Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Worst Thing to Happen to AD&D

It’s hard to imagine now just how much gravitas the original AD&D hardback books held during the mid-eighties. Game mastering was, in my experience, not something that was particularly well understood at the time– not in my circles, anyway. The few people that I’d met that had any talent for it were liable to forbid people even looking at the Dungeon Masters Guide. I did not play a great deal, but somehow… I was actually afraid on some level to open up that book. The idea of owning something like a complete set of the AD&D rule-books was something that was impossible for me to imagine until they all got discounted when second edition was about to be rolled out. Even then, it would be decades before I could get a good look at them. I bought the whole “high end last word end all be all” schtick hook, line and sinker.

The survival guides struck me as being particularly hard core, though. I mean… imagine… an entire book on each of dungeon and wilderness adventuring. It was just awe inspiring, really. Heck, I barely understood how to run bare bones Basic D&D… and I was daunted by The Isle of Dread from the Expert set. But these two massive tomes really represented to me the ultimate in gaming.

Now that I actually sit down and read a physical copy, I have to say I am shocked. I mean, Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures come in for their share of criticism, sure. But it means something that Gary Gygax’s name was on the books. In comparison to those two, it’s almost painful to read The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide. It’s just so clear that in the wake of Gygax being run off, that the chuckleheads were taking over. If you ask me, this is undoubtedly the point where TSR lost its way.

It’s the section on game mastering advice that really gets me, though. Check this out:

The most important ingredient in any campaign is a skilled DM who has the time and energy to carefully define and create his world, and the talent to communicate his settings effectively.

Oh good grief, what a mass of obfuscation and misdirection in just one sentence. This is, first and foremost, sucking up to all the Dungeon Masters that would read this. You are all special people, for sure! No.. really! Rather than pointing people towards solid game design wisdom that could enable even a novice to successfully run a summer-long campaign, instead we get some kind of cult of gamer personality. And what’s the thing that makes a DM great? The sort of elaborate settings that are domain of aspiring novelists. (Note: I bet if you don’t have the mettle to come up with an elaborate setting, then TSR would have loved to sell you scads of books that do not even comprise a playable game! And that is of course precisely where they were headed when they published this.) The worst offense here is that none of this has to do with games or game design. It’s all about the GM’s ability to convey his vision. Ridiculous. If that’s what people think rpg sessions are all about then they may as well go to a movie or read a book.

Continuing on:

The next most important ingredients are willing players who share common goals with the DM. Players interested in hack-and-slash adventures should not be matched a DM who is interested in careful plot structuring and detailed mystery solving.

What nonsense. As if role-playing is so special that you have to have some kind of computerized dating service to connect players with DM’s that are compatible each other. As if DM’s are not capable to mastering several styles of adventure and campaign types. As if players wouldn’t enjoy a variety of play styles and scenario types within the same campaign– or even within the same session!

The players are then broken down into three types: Adventurers, Problem-Solvers, and Role-players. As if a good DM would even have to work out this sort of thing before hand to get a game going. As if everyone that plays rpgs didn’t have aspects of all three styles at one time. As if the party wouldn’t be made up of people that differ on each of these points. As if game design and adventure design can’t be worked out in such a way as to accommodate all three of these modes simultaneously. As if the good DM has to be some kind of amateur psychologist and then somehow spoon feed those poor helpless players the only kind of game they can understand.

What rubbish. Whoever wrote this stuff is just making stuff up. It’s like they (a) get paid by the word and (b) know they will be able to sell more books if they divert game masters away from actual solutions to their gaming  problems. The sort of people that buy these books for guidance in getting started in actually running games will not get what they are looking for in this material. Which is a shame, really. The book is, after all, filled with so many inspiring images.

What you need to be a successful DM is really quite simple, really. But it doesn’t break down into an easy three part model that’s easy to craft an essay around. I’ll tell you what it takes, though:

  1. Time — If you want to be a good dungeon master, then you will need time more than anything else. Your first sessions and campaigns will be full mistakes and missed opportunities. It will be a miracle if your players have fun anyway and keep coming back. Don’t be disappointed when things go wrong, but above all else keep on playing.
  2. Consequences — You may have an impulse to shield your players from the consequences of their actions within a game. Usually it will be so that you can make the story come out the way you think it’s supposed to happen. The more you are given over to this, the harder it will be for you to learn how to game master and the harder it will be for players to learn how to play well within your game.
  3. Impartiality — With real consequences in your game, players want to be able to make informed decisions with regards to the risks. They can’t do that if you are neither fair nor consistent. If your players think you are failing to meet that standard, they will let you know about it. Always be ready to listen to the players’ side, but at the same time… take responsibility for your final decisions.
  4. Variety — When you start out, you may only be able to run particular types of adventures that emphasize the play styles that you are most comfortable with. Once you’ve tried doing a lot of different things, you’ll be able to incorporate different types of challenges within the same adventure or campaign. You will finally have the freedom to respond to just about anything the players want to try, even on the spur of the moment! So try new things– especially if you’re not good at them.
  5. Choice — When the players are presented with the choice between adventure opportunities, they will be able to make a decision as a group between engaging in more role-playing, more hack-and-slash, and/or more problem solving on the basis of whatever they are in the mood for. They will sort out this issue on their own. So you don’t have to be able to read their minds, assess their personalities, or gauge the interest of a particular group as long as the players are faced with a variety of challenges and have the latitude to choose both what that they want to tackle and how to approach it.

This isn’t that complicated, really. With everything from Keep on the Borderlands to Dwimmermount, this sort of thing will emerge naturally if you let it. Players that are keen on more role-playing will have more questions about the various personalities in town and try to engage with them. You won’t be ready for every single thing the players want to try, so just make stuff up and take notes on what you come up with between sessions. The game can then start to grow into whatever the players want it to be as long as you are willing to invest in the things that the they have the most interest in.

Meanwhile, dungeons are generally full of monsters to kill and puzzles to solve. If the puzzles are optional, groups keen on mayhem can bypass them to get what they want from the game. If the monsters can be avoided, then players make a beeline to the puzzle elements that most concern them. If they are stymied, they can always go back to exploring. If they are tired of dungeon crawling, they may begin investigating some of the adventure hooks that point to other places on the adventure map. If they’re content with dungeon crawling, then you don’t have to bother developing the wider world all that much unless it suits you!

Just running the game more or less faithfully will allow you to solve your problems on your own– or at least find products that address actual needs from your game. But too much of game mastering advice is loaded with misinformation that adds imaginary problems where they do not exist and diverts the novice away from developing the skills he needs to handle things himself at the table. Too much of that sort of thing can ruin a game line– and that’s exactly what’s happened here with The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide.

A Few Comments on ACKS Proficiencies

Okay, I have sort of a love/hate relationship with ACKS proficiencies. On the one hand, I love how all of the “normal human” specialist roles are broken down and incorporated into a unified system: I know exactly what level zero humans are and how they go on to bigger and better things. I like how a lot of stuff which tends to come in as house rules is codified here in such a way that players have to give something up to get at them. People that have a favorite proficiency not only get the benefit of it, they flaunt it. Finally, I like how the proficiencies rules open up just enough formal customization that there is no need for a lot of the multi-classing and variant classes that other games have been engulfed by. What’s not to like, right?

Well I’ll tell you. The main thing that’s so annoying about it is that it slows down character creation. Normally it’s just the Magic-User that has to pour over a list of obscure items, making a crucial game strategy choice based on a few opaque passages he can glean something from. Granted, it’s only a brand new player that really has to do that, really. Everybody else just has to figure out if they want Sleep or if they want to get really crazy and try Charm Person instead. But you know what I mean.

Dropping this proficiency system into B/X D&D means that everybody has to sort out a character creation choice that’s about three times as complicated as magic-user spell selection. And you’d think that it wouldn’t be that complicated, but it is. I’ve handed pregens to people, pointed out that they can make a different choice for their one general proficiency and their one class proficiency. Then I’ll get through over a dozen hours of gaming with them before I notice that they ended up going with two class proficiencies. Doh! No, it’s not that complicated. But when you have a table full of rowdy players, subtle nuances like this are about the first thing to go.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s player system mastery that becomes a problem. I mean, part of the reason I play “3d6 in order” in the first place is to head off the whole min/maxing, power gaming, munchkin attitude. In B/X, there’s really only one big choice in char-gen: what class do you want to play? Integrate in a proficiency system like this, and suddenly the spirit of post-TSR D&D rears it’s ugly head. Okay, there’s nothing quite like a real feat-chain here. And there’s hardly anything resembling a perfect builds that everyone expects you to just roll with. But I tell you… this thing with players bringing in clerics and magic-users with every proficiency slot they have dedicated to healing just drives me crazy.

See, the proficiency system is something that was meant to just be a bit of a perk; something that would let people personalize and round out their characters a little, you know? But here it is, all that stuff that’s here complicating my D&D? Well it’s not providing the sort of benefits that convinced me to turn it loose on my table in the first place. Now, sure. It’s perfectly natural for the players to take every step they can to give them their best chance for survival. They’re all liable to see their player characters come to a violent end, after all. But I want something more from this than double damage on natural twenties and a truckload of healing proficiency checks after every single skirmish. I’d like… well… and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but… I’d just like to see these characters be just a bit more individualized before they die. (Note: this is not an endorsement of special snowflake gaming!)

This is where the ACKS Player’s Companion comes in. For every core class and for every class in the Companion, there is a 3d6 table breaking them down into a selection of eight templates. These include not just proficiency choices, but also gear and (in some cases) starting spells for these guys as well. That problem I had with proficiencies bogging down character generation? It’s gone!

But there’s more. Let me bring back to my set of five characters that I’ve been working up as a part of this series so you can see what I mean.

  1. 10-12-11-9-10-12 Fighter, 7 hit points
  2. 7-10-9-18-13-11 Thief (+10% XP Bonus, +1 hit point per hit die, -1 to to-hit and damage with melee weapons), 2 hit points
  3. 10-10-7-10-10-12 Fighter (-1 penalty to saving throws vs. magic and magic items.), 5 hit points
  4. 9-18-10-10-12-6 Mage (+10% XP bonus as mage, -1 penalty to reaction rolls and max number of henchmen), 3 hit points
  5. 9-10-13-10-16-8 Cleric (+2 hit points per hit die and +5% earned XP), 6 hit points

Rolling on the chars from the Player’s  here are the template results:

  1. Corsair — Swashbuckling, Seafaring
  2. Cat Burglar — Cat Burglary, Gambling
  3. Guardsman — Alertness, Signaling
  4. Magical Scholar — Loremastery, Collegiate Wizardry, Knowledge (astrology), Alchemy; Spells: Sleep, Chameleon, Detect Magic (Note: one general proficiency left open to be selected during play; note that Chameleon came up twice in spell selection, so he has an empty slot in his spell repertoire as well!)
  5. Undead Slayer — Righteous Turning, Healing

I have to say… I really like this set of results. Those two fighters that were more or less identical before? They’re like completely different characters now. In fact… all of these guys have backgrounds now. I can even see players invoking these generic templates as a mean’s of introducing role-playing elements into the game. Nothing fancy, mind. Maybe just an angle that players might use to gather rumors: “I’m an Undead Slayer… so I want to ask at the tavern if there are any sites where such things have been encountered in the past while.” That corsair might know things about any treasure maps the party comes across. And so on. This is the sort of thing that I wanted the proficiency system to inject into the game. And note… the raw mechanics from the core book combined with full player autonomy did not give it to me. (I could have house ruled it in order police what I think of as being as abuse, sure. But you know I’m not inclined to start down that path. Heh.)

But there’s something familiar about this effect I’m observing here. And it’s not a connection I would have immediately drawn without actually working through this. What these templates bring to the table are the this whole idea of descriptors. I first saw this sort of thing in Ron Edwards’s Sorcerer where he had players choose from among a set of colorful phrases that explained why a particular attribute was at the level that it was. Applying something like this to D&D classes strikes me as a really good idea because they give you the option to step away from the implications of the rules and instead think in terms of the character background could have driven the selection of those individual proficiency slots in the first place.

This is not just chrome. I think something significant is happening here. It’s not flashy, but it is a move a way from something that really breaks the sense of immersion at the tabletop. And yes, if we’re going to be playing a game like this for thirty hours or more, this matters to me! It’s like what Jeff Lee was saying:

In D&D (and similar systems), the rules are a tool in which you actualize the rules. They are arbitrary, self-referencial, and exists only for their own purpose, not to actualize something about your character.

Yes! That’s exactly what I dislike about AD&D’s multi-classing.

The descriptor feature of the ACKS templates encapsulates those proficiency selections into an easy to remember hook that reaches back and connects to the wider setting in a very playable way. It gives the player a focus that he can use to interpret the raw numbers of his character. Most importantly, novices can take this and run with it even if they are not clear on the details of how their proficienies even work! This does not turn classic D&D into a new wave story game, not by a long stretch. But it nudges things in a direction that I’d really like to see encouraged. At the same time… it addresses actual annoyances that emerge in play. This is not the sort of brilliant game design flourish that I expected to find within the covers of the ACKS Player’s Companion. But this is a really great idea for a lot of reasons.

My advice to ACKS gamemasters using these tables would be to look out for when the players reference their template title to justify role-playing actions. If you can’t wholeheartedly say, “it worked!” you can at least throw them a bone with a good old “yes, but….” The spirit of the template as a whole may be more relevant in some situations than the actual capabilities of the the proficiencies that come with them!

The Warrior of World’s End Link Roundup

Okay, so there are those books where I end up saying pretty much what anybody else could tell you. Then there’s stuff like this one where there’s not even a whole lot to compare with. I mean… this is the first one I’ve done where there wasn’t a Grognardia post on the book. I don’t think there’s anything at Black Gate on this one, either. Did I get it right…? Was I off base…? Dunno!

What we do know now is that there are some particularly musty corners of the Appendix N list that really haven’t gotten a lot of attention. So as this series winds down, we have yet another reason why a comprehensive survey was worth doing in the first place.

RETROSPECTIVE: The Warrior of World’s End by Lin Carter

Below is about all I could find on the web that addressed this work.

Tor.com —  “This Lin Carter novel reminds us of the unrestrained promise of early D&D. As the game evolved and kind of solidified into what most people play as a relatively traditional fantasy setting, D&D lost some of the anything-goes bravado of its early incarnations. Gygax’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books had pages devoted to converting characters from D&D to the western rules of Boot Hill or the post-apocalypse of Gamma World. Reports of the adventures he used to run—as evidenced by modules like Dungeonland—show that Gygax’s game wasn’t a straightforward dudes-in-armor-exploring-ruins kind of thing. He had his characters teleported to insane worlds where parodies of Alice in Wonderland characters appeared. He wasn’t afraid to amplify the mythology-building in his games. The Warrior of World’s End reminds me of that. Anything can happen, but in the end it makes sense in its own way. And that’s only after reading one book in the series.”

Fantasy Literature — “The Warrior of World’s End, the first novel in Carter’s GONDWANE epic, is better than most of the books I’ve read by Lin Carter (though I’ve only read seven so far and he’s written so many more than that). Carter’s always got a cool (if not original) setting, but I especially liked this one which is a Dying-Earth-style story where society has regressed to a nearly medieval state but there is magic and remnants of technology to be found, including cloning and constructs. The Warrior of World’s End is a nice blend of science fiction and fantasy and there are lots of little imaginative details that enrich the story — metal automatons, tiger-men and other hybrid creatures, gigantic bubbles of vacuum that threaten to destroy whole towns, a floating island in the sky.”

An Amazon Review — “This sword & sorcery novel is strongly derivative of Vance’s The Dying Earth and Howard’s Conan stories. On the other hand, it displays a fine sense of humour that is absent from both of its prototypes. One is reminded of Leiber’s Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stories or even of Pratchett. For readers who find early Vance’s tendencies to earnest prose poetry in the Dunsany – Ashton Smith mode a bit cloying, this book is actually preferable to The Dying Earth. Not one dull moment.”

Role-playing Games: When User Experience Departs from Design

This image spawned the following exchange over on Google+. (Given that it’s challenging to get people to a place where they can even begin to start discussing rpg design, I thought it was worth reposting this here.)

Jeffro: This is how the vast majority of people view rpg products. When they pick up a new one, they assume that this will be their overall experience. I don’t think that’s a problem, really, but the tone of most rpg rule sets come off as if the author is completely oblivious to the fact that this is the case. If I’m reading someone’s game book, I’d like to see some indication that they’ve not only played the game themselves, but that they’ve paid attention to other people that have as well. The less actual play is involved in the development process, the more people will have to do without thier genius in favor of whatever actually works.

Lewis Pulsipher: In other words, playtest the game. But RPGs have tended more and more to be about stories, so the game becomes secondary, hence (in the mind of the author) needing less (or no) testing? In great contrast to the “big” RPGs that get lots of playtesting before publication.

Tim Jensen: Wait, we might have to start naming names here.

Most of the small press RPGs I play these days (various Powered by the Apocalypse games, Fate, Microscope/Kingdom, Hope Inhumanity, Dog Eat Dog, Swords Without Master, Itras By) had open playtesting both  at conventions and online, sometimes for years before being published.

The “big” RPGs I play or have played recently (Numenera, Night’s Black Agents, Rogue Trader, 7th Sea, and the World of Darkness games) all suffer from an obvious lack of playtesting. I’ve read interviews with game designers who haven’t played their own games, or who never follow the rules when asked to run them at conventions. Entire game lines have been written by unpaid interns with negligible RPG experience, given a single pass by a line developer/editor, and sent out. I have been in multiple GenCon seminars where RPG developers have said that their games “don’t need playtesting” because they know how to write games so well.

D&D4 skimped on playtesting after level 15, and D&D5 has some striking character balance issues despite their famous playtesting program. Granted, part of the charm of these, Pathfinder and Savage Worlds is finding the exploitable bits to build the most optimized character, but I’m not sure if that’s what the designers intended.

There is also an anti-design, nostalgia movement in the hobby which is concerned with emulating the play experiences with the earliest editions of D&D. DCC has been pretty good with innovation in this space, but the rest haven’t added anything to the conversation that wasn’t said by 1981.

Playtesting is hard. It takes forever even when those who are doing it don’t flake out. And there is an older segment of the RPG designer community that either doesn’t understand or care about game design enough when it conflicts with their livelihood.

Lewis Pulsipher: Different definition of “big” – I was thinking D&D and Pathfinder (and I don’t actually know how much PF is/was tested, but since it’s strongly derived from D&D3 there was already lots of playtesting, practically speaking). The ones you name aren’t big to me, more middle tier.

Yes, playtesting can be hard – or at least, time-consuming.

Note: you can follow Dr. Pulsipher at his blog, on Google+, and on Twitter.

First Session Report for my Daughter’s Dungeon Design!

When people said they were going to try to play it, I thought… I’ll believe it when I see it. Well… I done seen it and I still don’t believe it!

Kevyn Winkless writes in with this:

Ran this for two nephews and my youngest, using modified AFF rules and the entire 1st floor of my house as the play surface, various dinosaurs and superhero figs to represent PCs and monsters. Kids

Play report:
Ograk the warrior (6yo, Hulk figure), Borg the Borg (4yo, some kind of robot) and Wizardator Maximus (8yo, heavily modded Playmobil knight) woke to find themselves in a bedroom, from which they emerged to explore.

The first thing they did was open the door opposite the dungeon to find themselves faced with a dragon atop a mound of gold. After a brief scuffle in which they found themselves seriously outmatched (partly because Wizardator forgot he could cast spells, partly because: dragon) they fled, slamming the door behind them. Luckily none of them was seriously hurt so they carried on.

Exploring further, they discovered the jail and luckily decided to talk to the elf imprisoned there and so learned of the dangerous pit of doom before anyone could fall into it. They released the elf ad asked him to wait for them in the bedroom. Worried he might accidentally go into the dragon room (because Ograk and Borg got confused about left and right and the poor elf wasn’t really clear, they escorted him back before continuing on.

Returning to the jail room, they decided to head down the hall to the Room of Doom, where they found yet another elf. Thinking to collect a small army of elves and perhaps arm them with weapons found in the dungeon (Wizardator’s idea) they tried to talk…But the elf was CRAZY! He attacked them and did some serious damage before they could put him down.

Next up: the crystal pool, a fountain encrusted with glowing, pulsing crystals in rainbow colours. They were nervous and so passed right through and down the steps to level 2.

The first room they came to was the fopd room, where they rested and ate, regaining hit points. They discussed relocating their base, but decided against it when Borg pointed out there were no beds, but they could always take food to the bedroom. The plan was revived whe they discovered the bedroom on level 2 though (after a long puzzled discussion as to what the bathroom might be for…), though Wizardator had misgivings due to the fact it appeared to have been used recently…

Anyway, they went back to get their elf friend and set up shop on level 2. This despite finding the other beds and worrying that someone might be living here (Ograk suggested bears, but I assured them there was no porridge in the food room). Going down to level 3, they immediately entered the torture chamber, where they found a half-dozen evil dino men! A pitched battle ensued, and I was worried I might get a TPK (thus becoming Worst Uncle Ever) but Wizardator remembered his spells and though it was tough on him a couple of fire spells added to Borg and Ograk’s lucky rolls saved the day. They were pretty beaten up, but decided to press on anyway, vowing to run back to the food room if they met anything else. But the rest of the level is all jails, where they made a pact with the elves to set them free in return for them staying in the bedroom level and occasionally helping them when they needed extra muscle to beat something.

Elves freed, they collected up weapons and torture tools from the torture chamber and headed back for some food before attempting to go deeper. But they were excited now, and looking forward to seeing what was next, so off they went.

But level five is a bit of a bear, and although they finished off the acid spitting dimetrodon monster (surprised it while it was sleeping) and were very happy with the gold haul, they decided to press on wounded and the hook monster nearly took them out in spite of Wizardator’s inspired use of a Wall spell to give them a chance to eat some rations. They did beat it though, and won a magic axe along with the gold.

Heavily wounded, they returned to the food room and we ended the session with them remembering about the dragon and wondering if a few of the elves would come back with them to slay it.

In short, as expected, this is an excellent adventure clearly designed by someone who knows her audience very well. 4 stars for design and balance, one extra star for cool artwork and map illustration for a total 5 out of 5. We already have another session booked to delve deeper!

I asked about the rules system he was using and got this back:

A hack of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system as presented in Dungeoneer. Basically stats are the same, but I simplified the skill system a little just to prevent arguments from the kids. Simplified spells a bit too, and just let him choose a selection and used skill for casting, then split the cost between stamina and magic. We also used rock-paper-scissors to determine success/fail instead of rolling.

At the age of nine, my daughter has designed a 15 level dungeon, gotten paid for her work, and received back a playtest report. It doesn’t get any better than that…!

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