Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Guest Post: Bird Masks and Ghostly Haunts

Session 4

As novitiates, Abraxo and Guruff pair up with a level 1 mentor from the Maidens and Magi, respectively. The mentors are full members of their cults, with the PC novitiates technically subordinate to them. These NPCs were not simply meat shields doing the party’s bidding. They didn’t lead, but they occasionally advised or issued cautionary observations and insights.
Sativa— fighter, HP5, AC5, short sword.
Souvlacus— MU, HP3, AC9, silver dagger, ventriloquism.

Their first stop is the last unexplored, non-cultist room on Tier 3. They peek in, see noxious yellow fungus coating everything and poke it from the hall with a pole sending spores everywhere. They wisely burn it out and depart.

Shunning the descending ramp and the ghouls, they descend a hatch to Room 35 on Tier 4. They opt for the less-trafficked east door (the one Sativa and Souvlakus have never used).

While there may once have been adventurous Cynidiceans, they are now a rarity. The cultists shun parts of the Ziggurat not actively in use by them, and they always take the safest and most direct route to their quarters. Only drug addled or insane Cynidiceans wander unknown hallways.

Creeping slowly through eerie stone halls (ever alert for traps and secret doors) brings the party to Room 36 (Chamberlin’s Burial Room), at whose locked door they hear nothing. They batter it open, heedless of the noise. Zombies shamble out into the hall one by one, and are dealt with without too much fuss. The room is empty of treasure.

Now eager for more action and booty, they move west and crash into Room 40 (Master Thief’s Burial Room), which contains a carrion crawler. With seven attacks against the 13HP creature, they should have had no trouble. But Souvlacus refused to get close enough to engage (he was often “defending the rear”). Almost everyone else fell to the paralyzing tentacles… except for Wilfer the paralytic-immune Elf. [Throughout the campaign, Matt would cast many low to-hit rolls, such that Wilfer didn’t shine very often. This was one of his better moments.]

While juices of the hacked-to-pieces carrion crawler leak everywhere, Wilfer and Souvlakus attend to the unconscious, bar the door, and search the room. When the others awake, they help pry precious gems off the coffin. They also locate, and promptly forget, a set of lock picks on the mummified corpse.

Everyone is operational after about an hour. They creep north along the 250’ hall. A dead-end hall to the east infuriates them when they are unable to find the secret door they know must be there. At the northern end, someone triggers the pressure plate outside the door to Room 39 (Rolling Boulder Trap).

There is a low rumble in the darkness ahead, quickly growing to a cacophony, like a castle wall collapsing. They hear and feel a tremendous thud, followed by another and another… accelerating towards them. The lantern doesn’t penetrate far enough to see, and the darksight of elf and dwarves makes out only a vague mass.

They panic. Each has their own escape plan and I do not let them coordinate. Most dive into the unknown of Room 39. Guruff flees to the dead-end hall, while Wilfer flees all the way south and back around to where the zombies were. Guruff is the only one to get a glimpse a stone mass run by on two stout legs. A few moments later a crash and then silence. He creeps south to see a mound of stone blocks strewn everywhere. Wilfer is isolated on the other side.

The main group stumbling into 39a (Noble Lady’s Burial Room) find a surreal scene. A sarcophagus dominates the room, lit by flames emanating from brass jars at each end. Four Cynidiceans, clad in bird masks and papier-mâché wings, “fly” around the room. They leap atop the sarcophagus in fright when “Carl” and Honey Boo-Boo snap at them. The party quickly concludes that these folk pose no threat.

Meanwhile, As Guruff and Wilfer wonder how to rejoin, the mass of rocks takes shape again. Once more they flee, only to hear it return and reset into the north wall from which it came.

[This is one spot where the module as-is (with a giant, ten foot diameter boulder never having been triggered in hundreds of years) bends credulity too far. The existence of this un-triggered trap is one of the reasons Philotomy gave for his modifications to the Ziggurat—in particular, creating the hatch to from Tier 3 to 35 to facilitate movement of the cultists through this extremely dangerous level (and to bypass this trap). Anyway, a multi-ton boulder can’t put itself back in place, and I couldn’t imagine the cultists or Goblins having reason to reset it either. So, I turned it into a no-stat magical-summoned/created earth elemental-type-thing, meant more to scare than to harm, with the ability to reset itself.]

This whole chaotic mess, while harmless, gave the players a lot to puzzle and fret over. Unseen threats are way scarier than those seen and fully described. RPGs are like horror films this way—the imagination produces more anxiety than the eyes.

The heatless flame in the brass jars presents a puzzle too, which they eventually just accept. They find a partial map of this tier hidden in a jar, and though it does not give them new intelligence, they enjoy figuring out how it relates to their map.

After stripping the “birds” of their masks, freaking them out a bit (“You ripped off our faces!”), the reassembled party makes it last stop in Room 37 (Giant Rat Lair). The rats score a few nibbles, and the PCs slice some rat. The rest flee, and the party burns out the nest, eventually salvaging two valuable gems from the ashes.

Satisfied with the foray, most return to the safety of Tier 3 and the Magi (Abraxo and Sativa to the Maidens).

Session 4 ends with no fatalities, some small wounds, and 5635xp divided among five PCs and two NPCs. The Halfling, Abraxo, is the first to level 2.

Session 5

During the party’s couple hour absence, four more members of the Expedition stumble up the pyramid and are intercepted by the Magi outside. Too weak from dehydration to be a threat, Auriga and Padoma agree to provide succor in 19a, the Magi’s storeroom.

I had a list of about twenty NPCs from the Caravan. I didn’t have a fixed method of how and when to introduce them. I kind of had in mind to start with one or two small batches, before eventually bringing in the balance of them. For this first Caravan event, I rolled a D6 for number and then a D20 to determine who.

The list included four NPCs who could pose a real problem for the Party (either by virtue of outranking them, or having an agenda, or both). There were four likely to be genuinely helpful and competent combatants. The rest were mostly for color, potentially of use if handled creatively.

The Party drew– Eves, lead animal handler; Rudolph, scrivener; and the pair Mengelev and Dongalev, mercenary bodyguards of Viscount Langardeaux. These last two were 3rd level fighters, brave, smart and capable of independent planning and action. Their main goal was survival, but once they realized that booty was on tap, that became a competing priority. Anyway, it was a good role for this group.

The four were too weak for much other than chit chat, so the party decided to set out again after a brief rest.

Accompanied again by Souvlacus and Sativa they descend the hatch and this time head west along halls known to the Cultists. Unlike Cultists, they batter down doors. In Room 29 (Embalming Room) they do not disturb the many pots and tools laying about, thereby avoiding the Shadows, but no treasure.

Room 30 is empty except for the requisite sarcophagus and wall engravings depicting scenes of history or biography.

Outside Room 27 (Councilor’s Burial Room), they note with apprehension that a lower corner of the stone door has been chipped or gnawed away. Undeterred, they bust in. As they approach the coffin, three furious blurs of hair and razor sharp claws launch at them. The shrews kill “Carl” and almost kill Guia in the initial attack. The PCs prevail, but it is a near thing and there is no treasure here either. They retreat to the Storeroom to rest.

Still unconscious and feverish hours later, Guia is left behind attended by Auriga. The rest sally down the ramp to Room 31 (Guard Captain’s Burial Room). In one corner stands a mummy, exquisitely armed and armored, lined by skeletons holding short swords. The front pair enters cautiously. At the front of the marching order this time, Sativa and Abraxo are immediately assailed. Deciding that six vs. nine is too risky, most of the party withdraws. But Sativa is left inside, blocked by skeletons from escaping… and the PCs shut the door locking her inside with the undead. They hear her fierce struggle, a cry of pain, and then silence.

Chagrined, they go to the Maidens to report the tragic loss, editing the account somewhat. Padoma is absent, having descended to the City to check on developments there. Guruff delivers a rousing speech and works the remaining Maidens into a frenzy. They cannot let the death of one of their own go un-avenged, and they certainly can’t leave her on Tier 4 where she will surely swell the ranks of the undead horrors if her body is not recovered.

The Party, now reinforced by six Maidens, burst into Room 31 and shatter the skeletons. Their blood up, they are persuaded to sweep the Tier of evil.

In the hall where the ghouls killed Raina and Blaise (in Session 2), a figure shambles towards them. It is the gnawed-on corpse of Raina the elf. Pausing only a moment to shed a single tear, they cut her down and move on. The two remaining ghouls are decimated. The High Priest’s mummy is unceremoniously stripped of jewelry, before the rampage goes on.

East, they run into 25a (Ghostly Haunts). Two shimmering figures, the very likeness of centuries-dead King Alexander and Queen Zenobia, curse the living interlopers and threaten death if they flee not. Wilfer and all of the Maidens (fail their save and) flee.

Guruff recklessly passes through the haunts and is unharmed. The rest refuse to follow, so he follows the winding passageway alone. It leads to a dead end and he knows there must be a secret door or trap somewhere. With the Party now scattered, he jogs back and everyone regroups once more at the Storeroom.

2980xp is divided among three full-share PCs (Guruff, Abraxo, Igollad), two PCs played in absentia (Wilfer, Guia), Souvlacus and the six Maidens. Guruff and Igollad reach level 2.

By this time, the new players kind of know what they’re doing. They’re not seasoned veterans. They hesitate at unusual places and aren’t attuned to some things the way a veteran player might be. Dickie often steers them in traditional FRPG directions, but he’s actually not the most blood-thirsty hack n’ slasher of the bunch.

They’ve fully embraced the surface level intent of the module—leverage NPC help and go find lots of treasure. I don’t think they know why they’re doing it. But they know it’s fun!

Blog Watch: Changeling Earth, Pirates, Golems, and Reactionary Rage

Appendix N (Castalia House) RETROSPECTIVE: Changeling Earth by Fred Saberhagen — ” Of course, as D&D evolved it became so much more conventional and self-referential that it is now hard to imagine this book having any impact at all on the game’s milieux. But when AD&D was just about the only game in town, Gary Gygax intentionally designed it with a wide open multiverse at the Dungeon Master’s disposal. Whether as a brief themed sublevel in a funhouse dungeon or as a fully realized parallel world, he intended referees to have the latitude to be as creative as they wished, even going so far as to encourage them to shift temporarily into other game systems!”

Appendix N (Tor.com) Advanced Readings in D&D: Fred Saberhagen — “And that’s the problem with Changeling Earth. Its background becomes its foreground and makes everything else—all the things that Saberhagen spends so many pages describing, at the human level—seem so trite. Maybe that’s the point. That humanity is insignificant compared to the forces it has unleashed upon itself. But really, my takeaway is that sentient godlike supercomputers and demonic nuclear bombs are way more interesting to read about than the little guys that run around the planet trying to pretend what they do matters in the larger scheme of things. So why did Gygax include it as the lone Saberhagen inclusion in Appendix N? Sorry, I’m too distracted by the explosive battle between Ardneh and Orcus to pay attention.”

Adventure Design (Semper Initiativus Unam) How Not to Write an Adventure  — “The main responsibility of the adventure is that it becomes plot when PCs are exposed to it. This requires it to have potential conflict, or the seeds of conflict, within it. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy; it’s just another way of saying there should be monsters and/or NPCs standing between the PCs and what they want. A dungeon will often do this literally, for instance by having the quintessential orc and pie. If the PCs decide they want pie, that instantly transforms into conflict between the PCs and the orc. Nothing fancy is required, and it can be as detailed or simple as the referee prefers.”

Realism (Just the Caffeine Talking) Work In Progress: Corsair (Part 2) — “I think the tension in pirate fiction derives from two facts: 1) People think pirates were cool and romantic, and 2) Pirates were a horrible bunch of amoral sociopaths. The modern pirates of Somalia are following exactly in the tradition of their Jolly Roger predecessors, except that they use motorboats and AK-47s instead of fast sloops and cutlasses. So unless one wants to create a work of fiction which realistically depicts a bunch of amoral sociopaths in action (and now I wish someone would hire Quentin Tarantino to make a pirate movie), you kind of have to soft-pedal the looting, raping, and murdering in favor of rope-swinging stunts and buried chests of gold.”

AD&D (The Hill Cantons) AD&D’s Apocalypse and Hereafter — “AD&D’s isn’t just a hard-fought world that merely experienced the fall of great empires centuries before, it’s one where humanity came close to the abyss in the recent past—and has stayed there. It’s on that stage of pure chaos that player-character, the rootless opportunists knocked out of the fabric of society, find themselves adventuring in.”

AD&D (The Escapist) How Did Golems Go From Jewish Mysticism to D&D Icons? — “Golems first appeared in games in 1975, when D&D’s first supplement Greyhawk included flesh, stone and iron golems. The creature’s appeal seems obvious, in retrospect, since golems allowed Gygax to include what are essentially killer robots in a fantasy setting. But more than introducing golems to games, D&D also changed them for a generation of role-players. Importing golems into a world where Judaism didn’t exist largely broke them with their religious overtones, allowing them to evolve into a different creature entirely. This began with separating golems into subtypes based on their material, an action that made their points of reference closer to science fiction than mysticism.”

Appendix N (Black Gate) The Fantasy Roots of Fan Fiction — “The father of the modern fantasy pastiche is L. Sprague de Camp, who made a multi-decade career reworking Robert E. Howard’s Conan. We know Howard spent four years writing Conan stories, from 1932 to 1936, producing roughly three book’s worth in the process. In the two decades de Camp spent writing Conan, he produced far more than Howard did: six full-length novels and a dozen collections, mostly in collaboration with other writers like Björn Nyberg and Lin Carter. When de Camp died, his brand of Conan story quickly fell out of favor, and his Conan pastiches are not highly regarded today — certainly not when compared with the brilliant work of Robert E. Howard, anyway. But there’s little disputing the fact that he kept the property alive for several decades, and without de Camp, it’s possible the name Conan (or even Robert E. Howard) wouldn’t be nearly as well known today.”

Game Design (Robert Fisher: Thinking out loud (3.0)) Thoughts while watching the conversation between John and Zak — “When I am attempting to design a conventional game, I am trying to make a closed system. When I am attempting to design a role-playing game, I am trying to leave things open for player creativity and referee rulings. So the difference between a conventional game and a role-playing game isn’t that the rules tell you to role-play but that the rules leave space for role-playing.”

AD&D (Black Gate) Art of the Genre: The Top 10 TSR Cover Paintings of All Time — “Maybe that is why it is so good, because there were no art directors heavily involved, and no corporate suits to edit what is and is not politically correct/economically viable in it. TSR’s ownership at the time was comprised of hardcore gamers, and thus they saw themselves in the painting and ‘went for it.’ In the end, there is little wonder that when TSR turned corporate, Trampier’s ‘stripped naked’ vision of the hobby was replaced with Easley’s more acceptable wizard and flying mini-demons, but in a way it just makes this cover all the more special.”

Campaign Design (Save Versus All Wands) Your Campaign Setting: Middle-Earth or Narnia? — “What works for successful fiction does not necessarily work for successful campaign design from the point of view of gaming, or more accurately, fun gaming. Plenty of referees and players have discovered (partly through purchasing Middle-Earth settings such as the 1980’s I.C.E effort) that Middle Earth is neat to have as a setting for a story but in the end is often pretty boring to play a fantasy adventure game in.”

Appendix N (Semper Initiativus Unam) The roots of the game — “Including elements from Lord of the Rings was decisively different from any other major elements of D&D. They were strategic, because — let me be blunt here — they were much more popular than fantasy of the type preferred by Gygax. LotR took fantasy out of the ‘pulp’ magazine and put it into the paperback book. D&D was released at a point in time when Tolkien became popular that the utterly hacklike Sword of Shannara was published just because it was like Lord of the Rings. This was clever marketing on Gygax’s part, as well; by injecting Tolkienesque elements in the game, he made it relatable to a much larger audience than the pulp fantasy connoisseur like himself. To go out on a limb, I don’t think D&D would’ve been nearly as successful if it weren’t so easy for an aficionado of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings to slip into it with familiar assumptions.”

Gaming in the News (Daily Beast) Of Gamers, Gates, and Disco Demolition: The Roots of Reactionary Rage — “Just like, to delve into the weird side of geekdom for a moment, ‘legitimate’ debates about whether older or newer versions of the Dungeons & Dragons rules are better turn into an excuse for the Manly Men of Role-Playing Games (or, as we say in D&D jargon, ‘grognards’) to rear their ugly heads and rile up a mob against the ‘politically correct hipsters’ infesting their hobby.”

Guest Post: Slithering Horror, Ten Foot Poles, and a Dog Named Honey Boo-Boo

The next session saw two new players. These were old friends who had introduced me to the other three, and had created characters weeks before. These two were also entirely new to RPGs, though they’d heard me talk about them for a couple years.

  • Igollad, lawful Cleric, AC2, HP16 (lvl 3); Str14, Int5, Wis11, Dex11, Con13, Cha7 (Sebastian)
  • Guia, lawful Dwarf, AC4, HP 8 (lvl 2); Str13, Int10, Wis11, Dex10, Con14, Cha8 (Steisha)

CharGen had taken a very long time largely because these two really agonized over equipment. I encouraged everyone to use one of the Fast Packs on the rear panel of the module. Everyone supplemented from the equipment list. But Steisha and Sebastian really thought long and hard over how to squeeze out every GP of value.

I mentioned in passing that they could acquire things not on the equipment list, as long as they were mundane, or they took the effort to explain from the in-character perspective why they’d have this or that thing, or were otherwise reasonable. Well, they went to town probing me for what freebies they might get. They came up with things like mortar & pestle, prayer rug, cooking herbs, wooden box, fishing net, mirror (glass not polished metal), pair of tongs, pipe (smoking not music), and a terrier (a dog named Honey Boo-Boo). Most of this would not matter at all. I just found it funny that, while they didn’t know how to metagame or take advantage of any other aspect of D&D, they aggressively pushed it for equipment.

So, session three had four players and the entire team of five PCs—Halfling, two Dwarves, Cleric and Elf (run in absentia)—all still level 1. Guia and Igollad make their way through the introductions, killing a Stirge outside along the way, and stumbled onto the others en route to the Magi of Usamigaras.

This was one of many times that Guruff’s Charisma bonus helped the party avoid combat and make friends. The leader, Auriga Sirkinos, took to Guruff immediately. Halflings, Dwarves and Elves do not exist in my Cynidicea. They are known from the historical record, but only as relics of a distant past. They found the Halfling Abraxo delightfully cute, and the Elf Wilfer inherently exotic and alluring.

Guia’s terrier they found wondrous beyond description—an immediate object of covetousness. In Cynidicea they still have insects, reptiles and some mammals. But, like some humanoids, many are long lost and known only from illustrations in ancient folios. Their memory kept alive mainly by the colorful masks worn by every human Cynidicean.

The PCs and Magi talk at length, and visit Topside, where the Cynidiceans stare in wonder at open sky for the first time in three generations. The PCs notice that the night sky is fundamentally wrong. Stars are out place. Where the moon should be new, it is now nearly full. Auriga has no notions as to why this is. The Magi have kept careful charts and records of the movements of the heavens. He confirms that the constellations in the sky do not match the ancient records of his people from before the Fall, four centuries ago. Also that this is the same experience noted during every other “return of Topside” since the Fall.

Auriga and the other Magi then delve into study and contemplation. When the party expresses a desire to poke around the Ziggurat, Auriga steers them towards the abandoned northwest section of Tier 3.

Following the rotating passage they enter the hallway aimed at Room 13. They spot the secret door to 18 (Secret Room). They nudge the basket full of coin. Peeking under the lid, they avoid the first strike of the vipers. Closing the lid, they set the basket on fire, killing the snakes and securing a pretty considerable XP haul.

They enter the door to 17a (Water Trap), which is just an empty chamber, and discover a camouflaged pressure plate in the floor. Everyone exits the room but for Guia, who taps the plate with a wooden pole. The door slams shut and the room rapidly starts to fill with water from vents up high in the wall. The Dwarf, in chainmail, is quickly submerged. The others debate how to release him, looking for a trigger to open the door. They don’t know B/X and Open Doors, so it only occurs to them to try to force it on the third turn, after which Guia will drown. They make their roll and I do not have to deal with Steisha losing her only character in her first role-playing game.

Soaked, but still unharmed, they creep back to 13 (Abandoned Ceremonial Chamber). Listening at the door, they hear moaning and mumbling. They knock, and the door is yanked open by a creature that is top human and bottom giant snake. It has been crudely sewn together in the midsection to join man and snake. Its hands end in sharp talons and its eyes are reptilian. It moans piteously, body held up high on its coils. As they frantically back away down the hall, it slithers after them, gibbering incoherently about its punishment at the hand of the Priests, and asking if it has been forgiven for its sins. Terrified, they put their backs to wall and keep very still. The horror, expecting punishment or redemption and finding neither, slithers by and out the door. The PCs scoop up the Zardozian ritual artifacts and make their way back to the chambers of the Magi.

During their brief foray, Auriga has conferred with Padoma of the Warrior Maidens about recent developments. Padoma admires the party’s bravery and willingness to explore. She and her entourage also take to Abraxo (the only female PC) and pass the Halfling back and forth among them.

Guruff is offered and accepts membership as a Novitiate with the Magi. Abraxo likewise joins the Maidens. Wilfer (when I next speak with the player Matt) later declines membership with the Magi, who will continue to court him without success throughout the campaign.

In my games, PCs in the absence of the player earn XP at half the rate, like NPCs do. 1810 XP are therefore divided into nine shares, and divvied out—two shares to each PC with a present player and one to Wilfer. Two of them have already exceeded 1000 xp, but none have yet hit level 2.

In contrast to campaign Group 1, this group does not assume that every living thing it meets is evil or dangerous, despite having suffered three fatalities and a fourth near death. They are learning to be open to indirect solutions to problems, whether that means negotiation, retreat or siege. Virtually all of their XP thus far has been earned other than by melee. I find this very much to be in the spirit and intent of B/X.

I feel a need to explain how I played the factions. I’m a bit hesitant, because this is a little un-politically-correct. But I think it helps illustrate something about GMing and role-play in general.

Kanadius and the Brothers of Gor’m I play as a stern, sober, honorable bunch, wary of taking risks and not especially open to new ideas. Auriga and the Magi of Usamigaras (in their multi-colored robes) I play as effete, omni-sexual, decadent, friendly schemers. Padoma and the Warrior Maidens of Maduara are direct, brave, rash, honorable.

I shamelessly use a lilting gay voice for Auriga, and a sassy black woman’s voice for Padoma. It might be lazy, falling back onto obvious stereotype. And I totally get that gayness and blackness ought not to be used as objects of inherent amusement, thereby rendering them implicitly not-normative. The thing is, it works. At least it worked for me and this group. Stereotype in a game can be really fun. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I think most of us have experienced it.

I do know that stereotype, by its very nature, is easy because it’s familiar and accessible. It’s kind of shorthand that can be used to rapidly fill in the blanks of a character’s motivation, personality, appearance, etc. What it discards in depth and sensitivity, it gains in accessibility (to the un-offended anyway). It paints a colorful picture quickly, if two-dimensionally. This is super useful when trying to engage players around a table.

This kind of gets at a broader aspect of my GMing style. I’m a huge planner, researching/inventing the history, geography, politics, etc. of the game world. And I’m very much drawn to making it “realistic” in its way, with reasons for the existence of various humanoid races, monsters, magic, and so on. But in actual game-play, I tend to play up humor and irony where I find it. I don’t run a silly game. But I don’t shut down table banter, however silly, if it’s in-character or about the game-world or adventure.

I think I embrace humor, however lazily, in part because I don’t have access to players who are willing to play the sober game I’m actually more interested in. I’d love to play a hyper-realistic game, where monsters are deemed monstrous, magic wondrous, and NPCs are entirely three-dimensional. But it’s a rare player who would be willing to invest that much psychological effort into taking it that seriously. So, I go for a second-best mode, blending realism and hyperbole.

There’s certainly a longer essay to tease out here, but this isn’t my forum (and I haven’t written it anyway). I just thought I’d throw it out there, because the tone I set for the faction NPCs was a big part of the fun of these campaigns. It occupied a fair bit of screen time, and went a long way towards getting the players to engage.

Blog Watch: Kothar, Sadistic Pleasure, B2 Diplomacy, 8 Bit Box Art, and Cosplay as Economic Indicator

Appendix N (Castalia House) RETROSPECTIVE: Kothar– Barbarian Swordsman by Gardner Fox — “I don’t mind Fox’s Kothar stories. They’re actually much closer to the typical fantasy role playing game scenario because of their simplicity. What bugs me is that the impression that most people have of Conan is that the stories must be every bit as trashy and formulaic as his imitations. That just isn’t the case. And yet, even though the action and the pacing seem to anticipate the sort of typical fare that would become ubiquitous in later role-playing and computer games, there are enough standard tropes missing here that it’s interesting to see how things play out without them. Like an odd reductio ad absurdum, Garder Fox’s small volume of tales demonstrate why Dungeons & Dragons had to meld so many disparate and contradictory themes together in order to get a coherent, playable game.”

Appendix N (Tor.com) Advanced Readings in D&D: Gardner Fox — “Kothar’s a self-proclaimed adventurer, and in the spirit of adventuring that would influence a role-playing game in which experience points are granted by the accumulation of gold, Kothar’s main motivation is to make money. He’s a sword for hire, and even when he takes on heroic tasks—like rescuing a young girl from a cult of weirdos—he only does it so that the girl’s father will give him a better price on some jewels Kothar’s trying to unload. That simple motivation makes the Kothar stories work pretty well, actually. It gives him a clear mission and a clear sense of purpose. And if he happens to do awesome stuff along the way, well that’s just part of being Kothar. But awesomeness is its own reward. And it doesn’t pay the bills. So the gold and jewels are really the reward that matters. Not that Kothar actually has any bills. But he does seem to love to travel. And to stay at fancy places filled with beautiful women. And that lifestyle ain’t cheap, friend.”

Appendix N (Tankards & Broadswords) Revisiting Kothar, Barbarian Swordsman — “It might not be the most eloquent prose, but it’s a good measure better than a lot of media tie-in fiction that gets published these days, and certainly not bad for a paperback fantasy novel that sold for 60 cents in 1969. And, hey, how many pulp fantasy paperbacks at that time had an introduction from a Ph.D. (I have no idea who Donald MacIvers is, but apparently he wrote an introduction to the first Kothar book) about the need for super-heroic literary characters in mid-twentieth century fiction, jiving off of the writings of one Albert Kremnitz, an early 19th century German philosopher?”

Appendix NOT (Roles, Rules, and Rolls) Cultural Literacy, Gamer Literacy — “Say what you will about the literary merits of the D&D canon (and the vaunted Appendix N is no Harold Bloom paradise either) — because it sticks so closely to actual gaming, a discussion of the approach of the GDQ series, versus Dragonlance, versus Forgotten Realms actually has more direct bearing on how a DM would run a campaign.”

Appendix NOT (Rpg Corner)  Thoughts on 5e…so far — “It’s no big secret that D&D long ago stopped referencing literature and mythology and instead became a self-referential genre unto itself. Some people are okay with this, others aren’t. I find it interesting from a cultural point of view, but it doesn’t bother me too much. Things that happen in D&D sessions and media derived from the game don’t really happen in any other medium, and in fact I believe that RPGs are at their best when they’re not trying to explicitly recreate the experience of reading a book or watching a movie or TV show.”

Appendix N (Just the Caffine Talking) It Gets Real — “Writers like Dunsany, Tolkein, Lieber, and Howard all had extremely well-realized characters and settings right from the start. I wonder if that’s one reason fantasy never quite had the ‘kid stuff’ stigma that bedeviled science fiction.”

Appendix N (Black Gate) Collecting Lovecraft, Part II — “Why do I collect vintage paperbacks? Because if you have the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft in a modern hardcover edition, you’re very likely to ignore the earlier editions… and in the process overlook a whole wealth of splendid fiction, art, and literary history.”

Culture (Daily Intelligencer) In Defense of Male Aggression: What Liberals Get Wrong About Football — “George Orwell, the old socialist, was well ahead of his time when he scribbled out an angry rant against the sporting ethic, which, he wrote, ‘is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ That is all more or less true. But shooting is precisely the problem with war. War minus the shooting is actually pretty great.”

GURPS (Gaming Ballistic) Deceptive Yak Shaving – Deceptive Attack Redux — “That ‘go to 16′ plan looks good (within 5% of the best choice, or itself the best choice) up to the point where my foe is sporting a defense roll of about 16 or more. Of course, that’s a shield, a retreat, and Dodge-11 (+2 shield and +3 retreating dodge) or Parry-13 (+3 for a medium shield and a +1 retreat). That’s Skill-20 for my foe, so he’s a real champ – Cadmus’ level.”

Role Playing Games (Semper Initiativus Unam) Diplomacy, D&D and Roleplaying — “When you consider that many of the pioneering roleplayers were Diplomacy players, their style of roleplaying becomes much clearer. As I said in my last post, negotiation is a key aspect of dungeoneering in early editions as written, but was all too often overlooked in favor of the expedient of simply fighting. The best evidence of this is B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Here is a scenario right out of the many Diplomacy variants: each humanoid group has its forces, every group can pretty easily kill the PCs, but with careful negotiation they can play one against the other.”

Role Playing Games (Sarah Darkmagic) How a picture of girls playing D&D went from cool to awesome — “For days I pored over each and every word in the article, until that weekend when my parents took me to the toy store so I could buy the Holmes Basic D&D set and the Monster Manual (plus a few dice).” — Geoffrey McKinney

Gamma World (Age of Ravens) History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part One: 1976-1984) — “From Gamma World I learned a classic trope of post-apocalypse games. Young tribal members have to go out into the wilderness to find something to save the village or carry out a rite of ascension. We’d end up doing that dozens of time. Gamma World presented a world of anachronisms, showing that any tale or trope could be rebuilt with a science-fantasy frame. It offer a more robust system of random mutation tables. Players could choose their type, but beyond that had to settle with their results- good and bad. It made rolling up characters a desperate and fun gamble. One awesome element, little used in modern games, was the random artifact interaction table. Players rolled on the flowchart to see if they could figure out how to use a device, break it, or set it off in their hands. It was a great system and one worth lifting for other games.”

GamerGate (According to Hoyt) It’s Time The Gloves Came Off– “For the last ten years or so, they’ve stepped up their game too. Say anything – anything – they disagree with and you’ll be slandered and attacked in ways that boggle the mind. It started in politics, but right now it is at every level they control or would like to control, including even sf fandom and (they wish) gaming journalism.”

Adventure Design (I’ll See It When I Believe It) Interesting and Useful Dungeon Descriptions — “Imagine a place so dangerous that the players can’t afford to be distracted by red herrings. Just by coming in here, they’ve accepted a level of risk that would drive most folks to terror, because death could be lurking around every corner. There might be great rewards, even potential allies, but there are also threats that they don’t stand a chance against, and they don’t know where those are. Everything the party does spends a precious resource – time, light, magic, their unbroken bodies, their sense of direction, or just their luck. Everything they use up might be needed later, every step forward invites an untimely death, or maybe a lingering one: the dungeon is only the halfway point of their foray!”

Star Wars (Searching For Magic) Retro-Speculative: D6 Star Wars, What Is It Good For? — “The game is beautiful in its simplicity. The majority of the rules are in the first 24 pages! The pulpy action this RPG emulates is the same pulpy action George Lucas was copying from the wild adventures of speculative fiction from the early 20th Century. With these things in mind it should hardly be a surprise that there is so little adjustment needed to bring the game full circle and use it to run a Sword and Sorcery game.”

Design Fail (The Escapist) Twilight Imperium’s Shocking Conclusion — “This game, I turtled and turtled hard, slowly placing my fleets in positions that would grant them the most flexible movement options as I acquired technology. One strategy I found the most helpful was to keep my fleet split up into pods of three or four, all turtled around the same planetary hex. It was this strategy that I built my ship producing space docks around. What this allowed me to do was soak an attack by Greg Tito’s Jol Nar and quickly respond with a counter attack from ships on multiple hexes, keeping my loses from an attack down to the absolute minimum while preserving a strong defensive strategy.”

Role Playing Games (Bat in the Attic) Why You Can’t Game the OSR — “The OSR is indeed mostly about classic DnD for the simple reason that classic DnD has the largest fan base of any old school. It dwarfs other old school games by at least an order of magnitude. The only way an old school movement can not be about classic DnD if it excludes it.”

SatyrGate (Hack & Slash) On Even More 5th Edition Monster Manual Comments — “My, how well dressed are you, you hedonistic reveling Satyr. You look like you’re going to a mid-level marketing seminar.”

GamerGate (Breitbart) How to Lose a Public Relations Battle on the Internet — “Just how stupid do Polygon and Kotaku think their readers are? Do they really believe that EA, Bungie, Capcom and the like don’t already know exactly what their customers are like? Do they think that their discredited and widely derided publications are going to change a single mind not already determined to hate gamers for the mere crime of being white men?”

GamerGate (Gawker) What Is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks — “Projects like Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’ inspire such vitriol precisely because they’ve pierced that bubble of privilege and started conversations that gamers can’t conveniently ignore. And that can be hard to accept, especially when you identify with a group that has traditionally been at the bottom of the (white, male) social pecking order.”

GamerGate (The Escapist) Greg Costikyan GamerGate Interview — “GamerGate is an attack on the weak by assholes, supposedly in defense of multi-billion dollar corporations who need no defending, and are likely embarrassed by this crap. It’s worse than that; it is one of the most repulsive excrescences of anonymous, bullying, Internet culture. These people seriously need to be taken behind the woodshed, spanked long and hard, and reminded of what it means to act like a civilized person. It is very easy to set up ‘an other,’ paint that other as somehow threatening and less than human, and get a clique of people worked up about the supposed iniquities of the other. And, apparently, get them to issue death and rape threats, make threatening phone calls, harass family and friends, hack accounts…”

Computing (The Verge) How Atari box art turned 8-bit games into virtual wonderlands — “For Basic Programming artist Rick Guidice had a particularly challenging task: to make learning to program seem exciting. To do so, he created a cover featuring two men working at huge consoles full of blinking lights. It makes programming look as intense and awesome as operating a spaceship. Those sci-fi influences shouldn’t be too surprising, though, as Guidice had spent time in the 1970s creating concept paintings for NASA, providing the world a glimpse of what the space colonies of the future might look like.”

Role Playing Games (Save Versus All Wands) What is the OSR? — “The Old School wants to kill you (often or at least sometimes). The Man wants to hold your hand through 29th level…. The Old School defines you by your actions. The Man defines you by your character sheet…. The Old School is sexy. The Man is a sex theorist…. The Old School embodies diversity. The Man preaches it.”

Economics (The Week) Why the rise of cosplay is a bad sign for the U.S. economy — “When you’re disillusioned with the reality of your early adult life, dressing up like Doctor Who starts looking better and better. It’s not to say that all or even most cosplay aficionados are struggling to find work. It’s only to say that any rise in people fleeing reality for fantasy suggests problems with our reality.”

Game Design (IGN) 5 Awesome Gifts Dungeons & Dragons Gave to Video Games — “A group of MIT students used Colossal Cave Adventure as the inspiration for another, more sophisticated text adventure game called Zork. The setting was classic D&D: a descent into a mysterious, ancient underground ruin complete with cryptic puzzles, swords, sorcery, monsters, and traps on a quest to become the ‘Dungeon Master.’ Zork’s design inspired a generation of adventure game designers to expand the limits of interactive storytelling, eventually birthing the graphical adventure games and cut scenes we take for granted today.”

Random Thoughts: Narrow Mindedness, Regrettable Debates, the Path to Fun, and Leveling Rates

These blanket condemnations of pulp writers for sexism display a disappointing lack of empathy and perspective. REH did not include scantily clad women in his first few Conan stories; they came later… when he really needed the sales. He knew what his editors would pay for and that stuff was not what he would have written were money no object. And A. Merritt knew darn well what would sell in his time… because ERB’s Princess of Mars was so wildly popular, you’d be crazy not to follow and develop on the exact same model. You can’t act like these guys were just arbitrarily sexist, as if their attitudes spontaneously emerged from nowhere. Editors and readers had a great deal influence on their work. They grew up in a world without birth control, without safe/easy abortion, with relatively primitive medicine, and with frighteningly high maternal mortality rates. That had a tremendous impact on peoples’ notions of romance, love, and marriage. Yes… the culture was different. And no, these guys do not need warning labels attached to their works or apologies made on their behalf any more than Mark Twain or Jane Austen do. And people that like old books do not need to engage in ritualized self-abasement if they enjoy them. They are valuable and compelling precisely because they are so different from books written today and they preserve glimpses of a past we too often assume we have evolved beyond. Human nature hasn’t changed as much as most people think it has; that’s why the classics aren’t going to become obsolete anytime soon.

If not for the “regrettable debates” between the Old School and 4e, I would never have taken classic D&D seriously or treated it as the masterpiece of game design that it actually is. There are incredibly fascinating things involved in its impetus and that derive spontaneously from its execution that are not explicitly stated in the rules. A big problem with these debates is that there is a large group of extremely loud people that do not know that they don’t know about this.

Let me explain this diagram from Rob Donoghue. In “real” role-playing games, the scenario is not necessarily “balanced” and the abilities of the characters are not necessarily “balanced” and the players have agency to go and do as they please. Once everyone gets settled in and the group dynamics have been sorted out and people suddenly stop making Monty Python jokes and suddenly start caring a great deal about the outcome of each and every die roll, sometimes the whole table can end up screaming in either glee or despair with each and every outcome. The “push your luck” element to the game combined with the concept of distinct dungeon levels serve to facilitate this happening. The scenario does not have to be balanced as long as the players have the option to dip into the sweet spot where they have a chance to get either epic loot or horrifying consequences if they just venture temporarily into a region that they know is just a bit too much for them. D&D is popular because this is a very complex premise for a game that is surprisingly accessible in this format. A lot of the people attempting to one-up D&D have no clue about how this works.

The key to good game mastering is allowing the players to find these sweet spots. To do that, there has to be a range of difficulty on the map and the players have to have the latitude to go where they want and even to be stupid. (The process looks very much like Rob’s diagram, because when you sit down to run the game, you have no idea where things are going to “click.”) You have to be willing to let them face the consequences of their choices. Lewis Pulsipher says you don’t have to kill player characters, they just have to believe that they are in life threatening situations. Well that’s fine, but the quickest way to make them believe is by letting a few of them die early on.

High mortality rates, variable difficulties of challenges available, player autonomy, and referee neutrality make for a powerful combination. It forces the players to think and to cooperate. It’s consistently dramatic, surprising, and the outcomes are delightfully varied. The rapid shifts from glory to outright terror is completely addictive. It’s a different kind of game and not one that tends to emerge in either computer gaming or from people that think they know what they want– people that know in advance that they’ll, for instance, reframe everything on the fly in order to artificially ensure that every character gets an equal share of “spotlight” time. Why put yourself in a position where you’re personally responsible for each player’s fun? Why not fade into the woodwork and put the players in charge of the game?

One of the thing I like about B/X over 5e is how with it taking more than a couple of sessions to level up usually, it forces you to really pull off several heists. You have to master the game. With everyone generally leveling up once a session in 5e, you completely lose the sense of relief and accomplishment that a “real” graduation used to effect.

Something like 3 to 5 sessions on average to level up (with lotsa death) is brilliant design if you ask me. It was also normal at one time. Even Car Wars followed that same approach. The thing about it: it makes you focus on playing over everything else, you don’t need a large amount of complex rules and splat books to support it, and you don’t need an endless stream of other people’s modules to keep it going. The fun emerges from the game rather than being something the game master has to baby along.

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