Saturday, October 31, 2020

Reflections on 43 Years in the Hobby

   In less than six months it will be the 44th anniversary of the first time I played D&D and my lifelong obsess-, uh, hobby, began. And this very recent August the 41st anniversary of me starting my own homebrew campaign came and went. We were so busy playing we missed it, which is apropos.

  But it has also been pretty tough in some ways. One of my very first players, Dave, fought really, really hard but lost to cancer. George, another early player, lost all of his early gaming stuff (from first printings of AD&D books to his first 20 characters and notes and the first player-facing map of Seaward) to storm damage. So we've lost at least 5 of the players from the first 10 years of the campaign and a tremendous amount of the original notes, maps, and such.

  Tempus Fugit.

  But looking back there are a few things I learned (or at least came to believe to be true!). I'll try to condense them here.


The Roles within the Party

My theory of The Roles - the positions filled by character classes in D&D and its clones. The roles are:

-Physical Offense: pretty obvious - killing things with weapons.
-Physical Defense: being a 'meat shield' and keeping the physical offense of foes contained.
-Magical Offense: Killing things with magic.
-Magical Defense: Stopping enemy magic from harming the party.
-Scouting and Intelligence: Using information and skills to control the location and tempo of encounters.

The AD&D 1e classes fill these roles like this:
Fighter = Physical Offense
    Ranger = Physical Offense + Scouting & Intelligence
    Paladin = Physical Offense + Magical Defense
Cleric = Physical Defense + Magical Defense
    Druid = Magical Offense + Scouting & Intelligence
Magic-user = Magical Offense
    Illusionist = Magical Offense + counter Scouting & Intelligence
Thief = Scouting & Intelligence
    Assassin = Scouting& Intelligence + Physical Offense
Monk = counter Magical Offense + counter Magical Defense + counter Scouting & Intelligence
Bard = everything

  This framework allows me to get a better estimation of what the party is capable of doing and handling and how to oppose them with clever foes.

NPCs Matter, especially Henchmen

  Time after time I have seen henchmen truly matter in the game. Perhaps most recently and dramatically in the Assault on the Fortress of Lord Whitehill. The PCs were pinned and about to be wiped out when the henchmen, following orders, arrived in the nick of time and just barely pulled victory from the jaws of death.

  If nothing else, with henchmen an NPC or three can play the class no player wants for a PC.

Jazz Band Adventuring Matters

  Something I first tried to describe here Jazz Band play just means every players has multiple PCs in the campaign and the party composition varies by mission, which players are there, what PCs are available, etc. It makes it a LOT easier if a player can't make it or you want your PC to go learn a new spell and more importantly it shifts focus from "this party" to the campaign as a whle..

It Isn't About One Thing

  RPGs are about fun, so it can't be about the GM, or a single player, or even this particular party. What seems to me in my limited experience to matter is that people are emotionally and intellectually invested in the campaign. Less pressure, more fun, at least as far as I can see.



Monday, September 21, 2020

Playtest of my Mass Combat Rules - Report

   The sons and I broke out my new mass combat rules and playtested all weekend. We started with Orcs vs Elves (using the number for a max-sized group of each from the Monster Manual, tweaked so that we got even units) . A real slugfest and a ton of fun. The elven sword and bow bonus makes a difference on the field, and do the number of spell casters. We re-ran it several times to eliminate the 'I have no idea what I am doing' issue of new players and to test our assumptions and what we learned.

  I am very pleased. The changes I am writing in today are:
- Rules for cavalry mounts also fighting
- Missile Fire and Flanking
- Clarifying spell duration
- Modifying the damage inflicted by units on lone heroes
And that's it other than some spelling/grammar errors!

  This week and weekend we will test it with a replay of the Battle for Whitehill Castle from the campaign - the knights of the King of Seaward, the Starry Banner, and the Company of the Dark Moon on one side, the brigands and renegades of Lord Whitehill on the other

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Seaward Play Update: Fun in Foreign Lands

 The players have grown aware that Baron Samedhi's plans are many and wide-spread, so they sent thier highest level characters in their spelljammer to Yashima (Japanland) where they docked at an island just for spelljammers and took a boat to Norunga, the Foreign Trade Port allowed by the Shogun of Yashima.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Seaward, the other characters fought a week of bloody battles with the Bandit Lord they call Farquad eventually breaking the last remnant of Whitehill's army and last agents of Samedhi in the Bandit Realms. This opened overland trade between the Kingdom of Seaward and the High County of Banath for the first time ever. The players also found the Bandit's Brother, a powerful intelligent sword with a sage's knowledge of warfare. It had been the actual leader of the bandits!

  In Norunga the party established ties with local adventurers (read: their Oriental Adventures PCs met their Seaward are PCs), established trade between Yashima and Seaward (their cover), went on a very clandestine adventure for a local member of the Sea Folk nobility, and made initial contact with a 'good' clan of ninja. They learned that an admiral of Liung Diguo (Chinaland) was forming a great fleet ostensibly to conquer Goryeo (Korealand) but would actually attack Yashima and, with the help of armies of bandits led by Lady Snow, try to conquer the island and hand it to Samedhi.

  This session the party planned to negotiate with the Red Mountain ninjas to help provide them information about Lady Snow (half sister of Samedhi) and her bandit armies and perhaps interfere. The discussion was interrupted by an attack of other ninja. The two members of the party were a monk and a fighter that knows kung-fu (foreigners must be unarmed in the Foreign Quarter) so they triumphed quickly. They learned that the other ninja, the despicable Black Chrysanthemum Clan, were now backed by/led by someone calling herself 'Sister of the Oni King'. The PCs pieced together clues and realized that was Lady Snow. The Red Mountain ninja joined the alliance against Samedhi.

  Back at their rented house the party received a letter requesting a meeting. They agreed and soon a merchant from Qader (Arabialand) arrived with his retinue of bodyguards, servants, a seer, a sorceress, and a translator genie. After a meal (rought by the merchant, named Fazeel) Fazeel explained he was on a mission for his patron and lord, Prince Ali of Arrabess. There were three claimants to the empty throne of the Caliph - Ali, another prince named Bari, and a man who had quickly risen in prestige over the last decade, not of noble birth but with many willing to declare him Caliph, a man who called himself al-Samadi. There was only one was to be certain you became Caliph - present the Granite Blade, an enchanted scimitar of great power that was the ancient symbol of the Caliph. But it had been missing for centuries. Prince Ali had asked Fazeel to find it.

  Fazeel soon realized that for some reason magic could not find it so he had hired the cleverest sorceress in Qader and she had tracked down a powerful Seer and the two women had asked different questions, resulting in two visions.

  The first was to come to Norunga on this day of this year and speak to whomsoever was in the only red house.

  The second was to ask them "Where is Rupert?".

As a DM watching the players' reaction to this question [groans of horror and inevitability, mainly, with many a head slumped with a hand over the eyes] was epic.

   The party conferred among themselves and realized Samedhi was trying to seize the Caliphate at the same time he was angling to take over Yashima. Speaking with Fazeel they surmised he was also working on Rushk (Russialand). Concerned about these possibilities they told Fazeel that Skull Mountain cannot be scried into and that Rupert is a being of incredible power that "guards" parts of the mountain. According to the legends inside the mountain Rupert wields a weapon called the Granite Sword.

  ...and then the monk in the party realized what was bugging him. The Sorceress was using magic to 'broadcast' the meeting somewhere! He warned the others the sorceress was a spy.

  Cue the ninjas. It was a full-on brawl between the party (aided by Fazeel) against the sorceress, the seer, and a pack of ninja. Hans and Franz, the twin barbarian henchmen, were on a tear and the monk (Akira, Nick's character) was in fine form so the fight didn't last long. And they were glad they had poison antidote magic!

  After it was over Jennifer's character, Fiona, reluctantly used the Hoary Head of Hogarth to interrogate the dead sorceress. She had indeed been working for Samedhi and Samedhi himself had been listening in, so he now knows where to find the sword. 

  The party struck up a deal with Fazeel that the party will try to get the sword. In return Fazeel will slowly  and carefully inform others in Qader about the true nature of al-Samadi. Fazeel left until the morning and the PCs/Players started talking.

  They wondered why Samedhi was making so many plays for power all at once in so many areas. The logistics of organizing and controlling them all must be staggering. And why some nations and not others? Sure, Yashima was vast and wealthy, as was the Caliphate, but tiny, backwater Seaward? 

  About then Nick cracked a joke about 'while we're here we should look for a Skull Mountain substation'. There were a few chuckles that faded to a contemplative silence. Then Jack said,

  "The Wizard of the Tower uses his control of local substations to boost his magic."

  Jennifer,

  "What if... what if there are bigger stations, or even just substations, farther away? What could you do if you controlled 10 of them?"

  So the party asked local natives if they had ever heard tales of a room made of silver metal with flashing lights and that you needed a small back card to enter?

"Of course! The Black Metal Mirror is part of the Imperial Regalia of the Emperor. All of the other regalia is in the Room of Flashing Jewels. It is sister to the one in Liung Diguo, the Yellow Throne of the Dragon Emperor lies over the silver room in that nation."

  They confirmed from Fazeel in the morning that part of being Caliph was access to the Room of Silver Walls under the palace of the Caliph. Then the party realized - in Seaward there is the Royal Island, a heavily fortified island where on the royal family and their personal guard may ever go....

  Another sage pointed out that according to legend, legends that can only be told out of earshot of the Shogun's spies, that many years before the first Shogun had snuck into the Room of Flashing Jewels and used it to ask the Lord of aAll Evil to use something called 'Skull Mountain' to destroy the skyship ferrying the Crown Prince, allowing the first Shogun to sieze power!

  Sam,

"Samedhi is trying to control these 'national' stations. Now we know that if you know what to do you can use them to communicate. And the Wizard in the Tower proves you can use them to boost magic. Maybe the only way to get to the Contraption is to control enough national stations?"

Nick,

"What if you control enough of them you don't need access in person? Maybe 6 or 7 of them IS remote access to the Contraption!"

Jack,

"If he controls enough of them, maybe he can just make himself a demon prince, Or worse."

  The PCs resolved to thwart Samedhi everywhere they could

  The next morning Fazeel used his genie-powered galley to take the party to their spelljammer (Clarence, Sam's character, stayed behind for a series of solo adventures in Yashima).

--------

One Hell of a day at the table!

Friday, August 14, 2020

A Star Wars Scenario and Campaign Setup

  This is based off an idea cooked up by a friend of mine, Keith, in 1993 but never fleshed out or used. I fleshed it out with specifics and a flow. Feel free to use as you like, it is just an extended sketch.

Setup: The PCs need a starship, preferably either a fast one or one that can blend in. Stock freighters are always best. Get it explained why the PCs are together before the session or roleplay out their meeting. It is important that no PC be wither actively in the Rebellion but that all at least dislike the Empire.

Monday, August 10, 2020

A Star Wars Game 30 Years in the Making

Back in 1990 I was in the barracks (I had just returned from 6 months of training and was shipping out to Germany in less than 90 days, so it made the most sense) when Iraq invaded Kuwait. I was a Middle Eastern linguist with a ton of tactical experience and had been in the desert for a ton of my then-young career and I was just going, the end. So much for re-enlisting to get to Germany!
Even though I was going early, we had to get ready. So I had a week to ten to load up gear, settle accounts, etc. A guy I knew from a gaming group (Keith) called one Friday and said his fiancĂ© (Lisa) and her best friend (Jen) had driven down to see him before he deployed and since they were going to dinner he wanted to grab me, too, for a good meal before  we shipped out.

 I tried to skip out but to no avail. In the group room outside my barracks room I was introduced to his fiancĂ© and her bestie.
   That was 30 years ago. It was the day that I met my wife.

Monday, August 3, 2020

In the Grim Darkness of the Future There is a Lot of Roleplaying

The Lads and I play a lot of RPGs and we like to toss in side games in new, unusual, etc. systems to mix things up. At Christmastime my father-in-law picked up a set of books at a FLGS/used book store and we ended up with FFG's D% system Warhammer 40K core books and a few splats. Nice guy, my father-in-law.
  Sam started running Dark Heresy and immediately enjoyed the 'beer & pretzels' feel of the game and system. The setting is so loveably over the top, the mechanics that perfect combination os 'dead simple idea' combined with '40,000 weird options to complicate things', and the bodycount so freakin' high that all I could think of was playing a Call of Cthulhu setting with Paranoia rules. I adored the Void-born psyker with an hysterical paranoia about open doors and such deep hypno-conditioning that under stress he is forced to recite the Litany of Pressure Sealing Bulkheads I started with so much I almost felt bad when he finally rolled Perils and blew up, taking a room full of cultists with him. But I did laugh.
  After a few games of Dark Heresy Sam tossed in Black Crusade. If you ever wanted to play a villain so cartoonishly eeeee-viiiiil that a mocking laugh while he twirls his mustache is restrained, play Black Crusade: it does to Chaos Space Marines what Mel Brooks does to Nazis. 
  After about 7games over 5 months I decided to throw my hat in the ring and broke out Only War (or, as we call it, Purely Cannon Fodder) and run a regiment. Deciding that the Grim Derpness has been causing a lot of chuckles I made a Penal Battalion that has everything going for it you'd think: Light Infantry, perpetually understrength, and green. Really embracing the setting the lads made a bunch of gonzo characters with Promethium Bill, the religious fanatic who volunteered for the regiment in hopes of using his personally-purchashed flamer on heretics, pretty indicative of the level of seriousness.
  After just 2 sessions Jack has us rolling up guys for Rogue Trader because we figure that the 4th-5th characters in each setting will be part of a massive crossover fairly soon.

  

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Dungeons and Dragons is the Best at What it Does

   The Fun Lads Four and I are prepping for what we call "The Season" - in late Summer and early Autumn we tend to play a lot of RPGs. We're also talking about the various systems we're using: AD&D 1e and 2e; HERO; 5e; Pathfinder; the various D% system books from FFG's Warhammer 40K line; and we are all knee deep in WEG's D6 Star Wars.
The second weekend of August in 1990 a friend from a gaming group introduced me to a brilliant, beautiful woman. On our first "real" date we played WEG's Star Wars. Next weekend our sons are hosting a WEG Star Wars game to celebrate 30 years of being in love.
We started discussing how D6 is an excellent universal system and it has a cinematic feel, making it perfect for recreating movie worlds (which makes sense as the D6 system grew out of making the Ghostbusters and Star Wars RPGs) and that HERO, another cinematic universal system, is likewise really good at "imitating" a setting from fiction.
But discussed the limitations of GURPS, HERO, and D6 to do "generic" fantasy smoothly. As Nick said,
  "Sure, you can make a HERO Fantasy setting, but it can't be 'Europeland in general'; it has to be distinct and frankly a little gonzo to really feel right. I think D6 is like that but more."
  And from Jack,
  "And none of them dungeon crawl well. In the end the best system for a good dungeon crawl is still AD&D with a scant handful like Rolemaster, T&T, and, yes, even Palladium right on its heels."

  Which is why I am writing this - it was my turn to opine. Later I will discuss Rolemaster as an under appreciated universal system.

  HERO is one of my favorite systems of all time because with just a bit of thought you can do anything. Want to be Green Lantern? I know 3 approaches in HERO. Want to duplicate Traveller? HERO can easily do that, too. Want to make a Kojak/Beretta/Starsky & Hutch crossover? Sure! It is amazingly flexible.
GURPS is likewise supremely flexible (and let's face it, we all know GURPS is a HERO clone). D6 is likewise capable of doing about anything and has a few great ways of adapting dice pools to reflect scale (HERO 6e Damage Reduction rules are probably derived from D6's scaling rules).
  But these games share a problem that you also encounter in D&D 3/3.5/5e, Pathfinder, and some others and to a lesser degree in some others - "breaking the system".
What I mean by this take a little lead in, so bear with me. In these you have to make sure that people have reasonable limits on their dice pools/point allocations/feats that are essentially the GM not just laying down guidelines but also vetting every character and adjusting the villains and even campaign to match specific character builds. Here's an example from HERO -  a character I made called Basement Dweller/Shadowman. Without getting into the mechanics his powers allowed him to stay in bed at home while beating up someone on the other side of the world. All strictly RAW, all properly configured, not even a high points guy. But Shadowman forces the GM to specifically make villains, scenarios, etc. just to counter him.
In a oversimplified shorthand, IMO in a system where you need to seriously discuss, limit, inspect, and react to "character builds" a large amount of (for lack of a better term) gameplay occurs away from the table. And I am when I say 'gameplay' I don't mean getting supplies, talking to an innkeeper, etc., I mean 'deciding the outcome of traps and fights and such or forcing the GM to build them for you'.

And there is nothing wrong with this. After all, if I thought this was "bad" why the heck have I been playing HERO for 35 years, right?

  But I think AD&D is best at dungeon crawls because that isn't the case in that system. Here's the contrast:
  1) I have an underground adventure I made for HERO back in 1986 that I have used maybe 12 times. Every time I run it I must adjust it for the specific characters that have been built and brought.
  2) I have a similar thing in my AD&D 1e campaign that I also made in 1986 (same weekend, in fact). I have run it about 10 times and I never need change anything.

  Yes, personal anecdote, but I hope it conveys a bit more of what I mean. To sort of boil it down a bit, here is my core conceit:
To a very real extent AD&D is much more dependent upon what you do during play at the table vs what you do in character design and out-of-play metagaming. This leads to more emotional buy-in and tension during a dungeon crawl. Consequently, AD&D is "better" at dungeoncrawling than other systems.
This is one of the reasons I prefer to not abstract things like ammo, lighting, encumbrance,  and such any more than they already are - those 'precision counts' elements, IMO, add to the emotional buy-in at the table.
  Another illustration. When the Fun Lads Four did their very first dungeoncrawl as a team in years gone by (man kids grow up fast) they got lost underground. They had to keep careful track of every bit of food and water. They limited their use of light sources and carefully tracked every turn of light left. They were getting negatives for hunger and were worried the puddle they drank from got them sick and had only 20 minutes of candle left when they ambushed kobolds and got - a ham! Tension and anxiety followed by rejoicing!
To my mind that immersed them into the game much more than,
  "Roll to see if you have more illumination"
  "A 4; we do."
  "OK, roll to check for supplies"
  "A 13, but Betty has allocated an extra encumbrance zone, so with her +2 we make it."
  etc. ever could.

  In the end this is one of the main reasons I like AD&D so much and still play it.