A Cool Thing Happened in my D&D Session

edited February 2012 in Actual Play
For some reason I'm feeling like sharing a bit about tonight's D&D session.

As has been discussed previously, our campaign is a strictly module-based (something like 90% of the content is direct or spin-off module content) sandbox. We've been playing through the Skull Mountain over the last few sessions. This has been a transformative time for the campaign, as after after over 50 sessions the players have slowly gained a foothold on middle-levels, with two characters now approaching 5th level. This adventure has been where the players have finally figured out that they're not 1st level anymore: the main fighter runs his own mercenary company, going to the dungeon with 60 henchmen, that sort of thing. I'm trying hard to kill off the headliners to see if I might turn back the clock a bit - it'd be interesting to see whether the players might lose the perspective they've been gaining on the setting and campaign issues if they were suddenly dropped in power and resources back down to starting levels.

Anyway, one of the memorable bits in Skull Mountain (should be pretty obvious that this is going to feature spoilers, for those who care) is a huge stalactite the adventurers get a chance to traverse via stairs built in a spiral down its entire length from the top to the tip. Unknown to the adventurers, there's a lizard man outpost down below the stalactite. It's about 150 feet from the bottom tip of the stalactite to the ground floor - this is a big fucking cave. The adventuring party approaches the place carefully and with just a few henchmen in tow, as they've suffered heavy losses in the upper floors, and already failed once in saving the son of a local nobleman, who they're supposedly trying to rescue among other things. The party has so far been successful with secondary goals (like dealing with a spin-off villain riding a gargantuan bat, courtesy of The Screaming Temple, another adventure), but as their excessive use of military tactics lost them the first encounter regarding the captive hostage, they're now keen to hurry down to the unknown lizardman-land below the evil cult shrine of the Skull Mountain. Less leading entire fire-teams down parallel corridors and more a quick commando strike with the elite of the force - namely, the player characters.

The lizard-men, again unknown to the poor adventurers, have a catapult set up on a cliff near the stalactite. They also have a convenient bright light source set up on the stairs, meaning that the catapult crew can see the descending adventurers when they pass the light. What's worse, the lizardmen are thoroughly alerted by their retreating allies, so they're just waiting on the trigger. As the moment comes, the catapult's launch noise is practically drowned by the noises of the subterrene, and the voices of the adventurers themselves. The players have been fortunate in this session, but I finally roll a decent 18, and the catapult knows its target: it hits directly in the middle of the party with a considerably large rock, the biggest the lizardmen have; what's better, randomization indicates that it strikes squarely at Hans Krüger, a 4th level Fighter and the definite spearhead of the players' attempt at establishing themselves as important movers and shakers in the campaign world!

A flurry of mechanical procedures follows, and we establish that Hans Krüger has officially graduated to Hollywood levels: the large stone from the catapult strikes the plate-clad man but a glancing blow due to his quick reactions, and although the stairs under half of the party crumble as the stalactite shakes from the hit, Hans manages to not only drag himself up from a cliffhanger, but one of his poor mercenaries as well. Another player character falls to his death (a 1st level goon, thin gruel for the GM), and the rest are considerably spooked; Hans Krüger, who hasn't tasted death like this for something like ten sessions, survives to lead his men another day.

The party looks at the few feet of stair that have crumbled, and they look at the lights the lizardmen have lit down below to reload their catapult. The players don't know that they just got the biggest rock the lizardmen had readied; they don't need to know, as they just decided that OK, perhaps they don't need to descent this way after all. A quick retreat follows, as the adventurers decide to abandon their mission and the poor hostage boy, who'll surely be fed to a dragon by the dragonic lizardmen cult; better to fail than taste mortality, for they know beyond doubt that this game is played for the highest stakes the fictional setting has to offer.

That is all, except to say that this was just one of about three high points this session. That's been pretty average amount of awesome for us in the late sessions - reviewing my notes, about two sessions among the last ten have been slower set-up and logistics, while the rest of the time the players have been busy discovering what it means to be mid-level by acting like action movie heroes. They've yet to discover how to keep the lower-level characters alive in the process, but maybe that'll follow at some point, too.
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Comments

  • Great stuff, Eero. I really enjoy your D&D tales.
  • Thanks. I'd like to write more about our campaign (been thinking about an article series or a book), but my prior game design commitments have tangled me into a tragic knot unable to commit the time for anything serious. Maybe in the fall.
  • In our recent high level (lvl 23-28) AD&D game, we've been investigating corruption in the Interstitial Guild, who run the teleport network. We found out that interstitial is actually a place, or more a non-place, through which teleports travel down big conduits. The guild has booths with established links, whereas mages have to create a tube each time the cast the spell. Nothing can exist in the interstate, things that stay there for long just fade from existence, it is a non-place. Except we've found a city there. So we travel there using various spells and arrive as close as possible. So now we're in the interstate and fading from existence, we all make our wisdom checks, except one of us who starts to fade. So we haul out the pearls he gave us, which protect us from the wild surges in his magic, which give credence to his existence, he again fails a check. I cast teleport on the group and we are shot forwards to the membrane surrounding the city. Our friend tries to move and fails his check again (against 17 Wisdom). He starts to lose levels. 'I'm not even writing that down,' he says, as a thin mantra against disintegration. He tries to cast a spell, but can't believe in himself failing another check. We cast a spell which allows him to roll again. He makes his check, and then another, he's through the membrane and safe. Phew.
  • Tangent: Losing levels in D&D is one of things that I detest the most. It's a game mechanic for marginalizing a player. Just say no.
  • Very good read!

    zircher: my theory is that level drain is there to make some monsters scary because losing hitpoints doesn't sting till you're all out but every touch by a wraith literally undoes a great deal of effort. I wonder if there could be some other damage mechanic where each hit hurts as much. Poison is also scary but if you make your save you're fine so it's scary up till the point you make the save. Maybe a monster that hits you in the girlfriend and damage done literally hurts the person the DM thinks means most to the character or permanently drains ability scores (I think several drain ability scores but they return with time).
  • edited February 2012
    Krippler: I don't know about hurting as much as level drain, but Star Wars Saga Edition had a condition track which gave you penalties (-1, -2, -5) to most rolls as you progressed along it. That would immediately hurt without the math headache of trying to level backwards each time a vampire hugs you. It doesn't have the permanent effect of having your Strength drained or being punched in the husband, though.
  • Eero,

    This sounds like a really interesting moment in play. What kind of rules came into play when deciding whether the character, for instance, managed to hold on to the rocks and drag a henchman up with him? Was this a moment of pure luck, or did it have to do with player skill and/or character abilities? (In most OSR-style D&D versions, I'd imagine character level/ability would have fairly little to do with the resolution of this situation, but your write-up implies that in your game it does.)

    Second, I'd love to hear about the fictional setup of this game. Who are "heroes" in your game, and what motivates them to climb into various dungeons (presumably, as drawn from the modules you're running)? What justifies the existence of dungeons and similar "adventure locales" in your game?

    Thanks for the write-up!
  • Seth Ben-Ezra's game Showdown included a really cool mechanic where losing certain rolls meant that your opponent could damage your character concept. Your brave warrior is revealed to be a coward play-acting as a hero! That hurts, for sure. And it creates a neat effect where your character concept *is* your "hit points".
  • Level drain is a most enticing idea, and I am fully in support of it in D&D. This is because I have never seen arguments against it that did not rely on the idea that a player's fun in the game is dependent on smooth character progression; I think that D&D is at its most healthy when players are not entitled to in-game security like eg. certainty of character wellfare of any sort, including experience point gain. This is sort of a creative point of focus for me because the very reason for why I'm currently so interested in D&D is because of the irreverent, radical way it approaches the responsibilities of the player and GM: there pretty much are no other paradigms where players are as responsible for the consequences of their characters' actions as in that of D&D. Refuting level drain would for me personally be the same as admitting that D&D is about accumulating xp first and every possible reason to get level drained second.

    That being said, I do two types of level drain in my game: one is where you lose a part of your experience points, but do not lose your experience level. The other is where you lose your level, but do not lose your experience points. (Characters only level up at most once per session, and always at the end of a session, so losing eg. three levels in the latter way means that you'll presumably get back up to the level indicated by your current xp total in three sessions of play.) Having both happen at the same time would "simulate" the traditional level drain, but because these two happen for slightly different reasons, I don't foresee such a combination as very likely. You can lose experience points by "wagering" them in certain metaphysical situations, the most famous of which is paladinhood: a falling paladin loses half of his xp total. Appropriate situations for using this mechanic are always situations where the player himself decides to take the risk; taking away xp unilaterally isn't compatible with the system meaning of experience points. Experience level drain, on the other hand, would be a more traditional "this monster leaches out life energy by touching you" type of situation, although of a slightly different flavour than say constitution damage, which I also have in my toolbox.

    Also, the most important xp drain of all is death: your character dies, and unless you've been running several, you'll be coming back with a fresh 1st level character at zero experience points. I've written before about the triad of balance in D&D between permanent death, character retirement and starting new characters at 1st level: I feature all of these specifically because I want to avoid a focus on character builds, a focus on princess play and a focus on infinite development of a single character in a masturbatory cycle. In the context of this campaign philosophy level drain makes perfect sense, it's sort of like a setback for this one character, but not as bad as death.

    I should note that I am fully aware of the possibility that this is not a long-term maintainable interpretation of the D&D method. For example, we've been speculating among the group about how historically D&D became limp-wristed on the above points: it's easy to understand how a campaign might break like a dry twig when and if one or more important first-line player characters happened to die, at least if it is true that D&D in campaign mode entices players primarily by enabling an ever-deepening character depiction. (If D&D's campaign appeal is not in getting to make your character ever better, as our campaign currently assumes, then it shouldn't matter for the fun even if your favourite character dies.) This fear of campaign death gives great incentive for things like resurrection magic, starting PCs on higher levels and all those things that our current methodology sees as corruptions of the pure form - the GM doesn't want the campaign to die, so when a player whose 8th level character just died is in danger of losing interest, he allows the player to recover via resurrection or by giving him another high-level character to replace the dead one. We're intentionally uncaring of this possibility of campaign death: if we find that we don't want to play anymore once our current star PCs die, then we'll just stop and play something else. This campaign has been remarkably long already anyway, so we'd rather see it through to the end instead of compromising the logic.
  • Posted By: Paul T.This sounds like a really interesting moment in play. What kind of rules came into play when deciding whether the character, for instance, managed to hold on to the rocks and drag a henchman up with him? Was this a moment of pure luck, or did it have to do with player skill and/or character abilities? (In most OSR-style D&D versions, I'd imagine character level/ability would have fairly little to do with the resolution of this situation, but your write-up implies that in your game it does.)
    This is going to be theory-heavy:

    The process is what I would in theory terms call organic short-loop task-focused conflict resolution with a variety of techniques: we look at the facts established on the fictional positioning of the various elements in play, and then resolve their interactions in logical sequence. This is actually a pretty complex thing, while also I am certain that many people have used the same or similar methodology themselves - this is not a rare thing at all. Describing everything that goes into it would be an essay, so I'll just touch on the high points; you'll surely figure out the rest by recognizing it from your own play.

    When do we draw on resolution methodology? It's not simply when stakes are present, but rather it's part of the general method of play that the GM maintains a certain purity of thought and action in how he verifies action and brings it as facts into the fiction: the GM's hygiene limitations state that he can't just choose when to resolve things arbitrarily and when to use established resolution methodology. Rather, when a player states an action or the GM decides that a non-player entity acts in the fiction, the action is evaluated via the resolution system, and the GM declares any necessary overt steps. (Some of the resolution subsystems are non-mechanical or even trivial, so not all things need to go to the dice.) The other players have overview authority, so they can ask if the GM remembered to do the procedures on surprising things. For example, if I didn't roll the dice about where a catapult shot falls, the players might ask me about it. Or when a lava-breathing golem tried to fry the PCs in the last session, I got to explain to the players that in D&D breath weapons don't need to-hit checks, but rather saving rolls from the victims.

    How do we resolve things? This depends greatly on the current play modality, meaning the purpose of the current topic. For example, when we're just negotiating on the next adventure to be had, we're clearly in the logistical mode, during which the GM generally doesn't roll for random encounters, and won't force difficult choices on the players: the point is that the adventurers are within the enclosures of the safe civilization, and the GM needs to entice them out into the wilds with a fairly negotiated adventure scheme - the players have the freedom to refuse terms they find unappealing.

    Assuming that we're in full adventuring mode, though, we will be rolling dice or declaring actions on the basis of fictional positioning, meaning the established nature and state of the fictional elements like player characters. Establishing fictional positioning is an entire stage of resolution by itself, as it'll often determine whether we even have anything to resolve. For this we have five basic heuristics, used in this order:
    1. If it's obvious, then it's established. Obvious is when the group doesn't want to imagine things the other way. For example, did my character really forget to bring any sort of light source at all to the dungeon? I don't think so, a normal human being would remember it at the entrance if not before, obviously he hasn't travelled to the third room of the complex in pitch blackness.
    2. If anybody said something before and it didn't get challenged, it'll stand: I said that my character is bringing flasks of oil, or I wrote it down into my inventory in the ordinary inventory-writing phase of the game, so that's that.
    3. If a matter was not established in advance, but there is reason to believe that the various actors in the fiction (characters, that is) would have done something about it, we often make a quick Wits check or similar to establish things either way. For example, did my character really forget to bring the big pavise shields to the dungeon? It's conceivable that he didn't realize that they'd be needed, but we find it likely that he would have done it, so we'll break the uncertainty by giving him a Wits check.
    4. If the matter is not important, we can establish it arbitrarily even retroactively. For example, the GM declares an ambush and we suddenly notice that we haven't declared a marching order. I, acting as GM, often allow the players to set their marching order right now, despite the fact that they know about the ambush now. This is my pregorative, just like the players can allow me to make retroactive arrangements to improve a scenario we've run to the ground in some way.
    5. If the fictional positioning is truly unknown and important, we often randomize it. For example, is an enemy that is present 50% of the time currently in the room when the adventuring party arrives? We roll for it. This method is actually used a lot due to the GM hygiene principles mentioned above: I try to establish things without bringing in my own preconceptions, enabling situations to arise naturally, so I use a random check for a multitude of fictional positioning tasks. I don't say "there are six bandits", but rather "there are... 2d6 bandits, seems to be... six bandits".
    Once we have a fiction with clear positioning, we can do resolution. This is basically a quick loop of task resolutions that utilize a rich variation off a base universal dicing system. It's an art that we find pleasurable by itself when we utilize it well, throwing out numbers and processing them quicky and effortlessly. (I read often about how people like OSR games because they're not as math-heavy. This is not the case with our group, we appreciate chart-light play and don't have difficulties with instant addition or substraction of two-digit numbers.) Individual checks can easily be pro forma because the necessity for resolution is evaluated on fictional basis instead of stakes analysis: for example, we always roll for searching secret doors/traps/anything, whether there's any stakes to it or not - it's just part of the method, we don't even think about whether it's needed or not. When situations grow more serious, like in our catapult situation, we often slow down a bit and negotiate the details of individual steps more carefully to ensure that everybody's happy with our suicide pact (ironic name for what D&D really is: we're constantly negotiating the terms under which a player will accept that his character'll die if he rolls a '1').

    The individual resolution moments are either task resolutions or fictional positioning randomizations, following each other in quick sequence. Their scope is determined by fictional precedent: one attack check represent about a minute's worth of fighting, or whatever a player gets inspired to describe, for example. When situations grow too complex to resolve elegantly, we shift gears quickly and utilize more abstracted methods, drawing on our mechanical toolbox for solutions. For example, when we have more than half a dozen NPC combatants fighting on the player side, we often negotiate an abstract outcome come their turn: for example, 1d6 henchmen have a 50% chance of falling (technical term, means either a serious injury or death, to be determined after the battle) now in exchange for an extra attack roll for the troop champion against the monster right away. Whatever pleases us regarding the colorful nuances of the situation and established precedent, and the players can suggest resolution subgames as well as the GM.
  • ´In this particular situation these were the resolution steps as I remember them (probably about 80% correct?):
    • We had an established fiction with some fictional positioning: the adventuring party were descending the stairs, and had just encountered a desperate last human cultist who was tasked to stop them by the lizardmen. They argued about their marching order, as all were afraid of encountering more fanatics keen to push the first guy off the stairs. After resolving that I affirmed that the party had a lantern, who was going first, and that they'd be passing the large, mysterious brazier set in an alcove next to the stairs.
    • Once the above had been established, I knew that the catapult attack would happen because I'd established in advance to myself that the lizardmen were warned, specifically knew to expect the adventurers and thus had a four-lizard crew up on the top of the hill, ready to operate the catapult. I knew that the catapult was there specifically for this purpose, as was the brazier on the stairs, so the lizardman tactics were clear: they were merely waiting to see the party on the stairs, clearly illuminated, to open fire. Other lizardmen would be on the bottom of the stairs eg. in case the adventurers would continue down. The lizardmen were taking the assault seriously because they knew from prior skirmish that the humans had several dozens of mercenaries in the dungeon.
    • I declared to the players that we had a pretty serious situation at our hands, so let's take this carefully. A Perception check was asked for at a high difficulty, which I didn't reveal. One of the players got partial success, so I told him that he heard something (the something being the catapult launch), but described the sound so vaguely that it was impossible to know what it was. This might seem pointless, and I did not have an intent behind this step when we played: it's just part of the process to ask for a Perception check whenever something is there to be perceived. In hindsight I can say that the players well could have chosen an aggressive reaction by eg. running up the stairs in the scant seconds it took for the attack to hit after the launch; a more paranoid/skilled party would probably have done something when hearing a mysterious sound instead of just shrugging about it, even if their initial action would prove unnecessary. Better to do something than nothing is one of those D&D dictums, I've found - one of the simple basics that differentiate between highly skilled and lowly skilled D&D play.
    • We had a beat for the players to do something, but as they didn't, I rolled my attack check for the catapult crew. I had to make some arbitrary decisions here, but because the resolution procedures don't like layering infinite small resolutions, I decided to simplify and made some conservative estimates about things like distance, how difficult it is to hit exactly with a catapult, etc. (I chose to have the attacker bonus at +10, which would be equivalent of basic competence with nothing more, and attack difficulty at 20, which is a basic target - the lizardmen presumably are prepared to hit this specific place.) I rolled an '18' for a total result of 28, which was a second-order success: not only did the catapult shot hit in the general vicinity, but it actually hit "point blank", which I interpreted with an inherently inexact weapon to mean a possibility for a direct hit on somebody.
    • With that established, we did a short series of positioning affirmations: I asked for a 50/50 to determine whether the stone really would hit somebody, or if it'd just strike in between two adventurers or just above or below or whatever. Once we knew that it'd really hit somebody, I asked the players to randomize the target. Peitsa rolled Sipi's character Hans Krüger as the poor guy. There was a short confusion as Peitsa noticed that they hadn't updated the marching order record to indicate that Hans was actually at the end of the line at this time, and thus number '3' should actually be one of the henchmen, but I corrected that rolled results stand, as the actual marching order did not in fact influence this result - it was purely random, so rolling it off the old marching order didn't matter. No fuzz, simple logic, moving on.
    • Once we knew that the stone would hit Hans point blank, I had Sipi roll damage according to module text, which was 3d6. (His armor class did not contribute to the situation because the rock was a total surprise for the party, and an attack check had already been rolled to establish the hit in a roundabout way.) I also had the players roll 50/50 to find out whether the stairs would withstand the strike, and as the rock was pretty large (as I visualized it) and caused the stairs to tremble, I also asked for balance checks from everybody - at difficulty 25 for Hans and those immediately next to Hans, and 20 for everybody else. Such checks are traditionally 50/50 for henchmen to speed up things. We had also earlier established that a failure of mere one step only indicates a cliffhanger situation (being left hanging halfway over the edge), because we found this funny and appropriate stylistically. Still, rolling under 15, difficult as it is for most characters, would be a clean fall and a presumable quick death.
    • We established that the stairs actually broke apart locally where the rock struck, and we also found out that poor Revenge XI (a long line of perpetually dying player characters is involved here) missed his check, falling to his death, as did one of the henchmen. The others succeeded, except a henchman who ended up cliffhangering. Hans is tough, so he survived the direct hit from the catapult by virtue of hit point score - I described this as a glancing blow on a man known for his high-wired instincts for danger. It was also significant that Sipi rolled a '20' for Hans in his balance check, which always explodes at our table. In conjunction with his high Stamina (combined physical attributes, we only use the one) this gave him a ludicrous result of over 50 points.
    • Individual ability checks are handled at our table with a certain formalism (meaning, the fictional reality is aggressively shaped to accord with the check results, instead of ignoring mechanics that contraindicate the fiction): there are base difficulties for checks, and results over that end up with "extra success" that can be spent by the player in logical consequences, resolving more or less than was initially suggested by the check. This is a necessary counterbalance to the organic principle, which states that all events are resolved independently and nobody ever has "narrative" power. In this case Hans Krüger was clearly on fire insofar as action hero acrobatics went, so he managed to save not only himself from the fall, but also one of the henchmen who was going to fall. Both ended up on the upper side of the resulting hole in the stairs. It's notable that what Hans got was a result that would have "bought" more bang from our conflict resolution shop if it weren't for the fact that the initial check was made on the definitely limited issue of how Hans would handle the crumbling stair and his danger of falling. A 50 is a "heroic" result, meaning that it indicates a level of performance that does not happen outside player character antics. It was also 30 points over what was required, for a total of six "extra successes". As a comparison, four extra successes on an attack check one-shots pretty much anything, or at least ignores hit points, the primary defensive "layer" a character has in a fight.
    • After all this we affirmed that several feet of stair had crumbled, and the majority of the party was on the lower side (because Hans was at the end of the marching order to begin with, as established above). Sipi declared that he thought that they should retreat immediately, and the others concurred with surprisingly little argument. (I tend to give players more time for tactical deliberation than their characters would have, but I do have the option to have time progress in the fiction meanwhile when I feel like it.) The players described to me how they were handling the crossing of the fallen stair section, and I told them that it'd be a difficulty 20 crossing with the consequence of falling at a bad enough (<15) failure. Peitsa's character with his full plate mail was at -5 for this check, which was exciting to us because we've been talking about remembering to do armor penalties more consistently, and this was the first time in a long, long time that a heavy armor was seriously dangerous for a character. Peitsa used the magical blessing of Samson's Strength (a staple for his clerical character) to improve his chances, though, and everybody crossed safely.</li>
    • When the party started back up the stairs I asked for perception checks to see if they spotted the ligths down below where the lizardmen lit them up to reload the catapult more efficiently. (I'd decided at some point that lizardmen need light, but less so than humans.) This, again, did not have any immediate consequence, but as I've emphasized, the method necessarily indicates that I need to give players information and let them decide what's important and what isn't.
    • All of the above took maybe 15 minutes of playtime to resolve? Difficult to say when you're having fun. It seems complex, but that's just because it seems difficult to follow the flow of logic in hindsight. Because we were not following a checklist when doing this, it was quick and natural for us - no need to remember which "step" you're resolving at the moment, as long as you have the fictive situation at hand and can always query it to find out what needs to be resolved next.
    I hope that clarified something. I definitely admit that this is a hugely complex subject, and I do not wonder for a second that the history of rpg discourse is full of simplifying treatises on what, exactly, happens in the D&D resolution interaction. I maintain that it's a consensual conflict resolution system that the participants understand in practice and find both easy and organic to use, despite how difficult it is to describe comprehensively.
  • Posted By: Paul T.Second, I'd love to hear about the fictional setup of this game. Who are "heroes" in your game, and what motivates them to climb into various dungeons (presumably, as drawn from the modules you're running)? What justifies the existence of dungeons and similar "adventure locales" in your game?
    The campaign setting is created as needed by myself. The general aesthetic is what I can only call "European traditional" fantasy, even as I know that somebody will find this description objectionable. What I mean by the term, though, is a fantasy aesthetic where magical and supernatural things are not generally acknowledged part of the worldview except in a religious context, non-human creatures insofar as they exist are thought of as something that is far away or long ago, and the grand historical narrative concerns kingdoms and states, with heroic narratives providing political and religious McGuffins for those in power. The way I generate and depict the setting is simply that for any given question I look at my understanding of 14th-17th century European history of a corresponding locale, and act accordingly. For example, the "Fantasy Holland" is just like the Netherlands in 16th-17th century except for geography and specific personages, while "Fantasy Bavaria" is just like the central areas of the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century or so. These places are arbitrarily next to each other, and I don't doubt that the rest of the continent is likewise screwy (for example, "Fantasy Europe" is situated on the eastern side of its continent, reversing the real world situation), but we make do by interpreting and reinterpreting creatively and to our satisfaction, always remembering that the background setting is not the real point of the game.

    In this context the player characters start as poor and desperate mercenaries. Many have a background in a mercenary company or something like that. We don't worry overmuch about why any individual character might have decided to join an adventuring company instead of whatever they used to do, but the average character will answer that it was greed, lack of social options, or other such disenfranchement. Once a character lives through a successful adventure, he will usually have money and concerns of his own; the system of the game tends to encourage character backgrounds to get filled, sort of like 3:16 does, so a character who's with the party for more than one or two sessions will usually have some position in the setting established for him retroactively. This happens via critically successful rolls and other situations where a player is obligated or inspired to explain how come this guy is apparently really sucky or really skilled about something or other, or gets along well with some people, or whatever else.

    Practically the above process has produced characters who often get more or less mixed up in mercenary politics or religious metaphysics. Getting mixed in "mercenary politics" means courting powerful politicians of the budding parlamentary states or the prideful high nobility of the Empire in the hopes of gaining legitimate position and sustained power. "Religious metaphysics" means attracting the attention of a saint or god or demon or several, and being cursed or blessed or compelled by them towards various goals. As an example, one character looted the wrong treasure early on in the campaign and contracted AIDS as a result, and has since been questing to get rid of it while looking mournfully at his melting Ability scores. He finally ended up pledging as a paladin of the goddess/saint who he robbed, and then he proceeded to get plane-lost, ending up in a world where this same saint is worshipped as part of the great pantheon. In this new world he's pretty well stuck until he proves himself to the Goddess by destroying the Frore Heart, which is a considerably more difficult undertaking than he realizes. Of course, I'm very cool about him figuring out some other way home - it's a sandbox campaign, after all!

    The existence of the weird and exceptional in the game setting is justified by the principle of localness: by this I mean that often fantasy game GMs overestimate the impact of the supernatural on their game world. By constructively ignoring these things I can just say that yes, a particular pre-Christian pagan god is still being worshipped in this particular valley. It's a secluded place, and no, the Church does not appreciate it, but who's going to care enough to do anything about it? And yes, that god apparently does appear and cause miracles, but who's gonna believe that outside this valley? The setting in general is not infected by the magicians and monsters because I treat them as local phenomena that surely exist, but just as surely have no cause to transform the world into a magocratic paradise. Each monster and each magical thing are individuals whose impact on the setting I judge separately, and surprisingly enough that hasn't so far caused me to break the setting in any appreciable way. Sure, the country folk know that there are strange things in the forests, and the well-read know that in the past magical transformations of great import have occured in the world, but all this isn't that different from what people have believed in historically, so we've had no particular problem in keeping the tone of the game in control.

    In practice the above approach has lead me to tone down the plastic American fantasy bits of D&D, which is probably the superficially most important difference between our campaign and "default D&D". Instead of goblins we have aborogine savage humans that are called "goblins" by the uneducated townspeople, for example. There are no publicly acknowledged demihuman peoples in the world: elves are fairy tale creatures that live in deep forests and are never seen. ("Never" is here the "constructive never" of many modern games - it's going to totally happen to the player characters) Dwarven kingdoms exist, but they're so deep and remote and few that the one the players know about might just be the last one in the world, and nobody else seems to believe that it is there, and the dwarves mercilessly kill anybody who discovers their existence. Halflings are underage leprechauns, creatures with at least one foot in the faerie realms. Ogres are humans fallen under a cannibalistic curse, hobgoblins are the ruling elite of the goblin tribes, bugbears are the goblin cultural variant on ogres (same magical phenomenon, but it seems different in the shamanistic culture than it does in the mainstream fantasy-Christian context), troglodytes are neanderthal-like primitive underground-living humans... The only genuinely non-human humanoid civilization encountered so far is the so-called "Snake Man Hypothesis": this is an academic theory about the early prehistory of the world favoured by crazy fringe academicians. Both the Church and reputable universities teach evolution theory that specifically does not repute the ludicrous claim that humanity would have been created by a prior hyper-civilization of Snake People, the descendants of which still live deep underground to this day. Player characters for some strange reason give some credence to the Snake Man Hypothesis, poor fools can't seem to ignore the strange artifacts they find, or the strange inhuman lizard-people they encounter underground.

    I could continue that list of removed "D&D-isms" a long time, it doesn't just limit itself to monsters. Many are things that are so obvious to me that I actually have to actively remember that hey, official D&D does things in a different way. There are no "+1" magic items, for example, as all magic is unique and has cultural context that influences the way characters use it. There isn't a specific magic-user or cleric character class, either, those characters are known as "Sages", and are by default completely non-magical. All sorts of things to make the setting feel more "right" to me and less like a computer game.

    This is not to say that I'm not willing to allow the setting to be transformed. It's not exactly my magnum opus, the players can fuck it up any seven ways if they please. I'm still trying to get them to start a real undead plague by vising Death Frost Doom, for example. That'd certainly cause interesting reactions in the Empire, possibly causing serious difficulties to the budding Rationalism of this world. If magic is real and giant insects really exist in the distant corners, what are we to understand of this our world we live in? It's sort of like the World of Darkness in this regard, the residents probably don't want to know about the dungeoneering reality below their feet.
  • I am waiting for your book on these topics.

    I'd love to see a book with your thoughts on Primitive D&D, this thread, and the write ups you have on your blog (Challenge Based Adventuring, Location Based, etc..)

    ara
  • Eero,

    This all sounds fantastic. I'd definitely read/purchase a longer treatise on this subject, if you were inclined to write one.

    Your "organic short-loop task-focused conflict resolution with a variety of techniques" is familiar to me, and I think it's more-or-less how I play D&D. It's an approach which is both facilitated and in some ways harmed by games with more "universal" task resolution systems, like Gurps and so on.

    I think the chief difficulty I found in that style of play is preserving what you describe as the "hygeine" of my perspective as GM. In "cliffhanger" situations, it's very easy to fall back on "roll until you succeed", i.e.

    "roll to keep your balance...no...ok, you're hanging on the edge of the cliff, roll to get back up...no...ok, you slip, roll to catch yourself...no...ok, you're falling, roll to grab on to something on the way down...etc."

    Do you have explicit systems to prevent this? For example, are stakes always announced ahead of time? Or do you mostly rely on being a hardass? A combination?
  • Yes, that would basically be the topic. As I've mentioned before, my book would be called "Treatise on how we play old school Dungeons & Dragons", and it would surely be supremely annoying to everybody else who also has their own theory on how the game works ;) This idea has proved surprisingly sticky in my metaphorical folder of prospective projects, usually ideas get either mulched or move on to execution within a year from the inspiration. Perhaps somebody else will write something good soon enough so I don't need to.
  • Awesome, Eero. Honestly, your super factual and practical descriptions of how to play in this form are enlightening in the same way that Apocalypse World feels enlightening about sandbox play. Really, they make me want to get better at objectively describing what occurs in play.
  • Thank you, Eero! Your post #12 describes precisely how I run Stars Without Number (and other similar games), and it's a procedure that I've balked at describing many times before. I'm really impressed with the clarity you achieved in that post. I'll be pointing others to it as a reference in the future.
  • Yeah, that's a wonderful dissection of process.
  • Eero,

    Fantastic. Very helpful and very interesting.

    Your D&D sounds very much like the sort of D&D I would play myself: I always found a lot of the "American fantasy" elements (as you put it) turn me off the genre a great deal. The supernatural and the magical are far more interesting to me when they are unexplained departures from a basically believable medieval perspective at some level, rather than a commonplace substitution for technology (e.g. mass-produced +1 swords).
  • Thank you for the praise, guys. We'll soon have been playing this campaign a whole year, and it's still fun and giving us new things. Nice to tell about it to people now and then, in lieu of publishing finished game texts.
    Posted By: Simon CI think the chief difficulty I found in that style of play is preserving what you describe as the "hygeine" of my perspective as GM. In "cliffhanger" situations, it's very easy to fall back on "roll until you succeed", i.e.

    "roll to keep your balance...no...ok, you're hanging on the edge of the cliff, roll to get back up...no...ok, you slip, roll to catch yourself...no...ok, you're falling, roll to grab on to something on the way down...etc."

    Do you have explicit systems to prevent this? For example, are stakes always announced ahead of time? Or do you mostly rely on being a hardass? A combination?
    Ah, almost missed Simon here.

    Yes, this is definitely on the point. My current theory is that this type of game construct is by nature pretty challenging to do right and vulnerable to debasements, which explains in part how and why roleplaying gaming techniques developed and, also, devolved early on (as in, during the '70s and early '80s). What I describe as my D&D GMing technique is totally a mundane and by the book way of running the game, and it is the early form of what would continue to be developed into the traditional school of GMing we all know. The vulnerability to debasement and high difficulty of transmitting this practice in textual form explains much about how quickly and completely roleplaying has grown into such a rich culture full of various ideas; as people tried to make D&D work for them, with no guarantees of possessing the right attitudes or skills, they stumbled upon all sorts of acceptable and fun compromises. Also, some ideas and techniques that led to what I and many others nowadays consider dead-ends better discarded.

    The basic technique I use for maintaining GMing hygiene is familiar from The Shadow of Yesterday: whenever I figure out something about D&D, and specifically about this variant we're playing, I try to phrase that into a rule and stick with it. This rule codification reduces arbitrariness, obviously. I don't believe in "viking hat GMing" anyway, and the entire group is better able to participate in the game when we have known and discussed rules, even if they are largely an oral tradition. Like in TSoY, some basic rules and principles arise over petty detail into overriding arcs that help the GM keep from making gross mistakes; it's sort of like a constitution is to a state, saying that eg. hit points should be treated as a formalistic conflict resolution resource that cannot be bypassed by mere narration of fictional positioning. Such principles then keep the GM from insisting on untenable rulings, such as declaring that because a character didn't see an attack coming, his hitpoints can't take the hit (but rather he's going to die immediately).

    There's one principle in this constitutionary "field of operations" the GM is allowed that is important enough to mention separately: our procedure for changing the rules is not what is typically advocated in a "rulings, not rules" philosophy. The normal advice is that the GM decides on things case-by-case, using his own prior decisions as guidelines. With us it's more that every decision is first formulated as a rule, then applied, and if a new situation comes up where the GM doesn't want to abide by the prior rules, then he declares that there is a problem, the current situation is resolved by the old rule or renegotiated, and then the new rule is applied in future cases. For example, when I changed the rules on shields from the minor AC bonus to an active defense rule, I could not do this when a shield was being used in a battle; we used the old rule until the end of combat, then the group ratified the change, and then we started using the new rule from then on.

    I'm just describing the organic evolution of a rules system above, of course, which isn't something that secures the GM's hygienic practice by itself. Still, it helps surprisingly much if you truly take seriously the notion that your game is a constitutional democracy and not a rule-0ed autocracy. The latter encourages unhygienic decisionmaking practices because the GM promotes himself above the system, and thus doesn't feel a moment-to-moment need to be consistent and fair.

    What really keeps myself, personally, in check is not the rules system, however; we haven't played long enough to really have a nearly full and codified methodology to GMing this game. It's not like TSoY or Dust Devils or Apocalypse World or other such games where a full paradigm for GM action truly exists, and I thus can answer all questions as to what the GM should do without hesitation. In this game we don't have that, and probably won't for a while, so what really keeps me in check is something else: the campaign, and my recent investigation into D&D in general, started from the creative agenda statement of challengeful adventure: the game is about non-balanced, organic fantasy setting, processed as a give-and-take between the group members, looking for exciting challenges to resolve, enjoying the consequences in full. This creative agenda is what keeps me from straying into unhygienic GMing practices, or at least that's my hope.

    When you have a clear understanding of what you are doing at a game table, and are able to communicate that understanding to the other players, you are no longer playing blind: you can actually appreciate and understand the moves the other players make in the game. You can comment on them, and you can ask them if you don't understand what somebody is trying to do. You can also compare actions to community standards. All these are impossible if you don't have a clear creative concord (that is, a coherent creative agenda) among the players. As we do, though, I feel that we're doing pretty well with a game system that objectively speaking seems really GM-led and autocratic. In practice it is not that, and there's little danger of my slipping into the typical heterodoxies, as the rest of the group observes me and understands what I'm doing.

    As an example on how all this works for falling player characters, what prevented me from saving the one player character who fell in our catapult episode from dying was a three-fold process acting at once:
    • I was excited about making consequences felt and grinding even a high-stakes process to the end, providing us all with that feel of serious choices and serious outcomes, so it didn't even occur to me to cheat to save the character. This is creative agenda at work.
    • We had earlier established that a stage one failure would henceforth we a cliffhanger, and anything worse would be a clean fall. This came up specifically because we speculated about the mechanics of falling off the stairs when the players found the precarious-looking stair thing. Also, the players had that encounter with the lone cultist on the stairs, where it was clearly affirmed how the rules (or rather, our developed ruling) would work in this case. Once I'd declared the difficulty aloud, there was little leeway insofar as our rules went.
    • My job in the play process is to facilitate challenges and their consequences, so even if I didn't want to do it and the rules didn't require me to rule the way I did, my structural role in the game, the task I was responsible for, required me to look at the fiction, see the difficulties the situation would legitimately cause to the adventurers, enumerate them and require the group to resolve them to seek consequences. Theoretically the rules and my own wish on the matter would not be necessary, the methodology (the way the game is shaped to work between the GM and the other players) would be sufficient to cause me to seek this outcome, insofar as I wanted to fulfill my obligation to the table.
    This is not to say that I wouldn't like to have a more defined, more complete method of play. We do develop the rules and the method of play in an attempt to make both reflect our creative ideals even better, to be sure, but this is in many ways more of an exploratory mission into the unknown than an organized game design effort: we're not in a hurry to make conclusions, and we'll try different things to find out what works and what doesn't. Makes it slow going to develop an entirely understandable and transmittable method.
  • Eero, I wonder if it makes sense to look at the process you're currently using (your creative agenda, rulings, constitution, player/GM roles) as the game qua game. That is, there is no formal final state as a goal, but rather the functional implementation of this method and its evolution serves as "the game." I can certainly imagine a rules text that laid out the methodology as you're presenting it here, along with examples of rulings to form a baseline toolkit. That would be a complete game, IMO, and probably far more useful as a teaching text than the presentation of the final rules set when it's "finished."
  • Yes, that is pretty much my thinking; this is why I'm not dreaming about writing a new D&D variant, but rather a book that discusses the way we play D&D. The difference is not even very subtle, it's the difference between imagining your communication as a "product" or "explanation of how to do an activity". If I'm going to write about this, it's going to be in the form of a book that is intended to be read, not a reference book to quote at the gaming table.
  • Eero - interesting to hear you talk about your sub-procedures at such a granular level. Most of what you've described sounds pretty straightforward to me, but I thought I'd ask if you could clarify a few specific poins:

    1. I'm trying hard to kill off the headliners to see if I might turn back the clock a bit - it'd be interesting to see whether the players might lose the perspective they've been gaining on the setting and campaign issues if they were suddenly dropped in power and resources back down to starting levels.

    This sounded unusual to me since the baseline assumption of D&D is usually that the referee is disinterested in the fate of the players' characters, and acts only as an adjudicator or in the interest of specific NPCs/monsters/world forces. Is there a specific reason you want to kill off the PCs and see the player's reactions to that instead of just refereeing from a neutral stance and watching what happens in an emergent way from the game action?

    Also, as referee how do you go about deciding how events in the game world come about to work toward the PCs demise? Do you develop enemies with the express goal of killing off the PCs, use deadly coincidence against them, or some other process?

    2. You can lose experience points by "wagering" them in certain metaphysical situations, the most famous of which is paladinhood: a falling paladin loses half of his xp total. Appropriate situations for using this mechanic are always situations where the player himself decides to take the risk; taking away xp unilaterally isn't compatible with the system meaning of experience points."

    I'd like to hear more about this 'wagering.' Do you use the term wager just to mean that, for example, in choosing to play a Paladin PC, the player "wagers" the retention of his XP against the likelihood of his being able to play in a way consisten with the Paladin's code, or do you mean it in a more explicit sense that the Paladin encounters some situation in the game where he expressly "wagers" the XP loss against some metaphysical benefit? Also, what are other examples of these "certain metaphysical situations?"

    3. How do we resolve things? This depends greatly on the current play modality, meaning the purpose of the current topic. For example, when we're just negotiating on the next adventure to be had, we're clearly in the logistical mode, during which the GM generally doesn't roll for random encounters, and won't force difficult choices on the players: the point is that the adventurers are within the enclosures of the safe civilization, and the GM needs to entice them out into the wilds with a fairly negotiated adventure scheme - the players have the freedom to refuse terms they find unappealing.
    "
    When you refer to "forc[ing] difficult choices on the players" do you mean just having them in a situation where there is the potential of some danger, or do you mean that in a more direct, forefronting-of-conflict way? Is the setup of your campaign such that the civilized homebase is sacrosanct and PCs are only in mortal danger beyond its bounds? Or could, for example, consequences of actions in the wilds result in the chance of danger at home?

    4. 1d6 henchmen have a 50% chance of falling (technical term, means either a serious injury or death, to be determined after the battle) now in exchange for an extra attack roll for the troop champion against the monster right away.

    Does the troop champion refer to the PC, or as just a placeholder term for whichever of the henchmen is considered responsible for the extra attack? Who decides whether the henchmen attack in this way vs. their normal attacks? What kind of action does this represent in the game fiction?

    5. When the party started back up the stairs I asked for perception checks to see if they spotted the ligths down below where the lizardmen lit them up to reload the catapult more efficiently. (I'd decided at some point that lizardmen need light, but less so than humans.) This, again, did not have any immediate consequence, but as I've emphasized, the method necessarily indicates that I need to give players information and let them decide what's important and what isn't.

    When you say the method necessitates giving the PCs information, what is the process you choose to decide when to call for a perception check to begin with? (I understand this may be just a play it by ear thing depending on how unusual or interesting it seems to you at the time.)

    Anyway, just a handful of things that sounded a little unfamiliar or like there would be more to the story that would be interesting to hear. Thanks!
  • I should repeat here what I just said on G+:

    "Eero Tuovinen's head for this sort of analytical breakdown is downright creepy. I recognize a lot of what I do internally in his descriptions in this thread, but [here it is] written with remarkable intellectual clarity for a process that is largely intuitive to me. I feel my way around, but Eero sees and understands the terrain."

    For what it's worth, I would buy this booklet, Eero. If I thought you needed a publisher, I'd volunteer Gameplaywright Press (as I'd like to do a series of booklets on this very thing), though I can't honestly think of a good reason why you shouldn't just publish this yourself when you can justify the time.

    Good stuff.
  • For those who haven't read it, I wrote about this campaign here at SG last summer - I'm linking it just because it's probably easier to follow my ramblings here with that background.
    Posted By: Figaro1.I'm trying hard to kill off the headliners to see if I might turn back the clock a bit - it'd be interesting to see whether the players might lose the perspective they've been gaining on the setting and campaign issues if they were suddenly dropped in power and resources back down to starting levels.

    This sounded unusual to me since the baseline assumption of D&D is usually that the referee is disinterested in the fate of the players' characters, and acts only as an adjudicator or in the interest of specific NPCs/monsters/world forces. Is there a specific reason you want to kill off the PCs and see the player's reactions to that instead of just refereeing from a neutral stance and watching what happens in an emergent way from the game action?

    Also, as referee how do you go about deciding how events in the game world come about to work toward the PCs demise? Do you develop enemies with the express goal of killing off the PCs, use deadly coincidence against them, or some other process?
    I was overstating the sentiment here, really - I don't have a particular wish to kill player characters, it's just that it's one of the big strategic arcs of the game to see how far a given character survives. We spent a pretty long time at first level before the players grogged how to survive 1st level dungeons, and now they're determinedly progressing towards ever higher levels. This is putting a bit of pressure on me to not get swept along and keep pushing them with everything the procedure allows me to use against them. Also, it is creatively a crux issue for the campaign and our play goals to see what happens to us psychologically when some of these more established and important characters kick it - we're excited to see whether we'll be sad, whether the players feel that the disaster comes fairly and even-handedly, whether we want to continue playing at that point or whether it's really a death for a D&D campaign at mid-levels to not have resurrection magic at hand.

    This creative framework makes me excited whenever the players come to face new types of challenges. Their characters are strong now, but how strong? I have no clue, there's no balancing in this system and I've houseruled it so massively that literally nobody in the world has a clue as to what level you'll need to be in this specific mechanical system to beat eg. the "boss monster" of Skull Mountain. (I'm pretty sure that the players are not there yet, and they did abandon Skull Mountain half-way, convinced that they're no match for the horrible lizardmen, with their soulless gazes and apparent inability to panic in combat.)

    So when I said that I'm "trying" to kill player characters, that's not really true in terms of actions. It just feels that way when the process of play brings us to the brink and I get to crow excitedly about how the players are now facing something totally unexpected, totally insane. Like this catapult thing, just imagine the situation in the fiction: complete darkness of the a subterranean realm, lizardmen that are assumed to be backwards and primitive, a D&D context where you'd expect cheap magic effects from your enemy... and what comes out of the darkness, flying silently on the wings of death is a CATAPULT SHOT! And we know that messing up this next dice roll gives you a fall, and I know that it's 200 feet to the bottom. It's high stakes, and it feels in the moment that I "want to kill player characters", even if that's not really my intent, and I don't really act that way.

    I suspect that this emotional place is where all the talk about "killer GMs" and such comes from. We totally understand within the group that the rhetoric about how "your characters are totally going to die here" and so on is just trash-talking and doesn't reflect my real motivations; after all, I feel for the players, and I definitely would feel bad if a character died in a wrongful way. On the other hand, dying by a direct hit from a catapult is such a bad-ass way to go that I wouldn't feel at all bad at that. Or falling to your death off a giant stalactite, like Revenge VII (I said XI upthread, but that's actually the character he rolled out after this scene) got to experience, that's a good one too.

    That being said, the sentiment is true: if and when another total party kill comes along and obliterates all the 3rd-and-up level characters the players have developed, I'll be extremely interested to see how we'll cope. My ideal and theory of how D&D should go is that experience points are a proof of work that proficient players will gain quickly and consistently with skill, and for this reason there's no reason whatsoever to ever give players characters above 1st level to play. If this claim is true for my GMing method and the style of our campaign, then the players should be able to continue operating essentially at their current level of campaign impact even if they lose their current characters. The players and the skills that took them to where they are is still there, so a quick visit to a 1st level dungeon at their current proficiency should bring them back to business soon enough. I'll be excited to see whether this is true, or whether the players will even want to try, once death comes. (I assume that it will come sooner or later.)
    Posted By: Figaro2.You can lose experience points by "wagering" them in certain metaphysical situations, the most famous of which is paladinhood: a falling paladin loses half of his xp total. Appropriate situations for using this mechanic are always situations where the player himself decides to take the risk; taking away xp unilaterally isn't compatible with the system meaning of experience points."

    I'd like to hear more about this 'wagering.' Do you use the term wager just to mean that, for example, in choosing to play a Paladin PC, the player "wagers" the retention of his XP against the likelihood of his being able to play in a way consisten with the Paladin's code, or do you mean it in a more explicit sense that the Paladin encounters some situation in the game where he expressly "wagers" the XP loss against some metaphysical benefit? Also, what are other examples of these "certain metaphysical situations?"
    Yes, I use the term metaphorically: paladin status in this campaign is something you claim, not a character class, and the claiming character is essentially "wagering" that he'll be able to uphold the unreasonable ideals of the gods (a paladin in this campaign is always dedicated to a specific patron saint or god, at least at low levels), with half his xp total as the stakes. The nature of heavenly forces in this campaign is somewhat Platonic in that the beings of the higher dimensions, known as saints and gods, are more simple and extreme in nature than any living person: the nature of a paladin is that he is willing to serve a being that gives no quarter, makes no compromises and always demands purity of its servants. The players have been attracted to become paladins to Lilanora/Iseleine, the saint/goddess of love and beauty, and while she manifests as a lovely maiden of infinite wisdom, she's also a simple, naïve being that has no sympathy towards adventurers who refuse to commit to absolute pacifism as her paladins. The first paladin of Lilanora in our campaign managed to fall promptly in his first adventure as a paladin when he destroyed a demon instead of converting and purifying it, for example.

    The specific feature of this paladin thing from the viewpoint of xp loss is that nobody can force you to be a paladin, you choose it for yourself - and the player knows the danger to his xp. This is what justifies the xp loss in my mind: I consider the xp to be a proof of work that the player has gained, and I'm not sure if it's philosophically possible to take it away unilaterally, no matter the events in play. (As I discussed in passing, I certainly can see taking experience levels away, those are just a conceit of heroic fantasy instead of a scorekeeping device like the experience points are.) The player is offering his xp as part of the deal in exchange for getting to be a paladin.

    As for other situations where a character's experience points might be wagered... Well, obviously I'd use this mechanism in any situations that are similar to paladinhood - that is, situations where a divine or infernal power gets its hooks on a character's soul. Maybe an infernalist would commit one level's worth of xp per infernal blessing, for example, and his patron demon could then yank that amount of xp from him at whim, should he displease his patron. The same logic could fly with wows of Omerta and similar more mundane and less metaphysical transactions, too. Aside from such paladinhood-by-another-name, though, I don't have any ideas for where to apply this mechanism. Not yet, anyway.
  • Posted By: Figaro3.
    When you refer to "forc[ing] difficult choices on the players" do you mean just having them in a situation where there is the potential of some danger, or do you mean that in a more direct, forefronting-of-conflict way? Is the setup of your campaign such that the civilized homebase is sacrosanct and PCs are only in mortal danger beyond its bounds? Or could, for example, consequences of actions in the wilds result in the chance of danger at home?
    "Forcing difficult choices" means the base activity that I do as the GM when in adventuring mode, in between depicting the environment and running the mechanical processes. The way this works is, I look at the current situation, and checklist through it to figure out whether the adventurers currently have any outlying challenges that have not been addressed. Do they have light? Food? When did they last reassure the cowardly henchmen? Are there monster around, when did I last roll a random encounter? Did they address the social challenges of bringing a Gargantuan-size bat to town already? When I latch onto some problem in what the players are doing currently, I formulate this challenge for the players and require them to face it somehow.

    Here's where the difficult choices come in: if you formulate the GM's tasks "naïvely" (I don't mean to offend anybody here, it's just a technical description) by saying that his task is to "just describe the world and events", then you don't really address the fact that there is a nigh-limitless variety of ways the GM can introduce things to the game, all to different consequence. Something makes the GM introduce whatever material he's introducing in a certain way, and that something is his creative agenda. In my case the agenda is to give the players interesting challenges that spin out of the fictional stuff we've got lying around; for this reason the material I have is shaped out into situations the players can do something about, and all of my processes are pointed towards recognizing these ways for players to make choices. For example, in the catapult situation, the point of having a PC notice the catapult attack a few seconds before the attack strikes is that this enables the player to make a tactical choice under time-pressure: will he run up or down, shout a warning, what? That's what we're playing for, to see what the players will do and whether it was a good or bad idea.

    However, the entire game all the time is not played under these interests. This is because we require player buy-in for the difficulties the player characters face, as much as GM cooperation. The dangerous and difficult and nasty moments are all the more so for the fact that the player genuinely had the option of leaving his character to live his life happily within the civilization's embrace; it's the player's fault ultimately that he went into the dungeon. This is also important for balancing the game - I discard all attempts at game balance, preferring to build the procedures of the campaign in a way that enables the players to choose their own balance. Thus, again, a need for the players to have some freedom from constant pressure: they need to have a secure moment to negotiate with the GM on even ground, to discard the adventure the GM is offering and go for something else instead.

    There's also a literally logistical reason for not being in "adventuring mode" all the time. The game flows much quicker and remains more interesting if the GM gives leeway regarding dull routine events. For example, the fact that I tend to only run full hexcrawl procedure with random encounters when the characters are entering unknown or dangerous territory makes it much simpler for the players to arrange the fiction to their satisfaction before an adventure. For example, a character might have been last adventuring in Fantasy Holland, so he needs to travel upcountry to Fantasy Bavaria to even participate in the next adventure. Or this character here is technically still on a ship for the next two weeks. Or a character dies and the player wants to introduce a new one. All these are situations where a strict reading of our adventuring procedure would bring about tedious processes, such as running solo random wilderness encounters for a filler character to see if he survives the trip from the "home base" to the dungeon in one piece. In truth I wouldn't expect anybody to stick to these processes all the time, we just do them when it's the focus of play and interesting. The rest of the time we take a more free, lax hand and negotiate the facts surrounding the adventure in ways that make the players happy as well as the GM: the point is to get characters for everybody, get them equipped in a way that feels appropriate for the adventure and get them to agree to go to this particular adventure with full responsibility for their actions. This happens easier if we skip on certain types of haggling on prices, random encounters and such.

    All of the above is a description of a mode of play we enter at the very beginning and (often) end of a session. It's not simply geographically limited in that adventures certainly can and do happen within civilization as well. However, unless the GM declares otherwise, there are certain "logistical rights" the players use during these between-adventure downtimes. For example, the major roads of the realm (the ones marked on my 5-mile hex map, basically) can be traversed in logistics mode with the understanding that the GM won't roll random encounters hex per hex. If the adventure's premise is that it happens exactly three days after the last adventure, then of course the GM interrupts the players, but otherwise the players are the drivers of downtime: they decide how long they waste their time with civilian matters, what they do with the riches they won on adventures, where they go to look for more adventure, and so on. While the GM would often say "no" during adventuring mode, in logistics mode he will mostly say "yes". "Sure, let's say that your two characters just happen to meet in Fantasy Amsterdam by accident." "Yes, you can go visit your wife quick before the army marches." "OK, if the only way I'm going to get you to this adventure is by letting you have the three chainmails at a 30% discount, then let's do that."
    Posted By: Figaro4.1d6 henchmen have a 50% chance of falling (technical term, means either a serious injury or death, to be determined after the battle) now in exchange for an extra attack roll for the troop champion against the monster right away.

    Does the troop champion refer to the PC, or as just a placeholder term for whichever of the henchmen is considered responsible for the extra attack? Who decides whether the henchmen attack in this way vs. their normal attacks? What kind of action does this represent in the game fiction?
    Well, what we have above is just a single example of a multitude of organically developing rulings. That specific one has only been used once so far, so I don't even know if it's here to stay as a permanent part of our repertoire. So no need to read too much into it as a philosophical statement, our play seems to generate about 1d6 new "rules innovations" like that per session. Pretty often these come up as shortcuts and bargains with the players about things that I feel would be better or more fun to play by not walking it through the ordinary system.

    But yes, the troop champion in that particular rule would be the guy who's leading the troop of henchmen - probably a PC fighter most of the time, but they do have their own sergeants that captain Krüger spends some time in picking. So the nature of that offer is that instead of rolling a bunch of attacks from henchmen with a bit of math involved (bonuses for ganging up against a powerful enemy, that sort of thing) and then counterattacks from the monster and whatnot, we could just cross off a few henchmen on the premise that this is a deadly monster and someone's going to get hurt. Then the strongest guy can take another shot at the beast to represent the teamwork between him and his brave support personnel.

    The point of offering these types of improvised rulings in the midst of play is that they're voluntary for the players. This frees the GM to freely associate without responsibility for the outcomes: I mean, that particular deal might not be too good for anybody concerned, but it's a one-time idea and if it's too bad for the players then they won't take it. The GM would have a much more serious responsibility if he was forcing these alternative resolution ideas on the players.

    Actually, that's the same principle I use in selling to and buying stuff from the players: it's not my problem if you accept my insane prices, it's yours.
    Posted By: Figaro5.
    When you say the method necessitates giving the PCs information, what is the process you choose to decide when to call for a perception check to begin with? (I understand this may be just a play it by ear thing depending on how unusual or interesting it seems to you at the time.)
    I have found the OSR discussion about skill checks vs. fiat (or karma resolution, really) intensely interesting. I'm not wedded to what we are doing in this campaign in this regard (or many others - I sound like I've got it all figured out, but in reality there are many alternative mechanical logics in D&D that I could use happily), but the philosophy of how we're running it currently is that everything is technically an Ability check when characters do things. Even the really easy things are technically checks that can be rolled to see if the player might roll a '1' for some entertaining screw-balls. In this regard it's easy for me to decide when to ask for a perception check: whenever I want to tell something to the players, I'll call for the check. Often the difficulty is so low that it's rather unlikely for anybody to miss the things I'm telling them. We're really quick about checks, obviously, as we're rolling a lot of them - doesn't take many seconds for the players to roll and shout numbers at me.

    In practice, of course, I don't ask for a perception check to get a basic room description or such; it's reserved for cases where I could legitimately say afterwards that your character had other things on his mind when he walked past this thing. Similarly the players can often utilize the "automatic success through calling it" constitutional principle when it comes to perception checks: if a player specifically says that he's going to look right there, right in the place where something peculiar or hidden is, then it's automatic success and no need for checks. Sometimes the "calling it" just gives them the ability to make a check on something they otherwise wouldn't have gotten, which is sort of like a second-order automatic success when you think about it.

    The "calling it" principle is mostly used in perception, knowledge and social checks of various sorts. Tell me how the described trap can be disabled, and there's no need to make the check. Tell me that you're going to prod at the floor under the table, and no need to check to find the secret door. Tell me what this NPC is totally thinking right now, and no need to check Charisma to see if you spot his lies. Tell me what monster it was that left these peculiar tracks, and no need for knowledge check on that - I'll just admit everything if you call it right. So far I haven't seen anybody try to use the principle in a combat situation :D
  • Eero - thanks for replying in such detail. I feel like I have a better sense of what you're going for in light of your responses. There are some things I'm interested in discussing in regards to 3. and 5., if you don't mind but I want to catch up on your Primitive D&D thread you linked above first. Thanks.

    P.S. > what is the technical sense you're using for "naïvely?" from context I take you to mean something like "intuitively; without conscious analysis of the logic behind the decision-making/improvisational process" but please correct me if i'm wrong or missing some nuance.
  • Posted By: FigaroP.S. > what is the technical sense you're using for "naïvely?" from context I take you to mean something like "intuitively; without conscious analysis of the logic behind the decision-making/improvisational process" but please correct me if i'm wrong or missing some nuance.
    Ah, I intended to open that a bit, but forgot. I've been reading some OSR blogs lately, and an idea that seems to come up now and then is that D&D is in a way above creative intent because it's form is one where the player decides what his character does and the GM describes how the world responds, and these shall be the extent of your creative responsibility. I dub this a "naïve theory" on the activity because it implies that somehow the people playing the game are doing it without having a creative intent in their actions; no further analysis is necessary, because the fact that I play my character and you play the world already tells us everything we need to know about our creative goals in playing the game.

    Actually, your last post in the orc babies thread demonstrates this approach/attitude pretty well. The way I understand you there is that you're claiming that D&D doesn't have a purpose for why players are playing their characters and why the GM is processing the world for them; the two just meet like ships in the night, a chance encounter, and both just have to make the best of it: the GM has to adapt to whatever the players decide to do, and the players have to adapt to whatever the GM decides to do, and neither has any out-of-game remedy like shared creative goals. This is the "naïve theory" of what D&D is about, that it's a value-free framework within which anything goes.

    Now I went and drew on you as an example, so to emphasize, I don't mean "naïve" to have a negative connotation here. It's just a fitting description of a stance where deeper meaning is seemingly refuted and D&D is seen as a blank slate upon which any and all events may come to be. I don't personally agree that this is an useful way to view D&D, but it's just an opinion, and mostly a rhetorical one: even if somebody insists that D&D is all things to all people, but still runs a functional game, then I have to believe that they do have some creative accord within their own campaign, even if they say that the game doesn't "mean" anything and everything in it is just happenstance and the whims of individual players. It's not like I'm trying to speak of the meaning of D&D comprehensively as a historical phenomenon, anyway; I'm just describing what our D&D campaign is like creatively and technically. For us in this campaign D&D has creative intent, and that intent is to find a dragon and see who'll eat whom. Or at least take a catapult shot in the face and survive, as the case may be.
  • Eero - I think you misunderstand me - I am not asserting that "that somehow the people playing the game are doing it without having a creative intent in their actions." I am saying that it is a mistake to expect the game of D&D to natively act to support a player's intent in a way beyond what is necessarily implied by its reduced procedure. The creative goals of the players must be contributed independently of the game and socially by the players beyond that, will tend to need to be balanced socially among the interests of the different players, and will necessarily tend to be mutable, shifting dynamically from moment to moment and over a larger time scale.

    Note that in B2, Gygax says "...you will notice that the details are left in your hands. This allows you to personalize the scenario, and suit it to what you and your players will find most enjoyable."

    I would contend that it's incorrect to present "the whims of individual players" by way of opposition to "creative intent." Now, you gave the example, "For us in this campaign D&D has creative intent, and that intent is to find a dragon and see who'll eat whom. Or at least take a catapult shot in the face and survive, as the case may be." This intent is not supplied by the procedure of playing D&D. It is supplied by the individual players, and may easily find itself complicated or contrafacted by "happenstance" or emergent events resulting from the procedure of playing D&D, as for example, in the case that the orc children are an element that proves distracting, orthogonal, or counter to the intent of finding the orc invaders and seeing who slays whom. It is explicitly the responsibility of the referee to personalize the scenario if he understands it to be problematic in that regard; it is the responsibilities of the other players to deal with the circumstances encountered, and within that context to find circumstances in the game fiction in accordance with their interest. It is not characteristic of the game's procedure of play to prevent elements of the fiction from arising that are in conflict with such an individual creative agenda brought to the game from outside. Naturally players and referees can openly discuss what they do and don't like or want to see in the game, but that is beyond the scope of gameplay itself.

    (I'm still interested in talking about the points I mentioned above; I'll try go get to that tomorrow morning; it may give you some sense of what I might consider to be the creative responsibility of the referee.)
  • Cole,

    I think I understand what you mean, but I think you're being a little reductive.

    If my fighter retires after his first adventure, and buys a small farm to live the rest of his life on, am I still playing D&D? Is it the responsibility of the DM to personalize a scenario to suit that? Do we play a game of quiet pastoral contentment?

    Similarly, if I as DM tell the players that there are no adventures to be had today, that all the local monsters have been slain already, and the evil wizard has changed his ways, is it the responsibility of the players to find something interesting within that context? Apple bobbing at the fair?

    Or is there an implied agreement when we sit down to play D&D that the players show up ready to kill some monsters, and the DM shows up with some monsters that need killing?

    Eero,

    Sorry if I'm butting in on a conversation you had well in hand, but I have been shouting this at the screen all through the orc babies thread, and I'm please to have a less charged context in which to have this discussion.
  • Eero: In a thread about Tunnels & Trolls on the Forge long ago, you talked about the difference between the skirmishes of T&T and the "whiffing against AC" attacks in D&D. I'm curious to hear what you think now that you've had a year of D&D style combats under your belt. I assume since you haven't house-ruled combat into a more skirmishy T&T mode that it's working for you. Any thoughts to share on that front?
  • Posted By: Simon CSorry if I'm butting in on a conversation you had well in hand, but I have been shouting this at the screen all through the orc babies thread, and I'm please to have a less charged context in which to have this discussion.
    Butt in by all means. I'm happy if we can discuss this topic, for it is an interesting one. I'd suggest that we drop the "I tell you what you mean" angle from the start, though - I'm totally happy with Cole himself telling us what he thinks D&D is like, no need whatsoever for me to try to put words in his mouth.
    Posted By: John HarperEero: In a thread about Tunnels & Trolls on the Forge long ago, you talked about the difference between the skirmishes of T&T and the "whiffing against AC" attacks in D&D. I'm curious to hear what you think now that you've had a year of D&D style combats under your belt. I assume since you haven't house-ruled combat into a more skirmishy T&T mode that it's working for you. Any thoughts to share on that front?
    Good question. I'd say that the key to why D&D has faced complaints about whiffing in recent years is in entitlement: by the time 3rd edition came to define the game it's become a common wisdom that the individual skirmish player characters engage in is what defines the game - the game had become a game of skirmish fights stringed together by a modest amount of exploration (or an outright plot outline created by the GM) instead of a game of exploration punctuated by skirmish fights. The natural entitlement of a player in this context is that the party is going to win these fights, for they are unavoidable and wanted so, as the core part of gameplay.

    When you're entitled to winning the fight, this means that you are also entitled to feeling like your actions in that fight are meaningful, which means that you don't want to have your actions foiled by the game system. Furthermore, the system has developed into something more comprehensive, which means that you don't have constitutional fallbacks to engage against it - you can't go around the mechanics, you're just entitled to choosing an action within their boundaries.

    All this is in sharp constrast with how old school D&D actualizes at our table: the very notion of a combat encounter as a planned experience is impossible methodologically, because nobody is planning for experiences. The GM is planning for interesting shit to throw at the players, and the players are planning goal-wise. If a battle is being planned, it's being planned by the players in terms of tactics, not by the GM in terms of appropriate challenge rating. The war is waged on a strategic level, with the tactical skirmish only a short, random climax to the process. The action economy of that climax is brutal, and there is no whiffing as an experience for the simple reason that if you missed, the enemy just got an extra attempt at killing you. The stakes are being so high that you have no luxury to resent your "whiffing" action. Furthermore, the system we play under has plentiful constitutional fallbacks for players who don't want to risk their action going to waste against enemy AC: they can do something else that doesn't require going against AC if they think a bit.

    The feeling of futility you get in some modern rpg fighting systems (I get this in both 3rd and 4th edition D&D) is not present, apparently because the fight has a greater strategic context the player is responsible for, and because the player does not have similarly limited options, and is therefore more responsible about choosing the option he does choose.
  • I want to avoid a focus on character builds ... and a focus on infinite development of a single character in a masturbatory cycle
    That's our game in a nutshell, and possibly why we enjoy it so much. The game has been going on for something like 30 years (although I joined only relatively recently, about 5 years ago). There's a very strong sense of immersion in the game, everyone is their character and, the other players in particular, takes a very active role in deciding on the focus of each session's play. The GM will always have something prepared for us to explore or confront, but the joint history of the characters creates a rich background of tensions against which this occurs. There is quite a lot of jostling for position and schadenfreude, but never in a bad way. Having one put over you is to be celebrated (almost) as much as putting one over someone (and reason to reciprocate).

    As this is AD&D, resolution is mostly for combat. What happens outside combat is mediated through a combination of discussion and rolls against characteristics. For social encounters, the GM might not ask for a roll, or might give you a bonus, if you put forward a persuasive argument. The GM is the ultimate arbiter and whilst you can certainly ask the GM to justify their decisions and they might change as a result of a clarification, in pratice this is never challenged. It's acceptable to try to get one over the GM (through some previously unused combination of rules or through recalling a previous judgement). This is not something you expect to win in the long run, but little victories are highly prized. It's a bit like an MC Feud but very much in the English style.

    As Eero says above, encounters which use the resolution system are almost always high stakes and failure is part of the excitement. Whiffling is seen not as a failure of the system but as the character, and hence the player, doing something wrong. It's emotional, funny sometimes and sad at others and adds to the player buy-in, "I will do better", or "I will overcome", or "I will show them".

    As high level characters we have an enormous freedom of action and ways to deal with problems so the GM's approach is to throw tough things at us and expect us to find a way round them. He doesn't usually plan for any specific resolution and we can fail. As such, we often enter into combat with no one knowing the outcome.
  • edited February 2012
    Posted By: Eero TuovinenI'd say that the key to why D&D has faced complaints about whiffing in recent years is in entitlement: by the time 3rd edition came to define the game it's become a common wisdom that the individual skirmish player characters engage in is what defines the game - the game had become a game of skirmish fights stringed together by a modest amount of exploration (or an outright plot outline created by the GM) instead of a game of exploration punctuated by skirmish fights. The natural entitlement of a player in this context is that the party is going to win these fights, for they are unavoidable and wanted so, as the core part of gameplay.
    This was for many, I think, the thrust of Second Edition AD&D as well, albeit without the tools for building encounters that Third and Fourth Edition provided.
  • Great insights into D&D combat and whiffing: it resonates quite strongly with me, and I think it a reasonable explanation of the process.

    (Not to mention, also, that in "old-school" D&D, high lethality rates, etc, a single blow is much more meaningful than in a later-edition or high-level game. Whiffing is VERY meaningful when the counter-attack is likely to kill your character. Not terribly meaningful when it just means you might lose another 2-3% of your hit points. In theory this would apply just as much to "old-school" D&D, but I don't know too many people who play in that style at high levels--in practice, the game turns more into an exercise of resouce management: for instance, something like "how many henchmen will need to die before we kill/bypass this obstacle/monster".)

    Eero,

    I'm curious why you choose to use modules for your adventures, when you take so much care in the creation of not only the system of play but also the world-building and other details. Is it because using modules helps you remain more objective, more "hygienic", as you put it? After all, I'm sure that adapting those modules to your game requires some adjustment on both fronts: the mechanics of your game are different enough that some editing or modification is required, and the details of the modules must occasionally grind against the assumptions of the "campaign world". Do you try to resolve these issues, or just ignore them? If the latter, how is this presented to the players? Is it, "In this part we'd normally have skeletons, but since we don't have skeletons in this setting I'll call them lizardmen, ok?" Or is it all "behind the screen", while trying to preserve the sense for the players that they are operating in a coherent world authored by you?
  • I think it was there in first edition as well. Dragonlance was a big move towards a more cinematic game with hero's who you didnt just want to randomly die at any point as were several of the earlier modules produced by TSR like the Desert of Desolation series and even the old Slaver series. I think it goes back even further though to the point Simon was making earlier about letting the characters off where if they fail one check you find something else for them to roll until they succeed. Even in the first edition DMG they were adding things that let the danger slip like the death's door rule that allowed characters to survive until they hit -10 hp rather than right at 0. These rules foster a completely different creative intent for the game beyond what Eero's game is like and it's interesting looking back now seeing how the game progress and gradually changed away from it's original intent, even though I'm sure some practitioner kept that original spirit.
  • Stars Without Number does an interesting thing where skill checks use 2d6 but attack rolls use d20. So you have this nice bell curve for skill uses and improvised actions, but when you just shoot at a dude you get the squirrely random roll. It's subtle, but it nicely reinforces the idea that straight-up fighting isn't a reliable solution.

    Like Eero, I've also had a lot of success in this style by playing for higher stakes. Damage rolls that can flat-out kill a character keep combat from devolving into a series of attacks back and forth. You try to set up as many advantages as you can and then kill them before they even get a turn. And when that doesn't work, it's not: "hooray! fight scene!" It's: "oh crap, we're in trouble now!"
  • edited February 2012
    Posted By: John HarperAnd when that doesn't work, it's not: "hooray! fight scene!" It's: "oh crap, we're in trouble now!"
    Something I like about low-XP rewards for fighting monsters: a lot of the time in higher-editions of D&D you get entangled in these fights you KNOW you're probably going to lose but the willingness to flee is a lot lower. "We lost Dan already and we've been at this for fifteen minutes, we can't run now or we'll waste all the potential XP." With a lower reward for the fight, players are more able to try other solutions. So what if you don't get your 125 XP for killing the goblins - you can lure them away, nobody dies and you get to steal all the gold (which gets cashed in for WAY more XP later on).
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenGood question. I'd say that the key to why D&D has faced complaints about whiffing in recent years is in entitlement: by the time 3rd edition came to define the game it's become a common wisdom that the individual skirmish player characters engage in is what defines the game - the game had become a game of skirmish fights stringed together by a modest amount of exploration (or an outright plot outline created by the GM) instead of a game of exploration punctuated by skirmish fights. The natural entitlement of a player in this context is that the party is going to win these fights, for they are unavoidable and wanted so, as the core part of gameplay.
    I just have to say: wow. (and the last bit about strategic context)

    This whole thread is really amazing in its ability to articulate so many things I know but never really managed to put into a coherent explanation.
  • Not disagreeing with anything here, but just wanted to point out that "entitlement" is liable to be taken the wrong way. Way too many people have been using it in similar context, but with an overtone of "those crybabys".

    Call it "changed expectations" or similar, maybe?
    I'd say that the key to why D&D has faced complaints about whiffing in recent years are changed expectations: by the time 3rd edition came to define the game it's become a common wisdom that the individual skirmish player characters engage in is what defines the game - the game had become a game of skirmish fights stringed together by a modest amount of exploration (or an outright plot outline created by the GM) instead of a game of exploration punctuated by skirmish fights. The natural expectation in this context is that the party is going to win these fights, for they are unavoidable and wanted so, as the core part of gameplay.
  • edited February 2012
    Yeah, Adam, I go so far as to give zero XP for killing monsters, unless we're playing some variant where the party is specifically about monster killing (like a team of Vampire hunters or Dragon slayers or something). Default dungeon crawling at my table is simply: "Loot as much as you can from this place. Try not to die." so everything is tied to treasure only.

    Chatting about old-school play over IM the other day, I formulated this:
    Good party: Loots the dungeons.
    Evil party: Loots the cities.

    :-)
  • Removing XP for murder solves a whole bunch of other problems at the same time too (like genocide promotion). Huh. That's pretty cool.
  • Posted By: J. WaltonRemoving XP for murder solves a whole bunch of other problems at the same time too (like genocide promotion). Huh. That's pretty cool.
    I don't know if that's actually true. More often than not, to take their stuff one first has to kill monsters. I mean, sure, you could trick them or steal it my stealth but not-being-Thieves-or-Halflings sort of stymies that plan.

    Even so - it de-incentivizes murder for no reason, which is cool. I've got a big B/X game this weekend. I may try this approach.
  • edited February 2012
    I've always been fond of XP-only-for-treasure, too, I think it simplifies the whole game into something that makes a whole lot of sense.

    The only problem with it is:

    How do you define "treasure"? If I go into the local tavern, and steal some gold out of a young man's pocket, should I get XP for that gold?

    This usually wouldn't come up in a game, but I could see it being an issue once characters become larger movers-and-shakers: should we get XP for chasing our rivals' business out of town and increasing our black market weapons trade revenue?
  • edited February 2012
    [unwhispered] Whisper: because I don't want to de-rail Eero's thread.

    Lamentation of the Flame Princess defines what gold is worth XP.

    From personal experience: I always defined gold worth XP as gold that had to be won. There had to be a challenge to get it. So breaking into Baron Evilbad's keep and avoiding the guards and fighting the final guardians in the treasure room would be worth XP... then again I never counted treasure as XP until it was safe in town and being spent.
  • edited February 2012
    Unwhispered...

    LotFP download here: LotFP download

    The following treasures do count for XP purposes:
    ­ * All valuable objects recovered from uncivilized or abandoned areas.
    ­ * Money hoarded by creatures who have no actual use of it.

    The list for what doesn't count is much bigger.
  • I use the LotFP xp table for defeated monsters, which basically means that most of the time the xp you gain that way is mathematically insignificant. For example, this latest 3-session delve (exceptional for us, most of the time the party comes out at the end of a session) featured maybe 300 xp in defeated monsters and over 7000 xp in treasure. (Incidentally, easily our largest haul so far. This is the first "for levels 3-5" adventure in the campaign, so far everything's been nominally for 1st level.) I'm vaguely familiar with the equivalent Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry numbers from adventures published for those, and I have to say that both give out much too much xp for monsters.

    I like giving out a small amount of xp for monsters, though, as it keeps the players focused on the goal: we distribute combat xp at the end of the combat encounter, so the players get to see how their xp count rises and they get to be bitter and desperate about how they've been dungeoneering for three hours and yippee, the character just totalled 45 experience points, meaning that he's covered 2% of what he'll need to level. It doesn't truly affect much mechanically, but it's something to do while waiting for treasure to appear and get scored.

    Interestingly enough we've established precedent for giving out monster xp for a few things that are not monster-killing in the traditional sense. The party of course gets the xp even if they just force the opposition to retreat, so killing is not necessary; a certain pacifist paladin has even scored the victory xps for simply talking potentially hostile NPCs to leave him alone. I also give half the xp for inconclusive skirmishes; for example, if the party gets jumped by enemies and they retreat successfully, that's "inconclusive", and merits a bit of ironic GM bitching in the form of a minuscule amount of xp the players might or might not care to mark up. Even more radically, we give monster xp for traps as if they were monsters, 4th edition style (which is strange, considering that none of the players have 4th edition experience). I myself tend to forget this xp-for-traps thing, but the players sometimes ask about it, and when they do, I give them the points. Small numbers that don't really affect anything, but apparently the players feel grateful for even small things when they're really down.
  • [@ Paul - no space for quote]

    This module thing is strictly a historical coincidence. As most of you probably know, I run a small rpg webstore as a hobby here in Finland, focusing on interesting small press stuff that's not reliably available from real stores. Since I've come to know Jim Raggi, who lives in Finland, he's been helping me collect various in-print OSR products for our webstore, which practically tends to mean that I have a couple of copies of most everything Jim gets for his own store, whe he also sells OSR stuff from other publishers.

    When we began the campaign last spring, a part of the motivation was simply to play this OSR stuff and thus gain a greater understanding for it so I could learn to judge the quality of the ready-made adventures better. I've done my own stuff in D&D before (we did a half-year OSR-style campaign called "Alder Gate" a few years back, for example, which was entirely my own material), so it's not like I couldn't do it, but this campaign has strictly developed as a testing ground for module adventures. This means that the campaign practices and its social footprint have developed accordingly: I'm currently fully committed creatively in other projects, for example, so the campaign has been on auto-pilot for the winter, which matches well with the module thing, as I don't need to do any prep for the sessions this way. The sandbox environment and our geographical language has also developed in a sort of videogameish "adventure location" way, emphasizing the campaign's structure where we enter from the "neutral" wilderness into a given module's environment, which often means a trip from my aesthetics to a different aesthetic environment and different logic. I mark adventure locations on my map with big yellow stars, so the sandbox play is just a bit like Super Mario 64, with players hunting yellow stars all over the map :)

    As for stylistics issues of adapting modules, the basic principle is that it's my responsibility to choose how to adapt the material, but within the constraints of the necessary adaptation I run it the way it reads. In practice this means that I translate the D&D "lingua franca" into the particulars of this campaign world: when the module says that there are goblins, I replace the standard D&D goblins with our Amerindian types. If the module represents the goblins in a way that doesn't fit the way goblins have been depicted in our play, I have an interesting choice: either I revise the module details to accord, or I swap the goblins with some similar, decidedly inhuman things. So far the goblins have worked just fine, though, so I haven't had to do this particular switch.

    The players are aware of the general nature of my task, but most of the time I do it behind the figurative screen (still don't have a real screen), in real-time as I represent the module to the players. When a drastic change has to be made, I tell the players that "OK, I just noticed something stupid in this module text and I'm fixing it", and if it seems humorous I'll tell the players after the immediate situation is over what the funny module author was thinking. When this type of situation actively endangers player rights I well might explain the conundrum to the players and then present a fix, which they'll underwrite before we go on. The most drastic example of this sort of thing happened in session 8, at the climax of the Temple of the Ghoul, which is quite a reasonable adventure (proved memorable in play, in fact, and left us with the campaign's most memorable saint/goddess) except for this bullshit description from the last room, which I'd missed when I pre-skimmed the adventure:
    From The Temple of the GhoulThis room is a mad treasure trove. Bags of gems and precious stones are piled around fine statues and works of art. Tapestries are hung everywhere and carpets and rugs are rolled up against the walls. The temple’s altar works and utensils are kept in a locked chest (Poisoned Pin Trap). Any PC taking anything of value from this room will be Cursed by Lilanora. Minor magic items and anything found in Areas 8 and Area 9 do not trigger this curse. DMs should consider forcing an alignment change on any good aligned PCs who even seriously consider this.
    When we came upon this in play, I thought on it for a few seconds, and then explained to the players that the module author had left the nature of the temple's treasure trove undetailed because he assumes that the GM will abuse the players and the Alignment rules to ensure that they don't actually take the treasure. We agreed that I'd detail the treasure, and the players would make their own call as to whether to risk the wrath of the forgotten saint. I think I set the treasure's total value at something like 25 000 silver thalers (the base unit of the campaign is silver), and I made it clear to the players that I wouldn't be pulling punches if anybody touched this treasure - it's poison treasure, like the best mummy's tomb, so make your choices accordingly. Two characters ended up partaking anyway, which directly led to the memorable paladinhood developments, AIDS quest, re-establishment of Lilanora's worship, and at this point it seems that I'll be able to pressure a vast majority of the campaign's big gun PCs to take a planar trip to Splinters of Faith, all because of this initial development.

    So all in all, I'd say that my technique in adapting the adventure modules is a mixture of things: superficialities are adapted and parallels are drawn between similar things in different adventure modules, but the module texts are honored up to the maximum possible extent. My goal in this is to retain a creative friction between our developing sense of the campaign world and the intentions and stylistic presumptions of the module author. I could just change the lizardmen in a module into something else, but I would much rather use my imagination and think about how something that might be called "lizardman" might be made to fit into the texture of what we've established about the world so far. And then the next time we encounter this word "lizardman" in an adventure module, I can again think on whether these are those same sorts of lizardman we got the last time, or do I have to change these into something else this time to make the adventure make sense. This is an exciting challenge, I'm currently trying to figure out what I'm doing with Kobolds - the Wheel of Evil is an adventure that features them in a central role, and it assumes that the local cheesemakers interact with them, but they haven't appeared in the campaign in the past, so I need to decide what to do about the entire matter.

    Also, the principle of localness: even if a single adventure pushes our sense of the campaign world, as long as we can attribute it to a local peculiarity, it's not going to be a problem. The Wheel of Evil seems like a problem to me because the human cheesemakers in the adventure are all like "Oh we have some little buggers down in the caves, no big deal we'll just hire adventurers to kill them all", but maybe I'll be able to present this to the players with a serious face if I throw myself fully behind the set-up: maybe this remote valley the delicious cheeses come from truly has such an unique relationship with the "little folk" of the underworld, even if the rest of the world doesn't have routine relations with underground-dwelling miniature lizarddog-people.

    (In case I'm not making myself understood about this challenge of campaign aesthetics, I'll say that what our group would perhaps expect as a reaction from some cheesemakers to a kobold threat would be more along the lines of alerting their feudal lord and the Church to a potential demonic invasion. The campaign world as a whole is not used to the idea of humanoid monsters, their whole worldview is going to be freaked out by anything that cannot be characterized as a phenomenon of some distant land beyond the sea or as an unique aberration of nature.)

    Because you specifically mentioned walking skeletons, I should say that undead monsters have interestingly not felt like they need to be changed much. They're right at home in "Fantasy Europe", really, as long as we understand them as a mythical phenomenon that is a Big Deal and not something you'd hire from a Necromancer's Guild to keep the streets of your feudal polity clean. I've got some freaky descriptions going on in general with undead monstrosities, so they don't feel like cheesy lightweight monsters - when unholy forces are on the move and the dead arise, the player characters tend to take it rather seriously. Ghouls in particular have proved something of a creative hit for us, we've had lots of memorable ghoul encounters, stuff like this:
    • In Tomb of the Iron God the ghouls of the catacombs were a cunning force against the well-organized, systematic purifying squad of the players. They could handle the mindless waves of skeletons and zombies for the most part, but the ghouls attacked with hit and run tactics, prowling outside light ranges and waiting for the opportunities to get behind the party and surround them. They also directed the mindless undead, like some undead generals. One particular ghoul, dubbed as the "Joker" by the players, escaped from them time upon a time, laughing ominously, until the party wizard (one of the extremely few, the players have yet to succeed with a wizard character) nailed it with a wand of magic missiles at the end of a climatic battle with something like 60 skeletons.
    • The titular ghoul of the Temple of the Ghoul had this Slender Man aesthetic going for it; as the party approached the temple in hexcrawl mode through the thick forests, I had them make perception checks from time to time, and the few highly successful individuals would get glimpses of selected Slender Man art. The ghoul's ominous presence was affirmed at the temple, as the party stumbled upon its refuse: the undead ghoul of the campaign eats manflesh obsessively and shits it profusely soon after, soiling everything with blood and shit and ill-digested flesh. As we definitely don't emphasize D&D-like monster taxonomies in the campaign, the players were far from certain about what this "thing" might even be, and even after a Sage identified the ghoul-manure the players were far from relieved - just because you know its name doesn't make it any safer.
    • A couple sessions past our ghoul obsessions came to a logical watermark point when Vara-Voro, the guy who'd contracted AIDS like forty sessions back, was seeking the Alder Gate for his cure. The Alder Gate in this campaign is located below the Ruined Monastery of James Maliszewsky, in an underground charnel realm ruled by ghouls and pale undead purple worms. The poor Vara-Voro was practically unfit for anything more strenuous than relaxed walk-abouts at this point, definitely no match for a ghoul. The player had some amazing luck on certain ability checks, though, and when Vara-Voro encountered a ghoul in the charnel realm, he revealed a new skill: his long months spent in cleaning out Lilanora's temple had awakened his new psychic power, for he was the Ghoul Mentalist! (The name is jokish, you understand, but the concept is sort of half-serious.) Vara-Voro miraculously survived his journey to the charnel realm by disguising himself as a ghoul and dancing with them like a white man would with wolves.
  • Posted By: Paul T.I've always been fond of XP-only-for-treasure, too, I think it simplifies the whole game into something that makes a whole lot of sense.

    The only problem with it is:

    How do you define "treasure"? If I go into the local tavern, and steal some gold out of a young man's pocket, should I get XP for that gold?

    This usually wouldn't come up in a game, but I could see it being an issue once characters become larger movers-and-shakers: should we get XP for chasing our rivals' business out of town and increasing our black market weapons trade revenue?
    I haven't found this problematic, truly. This is probably because I have this monolithic creative drive that defines how and why we play the game. We understand experience points as a proof of work the players gain by overcoming challenges and thus proving their machismo (joking here); experience points are specifically not an in-fiction thing, so we don't need to look directly at the fiction to figure out whether xp should be awarded. We just look at whether challenges have been overcome, and act accordingly. XP for treasure is just a gauge, a score-keeping device, in this context: whether you get xp depends on whether a challenge has been overcome, and how much you get can be seen in the gauge.

    As for which things are challenges and which things are not, that is for the most part really obvious: it's a challenge if the GM is in challenge-setting mode, seeking to complicate things. If there's uncertainty, the GM can ask whether the players are thinking that this is xp stuff they're doing here, or the players can ask the GM in advance whether what they're doing now "counts as adventuring". It has not been a problem. The player characters certainly do make money in ways that are not adventure and thus not xp-worthy; investments, "downtime work" (mostly done by the really poor characters who we want to give a slight bit of money so they can buy a bit of equipment), selling their property and so on.

    The third source of xp, quest experience, is much more problematic for me. The method logically implies that this thing exists, but my rules for it are incomplete despite the constantly increasing need for it. If anybody has their own ideas about it, by all means describe: I'm on the lookout for philosophies, mathematical formulae for calculating it, or anything else that would help me finish my own take.
  • Posted By: Eero Tuovinen
    Good question. I'd say that the key to why D&D has faced complaints about whiffing in recent years is in entitlement: by the time 3rd edition came to define the game it's become a common wisdom that the individual skirmish player characters engage in is what defines the game - the game had become a game of skirmish fights stringed together by a modest amount of exploration (or an outright plot outline created by the GM) instead of a game of exploration punctuated by skirmish fights. The natural entitlement of a player in this context is that the party is going to win these fights, for they are unavoidable and wanted so, as the core part of gameplay.
    I think entitlement is a perfect word to describe my own experience; naturally, not everyone will agree about their own take.
    Keep on the Borderlands threw a lot of upfront costs for just hanging around the keep: food, lodging, etc. It made us players all feel like penniless mercenaries, and when we found any amount of gold or valuable equipment, it felt like the gods were rooting for us crazy sword-hobos. Last thing a level 1 Thief wants is to get into a fight with 2:1 odds (it wouldn't have been so bad if we'd had the suggested 6-player group) if he could avoid it, and it's ok to play that way because it's eminently possible to get into a fight you can't win - - not because the GM is hosing you, but because you picked a fight with too-long odds. If it's established at the table that fights aren't guaranteed to be balanced or fair, then it's only fair that fights should also be avoidable.

    Conversely, puzzles and other exploration problems need to have a "reasonable" solution to be fair - - it has to be achievable or it risks becoming a roadblock in the dungeon. Really challenging puzzles should be shortcuts or lead to treasure troves, rather than being the only way forward.
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