Monday, July 13, 2015

I ran Torchbearer

I ran Torchbearer this weekend. I had fun, and I want to run it again.

Damn does this game have a learning curve, though. We were fumbling around with the rules the entire session, and once I sat down and re-read the book I found a bunch of places where I’d missed subtle rules or screwed up completely. I can see how it’ll come together once I have more of it internalized, but my players especially (Kiel, my brother, and my brother’s fiancee) found it frustrating.

I knew that going into it, though. This game was a test run, so I could get a feel for how the game works in play, and get prepared to run a proper campaign once I move to San Francisco. I want to write my own stuff but didn’t trust my ability to do that without actually playing, so this was a chance to try out the intro adventure, and get my fumbling done with people who I expect to laugh at me anyway.

We played the starting adventure that comes with the book, and didn't get very far. They delved into the cellar, fought some rats, went further into the caves, discovered kobolds, tripped over an alarm the kobolds had set, attempted to scare the kobolds off by making spooky noises and shouting the name of their god, and then ran away when that failed and made camp.

The main thing I screwed up was actually the main mechanic, which is subtle enough that I missed it the first time, even though it’s a very similar one to the classic OD&D-style dungeoneering that I’m especially fond of. I default to my more 3e-ish habits, and it had a definite negative impact on play.

Basically, Torchbearer has in common with OD&D that play should proceed primarily by players and DM trading descriptions of action and reaction, until you get to the point where the DM thinks something bad should happen-- the players did something stupid, or inherently risky. At that point in OD&D, you’d roll a save-- you screwed up, but I’m going to give the game a chance to save you-- or get into combat. In Torchbearer, you roll a “Test,” which uses the skill system but is actually quite different from the 3e and later subsystems of that name.

In newer editions of D&D, and a lot of “traditional” (as opposed to old school or indie/narrative) the consequences for failing a roll is that you don’t succeed at what you were trying. They can be either player controlled or triggered independently by the DM.

In Torchbearer, the consequence for failing a roll is that something bad happens, even though you succeed at what you were doing (with a couple of exceptions, mostly having to do with recovering from consequences like injury). They’re always (a) triggered by player action but (b) called for by the DM. So none of that “roll a perception check to see whether you notice (secret thing) when you enter an area” business (which is where I messed up-- in my defense, the intro adventure implies that you should do this at one point, at least if you’re coming into it with D&D instincts). Either the information in question should be given to the players when they enter the area, or when they take an action to directly uncover it. Because failing a roll always imposes negative consequences, imposing a roll without the players feeling like they directly triggered it can be frustrating.

I also fumbled on the conflict rules (deciding when to start a conflict is actually kind of tricky, and I hadn’t read the rules for setting up the monster side at the start of them carefully enough), didn’t realize how nasty adding another 6 kobolds would make an encounter for 3 players, and didn’t handle people asking if they could apply this or that trait to a situation well-- I should have just asked them “what are you actually doing that’s using that trait?” and decided based on their description. I also nudged them a little too hard towards collecting checks. I suspect after re-reading that section the most natural way for new players to discover checks is through tiebreakers, and that once they got the hang of that they’d start looking for opportunities to get them other ways on their own.

All that said, I’m pretty psyched about running Torchbearer again. I’m re-reading the rulebook, and have a better idea how to read it now that I’ve run it once. I’ve started thinking about how I’ll set up the actual campaign, and making notes on the first adventure. (Still deciding whether to use my existing San Draso setting, or try something totally new.)

I am a little wary about introducing it to new players, and to players who aren’t already enthusiastic about learning the game. The nice thing about Basic or OD&D is that I can get a new player up and running in about 5 minutes (“roll what I tell you to roll, when I tell you to roll it, otherwise don’t worry about it”) and there aren’t many rules for them to deal with. While I’m optimistic about my ability to interface with the system for new players as they get their bearings, at least once I get a solid handle on the rules myself, there are a lot more bearings to get in this system.

I’m also concerned that it could be pretty punishing to players who aren’t interested in engaging with the rules, and I suspect the potential frustration factor is a lot higher than in D&D. In D&D usually if you screw up the worst thing that happens is that your character that you spent 5 minutes making dies. In Torchbearer you can get saddled with conditions and get abilities taken away from you during play, and character creation takes a little longer, so you have more invested out of the gate.

In general I don’t think this is a game that most people who’re already happy and well-served by old school D&D dungeoneering are going to be interested in, at least for extended play. The game is probably worth playing a few sessions of, especially if you don’t already feel confident with the way you manage dungeon atmosphere and the resource restriction of low level play, and the encumbrance and light rules are potentially worth borrowing. But it’s really more “an introduction to dungeoneering for people who like Burning Wheel or indie/narrative games” than an alternative to Basic per se.

For me, though-- not only do I like to kill people, and otherwise inflict nastiness on their characters, I’m pretty much all about emergent behavior arising from proceduralism. D&D does a lot of that on the DM side, but it’s interesting to see a game that really brings that to the player side of the table.

I’m particularly interested in the opportunities that the trait system affords for “emergent roleplaying.” At one point my brother was looking for a way to use a trait against himself, and came up with the idea that “maybe the gods are telling me not to kill this rat, and that makes me doubt myself.” Then the other characters picked up on that as the cleric being not quite all there, and started roleplaying that.

I do agree with the creators of the game that it’s not terribly well suited for one-shot play, and I’m hoping to get the chance to run a continuing game soon. I really appreciate that it has clear guidelines for how to prepare a campaign, and how to run a game that starts with just a single adventure prepped and builds out from there. I wish there was a little more discussion of building out the campaign world as play proceeds, and procedural generation for adventure sites in general, but I can lift a lot of that from D&D.

Of course, I’m also not sure how long it’ll hold my attention. I’m focused on it for now, but it’s definitely possible that a few sessions in I’ll get tired of futzing with the shiny rule set and get back to Basic.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Twenty Questions for the Sewers of San Draso

Jeff’s twenty campaign questions for my Sewers of San Draso campaign, part one.

  1. What is the deal with my cleric's religion?
You’re probably a priest of the elven Moon Empress or one of her many attendant saints-- mostly other gods absorbed into the imperial religion and ancient deified elven heroes, though there are a few more modern heroes mixed in as well. It’s possible that you’re the follower of one of the local gods that hasn’t been absorbed into the Hierarchy, or something even weirder.

  1. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
There are a variety of blacksmiths and alchemists who provide equipment for soldiers and mercenaries, and more ordinary goods are available at the daily markets.

  1. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
Zanz, a half-giant, half-elf armorer, will give you a discount if you commission him to make armor for a kind of monster he’s never worked on before.

  1. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
Probably some unassuming member of emperor’s court. Within San Draso itself, most likely Tiago ve Moril, who few men have seen, and who is rumored to be a half-dragon.

  1. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
Though saying so will get you uninvited from certain kinds of parties, it’s undoubtedly Amerincio Callan, an elven assassin of local ancestry who caused a minor scandal a few years ago by turning down the governor’s offer of adoption, and then making off with his daughter and both of his sons. (Who are, by all accounts, perfectly happy with the arrangement to this day.)

  1. Who is the richest person in the land?
Urraca ve Durran, whose mother bankrolled a great deal of the early exploration and settlement of San Draso and who has been assigned to oversee her family’s holdings for the next few centuries.

  1. Where can we go to get some magical healing?
Any imperial cult will be happy to provide this service to citizens in good standing of Her Celestial Empire.

  1. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
The imperial cult is still a good option, although depending on the problem, a local shaman may be cheaper and less annoying.

  1. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
The two main colleges with satellites in San Draso are the Eye and Triangle (specializing in abjuration, evocation, divination, and conjuration) and the Dragon’s Teeth Conclave (specializing in enchantment, illusion, transmutation, and necromancy). The Eye and Triangle welcomes non-wizards of a scholarly bent into their debate halls, while the Conclave hosts other kinds of arcane spellcasters seeking camaraderie as well.

  1. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
The merchant’s quarter, inside the second wall-- at least if quality is more important than price. There are also a number of “experts” of various kinds on the outskirts of town.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Tiki Season

Sometime in mid to late February, I get sick of snow, and I start making daiquiris. Mai Tais. Drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Some people think that tiki drinks (“faux tropicals”) are summer drinks. Not me. I made my first daiquiri last month, then a Hai Karate, then a ginger-liqueur variation on the Carioca Hawaiian Cocktail last night. I have pomegranate molasses and orange flower water, and a glass bottle with a pour spout to hold the grenadine I’ll make once I get the pomegranate juice. Or it might end up being a bottle of cinnamon sugar syrup, if I decide to go a little more Don the Beachcomber and a little less Trader Vic.

This time next week, I’ll probably have an order in for Small Hands Orgeat Syrup (it ain’t worth making on your own, and the commercial stuff I can get in that fancy Italian grocery store is crap, and I have all the other ingredients you need for a proper Mai Tai). I already picked up a package of tiny umbrellas, and I’ve been eyeing my rum collection and considering my next purchase. I have a bottle of cachaca, some Martinique aged rum, a bottle of 7 year Angostura rum, but not much in the way of the real staples. I’m still missing the Virgin Islands light and amber that do the majority of the heavy lifting in my tiki bar, and I’m painfully low on the dark Jamaican rum that carries the rest.

I gave away almost all my tiki stuff when I moved to New York last summer, figured I’d get back into classic cocktails. Which I did, for a while-- notwithstanding a brief tiki itch brought on by discovering St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram at the shop down the street.

The tiki thing always comes back, though. I fell in love with plastic swords and drink umbrellas in the Tonga room in 1994, and I’ll never fall out again.

Some of that is just practical. I like sour drinks in general, I like rum. Rum is cheap, compared to whiskey, and there’s nothing in tiki that’s as perishable as vermouth and as hard to find in small quantities. I like the colors, I like the history, I like putting together a drink that takes eight or so different colored bottles to mix together. Makes me feel like a wizard.

Mostly, though, I like drinks that admit that they’re sort of stupid. Drinks that are kind of tacky, where it makes sense that you're giggling uncontrollably after a few of them. I don't mean that I drink tiki drinks ironically. I like them because they’re good: I love them because they’re sort of stupid.

Monday, March 02, 2015

On Randomness In Character Generation, and Why Old School D&D Is Awesome For New Players

So: Old school D&D is a terrible system for playing the game most people want to play when they pick up something called "D&D," not having any prior experience with old school D&D. The texts don't do a great job of communicating their purpose, and honestly, the other things that people want to do are fun and it's reasonable that they want them.

One of the big things that people want when they pick up something called "D&D" is a game where they get to craft exactly the guy that they want to play. Old school systems by and large do not deliver this, especially on a mechanical axis: Your initial character generation is random, and your advancement is usually relatively fixed and relatively random.

The thing is, most of the folks I've met like that got into the game before I got them-- middle or high school, or occasionally college. These are people who saw "fantasy adventure game" and opened it up to find that there was also a bunch of math and were super happy about it. (I'm in that camp myself-- I've had few happier days than the one where I discovered the interlocking logic of the 3e EL and XP tables.) But there's a big, big pool of people I've gotten into the game who got scared away by all that math and all those decisions, even though they desperately wanted that fantasy adventure.

But those people already get enough air time in the OSR. One of my favorite things about old school D&D is that it's made it much easier for me to run games for a mix of highly invested and brand new players than any other edition I've encountered (except maybe also 5th-- still gathering data). While really serious D&D strategists will get annoyed by the shenanigans the newer, less death-hardened players get up to, it's much easier for brand new players to contribute to the gamier side of the game than with the newer, more character-build focused versions. You don't have to read the book and absorb the rules system to play a really powerful character in old school D&D: You just have to be quick on your feet, and the right mix of careful and reckless.

Random chargen helps make generating a new character fast (important when death rates or high, or you're playing with different people every week so you need to be able to get the new guy into the game fast) and can create interesting tactical and expressive challenges for experienced players: "Well I would never choose to play this guy but now that I've got him what do I do with him?"

Fixed advancement and random advancement also make leveling easier and faster, which is important when your character is more a token that lets you interact with the game-world than an end to be developed in itself. It also really helps players who like developing their character's personality but either don't care about or actively overwhelmed by mechanical differentiation.

In general they all can make getting into D&D a lot less intimidating for new people. Generally my experience with getting brand new people into 3x/Pathfinder has been "Oh my god I have to read that entire book? Oh okay, just these bits... uh... which feats do I want... wow, it's going to take us a really long time to make all these characters, this is kind of boring." 

My experience with getting brand new people into old school D&D has been more "Oh my god I have to read that entire book? Oh, okay, just these bits... rolls stats my intelligence is really high so I guess I'll be a wizard... oh wait no, I want to be a bard, my charisma is really low but that will be hilarious."

Or even "okay, so what are all these numbers on this index card? oh, okay, you'll tell me when I need them, cool. oh, sweet, I have a grappling hook, I wonder what I can do with that."

Not that Pathfinder is a bad system for newbies-- I've played with new-ish people who expected mechanical character differentiation from video games and were disappointed/frustrated by old school games because they didn't provide that. One of the things I like about 5e is that it potentially bridges the gap between those folks and the systems I like.

The old school character generation and advancement are also fantastic for the players who want a strategic resource management game that's mostly about their lateral thinking cleverness. For those folks, choices about what widgets to give their character would be choices they weren't making about things that they care about.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

On 5e: Complexity & Character-Focus

I have the first two books. I've seen the DMG but I don't have my own copy yet. I've played a fair amount (all online) and am beginning work on my own game.

So far my reaction is broadly positive. My main comment so far is that it strikes me as "old school character-centered D&D," which was definitely an open spot in the D&D pantheon.

There are at least two axes that have separated the editions that I think of as "new school" (3e, 4e) from the editions I think of as "old school" (everything else, more or less) but until now they were always paired. On the one hand, old school D&D tends to be focused on the world more than the character. Your character develops over time and maybe accretes some kind of individual identity, but they don't start out that way, and their fate is a lot more random than it is in the later games. In those, you have a lot more control over your character "build," and your dude is a lot more durable, so it makes more sense to put some effort into them up front.

This goes hand in hand with the another major difference I see between the editions, which is that the older versions are generally a lot simpler than their descendants. It's faster to build a character and easier to run an adventure. This fits with the focus on world rather than character-- if your character can die easily, then you want to be able to roll up a new one quickly, and if less of the fun of the game comes from your character being unique and special then it's less important for character creation to be complex-- but one doesn't necessarily follow the other.

5e is a very character-focused game. I have a lot of options when I sit down to make my character, and my character is pretty tough and capable. They dish out a surprising amount of damage, if you're used to older editions. But it's the first "character-centric" game where character creation didn't drive me completely up the wall with fiddly nonsense.

That's mostly because 5e strips out the complexity that's unnecessary to that goal of "making my character interesting." Individual skill points are out, and skills themselves are largely side-effects of other decisions. Feats are strictly optional-- they're relatively small modifications to your character, so the complexity cost was always a lot higher than the customization value. Instead, the character complexity comes more in big "packages" that do a lot of work for you at once: You make a couple of big decisions (which kind of fighter am I? what's my background?) that quickly narrows the focus of the small decisions you need to make down to a manageable size.

Which is, I think, a very good thing, and so far I'm glad they went in that direction. I don't always want to play that kind of D&D, but I am sometimes in the mood for it, and now I have an option that doesn't require a spreadsheet or five to build my character with.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Khans of Tarkir + Diablo II's Sanctuary

Figured I'd do a bit of public brainstorming

  • Archdemons/Prime Evils
  • Angels with mysterious agendas
  • Many races of fiends swarming over the world
  • Soul-trapping gems
  • Magical gems in general
  • Magic item crafting
  • The Church of Light
  • Corrupted jungle temples
  • Desert tombs
  • Towns built on the borders of great evil wastelands
  • Cathedrals
  • A distinct sense of East and West
  • Clans (of mixed races)
  • Steppe nomads
  • Warbands
  • Desert fortresses
  • Jungle palaces
  • Tundra encampments
  • Mountain monasteries
  • Rakshasas
  • Ancient dragon bones
  • Poison
  • Martial arts

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Absolute vs. Relative Time

How often do you actually refer to a specific date (October 1st, third day of the first moon of spring, etc.) or year in your campaign, rather than a relative date? (Next week, two days from now, next summer?)

I've used the relative time a lot but it occurs to me that even when I know the former, it doesn't actually come up in play much. In Risus Monkey's Buffy game I usually knew the exact date, but that was because it was a real historical date, (the game was set in the early 90s) and since we were college students, what holidays were coming up and whether it was the weekend or not was pretty important. Also, because we used the actual weather in the area from that date, part of the "beginning of session" ritual involved looking up and discussing the date.

In Trollsmyth's game I have no idea what the calendar date is and never have. This is partly because the pace of that game tends to be really slow, but also because, as adventurers, what I care about in terms of time is "how long until we get to the dungeon?" and "how does it take to recover from the last dungeon?" It also just doesn't come up a lot from other players/characters in the game. If Brian mentioned it at the start of every session I'd probably remember.

I seem to remember doing that in the cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic d20 Modern game I ran in high school, and I think the people who cared remembered and wrote it down. I don't know that we used it that much, in play or in talking about play, though. Same with the Arcana Evolved game I ran at the end of high school. I don't know that I've even known myself in all the games I've run since then, although that's partly because they've been rather scatter-shot. I haven't started keeping real thorough track of time in the ACKS game, but I've been keeping the notes that I'll need to go back and normalize it if/when I decided specific dates are important.