King Arthur Pendragon

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:
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.
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.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Creature Spotlight: Portuguese Man O' War

I came across this one while skimming the Monsters Manual: the Portuguese Man O' War. This made me all fuzzy inside because, frankly, I wasn't expecting it. In 800 years, almost 900 years, of history, Portugal left an indelible mark in the world's history. Portuguese influence is felt or seen in every corner of the world: from the introduction of advanced fire weapons in Japan to the many Portuguese-speaking cultures of Africa and South America. We developed the first metal astrolabe in Western Europe and Ferdinand Magellan initiated the first circumnavigation of Earth and his name was given to the Magellanic Clouds. At the height of Portuguese power on the seas, our navigators crossed every ocean on the planet and even faced terrible beasts with the help of the gods of Olympus in the immortal epic The Lusiads.

The Portuguese Man O' War is based on the creature of the same name, a jellyfish-like creature with poisonous tentacles. According to some sources, it takes its name from the floats that resemble the morion helmets of Portuguese soldiers of the 15th and 16th century. The appropriation of this creature by Gygax is interesting in that he never bothered to change the name to a more "fantasy-like" name.  This would be consistent with the fact that initially, Gygax adapted real elements to his home campaign of Greyhawk. In the early days, even the Greyhawk map was simply Earth with the numbers filed off. It would be interesting to speculate why the name was left unchanged because the name itself anchors the creature in a real world culture, perhaps even breaking a bit the immersion.  Nevertheless, on a pure historical point of view, this is a reminder that the Portuguese culture is deeply interwoven in multiple levels with other cultures, even if only in the most subtle and minute ways.