Okay, this was a very wild game with over a dozen players running strong for a solid month. When it worked, it really worked. When it didn’t work… opportunities were made for elite level players to seize the initiative. Factions lived. Factions died. The Trollopulous Universe will never be the same!
As I have mentioned previously, running AD&D with multiple player characters and domain-scale entities operating independently in sessionless 1:1 play will generate a LOT of secrets. I can’t detail everything that happened without spoiling some ongoing aspects of the campaign. But this type of gaming is so different from anything that anyone has really described up until now, it seems I am OBLIGATED to spill at lease some of the beans here…!
This type of gaming allows you to fairly quickly answer a LOT of questions about the nature of a campaign world. In my 30 sessions from last year, I created a LOT of big dumb situations on the fly, often from random wilderness encounters pulled from the tables in the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide or Fiend Folio. The players passed over many of these hooks and they sort of just waited there for someone to play with them, not unlike the scenarios of the best text adventures of the late seventies and early eighties. Some things would get circled back to within a few weeks or months, such as the Undead Quarter environment. Other things just got left behind in the search for more and better and different adventure options.
Now it’s great that players can do whatever they want within the context of a campaign framework like D&D. But at some point, the campaign itself deserves to take the spotlight. And that is exactly what happened here. All of those loose ends from adventure ideas I’d had got scaled up, spruced up, worked up, nailed down and turned on… ALL AT ONCE! In the same way that Dave Arneson’s temple of the Frog existed simultaneously as the first adventure scenario and as an army in a very large miniatures campaign, I blew everything upward into this new (old, really) model of thinking about D&D elements. Using ideas from Chainmail and Swords & Spells and recognizing the scalability of the AD&D combat rules, I was confident I could handle anything that happened at this level even under time pressure and juggling multiple players by Twitter DM. Finally, Chainmail itself takes for granted that anyone playing the game will be capable of whipping up their own original campaign even without any guidelines or direction on how to do it. The AD&D rules– particularly the ones everyone ignores– preserve and convey the precise types of cultural attitudes that make all of this possible.
This should not have worked. This scenario took game elements that were thrown together incrementally with no thought for how an actual campaign scenario should work and then set them in motion ALL AT ONCE with no serious thought at all for fairness or game balance or even feasibility. What was surprising is how little this seemed to matter. In fact… building off all original (and often stupid) campaign material seemed to make everything MORE engaging in spite of the raw game design being so terrible. A good half of the fun was in seeing how EVERY SINGLE THING THAT EVERY WAS EVEN MENTIONED in our rpg sessions was developed into a rich and constantly changing news feed in the tradition of TNS. Stuff we spent months wondering about was suddenly alive and active. Seriously, there is not one thing that I did not think up in the course of running 30 totally improvised by the book D&D sessions that did not get dusted off and leveraged to make this “always on” game work.
And now we have this totally new and updated high level campaign situation. The world has been adjusted to accommodate significant rules that none of us had much experience with before. Situations that were fundamentally unstable have been resolved into a new, and much more internally consistent detent. Also, the nature of patron-level and domain-scale entities are much more understood now so that such situations and scenarios can now be devised which are consistent with both the rules and the actual gameplay that derives from them.
Now, my original idea was that there would be a phase of open discussion among the players as they would essentially divide up into teams more or less based on alignment. Then they would form some kind of a plan… and then there would be some kind of epic miniatures type battle where everything got settled. When I look at large collections of D&D stats… that’s just what I see as a DM. There are remnants of Chainmail throughout the Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide, after all.
The players did not see things this way, however. For one thing, it took a while for them to break the ice with each other. It is very hard to organize an actual battle when the game is producing time and distance and communication problems that make forming a coordinated army difficult in and of itself. Add to that the fog of war, unreliable information about even the location of your enemies, and then people being unfamiliar with some of the rules and yeah… people are naturally going to want to turtle up, acquire information, and attack each other indirectly if at all. I told everyone flat out that this was not what I was going for, that the patrons are supposed to interact with each other or else there would be no game. Twelve people playing solitaire D&D in their own hex is not what I was going for… and most of the patrons initially leaned heavily in that direction as they first dipped their toes in for whatever reason.
The guy running Elric of Melniboné was the first to oblige me. He had originally wanted to spend a couple of months researching Serten’s Spell Immunity, which would have eaten up ALL of Trollopulous’s domain income and possibly have forced him to sell off some magic items or take out a loan from Zanzel Melancthones to complete it. But then he got this insane idea to instead take all of his heavy infantry and ride out for many days to the United Caveman Federation in order to exchange trollops and iron for mammoth tusks.
How could this happen? Well, the guy running the Cave Men was very active on Twitter making these hilarious grug memes. It caused a sensation. Everybody wanted to interact with the grugs because they were so funny. But then when people DM’d him to set something up, he insisted on the declaring which cave they were visiting and from what direction. He did this totally in character instead of informally determining the who, what, when, where, and how. This only made people want EVEN MORE to know what was going on in the caves and jungles. Player characters from the old sessions– Fluid the Druid and Bob Dobs the Half-Elf Fighter/Cleric both set out for a cave before I could even officially turn the game on, so insisent were they about playing the game. (I wasn’t even sure I wanted to allow more people to play as I was already overburdened with more that I could reasonably handle.)
Anyway, elsewhere on the map… the Green Alliance had formed. The Sorceress of Mount Glovermore set off to go to Nilbog to implement a particularly evil scheme that could have drastic effects on the game. As she headed south with her small number of frog-man attnedents, she miraculously avoided countless wilderness encounters that could have ended her outright. Even better, she passed within one hex of Elric has he was journeying to the visit cave men! I was strongly tempted to just let them meet… but passing at a distance of 30 miles or so just didn’t justify it.
Miscommunications turned out to have a tremendous impact on the game at this stage and indeed forever. Elric was actually going to the wrong cave. THE WRONG CAVE!!! Had he gone to the correct cave where Ringo Starr was, he WOULD have run into the Sorceress. But due to the topology of the campaign map, Elric just so happened to go to the exact same cave that Fluid the Druid had selected.
Meanwhile, the guy running the Tharks had elected to remain far out in the desert. When I encouraged him to establish a trade outpost much closer to Trollopulous, he continued to run his troops as if they were coming and going from the desert rather than a location where the turnaround times for scouts would have been more reasonable. This lead to the Goblin King sending 100 of his troops to go on a journey on the other side of the campaign map when they really needed the Tharks to be coming to them. The guy running the Dervishes got the drop on those goblins and then set up a perfectly executed battle plan that wiped them out. (This battle was a beaut, let me tell you.)
So note that at this point we had several hyper-specific situations developing simultaneously on different parts of the campaign map that were the results of multiple patrons and player characters independently (and in isolation) pursing their own strategies. I don’t know if I can convey how exciting this was to watch unfold. Things that I would normally adjust in order to create a coherent adventure just for a session… well, they were coalescing on their own without me doing anything. And several high risk, high reward scenarios were emerging out of my terribly planned and poorly executed refereeing. It was just plain amazing. I am not kidding when I say that it is inconceivable to anyone would ever waste their time running someone else’s canned material when making up a bunch of stupid stuff and then turning your friends loose with it works THIS well.
Now, as these simultaneous strategic level train wrecks were being orchestrated, Elric had designated John Wick as the regent overseeing the city in his absence. Macho Mandalf came into town and had this crazy idea to go refurbish the ruined keep that was a few hexes away from the city. I thought this was stupid as he had no allies and no henchmen and it didn’t make any sense. He went into the Nilbog hex right next door, so I gave him an encounter with the goblin wolf-rider sentries. His tactics were way off and they ended up closing to melee range and he was in trouble from these guys surrounding him and attacking him from all sides. He was in deep trouble, really. But fortunately for him he had Teleport memorized, it only takes one segment to cast, and the ended up winning initiative. So he only just barely escaped this pitiful encounter.
He teleports back to the city gates of Trollopulous, causing a huge scene. This of course comes to the attention of the Assassin’s Guild. John Wick sends one of his guys to kidnap Macho Mandalf while he is severely wounded. Now… I was hoping that the vanilla assassination rules would just be used so that we could eliminate a patron player early enough that my work load would be reduced. Heck, I wanted a full on battle royale, a blood bath! But I caved and allowed a successful assassination attempt to result in merely a kidnapping. The odds of success were only 30%… and when I informed Mandalf of the endeavor’s success, I got inundated with all of the foolproof precautionary measures he had no doubt set up beforehand without telling me. I told him that the level cross-reference dealt with all of that abstractly and we went with just the flat die result.
The XP value of Macho-mandalf’s spell book and magic items was immense. This one assassin was well on his way to leveling during downtime. But John Wick not only spared Mandalf’s life, he let him have is stuff back if only he would undertake some kind of mission to recover the body of his dead wife. (?!) Once again, role-playing trumped the requirements of the brutal no holds barred war game I had envisioned. I cautioned the players to pay attention to their alignments as this was an unlikely matchup for a lot of reasons. But hey, why would I let people run patrons for me if I’m going to turn around and tell them they are doing it wrong???
But not everybody was going to play paddy-cake with these high level D&D characters. Out in the jungles, the Mushroom Men had taken Mount Glovermore, even going so far as to kill the frog-man attendents the sorceress had left behind and stealing her extensive LP record collection. The Mushroom Men sent out emissaries in different directions at this point. It would take so long to travel, this would be the last strategic level decision that patron would make for the game. (Time and distance contraints are HARSH.)
Meanwhile Elric was pulling in to the unnaccountably popular “Cave Six”, home of the Grugs of Fug… who had already claimed the life of the hapless Bob Dobs, the first multi-classed character to level in my campaign. I had no idea what he was doing. Did he just want to trade with the grugs for real? Did he have a plan to kill them all and take their ivory? What WAS going on? I had no idea!
At any rate, Elric and his army met up with a cave man scout. In order to indicate his supposedly peaceful intentions, he made a big show of taking out his sword and putting it on the ground. Somehow this got interpreted as “ZOMG, Stormbringer is on the ground right there and Elric has just left it there did you see that he left it ON THE GROUND.” Fluid the Druid and the grugs were on high alert, seeing all of this as the chance of a lifetime AD&D gaming stunt. We all waited for each DM message out of Australia on this with bated breath, getting up early in the morning to check them and then staying up late into the night on the odd moments everyone was around at once.
The scout then took Elric and his army through the woods and hills, stalling for time as another runner goes to retrieve Fluid the Druid from a mammoth hunt. They set up for a battle and then brought the army to a place where they could be flanked by a massive cave bear attack. Now, we had had a practice in our game that the druid Call Lightning spell could only work if there was rain or thundershowers at the DM’s location at the exact time he wanted to do it. In another epic level synchronicity, the thunder and lightening just so happened to be out in force outside my door. It was majestic.
Elric’s opponents were not sure what to do. Was he about to strike? What does he want? Well, he was at the wrong cave, too. Fug did not know anything about Ringo’s deal with Elric. Elric makes a gift of the trollops and begins to talk to this random chief that has no idea who he is. But something somebody did or said was taken the wrong way and then… suddenly Elric was hit by a bolt of lightening.
Now there was a question of wether Elric’s magic resistance was going to counter this or not. My take on it was… that magic-user spells like Fireball and [Force] Lightening and Magic Missile were just not going to work. But druid spells are not magic per se, but the weilding actual natural forces. Elric got his awesome saving throws per Deities and Demigods, sure. He only took half damage. But his insanely high magic resistance was not going to work.
The next round cave bears flanked the army and started tearing it apart. Elric started casting a spell, Fluid started casting a spell. Anything could happen. I think Elric successfully cast his spell. This weird Egyptian god looking thing appeared in their midst. Elrics troops were torn to shreds all around him, then Fluid emerged from the forest, pointing at Elric. An insect swarm engulfed him!
I ruled in subsequent rounds that Elric could be attacked by one dinosaur and two cave bears. They rolled pretty good on one round and then whiffed the next. Another whiff and Elric just might be about to get out of this. (Again, natural insects are not “magic” so they actually prevented him from casting spells or doing anything– even a teleport.) The dice were not with him. He was just barely finished off with a cave bear bear hug followup attack on the last round of the insect swarm.
In the aftermath of the battle, all that anyone cared about was the fate of Stormbringer. Fluid scooped it up without touching it, placed it on the back of his dog Petunia, and gave him one of the many ridiculous commands that he had painstakingly trained him with last year. He then mounted his bison and disappeared into the forest without another word. At this point… time and distance constraints would take him out of play for the rest of the month.
Meanwhile, back at Trollopulous the city was in chaos. Goblins were rioting, looting AEI co-ops. An elf army had appeared in the Undead Quarter for no good reason. Everything was insane. At some point, I threw out that the Tower of Ultimate Evil was going to have an open house on a certain date. (It was a slow news day, hey.) John Wick jumped all over this and got everybody excited about it. There was a big scheme set up to take out the Goblin King by inviting him to come. All of this was baffling to me as it appeared that the game was trending terribly close to some kind of LARP. I sat back and let things take their course as six patron players in close proximity set the course of the campaign’s future.
Macho Mandalf meanwhile had set up a new cover as the proprietor of the Prancing Umber Hulk Tavern and Brewery. He wanted to go check out the Ruined Keep again. He was flying there this time instead of walking and sure enough… a big time patron encounter was headed right towards him. It was two Thark skiffs hurtling towards him at speed. This time he managed to buff himself up before engaging. He stacked Enlarge (to 18′), Protection from Normal Missiles, and Mirror Image. The Tharks were dumbfounded by this bizarre looking barbarian and definitely underestimated him.
Now, there was one skiff with 5 warriors and 30 trollops. The other had just 5 warriors. He lands on the skiff that just had the warriors and casts Charm Monster. Combat ensued and we found out that if you are twice as tall and twice as heavy as someone, the AD&D unarmed combat rules offer you 100% chances on to-hit and stuns. The stun attack on the grapple even offers a free followup attack. This fight was just plain brutal. As Macho Mandalf was consolidating his control of the Martian Skiff, the guys with the trollops were taking the better part of valor and attempting to get as far away as possible.
At this point, things got weird. Macho Mandalf hid the skiff with Illusory Terrain and teleported back to The Prancing Umber Hulk. He then took his hired hand Rhedegar (a player character that had always wanted to have a dumb day job to work during his down time and which I’d always felt bad about not coming up with anything for him with that) and also two first level druids that were looking for work. He teleported them all to the skiff and then went to the ruined keep.
We looked at the original Keep on the Borderlands map for this one. I’d checked for random monsters to restock this location and I’d gotten 200 pug men– the very ones that had plagued the players in the sewers last year. Macho Mandalf cast Cloudkill and took out 25% of their forces instantly. From there he Enlarged and brought in an Earth Elemental. The pug-men surrendered at this point and their chief got charmed. Macho Mandalf then loaded up 100 pugs onto the skiff. They also noted that the keep was defended by large vats of flaming oil and that many of the pug-men were armed with torches and vials of flaming oil. Where did the pug-men pick up such strange customs, one wonders!
Back at Trollopulous the big event with the party was going down. Everybody was there. John Wick’s people. Zanzel Malancthones. The leader of the Dervishes that had won an awesome (and secret) battle against the goblins. On the very night of the party, the Thark scouts arrive with their 30 trollops. They ask if the Goblin King needs a ride anywhere. He asks for a ride to the party. And the sorceress even agrees to go with him!
Now… if this had been a D&D session and all these high level characters would have been in the same spot at the same time, there is no way that anything other than total chaos would have ensued. Playing the game by Twitter DM, however, the overall effect of this was to produce a weird sort of Prisoner’s Dillemma. If one person threw a punch and the others did not… they could win big. On the other hand, there was a lot of risk involved. What ended up happening was that there was an elaborate scheme to get the Goblin King to show up in a particular set of special robes. There was going to be some kind of op with the Dervish player taking him out… but for some reason, they thought it was a fake Goblin King and ended up canceling the plan. (To tell you the truth… I don’t even know myself what happened as all of this was sorted out by the players without me.)
The crazy thing was… the Sorceress was right there at the party AND NOBODY KNEW IT. But then the inevitable happened. John Wick faked his assassination and the city went into lock down. I told the goblin player that he was being taken captive. But he was 100% convinced that he was being groomed to become the new ruler of Trollopulous and went along with it. I asked him he if he wanted the sorceress to bail him out somehow, but he signals to her to stand down. This was really wild to adjudicate as there were potentially four different double crosses interacting at once. Concurrently to all this in second Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario, all changelings were forcibly expelled from the city and not one single player elected to harass them or run them down as they made their trek to a nearby fairy forest. (Players. Who can comprehend them?)
The weird freeform events of the city reached a fever pitch at this point, however, and the leader of the Dervishes had second thoughts about not acting during the party. He casts Aerial Servant to retreieve this Goblin King guy in the yellow robes that he had seen at the party. It comes back and he is interrogated. He uses Detect Lie to find out that this was in fact the Goblin King. After that he has one of his magic-users cast Geas on him. This was a scroll spell that was too high level for him to cast normally so it had a chance of failure. The Goblin King was then told to gather his army and go wipe out the Mushroom Men at Mt. Glovermore.
The Goblin King went along with this, though I suppose he might have gotten the sorceress to spoil this by casting Dispel Magic on him. Before he did this, a third Martian Skiff arrived asking the sorceress if SHE needed anything. I think she sent a group of goblin warriors with them with instructions for the Tharks to go take out the Mushroom Men if they would. Unbenownst to her, this was a second chance to leave a very dangerous place and her turning it down would ultimately spell disaster for her.
The Goblin King arrived and then took most of the rest of his warriors on a journey to Mount Glovermore. The sorceress elected to stay behind. Then, at this exact moment, Macho Mandalf was trying to decide what to do with his newfound Pug-an army. As he and Rhedegar brain stormed about this, they finally elected to just dump them all into Nilbog. With no idea about any of the crazy things that were going on there right then!
So they journeyed by skiff to Nilbog and went up to the iris valve that lead to the goblin city. Macho Mandalf charmed the guards that were there and then cast Cloudkill into the tunnels. The rules were tailor made for this scenario, it seemed, as the fog was designed to go into and permeate just such an environment. Several minutes later, the pug-men were sent inside to conduct mop up operations
The sorceress was then alerted to the breach. Goblin guards that had witnessed the effects of the Cloudkill reported it to her. When she investigated, she ended up charming a group of ten pug-men barbarians herself. In the chaos of the goblin city, she observed pug-men taking treasure out to the crater. She follows them to the entrance where she sees… Macho Mandalf on a skiff along with four Thark warriors.
This was a fully buffed Macho Mandalf, too, so 18′ tall and with protection from normal missiles still on. The fate of Trollopulous now hung in the next combat round. Sorceress began casting a very elaborate and very awesome spell that I have never seen cast before and which would have of course won her everything. But Macho Mandalf was 1″ away from the entrance. He flew down toward her, over the heads of her meat shields. He executed a ridiculous wrestling move that resulted in pretty much an automatic stun result on the overbearing table, trumping practically anything in the initiative order to boot. (As far as anyone knew, she did not have a weapon which could have been used to possibly keep a man three times her size at bay.)
The following round he grappled her for maximum effect. Mandalf’s AC was good and he had plenty enough hit points to resist the attacks of the frog-men and pug-men that were defending her. And though the AD&D game goes out of its way to spoil magic-user attacks, there is very little there that can shut down effective grappling tactics. Mandalf flew up into the air and executed his followup grappling attack against her stunned body in yet another mind-blowingly stupid WWF wrestling move, permanently altering the campaign by spiking the ball that had been unknowningly set by the Dervish player’s Aeriel Servant/Detect Lie/Geas combination play from a few days before.
Several days later, the goblin army would arrive at Mount Glovermore. The outnumbered mushroom men would refuse to give battle, but the goblins countered this by using the mining rules from the DMG to make multiple entryways into the the dungeons. Beset on all sides by goblins and wargs, the Mushroom Men would be completely wiped out while the goblin army is reduced to something much closer to a typical Monster Manual result.
Totally exhausted from adjudicating weird AD&D situations nonstop for four weeks, I finally called the game right there.
So what ultimately happened?
The monster factions got utterly destroyed. Nilbog is just plain gone. All that is left of the Mushroom Man faction is the two little diplomatic missions they sent out… which currently do not even know the fate of their king and their people. (Of course, there might be a few spores popping up here and there later on. And if Mushroom Men are not classified as changelings, The Prancing Umber Hulk may well end up getting a potion brewing sideline.)
The Elfs and the Tharks will set up relatively distant domains that will avoid direct battle of the sorts that I would like to play out. Instead they will attempt to conduct raids or else cut the city off from trade.
While many wandering monsters posed no threats to the groups that were moving around this month, the ones that did significant damage are still out there… percolating into full on keyed scenarios concocted by my subconscious even as I attempt to not even think about D&D for a while.
Very surprising to me, the HUMANS of the map pretty well all joined forces to wipe out, push back, and push out all of the non-human factions in the game. Alignment is secondary to this much more fundamental aspect of identity. Trollopulous is more humanocentric than even the AD&D rules indicate campaigns should be. This is a massive change to the campaign world that I would never have come up with if things were left to me.
The remaining patron level characters in Trollopulous have a tremendous incentive to keep a low profile and direct things from the shadows– and the events I described in this “session” report are why. A fake ruler will be established, no doubt. Their interactions with player characters will no doubt be carried out with a range of stooges, hirelings, and agents. (It’s like I said the other day… even Galactus has a herald!)
Lower level player characters had NO PROBLEM of engaging with the chaos of a total war between ten patrons players. In fact, Fluid the Druid, Rhedegar the Fighter, and two Druid henchmen all managed to level during all of this. Real 70’s style campaigns are so robust that everyone seems to find SOMETHING to do. It’s surprising, really! You would think this would be a very difficult problem to solve, but the reality is… a dozen people thinking independently are collectively smarter than any single referee.
This problem you have in rpgs with a rich background where the PC’s think there is no way they can have an impact on the world-level events? Holy Moly! It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking games could play that way now.
What’s next? I actually don’t know! All of the things I had thought up to add color and threat-points to my campaign are either GONE or else behaving in a much more strategically sound manner.
While I recover from this stunt, I am curious to try something like this again, but focused on the action taking place within maybe a single 30 mile hex. Also… no player character monster factions next time. (What’s the point if everyone is just going to gang them?!) Also… maybe only five or six players… preferably all in the same time zone. (Not gonna lie, coordinating with people in Australia just about killed me.)
Being able to switch from role-playing type situations, to Swords & Spell type scenarios, to Braunstein-like interactions, up to Diplomacy interactions playing out in the context of multiple double blind conflicts… in the backdrop of an ongoing D&D campaign that can accommodate practically any kind of gaming that the group can imagine?! This is like the best thing ever. The 1:1 timekeeping spreads out a game over a much larger canvas than is possible to work with in normal game sessions. This opens up a type of gaming that is unlike anything that the “industry” is capable of packaging up for you. A dedicated referee makes it possible to do anything you can imagine… all without the type of design and development that gaming products would tend to make you think are essential.
I can’t tell you all the implications of this type of gaming just yet… but I can tell you that this style of play is much closer to the overall ethos of the people that originally put Dungeons & Dragons together in the first place. The mid-seventies approach to gaming is far more robust, far more effective than anyone has been able to convey up until now. YOU REALLY GOTTA TRY THIS!!!