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Category: Tabletop RPG

Powers of Four: Characters

At the beginning of this series we identified the following four types of characters rather than types of players in a tabletop RPG:

  1. A fantasy version of the player themself as a whole person
  2. Pretending to be something the player wishes they could be, but aren’t
  3. Playing a part of the player’s personality, but magnified to become a defining trait rather than a smaller facet
  4. Taking a theme and running with it as a part of a carefully crafted narrative

When inviting people to play a roleplaying game you should know if any of these aren’t going to work. Where the consequence of failure is character death, and this happens frequently, players who play themselves may be a bit too invested in their characters to enjoy it when they make one bad roll and that’s it. This is also the case when the player wishes to be integrated into some kind of grand plot arc. D&D is, so far, the best game I have played for types 1 and 4 above. The rules make it relatively easy to make characters into heroes.

The problem I find with this is that the path of least resistance for the DM is to present weak challenges and keep the XP spigot wide open, allowing the player characters to take a walk up the gentle slope to godhood. It gets tedious and is ultimately uninteresting to me when there is a shower of rewards without significant risk. It is, therefore, a challenge for me to run an interesting game for people who love to play these characters because introducing the risk of death or irrevocable failure is at odds with huge investment in a single character. It’s a challenge worth taking, I think, because wanting to play those characters is a valid desire for those players and I like diversity at the table. It just can’t be taken too far; if someone wants a pure power fantasy I won’t recommend joining any of my tabletop adventures or campaigns. At the same time, I will refrain from the rocks fall, everybody dies sort of excess sadism unless I warn characters beforehand that I am running something in the spirit of Tomb of Horrors.

That moment when you find out that this fictional world doesn’t revolve around your own character.

Type 3 represents the characters I typically play, which lends itself to some investment in the continued life and success of the same character. At the same time, it means that I should be able to part with a character (or see them completely fail) if my player-ego doesn’t run too high. This, and the wish-fulfillment type 2, can work in D&D but are also a little more suited to World of Darkness where characters are not 100% disposable, but are usually far from gods-in-the-making even with a few extraordinary abilities. Trouble arises when the desire to be the most powerful or the sleaziest man alive overrides the spirit of cooperation required for any group of players to function. I find that these are the easiest types of characters to write for as a DM as long as the players are willing to be flexible and show restraint in their expectations. I only find it challenging when I am the player who really needs to be doing more of those things.

Type 2 is, I think, the only thing that really works in an OSR meat grinder that the “evil DM” wishes to run. You simply can’t go into a game where character death happens at the snap of the fingers with a carefully crafted backstory and emotional investment. I don’t mind playing these, but definitely need to know ahead of time that I am NOT to play a character that I truly care about. I’m probably not going to run a whole lot of this with my regular group, but will for one-off events like Extra Life.

What I am trying to say here is that there is no right or wrong character type for a person to want to play, but that we have had some friction when we try and cram characters of type 1 and 4 into games that just don’t support that kind of investment. Considering character types is just another way to “know your audience” when thinking about starting up a game.

 

 

Powers of Four: Agency

Agency is the character’s capacity to act, rather than simply have events unfold around them. The thing that makes the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) so neat is spreading out the agency among several players rather than having one person, an author, decide what every single character does or does not do. It is not evenly distributed in most TTRPGs; the DM/GM/Storyteller being responsible for most of the characters that exist in the fiction. It’s not appropriately called a “game” if the person running the show narrates the entire thing. Players, in order to be players, must be offered the opportunity to act. The kind of options for action that are available, and the consequences of those actions, remain the purview of the person running the game.

Your agency is your capacity to act. Threatening the Froggit is not necessarily an effective course of action, but you can try it without getting blocked by Undertale’s game mechanics.

One way to offer players a chance to act is to present choices or dilemmas. Whether between two good options, two bad options, or one clearly good and clearly bad there is a direct choice: kill the werewolves and in doing so break your oath to the moon goddess, or let them sack the nearby village and deal with the displaced families afterwards. The DM who writes/runs these kinds of adventures probably reads up on ethical dilemmas and imagines how to weave it into a tabletop adventure for fun. Having dice and characters make things more fun than imaginary trolleys, after all. This is generally the style I like to play: I don’t get everything I want, but my choices and the choices of those around me matter in an important way.

Another way to do this is to offer deliberately blind choices. For horror games this usually means a choice between bad or worse, with no indications and/or possibly false indications to the players which is which. There really is no “winning” here, no solution to the problem or way to overcome the insurmountable. The choices the characters make are more about showing who the character is rather than what they can do to affect their situation. Although the game is interactive, the characters have a low degree of agency in the plot. If it sounds like I’m writing about this in a negative tone, it’s because this is a type of game that I find it hard to get into. It’s fine to run this game if the players know what they’re getting into, but possibly campaign-ruining if you have been running lots of heroes faced with ethical dilemmas type stuff and then want to show everyone that your new villain is really badass. It’s a fine way to run a game; I know what I am getting into when I play a game with “Cthulhu” in the name. I just don’t know a lot of people who can really get into that sort of thing and I’m a “maybe” at best.

The third is like a puzzle, sometimes literally and sometimes just functioning that way. There is one way to progress. The players need to solve for x. The only way to really lose is to give up, and the way to win is to find the answer (which could be a combination that opens a door or something less concrete like the identity of the person who committed a crime). This is something I can get into when it’s a video game, less so when it is a tabletop RPG, even less when I have created a character and a backstory. It just doesn’t mix well for me. If my agency is to be limited to things that solve the puzzle and things that don’t then I would much prefer to come in with a pre-determined character well-suited for the game to be played. I loved Portal and other such games, but I need my D&D or my WoD to be different than this.

Toriel doesn’t quite grasp the concept of agency here. Yes, the human acts when they flip the indicated switch, but any apparent alternate actions are blocked in favour of the one intended for the player.

The fourth way is where choices are basically made for you, which is where the word “railroading” has been a popular but possibly misleading way to describe what is happening. I’ve come to the belief that preventing a campaign from derailing is actually a good thing for a GM to do if the general consensus is that the game is intended to be consistent rather than absurd. That doesn’t necessarily mean forcing the players into a single course of action and making them feel more like their characters are being dragged along for the ride. This isn’t how any tabletop campaigns I have played in have been intended to run; it is what happens when a DM wants things to go a certain way so badly that they get a bit ham-fisted about it. I’ve done it as DM. It’s not a good way to go; the complete and total lack of agency almost never makes for a good game. If your group is doing something where the person running the event is more of an author than a game runner and encourages what amounts to audience participation, I guess this can be okay, but it’s generally the thing you want to avoid. And to be clear, prodding the players to leave the bus depot and explore the town after three sessions might qualify as “railroading” in the eyes of some, but that’s not at all what I am talking about here.

There may be more ways that agency in the form of choices for action may be offered in the TTRPG, but these are the four that I came up with in my conversation with the storyteller from my most recent WoD campaign that describe almost all of the TTRPGS we have played so far.

Powers of Four: Setting

One of the first things I did when my HDD quit after seven years was choose which games to reinstall. I decided that Skyrim was on the list. I have on various occasions tried a second playthrough but for some reason August was a better time than others. I think one of the reasons why I got back into a video game from 2011 is that Tamriel is an extremely rich setting, and the writing is detailed but not overbearing. For example, I chose not to care about the civil war quest line at first because I remembered more about it from my most recent attempt at a playthrough. I thought I was bored with that part. But then I tried to explain to my wife the differences between the Empire and the Stormcloaks and found myself having to take a lot of time to do it properly. Once I got into talking about the facts about both sides I found that there was something to care about even if clearing forts is a little tedious. Despite a little bit of corny dialog, the setting is highly consistent and does not engage in much absurdity. Other games with different kinds of settings, like Great Ork Gods, crank up the absurdity because it’s fun. This is something I and the storyteller from my recent campaign identified as one of the key choices to make.

Sure, the placement is glitchy and the object (body) really should have been removed upon reload, but I feel like this is a good representation of how the Stormcloak Rebellion went for Ulfric in this playthrough.

One of the goals I have as a DM is to run a campaign, not necessarily a super-long one, but something more aptly called a campaign rather than an adventure where people love the setting so much that they want me to run something else in the same setting and/or seek permission to run something in that setting themselves. I don’t expect it will ever compete with Forgotten Realms as a setting, but it would melt my heart if someone could ask for a setting by name rather than “the same world as your last campaign.” One of the things I will be watching closely is the consistency/absurdity balance. As the person running the show I will need to keep the group interested while also considering what I want to build, which will definitely skew towards the consistent. I really don’t appreciate when I or someone else really wants to do build up a world that exists in our imaginations beyond the field of view of the player characters, but others insist on making it into a farce of pop culture references and self-parody. It’s fine to do those things as long as that’s the kind of game the group has agreed to play, but it’s something I find harder to enjoy than when it’s baked into the game from the start. Going from consistent to absurd usually doesn’t work well for me.

However, as much as it is jarring when it gets dark and serious in a setting where I expected something more along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I find it preferable to the reverse (going from consistent to absurd). There is one time that stands out to me where something shed a lot of its absurdity; I actually enjoyed it a lot. I was a player in a Risus campaign which started as a fandom mashup of stuff our group liked, but as we probed into the penal system of a very “enlightened” civilization we came to the horrifying realization that in their desire to eschew traditional prisons they invented a new kind of psychological torture. This wasn’t originally the intention, but if I am going to have intentions about this sort of thing, I hope to be able to strike the balance as well as it was done in that campaign.

As much as I enjoy Skyrim, I can see getting into something more absurd again as long as it’s the kind of game that my group wants to play at the time. Whether by meticulous planning or by skillful improv, it’s something that I think is really important to consider in some way.

One Similarity Between Rappelling and TTRPG

I hope everyone enjoyed “The Month of Adam.” As promised, I am getting back to writing about the meaning and experience around the games we play with others. This summer, my regular World of Darkness group has entered an indefinite hiatus. I’m not here to pick apart the minutiae of personality differences between us that may have been contributing factors, but to propose a theory of why we’re not still playing that campaign on a weekly basis and what can be done to try and avoid future collapses.

Before continuing I would like to state that it is difficult as a DM/GM/Storyteller not to think “this is my fault” when things do not go well, even if everyone tells you it is not and you know at an intellectual level that it is not. Knowing that the Storyteller for this campaign is likely going to be one of the first people reading this post, I would like to be clear and explicit that this is not a dissection of something he did wrong.

I’m also not here to claim that the Geek Social Fallacies are the only reading a person should ever do about group dynamics, but I have found to be very useful general guidelines to use when explaining why something is the way it is in social circles that I am a part of. Today’s GSF is #5, that everyone must be invited to everything. I have noticed over the years that “the group” has formed around common interests and bonds of friendship which is not a bad thing. But in seeing what happens when “the group” can’t be divided when interests diverge, it becomes clear to me that a burden is placed on the people who want to organize a tabletop campaign. A prospective DM is put in an awkward spot when they want to run something that isn’t everyone’s jam. On the other side of the screen, players get pulled into campaigns as a matter of loyalty rather than pure leisure. Rather than seeing tabletop RPG as a monolithic hobby, perhaps we would do better to see it as being a broad category under which different games exist. If I was the sort of person to organize excursions for people to go on a five-hour X-TREEM rappel adventure, then I would not likely be inviting most of my tabletop group and I don’t think anyone would really mind too much. So, too, should it be okay for me to run a hack-and-slash OSR dungeon crawl for some people and not feel compelled to invite people who dislike that and want epic character arcs when they play an RPG.

We can still be friends even if you don’t invite me to do this.

So, I think that what we can do is be more intentional about it: players need not play every game that is on offer, nor should the prospective DM be shy about inviting some people and not others. The reason why we play with our own groups more than just heading out to the local game store’s D&D night is that we want enough stability to tell a bigger story than what can be run in 2 hours with random strangers. But that’s not enough to sustain wildly different desires for different kinds of play. Maybe we should be more accepting of that, and put more energy into social occasions that are not centred around the current TTRPG campaign so that whoever is not invited to that can still feel like their friends aren’t ignoring them.

Okay, so now that we’ve got the social side sorted out, how do we “be more intentional” about the gaming part? I’m going to be addressing that next week in my post about the four characteristics of TTRPGs that can help guide our choices in which ones to play and which ones to take a pass on.

Working On Avoiding Fallacies Three and Five

Social time. Escapism. Fun. When I play recreational games it’s usually in the hope that those aspects of the activity will lead to reduced stress. But this weekend, I had a hard time focusing on the game on our regular tabletop night and had to say no to a bonus game run by this blog’s favourite guest author.

I wasn’t out at work or sleeping in bed or something so obviously excusable like that. I ended up going out on a fleet to help my online space guild stake a claim on more imaginary solar systems. I know I shouldn’t feel bad about it, but it’s hard not to think that there must be something wrong with my priorities when I have time for them and not for my friends.

The reason I say I shouldn’t feel bad about it is because I know better. The Five Geek Social Fallacies were posted in 2003 and remain an important reference for when I might be falling for one or more. I know it’s not necessarily sound scientific psychology, but I have adopted those five fallacies as guidelines for what kind of negative thinking to avoid. Today it’s three and five that I have to read and reread. It’s OK to do something that requires less mental energy than more tabletop RPG adventures with friends. It’s OK not to grab every available tabletop night to the exclusion of space friends. I know these things at an intellectual level, but it’s still a challenge to feel it sometimes.

Characters Need Motivation

There are many kinds of people in any given world. Some are eager to grab the spotlight, while others prefer to mind their own business. Many of the tabletop RPG characters I play tend somewhat towards the latter. I admit that resisting a call to adventure doesn’t make it easy for a DM trying to do her best to get a character into the adventure, but I don’t feel like everyone needs to be desperate to pursue every pickpocket or take up the offer of every huckster that crosses their path just because that’s where the plot hooks are. Some characters have a little bit more Bilbo Baggins in them and need a reason to go if they’re not taken by force into the adventure. The rules of improv tell us to say “yes” to things, but I think sometimes a little bit of pushback from a player who cannot figure out an in-character reason to leave their normal life is not necessarily detrimental. That is, if you want to have characters that aren’t aggressively extroverted busybodies looking to get in the centre of whatever might be happening.

A simple bar brawl probably won’t convince the owner to leave, but if the whole bar burns down…

So, what can we do on the fly if a player character owns a bar but decides to let the brooding man in the corner enjoy his drink in privacy and would like nothing more than to continue operating the establishment?

  1. The hooded figure could use coercive force to remove the bartender from his daily business. This could be physical but doesn’t have to be. Being threatened by a powerful guild that can shut the character’s normal activities down can shake them out of their desire to continue doing what they normally do. The character wasn’t out to get into an adventure, but ends up there due to a situation beyond his control.
  2. Take something important from the character. A paltry amount of money isn’t good enough. If it is money or assets then it has to threaten the livelihood of the character to force them into action. If my character’s business relies on a specific set of tools, then having those stolen is a lot more important than his wallet. Or perhaps it is something with sentimental value. Whatever the case may be, a character can be motivated to go on an adventure if it’s too urgent and important to rely on filing a report with the town guard.
  3. Threaten something important to the character. It does not have to be a coercive and malicious threat. But if the character’s family lives nearby and a plague of the undead is on the rise then she may feel more compelled to join an adventuring party than if it was just a chance encounter with some NPC who spends his time approaching strangers in taverns with job offers. Defend a country, defend a loved one, defend a philosophical ideal. Whatever it is, make sure that it’s more important than going to work the next day.
  4. Tease the character with the offer of a solution to a problem. Perhaps the character or a loved one is sick or in need of significant assistance in some way. He may be motivated to take a hiatus from running his business if selling mead isn’t bringing in enough money, or if all the gold in the world can’t fix a problem it may be an offer of specialized expert assistance. There is a need that cannot be met by continuing to keep ale flowing once the local porters are done work for the day.

These don’t have to be elaborately crafted storylines in order to work. They just need to give a player a plausible reason to say “yes” to the adventure for reasons other than it being necessary to advance the plot. The player can make it easier by offering up some basic detail about the character’s life that would work well with an improvised hook. As the DM I may be really proud of my mysterious stranger NPC, but I can’t count on the players being interested enough in her to drop everything and follow along. If that stranger can do one of those four things then a reluctant hero may decide that it’s time to close up shop and go defeat an adversary. I may even have to abandon that mysterious stranger angle for something else. It’s a bit more work to do it that way, but I think it’s well worth trying to avoid but thou must situations.

Annus Revelati

At this time last year I was writing one of those retrospective posts lamenting the year that was. I’m not going to sit here and list all the horrific plays in political games around the world we saw this year. Almost everything that has excited and outraged us has been as surprising as a sunrise given the events of late 2016. Every violation of the rule of law and basic decency coming from the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world should be no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to 2016. That we now have unscrupulous players in Canada and other countries looking to imitate that example is as predictable as it is appalling. Yet despite all this I believe that rather than an annus horribilis, 2017 has been an annus revelati. If my Google/Wiktionary-based Latin skills are good enough, that should mean a year of showing, uncovering, revealing, and disclosing. We cannot help but see now what has been under the surface, whether it was intentionally obscured or simply invisible to those who chose not to see. This has been the year that we have been reminded of some of the things we have to take into play rather than take for granted as axiomatic truths.

As important as it is to keep the big picture in mind, it is very important that we also see the brighter things even if they seem very small in a very large world. For me personally, 2017 saw a number of happy events yet none of these were really new things. I got married, which showed the rest of the world the love that my partner and I hold between ourselves. Though in some ways it can be considered a new beginning, it was a fulfilment of the engagement that happened in 2016. I formally joined a Unitarian Universalist church, though I had been interested in the faith and attending services throughout 2016. I welcomed a second author to this blog halfway through the year who has been a HUGE help in making this project manageable at this time in my life. That, too, was suggested to me just as I was first starting: bring in guest posts sooner rather than later so that it seems less weird when it happens. It took a while, but I am glad that I did that with Alastair’s series. I got back in the DM’s chair during Extra Life, but I have spent more time talking about wanting to run more tabletop adventures than actually doing it in 2017. That adventure, naturally, revolved around revealing the sordid truth about the temple that loomed large over a destitute village.

The most exciting part of a tabletop adventure’s plot is usually some sort of revealing of the truth.

So, looking back on the year that has passed, everything that has happened in my world has been about revealing and uncovering the nature and consequences of what was already set in motion. Now it is time to look forward and think about what to do with what has been revealed. I believe that we can affect games much larger than ourselves by how we play our little games, whether recreational pastimes or the game of life as it plays out for our small individual lives. These are my recommendations to my readers for the year of 2018 CE on how we can work to improve our play:

  • Defend, but don’t play defence. Innuendo Studios is doing a fantastic series called the alt-right playbook, and in Never Play Defense we are reminded that a person can be effective without being right if they are playing aggressively. I’m not saying that you should ditch substance for bravado, but boldness is a better look than apologetic hesitation. I recently had the opportunity to inform someone at a game table that I am certain that my Romani friend would never attempt to “gyp” him of any points that he is due. Making this matter-of-fact statement was far more effective than something that started with “Sorry, but I am offended by…” There is no need to allow yourself and your loved ones to be attacked nor is there any need to turtle up and yield all of your ground. Now is the best time to speak up at your gaming table when someone is doing or saying something that could put you on the defensive and renew your efforts to be deliberate in what media to (not) consume. And, if you are so inclined, support Innuendo Studios.
  • Don’t apologize for what you are (not). Following that, when someone goes name-calling, embrace the ones that should not be an insult in the first place. A lot of what I write in this space might be labelled as “social justice warrior” ranting even though in terms of 4th/5th edition D&D classes I am probably more of a warlock than a fighter. But seriously, why should I yield this ground? I endeavour not to be antisocial. I detest injustice. I believe in fighting for what is right. Getting upset over labels only derails my intent and delivers the desired reaction to the sort of person who would wield such a so-called insult (refer again to the video linked above). So be a social justice warrior, or evangelical Christian, or whatever words people say in disdainful tones that, at face value, actually represent the kind of person you aspire to be.
  • Let go of the notion that everyone agrees with your rules. If you have not learned this again and again in 2017, then you have not been paying attention. The notion of a “marketplace of ideas” and quotes attributed to Voltaire about free speech are fine when an overwhelming majority of people in a society can agree on the basic rules surrounding minimal human decency and the existence of immutable facts which cannot be changed by the volume and repetition of spurious zingers. You can’t play a game with those who won’t agree to the rules. No fair play is possible when the torch-wielding mob is out to cause havoc. Such people must be dealt with in a different manner than people who can agree to a good set of basic rules but with whom you profoundly disagree with when it comes to how to solve particular problems.
  • Embrace a little bit of swagger. Remember that while your stated beliefs don’t make you a better person, telling the truth does. Your tweets don’t make you a better person, but playing fair does. The colour of your political party’s campaign signs does not make you a better person, but holding people accountable for their behaviour especially when it’s a popular person on your team does. So when you can be certain that you are doing and saying the right thing, do it openly and proudly. There is no reason to pretend that fair play, the rule of just law, and respecting the fundamental worth and dignity of every person aren’t for winners.
  • Read Crash Override. I am just getting started on it now, but the subject matter is really important. And it doesn’t matter what you think of Zoë Quinn personally. If you want to be a critic, be an informed critic. Know about the things you disagree with. Learn about (sub)cultures that you haven’t really been concerned with up to this point. But also, being sympathetic doesn’t excuse ignorance either; it is important to know what you are up against and what you can do to help. Games matter. The internet matters. Internet and gaming culture matter. These are important parts of, not distractions from what we call real life.

If a few more people do a few more of those things, I believe that 2018 will be a brighter year, even if just by a little bit.

The Temple

I went into last week’s Swords and Wizardry one-shot with one goal in mind: have a miserable village beside a resplendent temple, and make that the result of a magical glamour. That’s all. No maps, no written notes, just an idea stemming from a similar visual in Path of Exile when my witch said something like “I wonder what manner of magic this is” when she stepped into the Lunaris Temple for the first time. I sketched a crude map and added some names I plucked from an Uncharted Atlas map and had the players start rolling up some characters. My ideas were far from original, but that’s not necessary for tabletop improv. I just needed something that could move.

The players, whose characters were a loosely formed mercenary squad who banded together to deal with a bandit crisis but were dismissed as soon as things calmed down, dutifully reported to the tavern (because of course) where they heard that the patron of the temple was sponsoring a witch hunt. I was hoping that the phrase “witch hunt” would arouse some suspicion about his motives, but nobody grabbed onto that hook immediately. So I ran with it, knowing that whenever there is a way to play straight into the villains hands, players sometimes jump at the chance. Sometimes they should know better, sometimes it is unwitting, but a DM must always be prepared for the response “OK, sure!” when the villain is making demands.

I decided that there would be three sets of witches, of increasing difficulty. The first would put up more fight than one adventurer could handle, but having seven was complete overkill. The second I would make a relatively even match, and then the third would be as difficult as the rules suggest is possible. This would give the party an opportunity for some pause during the witch hunt, and hopefully to find a reason to cast Detect Magic, which was critically important to discovering that the temple was a lie. I had read the description of the spell ahead of time and decided that this would be the tell: if a person could see magic, they would see that there is something deeply wrong with one of the relics in the temple. It was not until after the first witch was killed, beheaded, and her hut set on fire that the magic-user found the occasion to cast that spell.

Character sheets for old-school D&D can be fairly simple, which is an advantage when you have one night to run an adventure from start to finish.

It was only after meeting the second witch, this time a pair, that the adventurers started to turn sides. Perhaps it was because it was readily apparent that these were more powerful than the last, as they reacted with annoyance rather than fear when a squad of heavily armed men and women showed up on their doorstep. Perhaps it was lingering remorse over not even trying to ask questions of the first one. Whatever it was, it was back to what I had expected would be the main plot of discovering the illusion. Because I didn’t take the time to prepare (a common DM sin) I felt that I was spending more time than I should have consulting the rule book. After a few awkward pauses (“you are on the road to the temple, please chat amongst yourselves while I frantically look something up”), I found that a single ogre-mage appeared to have hit dice suggesting that it would be an appropriate challenge for a party of seven. I quickly split the abilities and HD evenly into two creatures, there being two witches, but didn’t get to use this information yet because the adventurers decided not to continue the witch hunt.

Like many references, the Swords and Wizardry book offers information about antagonists who are primarily monstrous beasts who fight physically, rather than the humanoid spellcasters I was looking for. I had the same problem with the 4th Edition Monster Vault, though they saw fit to include a few things that aren’t instinct-driven dangerous cryptids. In the case of this adventure, the first witch was a blink dog according to the statistics provided in the Swords and Wizardry book.

The second set of witches sent the players back to the patron with a cursed scroll (looted from the last group of failed witch hunters who came through), which I rolled for the effect based on the table in the rule book. I was hoping for something immediate and decisive, whether instant death or emitting a strong odour for several days. In retrospect, I probably should have just declared it to be something like that rather than rolling on the table since the experience drain effect sent me back to the rule book trying to figure out what that means to a monster rather than to a player character. Once I came up with a way to handle it (pretend that the patron was going to be more powerful than he was, but that this scroll level drained him to the actual stats I had), the party started to dismantle the illusion. This provoked an angry response from the patron, who now had a matron counterpart.

See, I had those numbers for an ogre-mage in two persons and I wasn’t about to stop the action again to figure out how the patron should fight. So that is where the matron came from. The players even asked where she came from, did we meet her before? The answer, unfortunately, was uh yeah, she was around the whole time. She wasn’t.  She was an invention to make the action keep going as we were coming to the end of the fifth hour and it was time to move on to something else. It was time for a triumphant battle of… wait, no it wasn’t, this is old-school D&D where heroic plot lines are not guaranteed. It was time for the villain to cast sleep on everyone and get out alive. The players woke up and returned to town to find that the second pair of witches left the area after they destroyed the home of the potion merchant who was sympathetic to the patron’s witch hunt. With their job complete, the players’ party moved on. In my world, other people have other adventures while you are out having yours. The game may revolve around the players, but the world doesn’t need to. In case you were wondering, the plan for the third witch was to have a steampunk-ish gnome in a giant mecha suit. I try not to keep every cool idea on the “good” path.

So, what do I take from this experience? Swords and Wizardry is good for one-shots. Never neglect to keep different paths valid, whether “good” or “evil.” A DM does not need a detailed map or backstory, but combat statistics should absolutely be prepared beforehand. One good setting idea is better than all the written lore in the world. And lastly, never count on a large group of players to play their characters in a morally and ethically consistent manner. There is still a witch’s head in the possession of a fraudulent patron who is still at large, somewhere.

The Partial Success

“Here, try reading this,” my dad says. He is, in his retirement, enrolled in Latin classes. He hands me a printout of a passage that he had been looking at for his class. Not being fluent in any of the modern Latin languages, let alone the original, I certainly was not able to understand the whole thing. But between the cognates between English and Latin, cultural and scientific loan words, and cognates with the little French and Spanish that I have dabbled in, I was able to make out a few of the words.

Libro, Satyricon, celebrato, monstrum, lupus, ferrous, argentum. I don’t read or speak Latin, didn’t understand that it was a reference to a specific tale of a werewolf, but I managed to figure out that the passage was a reference to a book full of monstrous beasts of fantasy. My immediate thought was that I wish I did more of this at the D&D table. I think there is an unfortunate tendency towards the simplification of interpreting languages that aren’t “Common” which is a euphemism for English. Players are usually eager to check their character sheets to see if, by virtue of being a Dwarf, that it was Goblin or Giant or Orcish that they are assumed to be able to speak. But without the rule book saying that their character by virtue of race or class speaks the language fluently, the player might give up right away.

What about Giant? Can someone try talking to them in Giant? No? How about Goblin?

I can also appreciate as a DM who has definitely run some sessions with less time to prepare than what was desired, that it is a lot of work to either plan or improvise these extra steps rather than calling for an intelligence check, picking a number between one and twenty, and then either giving the player the page from your notes detailing what the ancient stele has written on it, or give them nothing if they fail. However, there are some things when it comes to extra effort on the DM’s part that makes more of a difference than others. As much as I like making visual maps, I have to admit that it’s not the highest priority a DM should have. One thing that I think does make a big difference is allowing for the partial success. An experience like the one I had in real life can make things really interesting. Think about it… rather than just having a scroll of unintelligible writing in their inventory, your players could get: something something vampire, something something cave, something something priestess. Even without expertise and/or the favour of the dice, this could be enough to keep them going on a (mis)adventure.

I don’t know if this is going to make it into the very next game that I run, but I do hope to remember that little moment I had when challenging players to try and make some sense of something that isn’t written in their everyday language. Overcoming a challenge should not always be an all-or-nothing scenario, especially not when it’s trying to pick apart a written text at the characters’ leisure. I think a really good DM is one who can make partial successes the most meaningful rather than reducing the game to rolling high numbers on polyhedral dice. As a player I would certainly rather go ahead with a partial success than be told “no” and get stuck because of that 3 on a d20. In a game of fantasy we’re certainly foolish to expect everything to be “realistic” but a little dash of realism here and there to make it feel like the character’s situation is a life that a person could live helps players feel more invested in their characters than in their dice.


Today (November 4, 2017) is officially the game day for Extra Life, but my team is holding our private event next week. If you have not yet done so, please consider clicking here to contribute to my page. Note that this year I decided to try something different and play in support of the CMN hospital in Puerto Rico because I am sure they can use some extra help. I will play for my home town again next year. I don’t know how long after official game day that my donation page will be available, so if you have the means and the inclination please don’t delay any further.

Next week, Alastair continues his Full Steam Ahead series with Street Fighter IV. If all goes well with running a tabletop adventure with my Extra Life group, I will post all of the DM’s notes with additional commentary on November 18th.

The Intrigue

Last weekend I was at IntrigueCon 2017. You can find my write-up about last year here. This year I didn’t sign up for any games in advance, which meant I had to play whatever had open seats. Of the four sessions I attended, three were variants on old-school D&D and one was a variant of Dungeon Crawl Classics called Mutant Crawl Classics (which doesn’t seem to have its own page on the website, though you can find the books in their store).

The thing that I noticed about playing Swords and Wizardry as well as getting to play Sftabhmonton, an OSR-type game that I mentioned last year, was that the potential of becoming a hero is always there, but low level characters are utterly disposable. MCC, in contrast, is unapologetic about being a meat grinder. What I really found intriguing about these different games I tried last weekend was the relative ease that a party can form and get going, without having a dedicated session for character building or establishing a plot. The rewards for most of the characters I played, though, was death.

Later editions of D&D lay out a clearer path to rewards, which can be good because I find very few adults with adult responsibilities are up for taking years upon years to finally get a shot at something that can be taken away in an instant by a snotty DM who jumps on you the one time you forget to specify every inch of the floor you are going to check with your trusty ten foot pole. We want to feel like out time is worth more than that. The older games, though, don’t hand out a reliable payoff. It is difficult in these retro versions of D&D to keep a single character alive. The increase in risk does mean an increase in reward, as a high level OSR-type character is actually something to be marvelled at, rather than some powerful hero who has spent a few dozen sessions with DMs who hand out levels and XP like candy (I have been one of those on more than one occasion, especially when running 4e campaigns).

Two of my four character sheets. I invested too much effort into making Tybalt a cat-type manimal; he died instantly at the start of the first encounter.

Whether or not it’s worth going old school instead of getting in on a D&D-brand game using the relatively newer rules really depends on what a player is looking for. A satisfying heroic romp through a complex story including a nice epilogue? Or an evolving story, that has to grow on its own because investing too much into making unique characters with well-written backstories is unreasonably risky in an old-school game? I can see the appeal of both, though I have to admit that the least satisfying end to a character is when a DM punishes me for not checking every square inch of the dungeon for fatal traps. The one time I forget to say that I check the ceiling, or the whole doorway rather than just the door, and it’s all over? Congratulations, you’re oh so clever, and that’s several hours of my life that I will never get back. If I am invested in the narrative I don’t want the game to actively interfere with my enjoyment of that narrative. It’s not to say that I want it to be free of challenge, but I want failures to mean something. Even if goals become achievable or the character dies I want to feel like there was a reason that it happened if I have spent time and effort in building up a character who is part of a story rather than just a game piece to move through a dungeon. In the longer games that I run I have to work on making a valid path that includes failure rather than softly ensuring that my players win all the time because that’s how I want the story to go.

But, for being able to sit down with no prior relationship to the DM or the other characters, and no intention of ever playing more than one session, I have to say that I really quite enjoyed the games I played and will be looking into running some for groups that aren’t going to meet weekly for several months. One such opportunity I hope to take advantage of is when I get together with my Extra Life team in November to play some games. If you have not already done so, please consider making a contribution on my page.

Alastair continues Full Steam Ahead next week with Half-Life Deathmatch: Source.