitely impact later scenes. If in room A there's a bunch of goblins, and there's a fight and one of the goblins escapes, then later goblins should already be alerted to the presence of intruders and even actively hunting for them. If the players go to room B (on the left) and fight a carrion crawler, and lose weapons, hit points and spells then, when they return to room C (the one to the right of A) whatever they face there, they are already under the constraint of having lost some of their resources. The same will happen if they go the other way around: first to room C and then to room B. The structure will be more complex if each room has multiple ways, and some of them even take the players back to where they started. There is no constraint to explore the rooms (scenes) in any given order, which keeps the DM fully focused on everything that happens, and gives the group the maximum freedom.

Some of the best dungeons even provide several entrances to different areas. The players can choose to tackle the dungeon from any angle and even leave and take another entrance, if they choose to. Is there more freedom of choice? On top of this, each dungeon should provide any set of interesting places so the players interest won't flag ("Oh no, another 30x30 room with goblins"). That's why I think puzzles and traps play a big part on this, but that's material for another discussion.

Last, but not least, the dungeon is a highly controlled environment. The group moves within its artificial constrains. Unlike an open world, where the players are free to go wherever they want, inside the dungeon they are free to move wherever they want but cannot go outside the boundaries of the dungeons, unless they choose to leave. For all that it's worth, the dungeon is also a very demanding style of play that force the DM to create an almost complete environment prior to play, but within that environment the players are free to move wherever they go, at the pace they want, tacking the many rooms of the dungeon in any order they want. And that, ultimately, is the anthitesis of railroading.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Less Is More

After many years of GMings adventures, scenarios and campaigns I have come to the following conclusion: less is more. It doesn't help that I am lazy and I don't want to sit down before a campaign and start sketching the entire world, or even a small area in detail only to find out that most of those details won't even impact the campaign. Who cares if Rigby the farmer has a crush on Lily, the tavern wench, if the players don't care about that? That sort of detail can, and should, be improvised during the campaign according to the players' tastes and goals. I'm also a big proponent of making up the world as we play, which I'm sure was the process used by Gygax during his first Greyhawk Castle campaign and has been a staple of many DMs since then. We don't need to know the internal politics of Thule and its constant war against neighboring, Yar, unless that impacts play in any way, shape or form.

Therefore, I have decided to use this method for my current campaign. I will start with a very small area, currently the Keep on the Borderlands, or the Forlorn Keep as I called it, and placed it on the border of Pomarj and Ulek. I only have the World of Greyhawk folio and that's all I need for now. As you know, the folio is a mere 32-page book with only a most cursory description of each kingdom in Oerik. It doesn't include many details. It doesn't even have the deities of the setting. I will assume at this point that Gygax intended us to make Greyhawk our own by adding our own pantheon of gods, lesser gods and demi-gods, which is exactly what I aim to do. For instance, in the keep, the chapel is the church of Obalahn, goddess of war, hunt and explorers. Her symbol is a crow, the animal that guides those who fall in battle to the Other World or realm of the dead. I don't need any more details for now.

Since I'm using a less is more approach, I'll only use the following books (for now): Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master Guide and Monsters Manual (all first edition), the World of Greyhawk folio, and whatever adventures strike my fancy, interspersed with my own dungeons. Since the focus is on the dungeon and exploration, I'll have great control over the environment. The rest I'll make up as I go with the players' help. In my mind, this method has several distinct advantages:

1) It allows me to customize the setting according to my group's tastes. Sure, most of the times my own setting will conflict with the "official" setting, but then again my setting IS the official setting as far as my group is concerned. I'm not a cannon fanatic so this doesn't bother me.
2) I don't have to read a lot of books. I'd rather spend my time designing good adventures and dungeons than worrying myself with every minutia. I'm a lazy DM at heart so I don't want to have to read a lot just to get the campaign going. Eventually, I may or may not read additional books and incorporate those in my campaign.
3) I don't have a lot of time to prepare. I am not in high school anymore and sometimes life and family intrude, so I have to adopt the less is more approach.
4) I give what the players want and not the other way around. This, in my mind, is one of the elements that make a good campaign great. The players will be more motivated if they see in game the things they want to see, instead of trying to make them like preexisting elements of the setting (i.e. if no one wants to see the Greyhawk City, do I really need to detail it?).

From a small area (the keep and environs) I will slowly expand the world. I don't know what exists outside this sphere of influence, but it will grow according to the group's whims to encompass more and more details. I don't know why the caves of chaos are what they are or its relation with the caves of the unknown, if at all. They only met the hermit in the forest. Is he mad? Is he a druid? Why is he living there? Is he wanted criminal who sought refuge in the woods? As the players unravel these threads, I'll pay close attention to their interaction with these elements to see what they think and try to insert that in the campaign.

I'm not claiming the less is more or approach is better than detailing the world in advance, but it's not the method I favor. As the small details are inserted in the adventures, the setting is built brick by brick. Eventually, as we look back, we'll see how all our details and ideas coalesced into a greater whole. They will be more invested in the campaign as they will see the world as their own, a place they helped build even through deed and decisions made in the game. This allows for a more gradual world-building which feels more organic to me.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Thin Volume

I quite recently noticed a trivial detail but which I'd like to share with you. The book is thin even for an AD&D book. Compare it to any latter edition and it's only 130 pages long versus 256 pages on the 2nd edition and similar number in the 3rd and 4th editions. If you don't count the list of spells, which I believe are not compulsory reading (even though it doesn't hurt to skim the spells especially if you're a class that can cast spells), and the apprendix that contain mostly optional rules (psionic powers, the bard class, and so on), each player only has to read 40 pages of stuff. This is on par with most of the so-called lite rules systems. Even the Moldvay edition of D&D is almost equivalent in the number of pages. Notice that I'm not comparing rules complexity, only rules quantity.

This is mostly due to the fact that the majority of rules one considers important to players, such as combat, attack charts, etc. are relegated to the DMG pages. Let's not forget that it was explicitly stated that none of the players could ever, ever touch the DMG on pain of being obliterated by a blue bolt from the sky (not quite the same words, but the intent of the DMG foreword is the same). I believe this may actually help the players be more creative and flexible in their decisions when facing the situations the DM throws at them. The only rules the characters ever need to know are actually in the PHB: what each races is, what each class does in terms of special abilities, equipment lists (minus encumbrance which is, you guessed it, in the DMG), and some very nice suggestions about how to go exploring dungeons.

I don't pretend to know the editorial decisions behind this. Perhaps someone can shed some light. However, no one can complain about reading a whole lot of rules just to play the get. It remains highly accessible from a player-point of view. Certainly more accessible than latter editions. What I firmly believe is that it frees the players to approach the game creatively instead of a more simulationist mindset. With no rules to memorize, the players can describe their actions freely, which the DM must adjudicate using the DMG as guideline. No more "what maneuvers do I need to know" or "wait while I check this and that to see if it's a viable action". It's comparable to a computer game where the player just decides his actions and the computer does the rest. The downside is that the DM is burdened with a lot more rules than players are accustomed to, but then again most players don't read the rules anyway.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Collector's Item

I'm a book kind of guy. I mean, I enjoy the new technologies as much as the next person. PDFs are convenient for transportation and storage of large quantities of books. But... there's something exciting and different about having a book in your hands, turning its pages and reading it instead of staring at a screen which I could do for long periods of time.

Today, I received a copy of the AD&D 1st edition Player Handbook. It's not mint but it's very close and I bought it at a very reasonable price on eBay. And the first thing I noticed was how colorful and "alive" the cover is. Sure, the cover image on the computer is bright and nice, but the real thing is shiny and the colors almost leap out of the book, particularly the orange and reds of the demon statue. Perhaps it's me that became accustomed to the faded colors on my computer screen, or perhaps it's the first time looking at the real thing, but it felt really good. There are details that I didn't notice ever before. Others have said it's the greatest roleplaying game cover. It certainly is the best cover of all the D&D editions. It perfectly captures the spirit of the game.

I'm won't put the book away on a shelf, never to be used in game. The main reason why I bought it was to play AD&D in the first place. And I can't shake the feeling that I'm touching a piece of history, something that reached out of the past and speaks of a different era when gaming expectations were different. Now, I have truly gone back to "old school".

Monday, April 9, 2012

Settings: Planescape

Of all the setting published by TSR, Planescape is my second most favorite setting, the other being Dark Sun. The main reason is that I always enjoyed quirky settings as opposed to the vanilla fantasy of Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms which provide a more traditional approach to fantasy. With Planescape, TSR effectively opened the door to many planes of existence and beyond, creating one of the most rich and beautiful settings.

This high quality box contained a 32-player's primer to the factions and planes, a DM guide to the planes and a guide to the city of Sigil and beyond. The city is assumed to be the "home base" of the characters, be they native to the planes or from any of the prime worlds (i.e. Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, or a world of the DM's imagination). It also included several high quality maps.

What really stands out as I re-read these recently are Tony DiTerlizzi's illustrations. These are really very, very good and set the tone of the setting: grim, dark and more than a bit off-the-wall. TSR wisely used mostly of DiTerlizzi's imagery in all he Planescape products, thus maintaining a visual consistency unrivalled by any of the products of the same era.

What really captures my imagination, though, are the infinite possibilities for adventures. Each contained setting, such as Greyhawk or Dark Sun, offers a myriad of options for adventures, but each is limited in scope. The planes, however, open the door to a sweeping, epic universe that encompasses all the planes which are vast and some are infinite, and also the many worlds already published or otherwise. An ambitious DM could create a campaign with characters from Faerun, Flanaess, Dark Sun, Mystara, or whatever other fantasy world strikes his fancy, and let the characters wander the multitude of planes. Even though the setting Planescape assumes the planes as the centerpiece of the campaign, there is nothing to stop the DM from creating adventures in prime worlds. Think of the possibilities.

Another element that distinguishes Planescape from other settings is that the alignments shape beliefs. Whereas in more conventional AD&D settings, alignments are a mere indication of behavior, in Planescape, they are true philosophies and shape the mood of the setting as much as or more than anything else. Sigil is controlled, in a way, by factions whose alignments dictate not only how they should behave but their metaphysical beliefs on a grander scale. Each plane corresponds to a specific alignment whose beliefs often clash. Wars are fought for alignments. Some spells may or may not work based on alignment and where in the planeverse they are cast. In a way, they are a powerful reminder that this is a setting unlike any other.

The boxed set spawned a number of products that mostly maintained the high quality set by it. This is play on a grand scale, transcending one specific setting. It is a truly epic playground where the players can meet the very deities they worship and many doors lead to infinite places. It is also a very demanding setting with a very specific mood, but I love it all the more for it for it isn't your average vanilla fantasy world. For all its qualities, it remains one of my two favorite AD&D settings.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Ruins of Castle Gygax - Part 3

Real life has been very demanding these past few day, hence my lack of activity on this blog. But here I am to relate the latest adventures of my group and the wrapping up of our "tutorial" adventure using the Moldvay basic set and the sample dungeon therein. As related in my last post, the group was barricaded inside a room with something outside. The door was forced open and a greenish, bulky hand was seen. Edralas, the elf, cried out a threat in hobgoblin (a lucky guess) and whatever was outside walked away. At this point, the group decided to return to town, low on health and spells, to recover. They returned the next day to continue their explorations, this time in the company of Ottuman, a fighter henchman they recruited.

I had previously told the players that I would be using the wandering monster rules. As they crossed the room with the sunken statue, they ran into a group of strongly built, greenish creatures, with black hair and powerful, slightly pointed, dirty teeth: orcs. They were well armed, but they did not attack. One again, Edralas spoke in orcish. The orcs were obviously surprised to find the group here and they were not too keen on attacking right away. They ran away from whence they came, but mounted an ambush down the corridor.  When the group went after them, they were attacked from both sides. Orcs maybe more primitive than humans and demi-humans in some ways, but they are not stupid. Some attacked from behind and others from the front. After a quick battle, two of the orcs lost their morale and fled. The rest lay dead.

As they returned to the goblin room they had explored before, they saw something slithering on the wall, in the darkness before them. It was a giant centipede, moving out of a crack on the wall. This was really a wandering monster and I decided to use the reaction rules by the book to test the system. A first roll indicated the centipede was confused and hesitant. I described the creature stopping and raising the front of its body, slowly moving its antennae back and forth as if pausing to check things. Valerius, the fighter, carefully picked a stone and threw it to the opposite direction to try and distract it. I gave him a +1 bonus, in fact lowering the chances of the creature attacking. Another roll and the creature went slithering to another crack on the wall. It was an exciting and tense scene with the group ready to defend themselves at the least sign of trouble. Finally, they approached the second door on the corridor and peered inside.

At this point I wanted to show the dungeon not as a static environment, but as a dynamic place where things could be happening outside the players' actions. I also picked up the two orcs who had fled and decided to use them. The group saw a band of four hobgoblins with weapons drawn approaching the two orcs threateningly. Words were changed which Edralas understood as the hobgoblins threatening the orcs to leave or die. On the wall opposite from this door, there were two humans, a man and a woman, bound and gagged. As the orcs moved cautiously towards the door, the group fled into the goblin room and let the orcs pass. Then they returned to the hobgoblin room and decided to charge in. When Valerius kicked the door open, Edralas cast a sleep spell. Since the rules do not account for the area of effect of this spell, I quickly ruled that it would encompass everyone within the room and the corridor outside. And that meant that the group was also inside its area of effect.

With this information, Edrala's player decided to proceed, as wisdom was not his strong suit (a low attribute). Everyone thought this was amusing. Two of the hobgoblins, Valerius and his henchman failed their saving throws, leaving Edralas to face two of the creatures alone. It was a heroic moment with everyone joining on the fun with comments and much laughing. The elf beheaded one hobgoblin and the other surrendered, having failed its morale roll. When the group finally woke up, they released the humans, a brother and sister who had been taken prisoners when their caravan was raided. Even though the sister wanted the creature dead, the group decided to leave it unharmed and returned to town with much treasure.

All in all it was a fun introduction to the game, and the to the rules. We, then, decided to switch to AD&D 1st edition, rolling new characters and starting a real campaign using Keep on the Borderlands.