Saturday, February 06, 2010

Oh Ettercaptain, My Ettercaptain

On Thursday I had an unusual experience: I watched another group of gamers in action. Usually, if there's D&D happening, I'm right in the middle of it. Chances are, I'm the one who got the game together in the first place. But that night only one other person had shown up to an English Club meeting, a player from last year's Traveller game, and when it turned out that this other group was meeting to play D&D right next door, one of the players, who had also been in the Traveller game, invited us to come hang out and watch. This was a game I'd been hearing about for a few weeks, since I knew most of the people who were playing in it through various channels, so I was curious.

It turned out to be, well, not enlightening, exactly, but interesting enough that I started taking notes. Much easier to do that when you're not playing or DMing, actually. That, in fact, was interesting enough: the opportunity to really see what was going on in a session, and notice a lot more than I usually do when immersed in it myself.

For reference purposes, the group consisted of the DM, the DM's girlfriend, the DM's brother, the DM's brother's girlfriend, and the ex-Traveller player.
  • The DM rolled treasure at the table, in the open, off the DMG charts, adjusting the treasure for monster type. (In this case, an ooze, that had 10% coins.)
  • He calculated XP at the table the same way, right after the fight in question, and noted that he hadn't remembered how much work it was. (Which didn't surprise me. Oh, do I ever not miss the CR system.) He also said that it didn't really matter anyway because he was going to up them to 4th level at "the end of the tunnel," but went ahead and calculated XP and handed it out all the same.
  • As usual, I showed up just after they fought the gelatinous cube. I am perpetually hearing stories about fighting gelatinous cubes, but have never actually been present for one.
  • They had a number of health restoring abilities, one of which I'm guessing was a dragon shaman aura, (I know the party consisted of at least a knight, a duskblade, and what I suspect was a warlock -- whatever she was, she had spider climb at will) and one of which was provided by a magic item ("a jewel") that the DM's girlfriend's character had.
  • The DM's girlfriend hadn't played D&D before this campaign, which had only been going on a few sessions. This was pretty obvious; he explained things to her a couple of times, and rolled dice for her at least once. She also didn't speak up much; the other characters were much more active in interacting with things.
  • Lots of filthy jokes.
  • They'd fought the slime for some ettercaps, in exchange for their freeing a few "human prisoners" (as the Traveller player explained to me) who turned out to be a dwarven cleric and an elven rogue. The dwarven cleric "healed the party," in what was pretty clearly a DM hand wave to get the party back to full health, and then the two of them gave the party 200 gp and a potion of flammable oil.
  • The party decided to give the potion to the knight, on account of him being the character who could get the most use out of it.
  • The dwarven cleric and elven rogue had just come from the other end of the tunnel, the dungeon that the party had heard had treasure and was trying to get to. As they were leaving to go back the other way, towards the town the party had come from, the Traveller player (finally!) asked if they had any information about said dungeon. They didn't. The DM said a few things about how all they'd seen was the pit they fell into when the ettercaps got them.
  • Neither the dwarf nor the elf had names. The DM didn't supply any, and the party didn't ask.
  • The next one was a puzzle of some kind. Interacting with it made everything worse: sleep spells, spikes, and then the room filled with lava. They turned it off by rolling a Search check, whereupon the DM told them about the switch that reset everything.
  • By the time they'd set of the third or fourth trap, I wondered, "Why don't they just back off and find something else to mess with?" Then I remembered that the whole thing, being a tunnel, was a straight line: they had no where else to go.
  • Then they rolled another Search check, and the DM told them what they needed to do to solve the puzzle.
  • Accidentally filling a room full of lava is fun. Especially if it's mostly one player's fault and the rest of them can make fun of him for it.
  • Arcane spell failure made the spell in question misfire rather than just fizzle.
  • No one was quite sure how to calculate a spell DC. I spoke up at that point, but probably shouldn't have; it would have been interesting to see the solution they came to on their own, and how long it took.
Best quote: "Oh Ettercaptain, my Ettercaptain."

I'm going to have to find out if the dungeon they're headed for turns out to be as ridiculously linear as the tunnel was. Which shouldn't be too hard, since boytoy lives with one member of the group, and I have classes with the DM. It made sense considering that it was tunnel, but I still feel very strongly that a dungeon ought not to be linear, and watching this session more or less confirmed that idea.

I'm very, very tempted to write up another dungeon for Swords & Wizardry, taking into account what I learned from the megadungeon about organizing my notes, and invite this crowd, the rest of the players from the Traveller game, and the group that I've heard plays Vampire: the Masquerade for a proper dungeon-crawling experience.

On the other side of the spectrum, I'm not entirely sure why they weren't playing 4e D&D. The DM's brother I know, from previous conversations, has an intense dislike for the system, but I suspect that they would have found the healing surge system useful. (It was fascinating watching the way healing happened in that game; to my eye, it looked like they'd patched together a less elegant solution to the problems that the healing surge system is intended to address.) Moreover, they were mostly playing as a series of encounters strung together with the occasional talky bit, so there wasn't much that 4e would have interfered with. Probably just a matter of familiarity, I suppose. Or due to an issue that didn't come up in this session.

Overall, though, they were clearly having fun. Philosophical objections aside, the DM was entertaining, and good at keeping things moving. And the players were all into it and enjoying the game. Which is really what matters.


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  2. Traveller Player here.

    I realize I can't really expect it when playing a dungeon crawl with more than one novice in the group, but I'd love to see more roleplaying in the game. In Traveller I didn't get to do much because of the constant math. LARPing has taught me to appreciate the roleplaying even more. (Hi. My name is Travis, and I'm a LARPer.)

    Maybe I just need to find a way to play Exalted again. That game is always roleplay-heavy for some reason.

    On the subject of dungeons: In Traveller, I get a sneaky feeling that I made some lucky choices in that cave with the snake people. Fuck knows what you had in store for us.

    I wish someone would GM Shadowrun. I love that game and what I've seen of 4e makes me happy. Shadowrun is one of my favorites for its versatility. The game system can be applied to any fantasy magi-tech world, but I love the given setting. It's always gritty, but the story can embrace or entirely diverge from the classic dungeon crawl. Since it's so deadly, you have to take events slowly, roleplaying with the other characters to plan every step. If you don't, you run through some monofilament wire and come out in seven pieces.

    Looks like I accidentally deleted my comment. Don't ask how. Fortunately I have a habit of pressing ctr+a, ctr+c before posting anything.

  3. By roleplaying, you mean folks hanging around talking? Or something else?

    I actually tend to find that novice players are more into what I'd describe as "roleplaying" than the old hands. They don't know the rules as well, so they fall back on them less.

    And, well, this is my own personal bias showing, but it's not so much the dungeoncrawl as it is the kind of dungeoncrawl. But I've rambled on about that more than enough here on the blog.

    My lips are sealed on the subject of what you may or may not have unleashed in Traveller. ;) I will say, while we're on the subject, that I wasn't totally happy with that game, for a number of reasons. Plenty of fun was had, but I've learned quite a bit in the past year or so that I'm looking forward to putting into practice in the next game.

  4. "And the players were all into it and enjoying the game. Which is really what matters."

    And this is where my head exploded. I love gaming theory and can get so caught up in it that I forget this essential measure of GMing success.

    This sort of anthropology of a gaming group is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  5. @ Odd: I really enjoy this kind of post. Personally, I find it fascinating to watch different groups of game players playing and "take notes" (mentally at least) of the differences in play style.

    Kudos to you for being less judgmental than myself. I'm glad they were enjoying the game; I wonder how long people playing in that particular style (linear dungeons "search rolls" to resolve challenges, etc.) can sustain game play. It certainly doesn't seem very interesting to me, and I wonder how the particular group will play out over time (how many people continue to remain in a gaming group due to other social considerations, e.g. boyfriend-girlfriend relationships).

    But that's just me waxing cynical.

    As an aside, I'd certainly like to hear more about your Traveler game.
    : )

  6. d7: I do myself, sometimes. So every so often I'll make a point of reminding myself. Though I will allow that I'm personally less interested in "fun" than "getting what I want out of the game," which are similar but distinct things.

    JB: Yeah, I was surprised by how interesting this was, both watching and writing about it. I might see about getting an opportunity to do something like this again.

    And that's the main force behind the temptation to run a dungeon game myself. See how they react to such a thing done "right." Maybe learn 'em a thing or two. ;) But then, social considerations aren't unimportant, either.

    Most of what I have to say on the Traveller campaign can be found here: Here I'll add only that we never did pick it up when I came back to school this year, for a variety of reasons.

  7. By "roleplaying" I mean getting into their character's head and going after more complex objectives than "the loot."

    Vanilla Exalted is good for that because characters have a stat-governed set of values. Having stats that represent the nebulous ideas of compassion, temperance, conviction, and valor encourages the player to think about what their character would want to do instead of what the player wants to do.

    Tabletops lose some of their charm when the story isn't character-driven. If you're familiar with Luke Crane, I think you'll find that I echo his position.

    I think the rules in any RPG should never be ignored, but a good GM should reward good play by secretly smudging them. Suppose the player concocts an argument about why Mr. Big Bad should join them to fight Mr. Biggest Baddest. They tie in elements of multiple characters' pasts and established personalities. They offer a storyline that, while I didn't plan for it, definitely intrigues me. And they deliver the argument in-character. I'd still call for opposed roles, but I'd probably nerf the NPC's resist roll, and regardless of the outcome of that I'd give the clever player some reward.

    Dungeon crawls aren't, actually, my favorite thing to do in RPGs. They simply slow down a developing story too much. One of the most fun sessions I ever had was a Shadowrun 3e session in which half the group talked its way into the security room of a Mega-Corp hotel, shot the guards and disabled the equipment while the other PCs broke in through an upper level and stole a jewel. Then we all met up outside at our limo and made a clean getaway. It was tense, fast paced, dirty, and allowed the story to advance quickly.

    If anywhere, I think a big dungeon is best-placed at the crux of a campaign, or perhaps at the end (if that's not too stereotypical).

  8. Huh. See, I felt like there was a lot of "roleplaying" in the Traveller game. You folks all had interesting characters, and they were all up to interesting things. Yeah, there was way too much focus on the trade tables, but...

    Anyway. Your comments about "good play" are why I (mostly) don't play games with social mechanics. ;) A combat system, magic system, and set of saves are where it's at for me right now; at least in a low tech fantasy game I can handle the rest by talking it through.

    And finally...

    Dungeon crawls aren't, actually, my favorite thing to do in RPGs. They simply slow down a developing story too much.

    This amused me. You shall find I have prepared a rebuttal:

    Though it's not so much that I disagree with your statement as I find that developing a story slowly can have some really good results. Your mileage, and play style, may vary.

  9. Hey thanks again for sitting in. Things are very difficult for now as this is really my first experience DMing. But in any case I hope I can provide some fun to those playing. As Travis may have mentioned, we do have about two out of our four players completely new to playing and the rest of us haven't played in 3 years or so. Im just glad so far that i haven't fallen upon my face. I'd welcome your attendance any time.

  10. The title quote alone is classic!