Saturday, September 22, 2012

Starting Campaigns in Established Settings

As my contribution to Dice Monkey's September blog carnival, I want to speak briefly about my repeated use of Tim Shorts' excellent  "Starter Adventure" Knowledge Illuminates (published by GM Games) as an inception point for a larger campaign. I have run the adventure twice now, and have found it to be a superb campaign-starter, in part because it avoids the four pitfalls mitigating against good (mega-)dungeon design recently noted by Peter D at Dungeon Fantastic:

1) too much useless backstory
2) slow starts
3) random encounters
4) too many encounters

As I noted in my review of the adventure, "it is the balance the module achieves between keeping it simple -- the scenario itself is quite straightforward -- and offering exciting possibilities for further adventures and/or campaigns" that make it such a valuable and worthwhile gaming product. Since that review was written, I have run the adventure twice, and have found that, just as I predicted, it does indeed give just enough enticing detail to hang custom adventure hooks upon without overburdening the scenario with "useless" or excessive backstory elements. Hence, while KI is NOT a full-blown "campaign setting" in the literal sense of that term, it provides enough of a thumbnail sketch of one to count as an implied setting, especially for an old-school DIY'er. One key feature of the scenario that I do not want to Spoilerize here absolutely sets the world of KI apart (in my mind) from many other settings and implies a great deal about how arcane energies can or might function in any campaign emanating therefrom.

Knowledge Illuminates also avoids the "slow start" problem because it is, on one level, intended as a simple, stand-alone adventure, hence it does not waste time with tons of setting details I would rather fill in myself or in collaboration with my players. The number and types of encounters in the module are pitched very well -- it is well-balanced IMO. I have really enjoyed running it and have found it to be as good a campaign "setting" as any I have ever used.*

* To be fair, I must confess that I have never actually used any pre-published "Campaign Setting" unless you count the one sketched and/or implied by what Al Krombach calls "the original adventure path" of TSR modules G1-2-3 and D1-2-3. As I have written before, and similarly to Al, I started out in this hobby playing mostly TSR modules, then moved on to playing exclusively in my own Lands of Ara setting in the 1990s. Hence, maybe I cheated my way around the intent of the Blog Carnival theme -- but isn't that awfully old-school of me?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reflections on the Lift Bridge Game and Younger Gamers

In the past I have briefly discussed what it was like to play with younger gamers -- fun! -- and subsequently confessed that despite my interest in playing with members of younger generations, my main mission in reaching out to them as a gamer is to introduce them to the Old Ways, i.e., Labyrinth Lord. Well, I am happy to report that via my Lift Bridge Old-School D&D Group, I am getting my opportunity to do just that.

However, with that mission comes certain responsibilities and special considerations.

My LL Referee's Screen is seeing a lot of good use these days.

Young gamers are fun for me to referee because they really get into the role-playing and the "imagine the hell out of it" spirit that I like to see from players in my games. I always favor players who come up with inventive and entertaining solutions to problems -- like Rolland the cleric assaulting skeletons with his backpack to avoid using a bladed weapon -- rather than the power gamers who just want to "win" at all costs.

However, I faced a tricky situation two sessions ago that, in retrospect, I did not handle very well. Two younger gamers -- not even quite teenagers -- showed up for the public LL game at the bookstore with characters already generated. In fact, their characters were ones they had been campaigning with for some time in a 2e campaign. I was so excited to have them on board, especially given their familiarity (via 2e) with old-school-style play, that I permitted them to use their current characters without vetting said characters very rigorously. Sure, I scaled their PCs down a few experience levels to bring them closer to the party average of about Level 4, but I failed -- until too late -- to realize how many magical items and special abilities they had been granted in their "home" campaign. Not only did these two guys end up having characters who were WAY too overpowered for the party, but I continually had to haggle with them over what powers and items they could and could not use in my campaign. THIS WAS NOT THEIR FAULT -- it was mine. They brought in their PCs and I did not look them over closely enough; otherwise, I could have nipped this in the bud. But I didn't. And after the game, there was some chatter between the older players on the Old-School D&D Group's Facebook page that went a little like this:

PLAYER 1: Should there be an age limit to our group? I've got no prob's with ppl being comfy and having fun. I just feel if there's children in the groups we have to second guess most the game

PLAYER 2: I'm fine with whatever... it only becomes a problem for me when we have to hold back [our adult-themed talk] because of certain people being present who may find it inappropriate. That and when their characters outclass ours. Maybe they should create new characters that fit into our game

PLAYER 3: It's not fun to have to censor yourself. I will say though, I'm totally fine with getting 5k EXP this session.

PLAYER 4: The real tricky part is how do we enforce this now that two kids have joined and we never had any such rule in place before? Anyone know if they're planning on returning?

PLAYER 2: The kids said they wanted to come back but that lady [their mom] seemed hesitant I think.. if they do come back we could just make them create new characters within our game.

PLAYER 4: I was thinking of just not censoring ourselves in hope of turning them away with our matoor language but then I thought about what a monster I was at age 13. Won't work.

PLAYER 2: haha we should anyways

ME: That's the ticket!

PLAYER 1: :) Carter's words should be anuf :p

The two young lads did not return for last weekend's session, though I would not be surprised if they come back sometime in the future. I welcome them but I am attuned to my other players' concerns, especially the power gaming issue. I absolutely plan to make those two re-roll fresh LL characters next time they show up.

As for the blue language issue, that is a quandary. Sure, it is a public game in any case, so I do try to somewhat limit how much I use terms like "the goblin violently sodomizes a corpse" and "you sever his testicles and they roll across the floor, trailing semen" in any case. But gamers will be gamers, and since the majority of the group is in its 20s or older, it may be difficult for us to censor ourselves down to a PG-13 level. We may be able to hit a "soft" R rather than a "hard" R, but that's the most I can hope for I think, at least with this particular crowd. But I know I have a responsibility to set the tone and make all feel welcome.

To our credit, we had a different youngster named Alex show up to the most recent game, and he was a big contributor -- his fighter, Joe, was a heavy hitter in melee and was instrumental in bringing down those skeletal spidergoats -- and I think we were able to say some of our raunchy stuff (I know I used the word "buttocks" a couple of times) without offending his young sensibilities. There is probably a balance to be struck here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Quick Note on Shoving Scrimshaw Dice

Doth Computeth Spawn:

I'm in the lab this morning and will be focusing on all sorts of important science stuff shortly, but Roger's good-humoredly cranky post about dice caught my attention. He points to a Forbes article that points to a test of 2 d20s (Chessex and Game Science) rolled 10k times each by the folks at Awesome Dice Blog. They show that the Chessex die is less random than the Game Science die, but neither are perfect; in fact the little nubbin on the 14 of the GS die severely affects that die. Now I didn't read all the comments on the post, so maybe this has already been said, but the Chessex data indicates that it can't be considered a "lucky" or "unlucky" die in the sense of always rolling high or low. The problem with that die is that it's slightly ovoid rather than spherical, and the 1-20 axis is relatively long. Neither crits nor fumbles are likely with that die. You can see this by comparing the data they present on the blog.

The red line is the expected outcome of 500 rolls per face. It's obviously not random. In fact there's some interesting structure in the data: opposite faces tend to be equally likely to appear. Combining these frequencies we see this:

How do you like that? I don't have a d20 in front of me and the distribution of the faces on d20s vary by manufacturer, but my guess it that overall the die is a bit longer across the 1/20, 2/19, 7/14, 8/13 axis. So that reduces the likelihood of rolling at the extremes of the range and a couple chunks in the middle as we see above. The dip at 5 in this die may be from the little nubbin not being filed off. But I wonder if this ovoid shape has anything to do with rounding off the edges per se, as opposed to the problems with the shape of the mold or uneven shrinkage in the plastic as it sets (or whatever, I'm not a dice manufacturer).

So to Roger's point about lucky dice being loaded, if the pattern above is common, it seems unlikely that players are really holding dice that give them better chance to roll high or low. Even if you have the 20 on the short axis, the 1 will be there too, and so you'll have a die equally likely to crit and fumble more often than expected. With a squashed die, switching roll-high or roll-low mechanics to keep players on their toes may not mitigate the lucky/loaded die superstition. Well, if I remember I'll take some digital calipers home tonight and see if I can detect squashedness in my Chessex d20s.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lift Bridge Game Updates

Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport, NY.

As I have previously reported, I am currently running an ongoing Labyrinth Lord game at Lift Bridge Books in downtown Brockport. The open-to-the-public group is really gaining momentum, with four or five regular players at this point. Yesterday's game saw record attendance -- seven players plus myself! -- including two new players who hadn't attended before. Word seems to be getting around.

Given how lazy I have been at keeping up with play reports in general,* it should come as no surprise that I haven't reported the details of that group's adventures. However, Cid, one of the regular players, has done a fine job of chronicling the first three Lift Bridge sessions here, here and here. Thanks Cid!

However, since (real-life bard) Cid has missed the past two Lost City Campaign sessions due to work obligations, allow me to briefly bring you up to date on the party's latest exploits:

7/29 Session
After the encounter with the "corpse-eating ghouls" in the dwarven graveyard between Lupner and Darkoul mentioned by Don Ximen, the group traveled further westward, stopping at the small outpost of Blart for the "night." As they rested, the outpost was attacked by a raiding party of several large fish-men, a regional menace whose lair was known to lie along the northern road leading away from an intersection of four significant underground roadways known to locals as "the Crossroads." After helping the Blartians fight off the fish-men raiders, and looting the bodies, the party set off the next day for "the Crossroads," only a mile away. The group was now within about twelve miles of the sizeable underground dwarven city of Khaz Dargur, yet chose to turn immediately southward, toward the rumored demesne of Zappo the Obscure, a local wizard of some renown.

"Our arcanist, Crimnox, sought to take a diversion from our trog-hunting endeavors in order to find allies amongst the wizards of the deep." -- Don Ximen Fernandez de la Vega

The party made its way southward for several miles, and soon came to where the tunnel opened up into a VAST underground cavern, through which their road progressed along a 12' wide, raised ridge sticking up out of the darkness. They tightened their formation and tied themselves together with long ropes -- all except Jarl the dwarf, who took point and remained unsecured.

They had progressed about a half-mile along the narrow ridge when they were attacked from above by three huge pteranodons! The party made fairly quick work of dispatching these foes. . .

8/5 Session
. . . only to be beset moments later by several amber golems, who moved with uncanny silence and were far harder to destroy than the pteranodons.** But prevail the party did, and then traveled another few miles along the ridge until the road entered an enclosed tunnel enveloped in an arcane darkness their torches and infravision could barely penetrate. Some arcane-looking runes were etched outside the tunnel mouth; Crimnox the Sorcerer was able to read them: You have reached the realm of Zappo. Do not enter here lightly. Of course, the party entered, Jarl, as always, in the lead.

After sneaking around a bit and scouting a couple of different empty chambers, the group made their way south then west into Zappo's cave complex proper, only to be viciously attacked by some skeletal spidergoats at a four-way intersection. This battle raged for some time, and came with great cost: Rolland the fighter was killed during the battle, then reincarnated (via a scroll Crimnox pinched from the dead fish-men in Blart) as a fourth-level cleric!

9/16 Session
The four undead spidergoat skeletons were eventually defeated, in an exciting ongoing melee that included recently reincarnated cleric Rolland doing everything in his power -- attacking with a flaming 10' pole, a lasso, and even a backpack! -- to avoid using his two-handed sword, his former (bladed) weapon. After dispatching the abominations, the group proceeded west then north then west again, into another stretch of passage cloaked in spooky arcane darkness. Entering the dark patch, most of the party (except Jarl and Rolland) fell instantly unconscious, and had to be dragged into the next chamber by their two awake fellows.

That next chamber contained a statue of a wizard, holding a wand aloft. Jarl and Rolland made offerings of gold and psychedelic mushrooms to the statue, and the statue's wand tip glowed and then the statue receded to reveal a downbound spiral staircase hidden underneath. Jarl dragged his companions down these stairs, then he and Rolland waited twenty more minutes for the others to wake up. All awake, they opened a well-polished wooden door with brass fittings at the foot of the staircase and proceeded into the chamber beyond . . .

More to come!

An expert Lift Bridge Books staffer -- also the player of Bobandy the Dwarf.

I want to take the time to thank Lift Bridge Books (especially co-owners Pat and Archie Kutz and store manager Joe Hoffman) for hosting the D&D group and getting the word out really effectively. One of my new players at yesterday's session said his dad saw an announcement of the Lift Bridge Old-School D&D Group in the paper. Way to work the publicity machine!

Thanks Lift Bridge Books!

* I am still behind by about five session reports for my "home" Labyrinth Lord group.
** We had some new players that session who helped me, through no real fault of their own, to unbalance the party a bit too extremely, thus the amber golem battle was not quite as thrilling as it could have been; more to come on that issue in a separate, forthcoming post.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Still Kind of Out of It

Hi faithful readers, it has been awhile since I have shown The Lands of Ara much love. The blog, that is. I am happy to report that I am still gaming in the Lands a fair amount, both with my "home" (Skype-based) campaign group as well as in the public Labyrinth Lord game I am running on the first and third Sundays of each month at Lift Bridge Books in Brockport, NY. That group has really gotten off the ground and is heading into some interesting adventures in an underground cave system near the Lost City of Cynidicea.

All this to say that actual gaming at the table is eating most of my RPG-hobby time these days, which I suppose is as it should be, but I miss blogging.  In the name of full disclosure, I should add that two other real-life happenings have started to cut into my available time and resources lately:

(1) My job responsibilities are intensifying. I am entering my second year on the tenure track, and that means increased service responsibilities in my department as well as a complex and time-eating contract renewal process I am engaged with this year.


(2) After a divorce at the end of last year and much psychotherapy since then, I am happy to share that I have recently started into a new romantic relationship.

Despite these substantive distractions, I will do my best to stay on task here at the blog, yet don't be surprised if my posts are a bit fewer and farther between for the foreseeable future.  Meanwhile, thank the gods for Spawn of Endra's superb contributions which are really keeping this thing alive at present.

Game on!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Dose of Verisimilitude: Fun to Read, Not Fun to Play

Ahoy, says Spawn:

In reading a great history of Christian missionization in Europe, Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, I came across a passage that briefly lays out the logistical realities of a (presumably name-level) Cleric's retinue in the early medieval period, and then an outline of bookmaking. For our beloved readers I quote at length:

"Riches were necessary for furnishing and maintaining the infrastructure of a bishopric. We tend to think of episcopal accoutrements in terms of the few treasures that have survived, such as Cuthbert's pectoral cross and portable altar or the book at Fulda with which Boniface vainly tried to defend himself. We must not forget the less exotic but absolutely essential underpinning of an episcopal establishment. The large retinues, like those about which Alcuin complained, had to be clothed, fed, mounted and armed. How revealing that when Otto of Bamburg entered his chosen mission field in 1128 with thirty wagons in his train the Pomeranians took this for an enemy army. Retainers were not menials; so we must make allowance for  servants, grooms, cooks, laundrymaids. Already a lot of people, and somehow they must eat and drink and sleep. We may think of the carts as groaning under the weight of canvas and rope, poles and pegs, sheepskins and cooking pots and emergency fuel and candles, flour and bacon and beer. Axles break, tack frays, weapons rust. So there must be craftsmen who can exercise various skills as wheelwrights, saddlers, armourers and smiths; and they will need tools and anvils and horseshoes and nails and grease and leather and packthread. And this is but to consider the absolutely basic equipment of an itinerant episcopal household. If in turn we consider the more exotic activities of a cathedral establishment we can appreciate the need for resources on an ample scale. For example, the production of books was inseparable from the work of Christian evangelization. It was a long and complex series of operations from the slaughter of a calf and the messy and smelly business of turning its skin into vellum that could be written upon, to the final outcome in such masterpieces as the Codex Amiatinus or the Book of Kells. Neither should we forget the associated crafts (ink-making, mixing of pigments, bookbinding), nor the laborious training with quill and brush, nor the false starts, nor the sudden shower that ruined a day's work hung out to dry on the scriptorium's washing line. Amiatinus and Kells were of course luxury productions, among the very finest books which human skill has ever produced. But even everyday texts designed for use rather than ostentation or devotion - such as, say, the Weissenburg catechism alluded to in Chapter 8 - would have required precious resources of materials, training and skills in their making."

Fletcher, pp.459-60.

The passage appears fairly late in the book in Chapter 13 of 15 (Mission to Church) where Fletcher sort of steps back a bit and collects himself and the reader for a moment before heading into the home stretch. His history and analysis are not specifically economically focused before that point, and with this passage and much of the following material, he does treat the economic realities of the European church more directly. In a way, for most of the narrative (and I don't know if the above passage gets this across, but the guy has a great conversational writing style) those sorts of details are hand-waived in the interest of keeping the flow of the story moving.

I.e., basically the same way most of this stuff is treated in D&D except by the most pedantic simulationists. Or I should say precocious, uniquely-genius world-building DMs, for a more positive connotation. I admit, a part of me wants to worry and fret over all these details and play in a game world where all of these matters impinge on what PCs can do or can not.

You want to copy a scroll, Mr. Magic? Okay, well there's no vellum at the local VornMart. You've got to go find someone who will sell you a calf, then someone to slaughter it, then make vellum, mix ink, blah blah blah. Ah. But after Mr. Magic searches for a week, my random calf-birthing table (indexed to random tables of realistic daily weather conditions, history of grazing and pasturage, foddering regime, fodder quality, cattle pedigree, and so on) indicates that there are no surplus calves available in the area, nor have there been any for the last 15 years. This also explains why everyone in the town is extraordinarily poor and unfriendly to outsiders such as your party. You keep asking for veal when everyone is starving, you asshole.

The item that sticks out in the passage for me starts with "Axles break". Back when I used to be able to tolerate the abuse associated with reading the Tao of D&D (let alone posting a comment, for Christ's sake) I saw a post there about exactly this circumstance. Maybe it was a session recap or something, but for some reason an wagon axle broke, and the players wanted to say they replaced it with a tree branch they cut to size, or something like that, just good enough to get them back to town. And of course the impossibilities associated with this task were magnified in the telling (given the author, partly for rhetorical effect: to clearly explain how his players were the stupidest fucking people ever shat out upon the face of the Earth): none of you know how to make an axle; you don't have the tools; you don't have seasoned lumber, of the right part of the right tree; and you're obviously a bunch of total morons with your own feces smeared across your foreheads; etc.

At any rate, this has all been said before about verisimilitude in D&D (though I contend the forehead-feces tack is an original development, a true innovation). Should anything go? No. Maybe the PCs have to abandon the goddamned wagon, it can't be repaired in the field, and the other consequences of that have to play out. But the DM can hand-waive the details that may be important to her conception of how the world works by not mechanicalizing everything, or at least not subjecting the players to the mechanics themselves except as existing conditions and outcomes in the game world. That is, the intricacies of your own byzantine calf-birthing index may give you the most profound boner or luxuriantly swollen labia (or whatever genital configuration you might possess) but the players do not find themselves equally engorged by their encounter with the index, usually.

Here lies a bit of a split in the argument about attention to 'realistic' details bringing the game world to life. Since the mechanics of mustard-farming (or whatever) are basically a game for the DM who develops it and interacts directly with it, and not for the players, these sorts of mechanics, inflicted on players, don't bring the world to life for them. The distinction is subtle: the consequences of the DM playing his/her personal game of mechanics to determine the precise color of the sunset as perceived by each in turn the elf, the dwarf, the human and the dog in the party on day 249 are important. PCs can't agree on the qualities of the sunset, can't fix the wagon, and so on. That sucks, or is an opportunity for role-playing, or whatever. The players typically interact with the outcomes of these sorts of mechanics, not the mechanics themselves. This suggests that a form of hand-waiving resides in keeping the mechanics behind the screen, and thereby foregoing the occasion to share your awesomely detailed Faberge egg of a system with your friends. DMing is a hard, lonely and unheralded career, it would seem.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Ken St. Andre arrives at TIFF

Reporteth Spawn:

Ken St. Andre returned to Toronto for the premiere of his new Tunnels and Trolls movie, a joint production of Film Canada, Canal+ and Flying Buffalo, at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sporting a new hat and buoyed by recent appearances at OSRCon and GenCon, St. Andre was heard to say that his film was way better than films about That Other Game, that Gygax couldn't screen-write his way out of a paper bag, and that no one around here seemed to be able to take a joke. The film is scheduled for limited release in time for Christmas 2012.