King Arthur Pendragon

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.