Long campaigns do not have the dynamic I would have thought they’d have. The guys with perfect attendence are going to have tremendous influence over the game. Other people will dip in and spaz out because rpgs are a religion. Best example of this is literary hero Misha Burnett who could not stand my “theater of the mind” style of play even though he literally sat in on the GREATEST SESSION I HAVE EVER RUN. Other people drift away without telling you why. Other people complain about things and end up soaking up significant swaths of Dungeon Master creative energy. That can go two ways– either compromise is reached or somebody burns out.
So a campaign like this really the outcome of how these personality differences are ultimately sorted out. Rules and scenario design develop iteratively towards something that can hold all this together, bringing more of what the most engaged players connect with and steering away from the things that put people off. In like manner, the AD&D rules were not designed. They are what happened after years of almost daily play at an open table. Because they were forged under the same kind of stresses that I have subjected myself to, they tend to be surprisingly relevant to the dungeon mastering problems the campaign has ended up presenting to me.
Which brings us to last Thursday night.
We had two new guys so I asked the players to explain the campaign to them. I think it took at least thirty minutes to explain it. I don’t think any of this is necessarily going to come across. People just know that this is some kind of folk culture that has stood the test of time and that somehow they can join in and that it’s going to be fun and stupid and hilarious and yet also A TRULY GREAT GAME all at once. Do any of the details actually matter?
The past few sessions have been a slough of despond for me, though. The preperations I had made during my three week hiatus had been a very mixed bag. After getting better at what we’re starting to call the “jazz” approach to rpgs, I couldn’t go back to running a game from a one page dungeon, even a demented one of my own creation. On the one hand, there were significant flaws in my dungeon design philosophy which I have only just now identified. On the other, if the players pick a dungeon environment and I immediately know everything that can or will happen for the entire session, I will be bored out of my mind. Gripping hand is… in the recounting of the campaign history a player let slip that that players had for many sessions CONSCIOUSLY pursued a “lowest common denominator” ultra-cautious quest for the lowest hanging fruit that my game could offer.
Holy moly, did that ever grind me down! I had fifteen dungeons sketched out in an attempt to pay off what I had established. But, man… nothing I was going to create was going to stand up to that kind of “strategy”. (Is that even a strategy?)
I was despairing over this as all of this was being explained to the new guys. The last several sessions have just been awful, I thought. I don’t know what to do with it I just keep playing because a few people are really into it in spite of it all. So the guy that plays Fagor and Chadrian, he dismisses all this. Our minds are narrative generating machines. We just have to keep playing and before long, SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN that causes everything to click. It doesn’t matter how random it is, the collective minds of the players will MAKE IT MAKE SENSE.
I don’t think I had ever thought of it that way. Or maybe I had and had forgotten.
One new guy had already been acculturated into our old school ways by another DM in the group. Another guy was brand new. I had probably told the guy to just show up, play something boring like a human fighter or something, and then plan on getting killed in an anticlimatic way. (He was so new to AD&D he didn’t know how to roll his hit points or starting gold.) Somehow– and this is amazing– he was able to just join in, hang back a little, and just be a part of the chaos. Anyone that has had any experience with human interaction is going to know that this is the RIGHT WAY to do this. Some of the guys in the group have been playing this game for one hundred hours. No one can tell you how you will fit into all this in advance. Explaining what is going on cannot get anything significant across. Particularly if you have different assumptions about how rpgs even work.
Game? Were we going to play a game? Oh wait, have to explain to the new guy that he gets 4d4 gold and 1d10 hit-points and the players argue over arcane knowledge of which sword does what which I don’t understand. (In the early stages, the campaign got to a point where it provided free adventure seeds that were better than anything I could design. At this stage… it has accrued so much lore as to be a bit of a tax on all future sessions!)
But yes, I was dropping six things on the campaign. Everything we’ve left unfinished, undeveloped, unfollowed:
40′ tall 6-armed Bug Buddha demon summoned by the cults that somebody remembered I had forgotted recently. Players start arguing about what to do, asking questions immediatly about this, but I am like, hey I got five more. Five more!
Goblin rape gangs terrorizing Trollopulous. This one killed. For some reason this was just hilarious.
Mushroom men seek alliance with Fluid the Druid. A little bit of back and forth here.
Venger Satanis group archeology dig. Stopped and used the assassin rules for a Half-orc Cleric/Assassin. The party here was still five days into the future going by Gygaxian timekeeping. Now that half-orc was another 7 days out on top of that! Explained breifly that this Cleric/Assassin betrayed his own brother with some dream and prophecy stuff. The spot where he died after betraying the Satanis men is directly above the place where Nergal’s shield is said to be deposited.
Monster Girl exhibit opening at Tower of Ultimate Evil
NPC party making bank in sewers w/ 6 Crystal Constructs
The thing with the Nergal shield was supposed to be the obvious winner out of all of these. I mean that is obviously the coolest thing going on in the game. I was really suprised when the players decided to play their other characters from Trollopulous. The new guy playing the boring human fighter actually had a tremendous amount of influence on the session this time. He just wanted to go find a beautiful woman somewhere. Like if he had a back story, that was bascially it. In our game there was the evil sorceress at Mt. Glovermore that had been encased in ice at one point. Given that this was near where the mushroom men lived in Opar, the players agreed that this was the place where they could get multiple things done at once.
See, there was a clear adventure objective that the players were keen on. And there was a strategic situation that they were concerned about– an battle between Glovermore (Sorceress/Frogmen) and Opar (Mushroom Men/Zombie Animals). Stuff was going to happen and it was all going to build on stuff that we’d been developing for twenty-six sessions. The specificity of our original gaming creations have by now accrued their own layers of meanings to the point where no product could come close to providing the same sort of feeling of depth. All of this matters a bit more because of its proximity to Fluid the Druid’s treehouse. Plus, the players are by now so contemptuos of Trollopulous itself, that they hope to leverage their knowledge of its geography to raise an army that could successfully destroy the place. (When did that happen? Imagine if the players had attempted to orchestrate that without telling me what they goal was!)
But now all of that was going to collide with with whatever the wilderness encounter tables gaveus and whatever random portion of a one page dungeon I’d made months ago for a comepletely different set of campaign dynamics.
They set off to the jungles. Now that I have a hex map, I really need to know about the rate of travel. The players say that in AD&D they have a move of 12″ and their daily rate of travel is double that. This does not factor in armor, weapons, and rations that they are loaded down with, but by this point we are an hour and a half into the session and we haven’t really started yet. (The campaign lore tax must be paid!) I go with 24 miles a day for the clear hexes and then 16 miles a day in the jungle hexes. With 30 mile hexes, this is about 1 clear hex a day and half a jungle hex a day at walking rates. The players not having horses like they used to makes this much more complicated than it was. We’ll fix this at some point.
Fluid the Druid stops by his treehouse and leaves his bison mount there. The players keep on through the forest and a few game days into play, they run into a group of sixty cave men. They are hostile because they are carrying a giant egg back to their village and they think the players are going to take it. Fluid charms the leader with a spell and the Chadrian uses his comprehend languages spell to pick up just enough cave man speech to persuade them to go on a journey to find an even greater egg. Due to my recent kick on reevaluating the game in terms of miniatures warfare, the players immediately see the cave men as three figures in a Chainmail game. They had rejected the idea of purchasing ten or twenty men-at-arms to round out the party. Sixty cave men was more than we’d ever dared to take on in the game.
I can’t remember any of the other wilderess encounters. The players have now travelled many days when they finally get to Mount Glovermore. They opted to take ALL of the cave men into the dungeon. I don’t bother describing all the details of how the players get to the room where the woman in ice had been frozen way back. (We’re trying to get to the actual game part of the session and the wilderness trek had made for a not insignificant second preamble.)
They get there and there are two different passages to the north. There are marching orders to deal with. Finally the players opt to go left and we are exploring a new room. Inside this one is walls covered in heroic figures blacksploitation films– Shaft, Blackula, the voodoo people from Live and Let Die, the entire cast of I’m Gonna Get You Sucka… but not Grace Jones. There is a passageway to the north blocked off by rubble. There is a hologram of Morgan Freeman explaining the terrible end to the civilization that built Mr. Glovermore. Evidently some sort of magical device raged out of control.
Chadrian had gotten turned into a Gorgon by drinking from the Clash of the Titans fountain last session. He asked if he could take his bones out of joint and slither through the rubble to see what is on the other side. I decided this was extremely unlikely, giving it a 1-in-12 chance of happening. I picked up the d12 and decided that it wouldn’t work unless a 12 came up, expecting to move on to the next room so that something could happen. Then a 12 came up. (!!) On the other side is the Dark Crystal room. Underneath it down a pit way, way down below is an expanse of lava. Chadrian slithers back and persuades the cavemen to start clearing the rubble, telling them that the great egg is that way.
Needless to say, none of this was the plan for the evening by any stretch. Caveman army on the first level of a dungeon as the players find something they weren’t “supposed” to discover until much later… combined with the off the wall thing that just HAS to happen, of course. I mean, this is Mount Glovermore, right?
So the players see purple lightning bolts in the room to the south and send five player characters down to check it out. It’s nine frog men armed with spears! The new assassin player throws flaming oil. The monk shoots a crossbow. These hit to devestating effect. The three characters rushing into them for melee all miss however. The morale rules call for a check at 25% casualties which the frog men have not gotten yet. The players were “supposed” to get that check and then trigger a failure, but it didn’t work out for them!
The seven surviving frog men battle back and the assassin takes five hits of damage. I very carefully slowed down the game to check for the weapon vs. ac adjustments because this is the only AD&D rule that anybody seems to know about. Somebody got an extra -1 to their AC out of this and we were all satisfied that the game was correct and in good order in at least one area.
The next round, the monk used his superior speed to run down the secret passage and shut off the carbon freezing chamber. Fluid the Druid wondered if he knew what was happening down in the carbon freezing area, but my one page dungeon specification ruled that out. He is unable to help! That left four guys fighting seven frog men. The players somehow don’t take any casualties and the frog men lose another man, triggering the morale check. The fact that the frogs took casualties while the players did not gave a +50% penalty to the roll. I rolled a 4, which was only just barely a morale failure. The frogs back off in a fighting retreat which opened them up to ranged attacks from the players. I didn’t think of it, but the frogs should have thrown their spears. Maybe they didn’t win initiative, though. They take more casualties and only two survive to flee down the hallway.
The caveman excavation process then completed after thirty more minutes of game time. The players make a grappling hook out of ropes and Fluid the Druid’s golden sycle. They pull the crystal and it sort of coasts towards them. Cavemen reach out to steady it as it comes their way and they are shocked for one hit point of damage.
I rule that the players are able to get the crystal outside of Mount Glovermore. They decide to take to Opar where the mushroom men live. Their plan is to somehow use it to form a Caveman Confederation. Or figure out what it does. One player fluent in the Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests that it might a the Crystal of the Ebon Flame. I have never played with an artifact in game before so I don’t even know what the rules are for how a player discovers how to weild its powers. Somebody says you don’t get experience for them which is intriguing. (And I have to say… regular magic items just do not infringe upon the players consciousness normally. They need so much gold for training, they just sell them if the remember that they have them at all. So now that something might be an artifact, the players care about a magic item for the first time since they were desperate for scrolls in the bad old days.)
The players are struck with inspiration about linking up the two independent parties now that two artifact-like items were introduced at once. But then we realized that the other group doesn’t know what this group does and time and space are suddenly a constraint on what is normally an anything goes type campaign. With a single party engaging in weekly adventures, Gygaxian timekeeping as little impact on the game beyond (a) adventure locations moving forward in time allowing them to prepare for the players’ return and (b) the adventurer roster changing up based on who is out for training, healing, or wilderness travel. But now with two groups active at once, it’s hard to say which one is the most intiquing to the players. But if both are and there is some sort of competition between the two… then Gygaxian timekeeping becomes extremely important for determining which group is down what and when. Long wilderness treks by one of the other group will cause the competing group to take the stage the following week.
Anyway, the group still needed to come back from Mount Glovermore. Travel back to Opar and an encounter of 9 hostile Gryphons occurs. I try to imagine what they would want and how they would behave and whether or not the trees would provide cover, but after the cavemen were instructed to throw rocks and checking the monster stats revealed they were neutral beast-like creatures of average intelligence, I ruled that this didn’t go anywhere.
So this session– largely due to having to incorparate two new players– got split up about half and half. Half of it was like a normal D&D game like most people think of, but with less “grinding” maybe. The other half was what I would call campaign tending. Lots of little decisions all over the place that help set up something focused towards that campaign world environment rather than the risk/reward matrix of a “press your luck” type dungeon delve.
Is this quality gaming? Who can say. But it is a great example of why Gygax had a hard time imagining why anyone would need someone to buy purchased adventure modules for a D&D campaign.
Treasure and Experience:
For killing 7 frog men the five dudes that engaged in a real combat get 157 XP. That comes out to 31 each.
Note that the crystal should probably not be an artifact per Gygax: “Those artifacts and relics which you bring into play should be so carefully guarded by location and warding devices and monsters that recovery of any one is an undertaking of such magnitude that only very powerful characters, in concert, and after lengthy attempts have any chance whatsoever of attaining one.”
However if it was an artifact, it would have a value in gold pieces that could be obtained from a certain Zanzel Melancthones in Trollopulous who would no doubt use it to defend Trollopulous from all threats foreign and domestic.
Cast o’ Characters:
The Smartcher — Human Fighter (?) that looks like Calibos (Session 26 and 27) 31 XP
Chadrian — Half-Elf Fighter/Magic-User that looks like Chad-Medusa (Session 26 and 27) 31 P
Bob Dobs — Human Veteran/Acolyte (Session 22, 23, and 27) XP at 758 + 349 + 1097 + 31 = 2235 split between each of the Fighter and Cleric classes. 1376 + 330.5 + 807 = 2513.5 gold.
Malalip the Initiate — Level two monk. [Sessions 18, 19, 21, and 27] 2250 + 106 + 400 + 31 XP. All saving spent on training. 63 gold this time. Sole survivor of level 10 of The Tower of Ultimate Darkness. Potion of Strength 18/00.
Fluid the Druid, Initiate of the 2nd Circle — Level three druid. [Delve 9, 10, 11, 14, 15, 17, 19, 20, 21, 26, and 27] 4000 + 106 + 369 + 400 = 4875 XP. Should be broke from training. 63 gold last time and 160 this time. Procurer of the fabled Boobs of Opar. Potion of Strength 18/00.
Hans the Assassin (Session 27 only!) 31 XP
Antiochus the Human Fighter (Session 27 only!) 31 XP
November 26 — Session 25 “The Valley of Bones” begins. This wilderness trek takes 19 days for party “A”. December 3 — Session 26 “Gayhenna” begins. This is a single day excursion. December 10 — Session 27 “Totel Rpg Enlightedment” begins. This wilderness trek took 8 days to get to Mount Glovermore and then 4 more to return to Opar. This is party “B”.
This gets complicated. Because party “A” sent an assassin on a 7 day spying mission. Next session, Party “A” will be available to return to play THREE days after the point at which they had left off and FOUR days before the assassin returns with the information.
Party “B” will NOT be available for play next session because they will still be in the “future”.