Yesterday I ran a game for eight players (I usually cap at six). We had already established that this was going to be a raid on a pirate fortress. I knew that it was going to have 80 elves ready to fight, 80 elves sleeping (all 1st level), a 9th and a 7th level elf, and a red dragon. The party allied itself with some commando elves and so the attacking force consisted of eight player characters and their eight henchmen with levels between 1 and 7 as well as the command elves, six 6th level elves and eighteen ordinary 1st level elves; forty characters in all. I handed out little index cards with the stats of the elven commando leaders and their henchmen. Three hours later it was all over, most of the pirates slain, the dragon dead, the enemy leader killed, her second in command take prisoner, the dragon hoard secured and the fortress being towed to the players’ domain. (This is a big mashup campaign using Spelljammer ships and fortresses, and An Echo Resounding for domain level play.)
It was a very unusual adventure, but I like the change in pace!
The fortress was structured as a series of encounters with a mini map I kept behind the screen, usually with ten elves, sometimes with a leader of level 1d6+1; sometimes with more elves about to arrive. Good use was made of hold portal to prevent elves from joining up and good use was made of silence and sleep to surprise enemies and incapacitate a dozen foes in the surprise round, haste was used to quickly position archers and casters, sneaky thieves were used to scout ahead and best prepare for assaults, and to avoid tricky hallways with enemy archers hiding, several lightning bolts were used to kill the dragon before it could join the elven sorceress, they survived her cloudkill with minimal losses and managed to dispel it the next round…
It was a bloodbath.
For ease of reference and consistent spell selection of both the allied commando elves and the defending elf pirates, I used a technique I described previously: my spell book notation lists the spell-book of the top elf or magic-user with spell level and spell name, and a third column with the character level at which this spell is usually picked. This helps me run a lot of spell casters. This list would begin as follows, for example:
|Spell Level||Character Level||Spell Name||Notes|
|1||2||shield||AC 4, AC 2 vs. missiles|
|2||4||detect invisibility||5 rd./level|
|4||7||polymorph||AC 0 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d10 MV 240|
|4||8||dimension door||360 ft. or 120 m|
|5||9||cloud kill||⌀ 30 ft., MV 6|
The most important skill of all is a sort of military “go! go! go!” efficiency at the table, however. No questions about who rolls initiative. Roll all the dice – have d20s and damage dice of matching colors and have all the colors assigned to your dudes and roll them all at once. All enemy elves, regardless of level, had AC 4. When your turn comes up, just tell me “I hit three times, damage is 4, 5, 2.” That’s the plan, anyway. Also, pick a leader who tells me where the party goes. Which stairs do you pick? Quietly or quickly? When the fight is on, just keep pushing. When the fight is over, let players talk, laugh, investigate, debate.
The picture shows the kind of notes I had prepared ahead of time. As you can see these are crude sketches of the area and enemy positions. Most enemies were all elves with a single magic missile memorized. If the party won initiative, it was usually over in a few seconds.
As you can see on the little fold-out flow-chart on the left, the encounters weren’t all arranged linearly. My main idea was this:
It worked for me!
In the final analysis, it was a lot easier than I expected. Was it because the commando elves were too strong? Was it because the party had four extra players I had not expected? (Two of them are new players from my Sunday campaign and another two players are not regular players so I wasn’t counting on them.) Oh well, I think it’s only fair to not adjust difficulty levels on the fly.
We stopped play midway through year 510 of The Great Pendragon Campaign after a devastating battle in May and ended the campaign. Too much railroading, too many sudden death moments, too many fiddly rules that slow us down but don’t further our enjoyment, too much leafing back and forth in the book… I’m both sad and relieved, in a way.
The discussion was kicked off by one player who felt like quitting the campaign and explaining all the things he didn’t like. I agreed with a lot of it. I had written about it myself. Another player said he’d like to play on weekdays instead of weekends. Another player was missing. My wife wanted to continue playing but was suffering because of a recent string of character deaths. The last player was new and said he had been unable “to get into it” in the three sessions he had played with us.
An astonishing thing happened during the discussion. My wife and the player who had started the discussion are both players in my mashup game—the old school sandbox game using Labyrinth Lord, the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Spelljammer, Planescape, and An Echo Resounding. They started comparing the Pendragon campaign to this other game. The other game is crazy (“I’d describe the atmosphere as killer clowns”) but it has more player agency. Pendragon is more about how you deal with the events around you. My mashup game is about the things you do. I rarely need to pick up a rulebook and search for a rule. The NPCs are all strange and memorable. No king Leodegrance, Sir Cador, Centurion King and other faceless dudes that you haven’t interacted with. Pendragon not only suffers from an inflation of NPC names that players haven’t interacted with, it also encourages me to add names, exacerbating the problem. What are the names of the sons of Duke Ulfius? Who cares? I still feel compelled to look it up instead of making it up.
In a way, the big campaign provides a railroad that affects me as well. I am inspired by the campaign, I steer the players towards the rails, I entice them to stay on the rails, they are always present. Like those pesky Paizo Adventure Paths, they shackle my imagination and stiffle my improvisation.
So, where as I am sad to see it go, I am also happy to see how my players love the classic D&D sandbox and validate the choices I made for that mashup game.
Two blog posts I enjoyed today:
Specialization and Assumed Competence illustrates that any system where the gap between a characters with and without specialization increases is a system where the general competence decreases even if the general challenge level of the environment and the actual stats remain unchanged.
On the Deadly Difference drives home a point I’ve been trying to adhere to for a while, now: announce risks and consequences before players make decisions. My Swiss Referee Style Manual ends with the very same advice, inspired by the very same blog.
The following list is from the Hack & Slash blog.
Announce consequences before players commit to actions. There can only be meaningful choice if players know what to expect. (“If you fail the roll, you’ll […]. Do you want to risk it?”)
Provide information if players are unsure. You can wrap it in vague language, but be sure to provide the necessary information. (“It’s hard to say, but you feel a nagging suspicion that he’s probably hiding something.”)
In the same vein, provide warnings if players are putting themselves in danger. You’re aiming for “I knew it!” when something bad befalls player characters. (“You notice that the hanging bridge above the tar pits seems frail. Just make sure nobody cuts those ropes!”)
Provide alternatives if you think that what players want should be impossible. (“You can’t just buy a magic weapon but they say there’s a hidden entrance to a goblin market in the Smoke Forest.”)
Add obstacles whenever players are getting what they want. (“The insect trainer will teach your lizard how to spy ahead if you provide her with a living giant wasp.”)
Did you do something special? I gave an interview to one of these newfangled, local, online news sites, in German. Wenn Erwachsene mit Stift und Papier in die Schlacht ziehen, or When adults do battle with pen and paper.
Today, as we were exploring a ruin of Ianna, I decided I wanted to start mapping on my iPad. But how? Enter ASCII art.
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It’s ugly. It doesn’t do slanted passages. It’s slow. But it worked…
Perhaps I should just have stuck to the old style:
--------- -------------- ##.<......| |............| # |.......| #-............| ### #........| ###---------.---- # |.......-# # # Y@# |.......|# ### ### # |.......|# # # .. ---------### -------# ### -- # |......# # ##......| ########## |>....| --+-.------ |.....| |.........| ------- |.........| |.........| |.........| |.........| -----------
Perhaps what I need is a program that takes a text description of the dungeon and turns it into ASCII art.
Then again, once we do that, perhaps we might as well do node-based dungeon mapping. I might have to read that series of blog posts by Keith Davies again.
Then again, I’ve just skimmed Random Dungeon Generators Reviewed on Inkwell Ideas. Generating good random maps is hard. I still wonder, however. How hard would it be if you provided some input?
I sometimes try to pick an album for a campaign or a particular kind of environment. I often play Lustmord’s Heresy when players enter the Underworld or when facing temples of demon lords. I pick game soundtracks (Elder Scrolls, Vagrant Story) for most of my old school D&D games; I usually play medieval music when running Pendragon (La Capella Reial de Catalunya, for example). I used to play Conan stuff for Barbarians of Lemuria and Crypts n’ Things. I played a lot of 16 Horsepower and Woven Hand (dystopian Country?) for Western games or towns with a Western vibe in my old school D&D game. I guess I’d play Godspeed You! Black Emperor non-stop for a post-apocalyptic game. I sort of try to avoid the Star Wars sound tracks for Science Fiction or the Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit soundtracks for Fantasy, but sometimes it’s just so damn convenient.
I don’t have the time to pick songs for particular scenes when I’m running the game. The only thing I barely manage to do is skip the current track if it is widely inappropriate. I also can’t have songs with lyrics that distract me, nor can I have music that has me bobbing my head or tapping my feet…
Fight On! #14 has been released on Lulu! The bestest old school fanzine is back, like a revenant it haunts the living even if we know that it is already dead. Calithena has said that #15 will be the last issue and that saddens me. Issue #14 also came without my Caverns of Slime. This doesn’t make me as sad as I thought it would because we get a fantastic troll fortress instead. Gatehouse, temple, main complex, it has everything and nice, emphatic maps. Thick, black lines, high contrast edges, and yet clearly labelled. Citadel of the Dark Trolls. Lee Barber. Well done!
One of the comments in the announcement thread says “I used the code GETIT25 and got 25% off my order.” Good luck!
I wrote about Pendragon last year. Tomorrow I’ll be running the year 509. As the Great Pendragon Campaign starts in 485 and we usually play once a month, one game year per session we must have played for 25 sessions and about two years of real time.
I’ve written about the cool stuff before. I don’t really like skills in my games, but Pendragon skills still works. It has a weird but satisfying criticial hits system: roll under your skill on a d20 and you succeed, roll your skill exactly and it’s a critical success, if your skill is higher than twenty, you can’t ever fail—add whatever you have above twenty to your roll, making critical successes even more likely. I also like the traits pairs of traits that will sometimes govern how characters reacts, even if players don’t want them to. You can invoke them for a small bonus but if you fail, there’s also a small penalty. Then there are passions which are similar, except they don’t come in opposing pairs. If you manage your passion roll, you get a big bonus. If you fail, you get a big penalty. And if you fumble, you run into the woods, a raving madman. You’re taken out.
I want to talk a bit about the things that do not work as far as I am concerned. We’ve played the King Uther period and we’re finishing the Anarchy period. I don’t think these problems will disappear, however.
One of the first things we noticed while playing the Great Pendragon Campaign was that the Family Events in the Winter Phase are not very exciting. Having seen some great random event tables in the Old School Renaissance for D&D, I was not impressed by the table in the book. We’ve tried to write better stuff (in German), but so far we haven’t managed to strike the right balance between family development, adventure hooks and color. Ideally, these events would help my players discover their family tree, add nephews and nieces, cousins and more. For a while we used the Dramarama tables, but that led to several family members having affairs with tax collectors and the like. It didn’t work for us. The original table also had many women disappearing, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. We had an adventure involving a saxon witch, but I’d like the table to provide me with more. I’d also like the table to provide players with a small opportunity to showcase their characters. Let us know about their traits, their families, their relationships. Alas, it isn’t working.
I also noticed that the book places a lot of importance on wives and marrying, but other than the first four candidates in the book, no stats are provided. We soon needed to know about their Stewardship and Chirurgery skills and only one of us was brave enough to create complete character sheets for their character’s wives. I would also have liked to know more about the glory prospective wives are worth, the number of manors they provide, what characters they have. I would have liked a table to generate appropriate wives, for example. That would have been a good solution. Quick to use at the table, too.
After a few sessions, players will start earning money with their manors. That, too, isn’t explained too well. We do opposed rolls of Bad Weather vs. Stewardship and figure out the resulting economic level of the knight’s lives, eg. “rich”. Now what? Does the character get £9? £8+1d4? Does the character get no money all but produce that can be spent but not saved? Can this money be used to build fortifications?
This brings me to another problem: Later in the game, people can learn the Siege skill. What happens with people in fortifications when the attacker has no Siege skill: Can they never take these fortifications? There are sadly very few example castles in the book. Do the saxons ever attack fortified manor houses? I guess they don’t. The fortifications also don’t protect against raiding saxons, right? So it just keeps your family safe?
The Winter Phase is too much book keeping.
As for the Campaign itself: Sometimes it feels very much like a railroad. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do. Sometimes the adventure ideas are great. I’m still undecided. I sort of like it, I just wish more years were as cool as some of them.
In short, I think there is a great game in Pendragon. The campaign is good but could be better; the rules are good but could be better. I have already decided that I won’t be buying any more books. I need less rules, not more. I feel like I’d have to write a little houserules document and use it to run my next campaign. I sometimes find it hard to believe that other people haven’t run into these things and that these issues haven’t been fixed. I hardly read the forums, however.
I’ll keep running it. I just wish somebody would write the house rules I think I need. If you had the same issues, let me know how you handled them.
Update: Excellent comments by Doyle Tavener on Google+.
This rule is part of my German house rules document, Halberds & Helmets. I just can’t remember the weird rule from the Basic D&D and Labyrinth Lord books. Inspired by skills in Apocalypse World I decided to use 2d6 and ideas by Erin Smale he left in a comment on a Google+ post of mine.
Chase: If you’re being chased, roll 2d6. On a 2, you’re surprised. On a 3–6, it’s a fight. On a 7–9, choose two points from the list. On a 10–11 choose one point. One a 12, you made it, no problem.
- you were separated
- it takes a long time
- you got lost
- you had to drop shields and backpacks
Optional modifiers. +1 for each of the following: if there are twice as many chasing you, if you have a faster movement rate, if there’s a thief in your party, if it rains, if it’s dark. -1 for each of the following: if there’s an elf or a ranger tracking you, if there are wounded party members with you, if there’s snow on the ground.
Only use the modifiers if you remember.
These days I read a lot less books than I used to. I read too much blogs on the topic of role-playing games, too much time spent on Google+, also on the topic of role-playing games, I skim this role-playing book and that PDF, and since I’m mostly interested in the Old School Renaissance of role-playing games—namely D&D from the nineteen eighties—I also feel like I ought to like the books recommended by one of the founding fathers of D&D, Gary Gygax in his Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. If you’re interested, you should check out the articles in Martin Ralya’s blog tagged Reading Appendix N.
These books are weird. Compared with the The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire or Malazan Book of the Fallen, these older books are short. There are sometimes short stories, collection of short stories, novellas, or little paperback books. All of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian fit into two books of typical size for these fantasy series.
A while back, I remembered how eagerly I read all those Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley and I decided to find them all second hand, in German, on Amazon, and buy them for Claudia. Every now and the she reads one of them, interspersed with some Steven Erickson and George R. R. Martin. We start talking and comparing. There are two aspects I like about these books:
Tolkien may have started this dreadful fashion of telling multiple stories at once. But in his case, at least each segment was long, very long. When I read George R. R. Martin, I feel like the author is suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Is every little segment ending on a cliff hanger? When I start noticing the literary devices, when I start to see the man behind the curtain, it doesn’t really work anymore. It starts to bore me. I start noticing that—like in Zeno’s paradox about Achilles being unable to overtake the turtle—as the number of segments increase, the time slot available decreases. As more stories are told in parallel, less actually happens. Plot is reduced to flashes and still images.
I am exaggerating, of course. In comparison with older books, however, I start to appreciate a tight plot, a unified vision, a drive forward. All the Conan stories stand on their own. They can be arranged in some sort of chronological order, but that’s not the important part. Similarly, the Darkover books can be read in any order. You get the occasional reward for regular readers. Older stories are referred to, but understanding this is strictly optional.
I was once again reminded of this when I read The Walrus and the Warwolf. It was published in Paizo’s Planet Stories line (now discontinued). I liked it very much. The book itself wasn’t short, but the chapters were short. The characterizations were short. Things happened. I felt that it incorporated not the best of literature, of language, of fancy words and synonyms and antonyms but it incorporated what is best in story telling. Keeping things short. Just enough words to let the reader’s imagination embellish it all without ever taking too long to read.
I’m hoping that I’ll like the other volumes in Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. I’ve ordered many of the volumes second hand, via Amazon. I also ordered the four books that got translated into German. Perhaps Claudia will enjoy them as well.