Monday, August 29, 2011

Gothic! Horror!

For the first time in Gods know when, I showed up early to my weekly AD&D game, only to find that one of our players had let it be known that he was not showing up with naught but a cryptic text message.

I can only assume that he has been kidnapped by ninjas, or some other unavoidable and terrible fate befell him.

But these things happen. Anyone who's played a pen and paper RPG more than twice knows that it is a miracle if all the players show up for three sessions in a row.

So what is the rest of the party to do?

Enter Ravenloft: The Book of Crypts.

Despite not actually containing any scenarios involving crypts, the Book of Crypts is an excellent little book for situations like last night. Most all the adventures contained therein can be completed in one or two sessions. Also, because all the adventures take place on the Demi-plane of Dread (well known for it's player snatching abilities), the players can go to sleep one night and wake to find themselves in Ravenloft, or simply be walking down a forest trail when the Mist rolls in. After the adventure is completed, the players can be just as easily transported back.
My players completed one of the shorter adventures in the book in under three hours, and seemed to enjoy doing so. Ravenloft adventures tend to be less combat driven and more "uncover the dark secret". I think it was a great change of pace compared to the endless waves of bugbears and evil priests that infest the Temple.
I've even got a plausible explanation for the quick trip to "the 'loft" as well, involving a discovery the cleric made in the crypts below the player's keep.
A discovery that I hope will speed their progress through the Temple. There are some great moments in the Temple, but it's been dragging on for months now. The endless combat in the Temple is not epic enough to be high fantasy, and not quick enough to be pulp fantasy. It's almost the same as if the player just went to a mine, and instead of swinging swords, swung pickaxes. They spend a lot of time underground under dangerous conditions, and return with wealth. Repeat.

I can't help but wonder if the drudgery I'm experiencing is my failing as a DM. Older modules like the TOEE don't hold your hand as far as story. It's more, "Here's a place, get on with it." Ravenloft is much the opposite, it's more, "Now this happens! Roll to see if you freak out and poop yourself!"
It's the difference between a sandbox and a choose-your-own-adventure book. I think both have their merits, and I enjoy both, but I think sandbox style gaming might require more from the DM, and perhaps I'm not delivering. The games I've run in the past have basically been, "I've constructed this narrative, here's a hook to get you involved." My past games have been very story driven. So much so that I handed out levels as they were needed and ignored experience points completely.

...which in part is why I think hell is a place where I'm surrounded by players who constantly ask "Do I level?" as if it was the most important thing in the world.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

On character creation and party formation

Character creation is that essential and oft times maligned part of RPG's where I find that the designs of the DM and players tend to run perpendicular.
As a DM, I've learned to never start planning an adventure until all the characters have been rolled up and finalized and to be present at the creation of all the characters.
I've come to believe that as a DM, it's part of my responsibility to craft an adventure with my player's characters in mind. While I never tailor create an adventure to the characters, I try to create scenarios where no one feels useless, and everyone can feel important. The idea is for your players to have a good time, and more often than not, happy players mean a happy DM.

My two biggest gripes as a DM about character creation are min/maxing and the question, "What does the party need?"
Min/maxing is the bane of role playing. When you pour all your energy into making sure your character is the strongest, most powerful creation possible, you're missing the point of creating a character, and perhaps, the game. You should strive to create a character that you enjoy playing, not the one with the best stats. How powerful your character is has little to do with how enjoyable the character is to play.
My second biggest grip during character creation is when a player asks, "What does the party need?"
The party needs your character! Whatever class or race you choose should be up to you and you alone. There are no healers in the party? So what? If you don't want to play a healer, then please don't. It is way more important to the over-all enjoyability of the game that each player really like playing his or her character. The game is not about being the most effective "squad", it's about pretending to be someone else with your friends who are doing the same.
When you come at a game like D&D the same way you come at a video game, you rob yourself of the fullness of the experience. If you're a clever player and you have a decent DM, you have almost unlimited freedom to create whatever characters and scenarios you want. A party of nothing but fighters can almost certainly overcome any situation thrown at them.
Ingenuity, skill, and grit can overcome any obstacle, regardless of what classes make up your party.

...and if all else fails, gold works too.

A player should never feel obligated to choose a certain type of character based on what everyone else is playing. I recommend that each player get with the DM and roll up their characters separate from the other players and by all means keep it secret. That first session when everyone meets each other should be nothing, if not memorable.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Meepo, by any other name

Alas, poor Meepo, I murdered him well.

One of my first, if not my first, Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition campaigns (in which I was a player) was a module. I was playing a lusty spearman, rash and ready to fight. The first monster we encountered was a lone kobold, shivering beneath a blanket at the entrance to some caves, or perhaps it was  a ruin of some sort, I don't recall which. Spoiling for combat, I speared the poor creature, and threw him over my shoulder like a farmer pitching hay.
The first half of the dungeon was more of this. Room after room of kobolds felt the taste of my spear, until we finally encountered the shamanic leader of the creatures. She just happened to speak common and informed us that these particular kobolds were peaceful, but had been fighting a war with the goblins who occupied the ruins farther in.
She also gave us the name of that first kobold, who I unceremoniously annihilated, Meepo. Meepo also spoke common, and had I not snuffed him with extreme prejudice, would have informed us of the plight of his people, and pleaded for our help against the goblin horde.
Stricken with guilt, I swore to the kobold leader that I would set right the wrongs I had perpetrated. As our party had decimated the kobold's forces, we vowed that we would expunge the goblins from their midst.

So we killed them all. Every goblin. The men, the women, and children. Some were slaughtered in their beds. When we came upon the goblin warrens, I found it easier to just set the whole place ablaze rather than have to go searching through its myriad of tunnels.

Our vow fulfilled, we left. On that day, my lawful good warrior learned three lessons. Two wrongs do not make a right, honor is a harsh mistress, and, if possible, speak to your enemy before you shove your spear through his chest. Still, my warrior carried the guilt of his actions for the rest of his days.

Almost every adventure should leave scars on your characters, most physical, some mental. Talk to a veteran of any war and they'll tell you about the pride and glory of combat, but they may also tell you about the horror and insanity of conflict.

Even if your current adventure is not a war, there will likely be bloodshed. And while the leader of the opposing force may be a megalomaniac, odds are, most of his troops are not. Be they bandits, drow, orcs, goblins, or anything else sentient, I believe it is the duty of a good DM to make sure that the players realize that they are not only killing enemies, they are also killing husbands, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers.
There always two sides to every story. Too often in RPG's are we only presented with the heroes tale and never stop to ponder the fate of his enemies.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Saltwater Madness

This past Sunday was the due date for my player's homework. I had assigned them all a little writing project: basic background on their character. The results were pretty awesome, and the players responded positively. In addition to making the players think about their characters, it also made me think about them, and I now know them better than just "gnome rogue, gnome cleric, human dude, elf shubalub, etch".

There was one snag, however. The Temple of Elemental Evil is set in the world of Greyhawk. My players, however, are not playing in Greyhawk. I apparently did not make this clear to them. Therefore, all their histories make references to Greyhawk locals, political systems, and people. There be some retconning in the future.
I think I'm going to have to take some time and write up a little primer to my campaign world, along with a map, and pass it out to my players. Something I should have done at the start.

My newest player decided he wanted to switch characters, and had a warrior already rolled up, so I hit his old one with a DM's Fireball and promptly inserted his new one. It was about as inelegant as it gets, and I really should have had something more interesting befall that character, but I wanted to work the new one into the game as quickly as possible and wasn't feeling particularly clever.

I'm happy to report that the rule of "what comes out of your mouth comes out of your character's mouth" worked splendidly. It kept the game waaaay more focused and got the characters, not the players, actually talking to each other, to my great delight. Made the game a thousand more times enjoyable, to me at least.

Anyway, game report time. The group is currently on the second level of the TOEE, having recently ransacked the Air Temple and blundered into the Water Temple. They killed two priests, rescued a kidnapped warrior, caught the head priest unawares (and promptly murdered him), had a bit of a row with an inter-dimensional, telepathic acid pond creature, and then there was the Trident incident.
Among the recently murdered head priests possessions are 1. Cloak of the Manta Ray - which polymorphs the wearer into a manta ray upon entering seawater and 2. Trident of Yearning - a cursed weapon that gives it's bearer an uncontrollable urge to submerse himself in water, also the wielder of the trident cannot bear the thought of not holding the trident. Only a water breathing spell while submerged or a wish spell will break the curse.
During the looting process, the hobbit bard immediately seized the trident, and then sprinted screaming for the altar basin in the front of the temple that contained seawater. When the party caught up with him, they found him happily drowning. After several smackings, wackings, bodyslams, and finally the cleric spell Command: Sleep, the gnomish cleric finally wrenched the trident away from him, only to fall victim to the cursed trident's effects himself and promptly jump in the altar basin. Luckily for him, he was wearing the Cloak of the Manta Ray. As manta rays have no hands, he let go of the trident, and as the cloak grants water breathing, as per a manta ray, the curse was broken.

Shortly thereafter, the party made its way back to the surface via a newly discovered short cut, and called it a night.

One of my new favorite things is filling out the details of the party's keep. I've been making NPC's for the party's servants, and as the need has arisen, the party has sent out servants to bring back specialized persons to fulfill roles in the day to day running of the castle. The current Master of the keep is an ex-pirate named Leonard whom they saved from captivity in the Temple. Besides random household servants, they have a master steward named Gangles, who I imagine resembles Marty Feldman, and a "town crier" who is a random child.

They also have three potential master-at-arms candidates, an accountant, and a sage on the way. Pretty soon, they'll have a proper castle town.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Shambling Cosmic Horror

Tomorrow is H.P. Lovecraft's birthday, were he alive today, he would be impossibly old.

To confess, I've never been a huge fan of his works, indeed I could only choke down about half of At The Mountains of Madness. I wish I had discovered his work earlier in life, when I was more apt to slog through thicker language.

However, I really enjoy the mythology, lore, and mystique that surrounds his body of work.

I've been looking over the 5th edition of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu game today, something I've always been curious about, but never played. The rules seem a bit obtuse to my eyes, and if I were to play a game, I'd like to do it with an experienced group of players, or at least an experienced "Keeper". I think one of my players, who is a fine DM in his own right, owns a copy of the D20 system version of the game and that might make for a welcome distraction after we finish our current D&D adventure.
Despite my disdain for the D20 system, which I might get into at a later date, I'm more than happy to be a player in it. To quote Heat, "For me, the action is the juice." Rules be damned.
So long as I'm enjoying myself, it really doesn't matter to me what the rules are. I'm in it for the action, which is not to say combat. What I mean to say is that I enjoy pretending to be someone else in a fictitious scenario with my friends who are also pretending to be someone else. Pure escapism, that's the ticket. Exploring fantastic scenarios, be they based on medieval Europe, an imagined future, or a version of the 1920's where mind-shattering horrors are released from the not-space between dimensions in a perverse mockery of live birth, is a welcome and healthy distraction from the very real horrors of mundane existence; something I think that Lovecraft understood, and approved of.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Borrowing (stealing, pick pockets 85%) ideas

I'm a huge fan of James Maliszewski's Grognardia. It's a blog ostensibly about old school pen and paper RPGs. And while I've never played any form of D&D older than AD&D, but reading Jame's blog sometimes makes me wanna give it a shot.

Anyway, recently James attended an old school convention and in addition to running two games of his own campaign setting, he also played some AD&D. I'll now quote directly from James' blog:

Before we began, Ed had two rules for us. First was a purely practical one: don't split the party. Second: anything that came out of our mouths came out of our character's mouths, unless it was something obviously rule-related, like "I rolled 15." These rules were fine by me, even the second one, which had the effect of both limiting unnecessary chatter and ensuring that everyone involved made at least a minimal effort to roleplay. I've never seen the need to adopt anything like Ed's second rule and my experiences refereeing Dwimmermount at OSRCon only confirmed me in that opinion, but I don't begrudge him the rule. I'm sure it's one that arose after many years of running con adventures.
 In theory, I'm a great fan of both rules, the second more so than the first.
There's a tendency with players not used to heavy roleplaying (and even some veterans, I myself am guilty of this, to my eternal shame) to utter the words, "My character says X" Where X is dialogue best actually spoken by the player while "in character".
As a player, part of the fun should be acting like someone else and as a player, you cheat yourself every time you treat dialogue as a mechanic instead of a special part of the game. As a game, pen and paper RPG's are one of the few games involving dialogue where you don't have choices made for you.
Take for example the Mass Effect series (of which I am a HUGE fan). It's a dramatic space opera wherein you assume the role of a space marine badass. I'd say that about half the game consists of dialogue between characters, but at most you have six dialogue options.


In D&D, when the local barback asks you about your adventures, you have unlimited options. When you respond to his question with, "I tell the barback of my adventures." The barback's standard reply will likely be based on his feeling towards adventure and adventurers. However, should you roleplay out the retelling of your latest foray into the kobold tunnels, you can make yours  sympathetic tale, or boast loud and long of your heroic deeds, give an honest account, tell a bold-faced lie, or be coy, or whatever else you can think of.

Not only does in-character dialogue provide a way for you to take control of a situation, but it also makes the game more fun and enjoyable for everyone. Some of my most memorable moments in gaming have been interaction between players and NPCs that didn't involve a single dice roll, but simple dialogue.

The next session I DM, I'll be offering my players a 10% experience bonus if they keep strictly in character.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

And so here we are...

This.... this is, I suppose, my blog.

Well, then, the next question I guess you would have is, "Who are you?"

At the time of this writing, I'm a 26 year old Oklahoma boy who has spent the last ten years playing pen and paper roleplaying games.
Principally, my game of choice is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. It's the game I started playing back in 1998 or 1999, and it's the game I've most loved. I've also played Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 and a slue of other D20 system games. I've dabbled in Vampires of the Masquerade, Rifts, Traveller, Weird West, and a couple of homebrew systems.

I'm currently DMing an ADnD game and sending my players through The Temple of Elemental Evil. I'd say that they're a little more than halfway through at this point. I'll use their exploits in the Temple as blog fodder for when I'm not ranting about my views on roleplaying and roleplaying games in general.

I've found that The TOEE is a poor setting to foster roleplaying, at least with this group. I fear that our game sessions have become "what's behind this door? oh, good, more monsters". In a group a seasoned roleplayers, I could see the scenario being much different. The temple is very much a stressful situation, and could inspire a varied range of emotional responses in the characters. I think it's a shame that my players are using their characters more as a collection of bonuses and combat statistics to try and best each room. They seem relatively uninterested in the story behind the dungeon, and I am now actively exploring ways to speed the adventure along.

I'm not without fault though, I didn't supervise character creation, and so some characters have been superbly min/maxed. For instance, I have a human ranger, raised by humans, traveling with humans, whose species enemies are, you guessed it, humans. I know the player made the choice simply because he figured he'd be facing a lot of humans in combat.

I'm not saying that a human that hates humans shouldn't be allowed, but there should be more reason behind it than a combat bonus. The reason he hates a particular species should come first, the bonus is just that, a bonus - icing on the cake.

Pursuant to trying to inject some life and pathos into my campaign, I've assigned my players homework. I asked them for the full names of their characters, and all their characters extended family. I wanted to know their back stories and what their characters were doing for a full year before they started adventuring. I also wanted an explanation for each skill, proficiency (both weapon and non-weapon), language, and ability they possessed.

My goal is to urge them into thinking about why they have this skill or that bonus, not just know they have it. The "why" is the most important thing, I think. It's what sets games like DnD apart from games like Monopoly.

When I rolled my first character, I decided that I wanted him to know how to speak elven as well as the common tongue.
"Why?" My DM asked me. I faltered. I was allowed to know elven, the rules said so. "Yes, by why?" my DM asked me. The question wasn't "Why would you want your character to know elven?" but "Why does your character know elven?"
As in real life, new languages don't spring unbidden into one's head. I had to add a paragraph to my character's history about how he traveled to elvish lands, which is far more interesting than "I know elven because this book says it's OK for me to know elven."