Wednesday, March 31, 2010

ITGW 2010

So on Saturday night I ran my ITGW event for boytoy, a couple players from the Traveller game, and a "D&D-curious" friend who'd been making noise about playing sometime for a while, and one of the Traveller players friends who had apparently played a bit of 3.5 and a bit of 4e before. ("I prefer 4e to 3.5," she says. "Which I know makes me unusual." Talking to people who aren't hooked into the online scene can be very odd.) I thought it went pretty well, for a wacked out little dungeoncrawl that ended with the entire party being eaten by trolls. Everyone had fun, died glorious deaths, etc.

More people showed up than I was expecting, too--five total, and that was minus the people who said they really wanted to show up but had either a LARP or something else going on that night. The ones who couldn't show want me to run something similar another time, and some of the ones who did were talking at the end of the night about doing this as a regular campaign. Which I really, really don't have time for now, on account of the two other weekly games I'm currently playing and the third I'm planning to run myself, but I am intrigued by the idea--as is boytoy, who's considering running a similar kind of game himself. Only with "no rules." Not sure how that's going to work out, but we'll see.

This enthusiasm persisted despite the fact that the TPK the game ended with mainly killed second characters--three people had already lost their first and rolled up new ones at the table. (We introduced the new ones with Ye Olde "you run across goblins sacrificing other adventurers!") But the worlds "Bonesaw has fallen in glorious battle!" go a long way towards keeping the table energy up even Bonesaw's face has just been gnawed off by an angry troll or whatever, and everyone was pretty much treating it as a goof-off kind of thing anyway. At some point I'd love to run a more "serious" dungeoncrawl, but considering that it was a one-shot and a gang of new folks, goofy, high-energy, and high-casualty seemed like the way to go.

Tip: Players are perfectly happy for their characters to die if they die in ridiculous ways. (And they know going into it what to expect.)

Because they weren't taking it seriously, though, they did a lot of dumb things, even once it was clear that they were dumb things to do. I'm hoping that they'd tighten up a bit in a more serious game; I'd hate to think that they were doing this stuff because they thought that was how old school D&D was "supposed to be played." But with any luck, they've learned that:
  • Sleeping in the dungeon is a terrible idea. And worse the second time.
  • Monsters that are immune to sleep are scary.
  • If the rats aren't attacking you, don't pester them.
  • Making as much noise as you possibly can while opening doors attracts monsters.
  • Running means you can't map. Deciding specifically to push on in a different direction from the one that you think leads back to the surface means you will get horribly lost.
  • Having a spell saved is no good if you're dead.
They did learn, I know, that sleep is a much better spell than magic missile at that level. Several of the players pushed one of the magic-users to prep the latter spell, ("It's magic missile!") and boytoy's first character ("The Mighty Wizard Butterburr," and the character responsible for naming the place "Butterland Hollow.") did indeed enter the dungeon with that bit of magic, but they quickly learned that guaranteed damage on a single target is in no way equivalent to the ability to neutralize a horde of monsters at once.

I was pretty pleased with what I came up with to run the dungeon itself. I never did sit down to make notes for the dang thing; I had a map, my copies of Fight On! a few minutes while the players were making characters to scribble down a few ideas. So I made a deck of cards with different room descriptions on them, some from my old megadungeon, some from Fight On! and some made up on the spot or based on player speculations. When they got to a new room, I'd roll a few dice to decide whether to draw a card, roll a wandering monster, or leave it blank, and note down the details on the map.

This worked really well for the freewheeling kind of game we were playing, and would have only been a bit harder if they'd been doing basic things like listening at doors. Truly thorough investigations would have required a more involved note-taking scheme, but since this group was more interested in making as much noise as possible than careful searching and scouting, I was able to get away with a few scribbled notes.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with how this game went. It's got me thinking again about running some kind of regular, serious dungeoncrawl, but there's no way I'm going to have time for that kind of thing any time soon.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Doom & Tea Parties: Calendars

I've been playing in Trollsmyth's Labyrinth Lord game for over a year now, and only recently got around to keeping reliable notes. Partly this is because it's a chat game: there are logs. So long as I keep track of how to spell people's names, I can just search the folder I keep all my logs in and get whatever I need out of them. Still, at a certain point, there's no real substitute for notes: tracking expeditions, recording treasure, and remembering what happened on what day all require pulling stuff out of those logs and putting them somewhere else.

Which I did only haphazardly for a long time because I wasn't clear on what information I needed. I wrote down a lot more than I needed to, which meant I was mostly ignoring my notes, which meant I stopped keeping them.

But then the solo game got complicated enough that I really needed some way to start keeping track of time; we had a couple of upcoming events that my character needed to keep on her radar, and a lot of stuff happening in the mean time. At this point I'd been playing for long enough that I had a pretty good idea of what kind of information I wanted to be able to refer back to--I'd thought "I wish I'd written [that specific thing] down" often enough to know what I needed.

So I made a calendar. This was made easier by the fact that the months in Doom & Tea Parties game are all exactly 28 days long, so I could put together one template and then just copy it. That turned out to be a fairly efficient way to keep track of how my character was spending her days, so I made one for the group game, too.

(The fact that Trollsmyth appeared to be keeping track of dates on post-it notes scattered all over his office had nothing to do with it, I swear. And sorry this is so horrifyingly blurry. Clicking on it should link you to a version you can actually read.)

This is actually a bit different from the calendar for the solo game. Each campaign has different information I need to track, and the format reflects that. My character is pretty much in one place all the time, so there's no "location" tab, but I do break out her days into "day" and "night." The main thing I need the calendar to manage in the group game is expeditions out into the wilderness, and the location tab lets me know at a glance how long each one has taken. The solo game doesn't have that requirement, but we play through more, so each day needs to be recorded in more detail. The last few in-game days for the solo game each covered four, five, or six sessions, so the "this happened to my character two days ago and me three months ago" problem is much more extreme.

It took me a ridiculously long time to figure out the best way to track this information, because I'm horrifically bad at figuring out what information I need to track (and what information I don't) but now that I have, I'm pretty happy with it. I'm probably going to use the spreadsheet calendar system a lot in the future, though of course I'll tweak it a bit to fit the needs of the particular campaign. That's really, I think, the most important thing to remember about note-taking and information tracking like this: as with many things, each campaign is different. Paying careful attention to the particular needs of the game, and letting it take its own shape, is important.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fiend Folio: Achaieri

All I can really say about the Achaieri is this: It's a bird. Why does it need four legs?

Okay, no, there are many more things I can say:

Why is it round? Why is the picture in the 3e MM even less menacing than the one in the Fiend Folio? I mean, it's kinda menacing. I could see how this thing could be scary. And then I think, "Round bird with four legs what?"

It gives off toxic black smoke when injured. That's actually kinda cool.

I've never used this thing in a game, and never had it inflicted on me in a game. It's in 3e D&D core, so obviously it's out there and around in people's headspace, but I suspect I'm not alone in looking at the picture and going "round bird four legs what?"

Which makes me think, hey, maybe I should use it in a game sometime. It's creepy and otheworldly and evil, it doesn't get much play, and the name is actually kind a cool.

This would all hinge on DM description, naturally. If I just went and introduced it with, "it's a large, round bird, with four legs each ending in wicked claws," well... basically I'd need some other way to describe it than "large, round bird." Even my players would laugh at me, and they're used to every monster description ending with "and it has great, terrible claws!"

Things to start with in describing the Achaierai besides "large, round bird":
  1. Its stilted, unearthly gate.
  2. Its four metallic, scaly legs, each ending in a wickedly sharp claw.
  3. Its long, hooked beak.
  4. Its terrible, clanging squawk, that seems to echo through the black depths of your very mind.
  5. Its blood-red, filthy, matted feathers.
  6. Its roving yellow eyes.
(And funny, I thought this was going to be my first FF post to revolve around some variation of "this is the most ridiculous monster I've ever heard of!" but apparently that fine distinction shall go to another critter. I really do think that this thing is kind of cool, in a deranged sort of way, now that I've given it some thought. And "deranged" is the best way to be cool, if you ask me.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

D&D Should Be Dangerous

The other day, TARGA asked for feedback on the recent OSR kerfuffle. My response to that is a bit sideways to the actual issues they raise, because it's hit on something that I've been thinking about lately, since Grognardia posted the TSR Code of Ethics, and Trollsmyth pointed out why the whole endeavor was ridiculous. In short: I don't want D&D to be Disneyland.

Disneyland is "family friendly." Kids love it. Their parents at least tolerate it, and a lot of them even enjoy it; the point is something that the whole family can enjoy together. It's fun, it's exciting, it's safe.

Teenagers hate it.

Dungeons & Dragons, on the other hand, has always been that weird, slightly dangerous game that your older brother played. In reality, it isn't actually any more dangerous than Disneyworld--a good deal less so, I'd say, when you start looking at what it teaches kids and the kinds of skills and attitudes it encourages--but man, do parents ever love to flip out about it. Even if yours didn't (Mine loved it; even with no more than a vague idea of how it all worked, they could see that it involved math, imagination, and social interaction, so they were all for their shut-in daughter getting involved with the hobby.) there was always that possibility that some do-gooder adult would try to make a fuss over it, which would have been the absolute height of teenage glory.

Even more important than that, I think that Grognardia is right when it suggests that D&D has always done best when it's been branded as an "adult" game, even if the true audience is somewhat younger than that which the box describes. That was certainly the impression I had of the hobby before and as I entered it. All the other D&D players I ran into around that period were adults, friends of my parents or parents of my friends, people who played D&D now or had back in college.

Which isn't to say that everything the OSR publishes should be Carcosa. Whether it's described as "for adults" or not, the vast majority of the material that any fantasy adventure game produces will, and should be, perfectly fine for kids--the weird, smart ones who'd be interested in such things, anyhow. But having Carcosa, a succubus illustration or two in the Monster Manual, and even the occasional porn star as a part of the scene can't, I think, hurt, in giving D&D that bit of an edge that it needs to be really successful as that adolescent entertainment that it's always been.

Maybe, in the long term, D&D is destined to be Disneyland. I've certainly heard tell myself of more than a few guys playing D&D with their kids. But personally, I can't see that as a long term central focus of the hobby. Thirteen years old is just too good an entry point, for a whole host of reasons. And thirteen year olds, by and large, aren't too interested in Disneyworld, in playing games with their parents, in safe. Their parents don't want them involved in anything that's actually dangerous, naturally, but that's the real genius of D&D. You're hanging around in your parents basement, eating chips, and learning a bit about reading, acting, and statistics, but overhear a few stories about The Book of Vile Darkness in your FLGS and you imagine that you're doing something edgy.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Vampire Doppelganger Monk Follow-Up

So I talked a bit about one of the games I ran in high school yesterday, in the pre-amble to the recently re-discovered write-up of my vampire doppelganger monk. (Which I still think was a pretty rad character.) Kept it short in that post, since the point was to share the madness that was me at sixteen, but today I've got a few notes on the subject that I want to run through real quick:
  • This was a game I ran every day at lunch for . . . maybe three months? From March until about June. We met outside of school at various people's houses at least a few times, and I ran it for at least a few sessions over the summer, but the main bulk of the game happened at school, fifty minutes at a time.
  • The vast majority of that consisted of a dungeon made out of a flowchart with monsters and treasure written on it, the "tower" that the vampire doppelganger monk notes refer to a couple of times. So a typical lunch-time session would go "kick in the door, fight a monster, pick a door to kick in next time." Sometimes it would get more complicated than that--I got into the habit of putting little sigils on the door, so they'd have something interesting to base the decision on--but the group was mostly fourteen-year-old guys, and that kept them pretty happy.
  • The yak folk sorcerer started out as a regular ol' evil sorcerer. Everything about him being a yak folk, and why he was out in the desert in a tower full of monsters, came later. Like I said, simple.
  • I say "simple," but there was also some reasonably complicated stuff going on in the background--different monsters were in the process of moving in or out of "the deep desert" with the seasons, things like that. The werewolves had some internal politics that also intersected with I think it was ogres? as well as the "sand monkeys" I was slowly building up as a plague upon civilized folks.
  • The game actually started out with an entirely different setting and set up. Halfway through the first session, I got bored with it, attacked the party with ghouls and an airship, and zapped them to a different part of the campaign world entirely. I jotted down a few notes on the new setting over the next few days and ran from there.
  • I really regret not seeing where this campaign could have gone. Looking back on it, it was clearly in the process of becoming one of those games really spiffy campaigns that start from a dungeon and a sketched wilderness and grow into an epic fantasy adventure with a detailed setting, but it got cut short due to social problems. I didn't even intend to go anywhere really complicated with it. I just wanted to run some D&D, and I noted things down as ideas struck me.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Vampire Doppelganger Monk

So basically what I learned today is yes, I was an idiot at sixteen, but gloriously so. I was going through some old files on the desktop I used in high school, and chanced upon some old plans I'd devised for a villain in a campaign I ran during that period. I never made much use of the plans, since the campaign itself ended (due to social fireworks) shortly after I wrote them up, so while I clearly remembered the villain himself, I'd forgotten the bizarre back-story I'd cooked up to explain all the bizarre incidents I'd made up as I went along and only later sat down to justify.

Anyway. I could ramble on for a while about why this is what it is, what came of it, and what didn't, but for now I'm just going to inflict it on the world and be done:

Vampire Doppleganger Monk

This villain is driven by wanderlust. He wants to be able to go where he wants, when he wants, and has a somewhat skewed way of going about with that. He was created to provoke confusion and fear in the players.

This villain is (obviously) a doppelganger, and as such has a certain amount of natural aversion to being stuck in one place for too long. Adding to that, the vampire who originally spawned him imprisoned him for a long time, letting him out of his fortress only occasionally when he had some task he wanted done. This may have lasted a hundred years or so until he was able to kill his progenitor, and the experience probably damaged his psyche permanently.

Not intended as a primary villain, but a pretty major one. Probably threatens most of the desert (eventually) and maybe the area to the north, too, because the only way to really guarantee that he can go anywhere is to control everything.

His eventual plan is to take control of as much of the surrounding area as possible. His immediate goal is to get the windheart, a stone with a variety of magical powers primarily related to movement and useful to him as a monk.

There are a number of obstacles standing between him and the windheart. The first is just finding the thing. It’s hidden, and has been for millennia. The second is defeating the guardians that defend it; the texts he’s working from aren’t terribly specific on this point, but they at least make it clear that there will be some very serious opposition to anyone who tries to take it.

The villain is a manipulator. He is perfectly capable in combat, but his main talents lie in deception and subterfuge. He can take just about any (humanoid) form he wants, and perhaps more importantly, he knows how to use his dominate power to good effect, hiding his involvement behind even more layers of obfuscation than the usual doppelganger.

His resources include the following:
  • Abilities of a 6th level monk
  • Doppelganger shape change ability
  • Any vampires he might spawn
  • Insane sneakiness
  • Supernatural and skill-based manipulation abilities, including disguise, bluff, detect thoughts, and dominate
  • Current minions, mostly the sorcerer (and his minions)
  • Tentative/possible alliance with the yak folk

He’s already completed part of his plan. Years and years ago, he struck a deal with the yak folk sorcerer currently in control of “His Doomificience.” (This particular yak folk had been exiled from his own city, and desperately wanted to reclaim the kind of power and luxury enjoyed by most of his kind. He also doesn’t realize what that the villain is a vampire or a doppelganger, just thinks he’s a helpful sneaky sort of person who wants in on the action.) The found the Tomb of Glass Lore, the place the “sorcerer” (before he was possessed) was sent by the air weird to find, and figured out what it meant—that it led to something that would give them power, and that they should really keep other people from finding out about it. So they built the tower, and the doppelganger convinced various people to come to the town they built, and they sealed off the air weird to keep others from finding out what they had.

What they found was instructions for making the Storm Hand. This is a powerful magical device that allows its creator to control and create powerful dust storms, but it has a second, more hidden purpose. It’s intended as a sort of guidepost to the windheart, and shows the location of that artifact once activated. (The sorcerer doesn’t know this, incidentally. The villain discovered this on his own, while the sorcerer was busy with other things. The sorcerer just thinks they’re going to wreak havoc with it, conquering stuff.) They’ve almost got the Storm Hand; the werewolves should be returning with the final piece any day now. (Which they will do very dramatically, since everyone thinks the sorcerer is running this show, and the sorcerer likes things done dramatically.)

Once they have the Storm Hand, stage two will commence, with the finding and looting of wherever it is that the windheart is kept.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fiend Folio: Aarakocra

I was recently reminded that I had completely forgotten to mention an item of crucial importance: I've got a copy of the AD&D Fiend Folio. (Someone very nice--but still evil!--figured out that I like collecting the old AD&D hardbacks. Thank you. ;) ) Which, incidentally, is currently the sole 20th century monster compendium I own. Which, as we all know, is pretty much a recipe for gaming awesomeness.

Flipping through the book, I noticed that some of them I've never seen before (the al-mi'raj? What the heck?!), others I'm familiar with through the 3e Monster Manual (the grimlock is there as classic cannon-fodder for illithids), or one-off 3e supplements (the aleax happily resides in the Book of Exalted Deeds), a few have come up in Trollsmyths game (the aarakocra), and there are a few I know because, well, how can you not have heard about the flumph?

Actually, I take it back about the aarakocra. The first time I ran into them was in a book I read in-game during my brief experience with Neverwinter Nights, which I assume mean they featured in a similar way in the Forgotten Realms: one of the mysterious lost elder races that have since ceded domination of the world to humans and dwarves and so on. This is basically how they've come up in Trollsmyth's game, too; the sorcerer the PCs in the group game hired gave us a short lecture about how they used to fight the evil elder menace that built the dungeon we were exploring, but they haven't been a major force, or even seen much at all, in ages.

And there's nothing about this in the aarakocra write up in the Fiend Folio. It's pretty easy to read it into the mountain dwelling tribes that get up to some spiffy weaving and will occasionally give you information that are in the write up, but it doesn't specifically mention anything about the grand past that I've always seen them associated with in later presentations.

What is in here is an adventure. Well, okay. Not a full adventure. You'd still have to have a reason to go into the mountains and get where you could mess with them. But there enough neat cultural details that, if I was putting together some crazy game happenings in the mountains somewhere, I'd throw in a few tribes of bird-men just to give the players something to play with.

Things to do with aarakocra:

  1. Put a few territorial banners and pendants up somewhere the PCs are heading for a different reason, and watch them puzzle out what they mean. If and when they mess with them, they get attacked by angry bird-creatures.
  2. Have a villain bribe a tribe with shiny objects to guard a place or raid villages. Make sure to throw in a few giant eagle and wind elemental allies for good measure.
  3. Next time the PCs are looking around town for rumors, throw in one about terrifying bird-creatures stealing livestock from the surrounding farms. If the PCs want to make it a big deal, let them.
  4. The PCs need to find something up in the mountains. The best option might be to hire an aarakocra scout.
  5. Some crazy noble gets really into aarakocra weaving. They might just have it up on their walls when the PCs go to visit them (if your players are the kinds of people who ask questions about the scenery, and enjoy a good story to go with it) or they might be specifically interested in hiring the party to collect some good examples.
  6. Some crazy noble got really into aarakocra weaving a while back, and wiped out an entire tribe to get the territorial pendant markers. Now either the other tribes nearby figure out what happened, or the PCs stumble across it in the course of another adventure. Hilarity ensues.

Friday, March 05, 2010

A Discussion of Probability

I was flipping through my copy of the 1e DMG today and realized that it's the only place I've ever seen a discussion of probability in a game book. (This may be because I haven't been reading the right RPGs.) This is how Gygax decided to open his Dungeon Master's Guide, and it makes a lot of sense: a thorough discussion of the tools of the trade. But as with a lot of what I've noticed about the DMG, there's a very specific attitude embedded here, and one that's really different from the one I associate with the later editions of the game that I got into the hobby with.

What I find interesting here is that Gygax assumes that you're going to be building your own random tables, or using the dice to adjudicate results on-the-fly. You've got to know how your dice work, so you can get them to give you the randomization or oracular input you need. Instead of a series of universal mechanics that, in theory, cover everything, you get some basic principles that help you make the decisions you need to make as they come up.

What opening the DMG with a discussion on probability says to me is: Sooner or later, you're going to need the dice to help you resolve something that the rules don't cover, or to give you some ideas to handle some wacky thing that your players just did. Which is just about exactly what I want the beginning of a guide to running a game to say.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

In A Wicked Age: "When being chased by a virgin-eating forest god, throw bees."

Our game of In A Wicked Age on Skype went well, despite boytoy's unfortunate absence on account of thesis. Any game that leaves me in fits of laughter because my character, the mysterious, virgin-eating god of the forest, has been thwacked in the face and engulfed in a horde of bees is a success in my book. Your mileage may vary, but I had fun.

Skype worked out fairly well, and was both less and more weird than I'd worried it would be. Everyone playing cross gender actually wasn't that big of a deal; that may have been because, being voice chat, it took on the quality of a spoken story, or a book being read aloud, but whatever the reason, I got used to it and it didn't throw me off.

A bigger problem was that I realized just before the game started that it had been over a year since the last time I played (rather than DMed) in person. Between that, my usual pre-game nervousness, and the fact that I was playing with new people, the immediacy of Skype brought on a mild attack of shyness. Early in the game I did that obnoxious "sit in the corner and don't do anything" thing that drives me crazy when my players get it into their heads, and there were a number of "umm... I dunno..." moments when Tim had to put me on the spot, as I slowly forced myself to actually play. By the end of the game I'd gotten into things more, which is how it always goes.

We kept Wave open to track character sheets and the Owe list, and the combination of Skype for play and Wave for reference worked quite well. Wave is a good way to approximate what you can do with an actual piece of paper at the table--write notes down on it and pass it around--and can even be superior for some applications, if everyone needs to have access to it continuously, since there's no actual passing involved. And using Wave strictly for reference purposes, rather than both conversation and record, cuts down on a lot of the confusion that can develop in a well-traveled Wave. (Not to mention the fact that needing to keep Wave open for game references cut down on a lot of the idle web-surfing I might otherwise have been tempted to do with my laptop in front of me.) If I play over voice chat again, I'll definitely look in to using Wave for note sharing.

Still, this is one game that I think is best played at the table, and while I wouldn't rule out another session on Skype sometime (time permitting; between school, my other games, and that pesky social life I'm pretty busy at the moment) I'm looking forward to getting a chance to play it with my old high school crew, as well as when I hit GenCon this summer. But Skype gaming itself ain't bad, either, and it's an option I'm glad now to have in my back pocket for when I want to play a game online for some reason that doesn't work well over text, or if I want to play long distance with one of those strange folks who don't find chat games to their taste. Neither it nor In A Wicked Age is going to replace my weekly Labyrinth Lord text sessions, but I'm never going to complain about having a little more flexibility in my gaming.

Monday, March 01, 2010

In A Wicked Age: Table Energy, and the Trouble with Wave

On Thursday night Tim Jensen succeeded in his long-running attempt to get me to play some kind of hippy indie game with a session of In A Wicked Age on Wave. Also in attendance were Trollsmyth, boytoy, and Willow. It was originally going to be a one-shot, but we took over two hours making characters and setting up the situation, so we've scheduled a second session to wrap things up proper. (More on that in a bit.)

Overall I'm pretty please with what I've seen of the game so far. It won't replace Labyrinth Lord, or that style of gaming, but it should fill a spot I've been missing in my game repertoire for a while: the no-prep pick-up game. I can get pretty close with Swords & Wizardry and a pre-made megadungeon, but In A Wicked Age is just that much better for the kind of spontaneous, at the table craziness kind of gaming my high school friends and I would like to be able to do when we get together on breaks.

I don't think that Wave is really the best format for this kind of thing, though. For one thing, I think this kind of game really benefits from the constant creative feedback you get at the table; there's no need to specifically comment on whether or not something is "cool," because everyone can tell, from posture and tone of voice and that kind of thing. Wave also has some specific issues, too. It's easy to create a very convoluted, hard to keep track of Wave with a lot of people working on it, or to bury vital information somewhere that it's not easily accessible. And because of the way In A Wicked Age uses interruption and retroactive modification, the log can become a source of confusion rather than clarification. In table play, there wouldn't be that gap between "what happened in-game" and "what happened at the table," because what happens at the table disappears.

We're playing again tonight, and this time on Skype, so we'll see if that clears up any of those issues. Of course, we weren't expecting to play by voice, so that may be an adventure in itself: we're all playing cross-gender. Well, except for me, since I'm not sure that my magical virgin-eating giraffe has a gender.