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, so 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. Somemthings would get circled back to within a few weeks or monthis, 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 accomodate 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 much 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 the 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 runnning 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 two 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 coallescing 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 a brutal no holds barred war game. 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 baited 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 propritor 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 this) 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 customes, 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 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 it 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 harrass 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 keeo 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.
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!!!
You knew it was coming and you know that it’s true:
I’ll tell you why it’s a fair comparison. Somehow, some way… no one is playing D&D the way that either Gygax or Arneson did in the bad old days. They are playing some other type of game, really. They have no idea that they are taking on assumptions about how the game is played that prevent them from playing anything remotely like what the creators of D&D understood to be normal about its gameplay.
At any rate, when we talk bout Patron play and how great it is, most people have no idea what we are talking about. Further, we are generally talking about three or four different things under the same banner. So I am going to break this down in such a way that you begin your own journey into experiencing the D&D game as it was intended to be played.
If you are playing 1:1 time, then monster lairs that the players encounter will generally have a week to prepare for the players’ return when they come back to try again in their (typically) weekly game session. Now… Gygax gives advice in the DMG on pages 104 and 105 on how to do this. You can use your imagination and decide what to do based on what you know about the monsters involved… or… you can hand over this monster group to a friend that can’t join your usual sessions and then see what he can come up with. This is the easiest way to begin playing patron style D&D right here. Your friend will imagine himself as the monsters and come up with all kinds of details and tactics that you would never think of– and his input will be way more interesting than anything anyone ever put into some kind of game book. You get a hyper-specific monster tribe for the low low price of allowing a friend who wants to play join the campaign even though they can’t be present for the actual sessions!
If you look at most “old school” dungeon levels or even classic adventure modules like Isle of Dread, you often get situations where there are three or four different monster groups in the same area. A big part of your adventure can end up being a group of players getting involved with one of these factions, forming and alliance, and then using them to kill off the odd man out. This can be really hard to adjudicate fairly and consistently. Sure, people do it all the time. If you would like to create a simulation of a weird fantasy situation rather than merely handwaving all this… just get one friend for each faction, tell them what they would know as that faction, and then use their advice to determine how to play each one when the player characters show up. You can chose to be either session-oriented in how you play this or campaign-oriented. In session-oriented gaming, enhancing your players’ adventure sessions is the goal, so you use your outside friends’ input to create a richer game world for your regular players to engage with. In a campaign-oriented approach, the interactions between these faction players becomes the primary focus of play as they each engage independently in a sort of weird ad hoc 4X strategy game with a tremendous fog of war element.
Now, every D&D game has a town to go with their dungeon environment. Sometimes it’s a full fledged city. These places are definitely going to gain various groups and personages and factions over time that the players will either contend with or else work for as patrons. Determining the behavior of these various groups can be made up in the heat of play to serve the ultimate goal of facilitating the adventure at hand. I know I did it that way! But after a while, these groups begin to take on a life of their own. At some point you may not be able to run them intelligently when your campaign grows beyond certain point. One way to handle this is what I call the Runequest method. When there are large scale unresolved political issues in your campaign city, simply do a Braunstein session in place of your usual adventuring. Turn over a major patron or faction of the town over to each player in your campaign to run just for the session. See the original Braunstein for how to do this. (Watch the Blackmoor film if you haven’t already, it explains everything!) This will be very free form and much will depend on how the players ally with each other and betray each other behind the scenes. Once you have sorted out the major large scale issues facing your campaign (and generated a good idea of how some significant upcoming events will be colored) you can revert back to normal adventure sessions.
Another way to run your fantasy city is to stat out these factions as high level characters and/or Chainmail armies and then just giving them total autonomy to do what they want in a weird play-by-Twitter “always on” campaign that runs in the background of your players’ adventures. As a guide on how to do this, look no further than the AD&D rules. The Monster Manual explains how to set up monster armies with clear descriptions of their Chainmail-scale assets and also gives details on all their leveled characters. Alternately you can use the descriptions given of the large organizations described in the players handbook– the assassins, druids, monks, and so on. Note: this type of gameplay is so fun in and of itself, I don’t really care if we have “normal” rpg-type adventures happening in the campaign world that all of this produces.
Now… this really is rather simple when you explain it like this. But there are reasons why nobody spontaneously recapitulates the style of play that Gygax and Arneson took for granted.
People think classic D&D characters are too simple to be worth playing and then come up with systems where it takes hours to develop them and then want to play in campaigns where they can’t die because making characters is such an investment. Then they start campaigns with a session zero where they sort out everybody’s characters that are surely going to stay alive forever and then the DM decides what the campaign “story” will more or less be in advance.
People hack the D&D combat system so that it no longer scales up. They want to have a rich tactical gameplay where every single character gets their “spotlight time” during every danged combat round. This is not D&D, sorry. D&D combat is weird and stupid and is done with initiative by side where each side will commit to a specific plan AS A TEAM before the dice are rolled.
People DON’T want to run henchmen even though they really really need them in order to survive real D&D sessions where there is a strong chance that one or more of the players’ characters will die every session.
People are AFRAID to run mass combat scale interactions where there are hundreds of character on each side. Note that real D&D scales up to this level EASILY because its combat rules are all ripped off from chainmail. You can run huge battles theater of the mind style if you just steal couple of tricks from Chainmail and Swords & Spells: 1:10 scaling, average hit points for mass combat figures, and average damage for mass combat figures… with individual monsters interacting with the mass ones by dividing their damage by 10 unless they are using area effect attacks.
People are REFUSING to run multiple characters within the same campaign. I dunno why this is so hard for some people, but obviously… you can create a much richer fantasy world if your best players are running different PC’s who have different power levels and different alignments and which are operating in different places on the map.
People ADD dumb skill systems to the classic D&D game when it really never needed them in the first place. Want to know how the high level patron reacts to your dumb plan? You don’t need a diplomacy check when you can just ask the patron player what he thinks of it. Most of the game mechanics added to D&D really are there because the game has ceased to be played in its assumed context! Real D&D can go on non-stop for weeks without needing any sort of skill or attribute check.
So as you can see now… you don’t just magically start doing patron play and get the awesome results that the BrOSR does. YOU ALSO HAVE TO DITCH THE MANY LAME MINDSET PROBLEMS YOU HAVE PICKED UP BY POLLUTING YOUR IMAGINATION WITH THE MANY PRACTICES THAT FAKE D&D HAS INCULCATED IN THE GREAT MASS OF ROLE-PLAYERS OUT THERE.
So let this be a lesson to you. When you altered the D&D game to suit your idea of how it could “obviously” be more fun… you unknowingly cut yourself off from the kind of legendary gaming experiences that Gygax was actually setting you up to experience. It didn’t have to be that way, though.
Begin your path to gaming greatness today! Allow TOTAL PLAYER AUTONOMY in your game. Use 1:1 time. Encourage multiple characters per player, both henchmen and multiple independent “backup” characters. Embrace the mass combat possibilities inherent to the AD&D rule system. Add in patron players to your existing campaign when you get to the point where they can enhance your game.
My pal Bdubs1776 has given us the world’s ONLY breakdown comparing and contrasting 1:1 Timekeeping with the conventional approach to rpgs. Here’s his conclusion:
Jeffrogaxian Time Keeping is superior because it makes downtime easier for a DM (and PCs) to manage well, it allows competing PC parties, and it allows Patron play with major wargames etc going concurrently with normal dnd session play. Variable Time Keeping has no clear advantage on anything that makes a good ttrpg campaign.
The list of benefits for running real time is immense and we are even uncovering more things it opens up each and every day in our campaigns.
Just as one more example, we have been running only 11 days past after turning on the Trollopulous campaign with 10 independent patrons operating in sessionless gaming where each faction player makes decisions in isolation and with a tremendous fog of war factor. The two large-scale campaign events we have had so far are each the result of a half dozen independent decisions of individual patron and player characters. The flavor of these events is hyper-specific campaign and are far wilder than anything I would arbitrarily decide would happen for the campaign.
You really can’t make this stuff up. You can’t even fake this sort of thing with random tables. The behavior of even a simple model of a fantasy world is infinitely more complex than anything a single Dungeon Master can conceive of no matter how imaginative he thinks he might be!
What’s the cost, though? Mostly the time I would waste consuming social media and blogs is now redirected into this surprisingly powerful culture generation activity. I plot out the week’s events on one or two sheets of notebook paper. Each morning I send private messages to any patron or PC that would get a report back on an action. Something happens every day. Something newsworthy happens more often than you would think.
Now, very large and very weird miniatures battles can happen. I run things at 1:10 scale with mass scale groups being assumed to have average hit points and doing average damage on hits. Other than that, combat is run with all AD&D rules on. These are theater of the mind battles informed by how things would play out if we had miniatures armies. The details of these battles is a secret, however. The exact nature of the outcome is something that can be revealed only by its survivors.
I had feared that these wars would cause me to have to alter the 1:1 timekeeping somehow in a similar way that people are tempted to freeze time when a session ends and people are still in a dungeon. So far that has not been the case. When I fell behind implementing orders due to one of these, I was rescued by the long real time requirements of some of the orders. Game time and distance constraints meant I could initiate two day old instructions without upsetting the cascade of events the game was producing. When a single day’s battle involving someone in Australia was finished five days after it was supposed to be over, travel times were so great for what the surviving characters wanted to do that we didn’t lose anything by starting the relevant journeys on the day the would have “actually” been initiated.
That’s the amazing thing about this type of gaming. YOU HAVE TIME TO DO IT. You can even run this game with people that cannot coordinate their schedules well enough to attend the same game sessions. And face it, that is one to the top complaints of role-players. If you’re an adult that can only fit in one two hour game session a week, you can still benefit from a modest 1:1 patron game going on in the background creating a living fantasy world.
And to the legion of gaming pundits out there that claim that Gygax didn’t actually play this way and that the real “old school” back in the bad old days didn’t actually play this way, check this out:
You will probably not be able to sit down and play the entirety of Dark Tower in one sitting. It may be suggested that you allow real time between play sessions equal (on a I /I basis) to the time between adventures in the game world.
Paul Jaquays wrote that in the opening pages of Dark Tower, his 1979 AD&D adventure. In doing so he would join Gary Gygax, M. A. R. Barker, and James Ward in endorsing this extraordinary style of gaming. But the important thing isn’t that this is the historically correct way to play rpgs. The important thing is how players respond to it.
Exciting. Feels so cool, been waiting in apprehension each day. How could anyone NOT play 1:1 time?!
That’s what one of my players told me when a very time intensive action successfully concluded in the context of an extremely volatile environment. Of course, they have no idea how how close they actually cut it. If you haven’t tried this type of gaming, you are missing out. And what’s worse is you literally can’t imagine what you are missing out on.
One year ago, I broke the news that “one real day = one game day” was the key to understanding real old school D&D. Today I am here to tell you that the implications of this rule go much deeper than we originally imagined.
Now, the first thing you notice is that the AD&D game world of your campaign ceases to be static. As is explained on pages 104-105 with EXTENSIVE EXAMPLES, any monster lair or dungeon location that the players fail to finish off in the context of a single session will typically have about a week to prepare for the players’ return visit. The spirit of these rules is going to come up in most “old school” circles, often times in the context of discussing Keep on the Borderlands, say. However the conventional “stop time” approach to the game will simply not grapple with these time-related issues on near the same frequency as a 1:1 campaign. In real D&D, the notorious “15 minute work day” just isn’t an issue at all.
Note that real D&D gameplay is fundamentally at odds with the assumptions of most modules. Dwimmermount– which until last year had produced the best set of game sessions I had ever experienced– is conceived of as a set of rooms that the players can wander into at any time and then experience a gradually unfolding sense of a weird D&D campaign world. Yes, interesting things should emerge as the players explore, but the setup assumes a more static dungeon environment than I think the rules imply. In any case, there is a world of difference between the dungeons of Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign and the sort of neo-classical take on the mid-eighties style of adventure module. A decade ago, adapting the OD&D mega-dungeon concept to contemporary understandings of module design was one of the signature challenges of old school game design. But what if there was some other lost axiom of old school gaming that had such a drastic impact on gameplay that this turned out to be solving the wrong problem?
Maybe we didn’t need to adapt seventies style rpg lore to eighties style module conventions. Maybe we needed to adapt ourselves to even more seventies era rpg lore! 1:1 timekeeping with multiple independent domain-level actors is the fundamental axiom we have been missing. Here is what you get by implementing this one neat trick:
Every monster lair you hand over to a real player will necessarily generate personalized and idiosyncratic encounter locations. Details on how patrols are set up, even the names and personalities of sergeants and captains. Random table “content generator” supplements take for granted that running the game is a one man show. D&D as it was intended to be played puts players to work helping to flesh out the campaign world.
When player characters need to interact with a domain level player, the DM does not need to improvise something to fit the type of adventure he is trying to run. Instead, the person running the relevant domain merely needs to play his role. Bonus: the domain level players will not pull their punches but will instead play their parts FAR BETTER than what a DM will be able to do. They are not limited by the players’ feelings being wounded by a game mastering decision.
There will be so much domain-level information being generated and no way to create fair or useful session reports that you will have no choice but to set up a news feed for your campaign comparable to the old Traveller News Service from the pages of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society. And for this one, I confess to not being the sort of person that is creative enough to come up with the ponderous world-building blah blah that comprise most articles and supplements about rpgs. However, with an actual war game running behind the scenes IT IS TRIVIAL to convert game events into hints and rumors about what all is going on.
Similarly, your campaign will immediately begin spontaneously generating SECRETS as soon as you turn it on. I always dreamed of someday running a campaign as legendary as the one implied by GDW’s old Secret of the Ancients adventure module. Heck, even something like the nature of elves and dwarves gradually emerging over time in Dwimmermount would be cool. But no, y’all. I’m telling you today that the secrets your ridiculous AD&D campaign will generate JUST AS A SIDE EFFECT OF BEING PLAYED will be more hilarious, more ingenious, and more fun than anything you’ve read about anywhere else. ADVENTURE DESIGNERS CANNOT COMPETE WITH THIS.
Looking back at my 30 game sessions in the Trollopulous campaign last year, as wild as the game was it was still relatively static. The players would merely walk away from many adventure situations only to return a couple months later. At that point I would arbitrarily rule how much things had changed. And yes, this did create a living backdrop. But it was still just a backdrop. Adding the domain-level patron players creates tremendous game elements that cease to behave like set dressing and matte paintings.
The reason that accounts of Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign are so baffling today is because he had assumptions about D&D that are 100% foreign to practically everyone playing the game today or even that were playing it in 1985. Judging by the magazine articles and remarks I have received from angry boomers, nobody really understood this in 1975. And the amazing thing is… Gygax’s definitive treatment of the subject of Dungeon Mastering ASSUMED THAT YOU WILL BE RUNNING A GAME THAT IS MORE OR LESS LIKE WHAT I AM DESCRIBING HERE: ie, 1:1 timekeeping, multiple characters per player, player-run domains, and NO DISCERNABLE SPOTLIGHT ON ANY GIVEN GROUP OF ADVENTURERS.
D&D is a framework for creating a game THAT IS NOT LIMITED BY WHAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH WITHIN AN INDIVIDUAL GAME SESSION OR EVEN A SERIES OF INDIVIDUAL GAME SESSIONS. And when you run it as intended, you get far better results than what people have decided roleplaying games can be. The reason for this is that D&D as Gygax intended creates a MODEL FANTASY WORLD WITH REAL POWERS & PRINCIPALITIES AND WHICH DEVELOPS OVER TIME IN TANDEM WITH THE REAL WORLD.
It really is amazing. If you have never experienced this, you really ought to try it. My friends Chanticleer and Bdubs1776 have experimented with using these techniques to enhance their ELITE LEVEL rpg sessions, folding in patrons and downtime actions with player character adventuring. I have pushed as hard as I could toward the game’s wargaming roots to produce downtime play that is so compelling in its own right you need not ever run an rpg session with it at all in order to play D&D.
Somewhere in this range of gaming styles, you can surely find SOMETHING to take your campaign to an entirely different level. I look forward to hearing from the people that do.
I have to tell you, the thing about real AD&D that is so astonishing is that once you get it, you end up having to beat players off with a stick. The “real time” campaign combined with player run domains/patrons actually makes this work. There’s something compelling about an authentic old school campaign that just plain captivates people.
Before we move on to what I wanted to tell you, let me point out that there is a legitimate reason for why you see this weird jargon in all of my tweets and posts. It’s because the BrOSR has uncovered a way to play rpgs that is unlike anything anyone has done over the past 40 years. We honestly need new terminology such as “Jeffrogaxian timekeeping” and “Chantisonian patrons” in order to talk about it. Words fail to get the sense of what this new gameplay feels like because everything about it runs counter to rpg conventional wisdom. NO FOOLING, YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO DO THIS IF YOU ARE GOING TO UNDERSTAND IT.
Now, we have already described how real AD&D does not need Dungeon Masters that carefully accommodate each conceivable player type. In the first place, initiative by side forces the players cooperate and act as a team. Total autonomy for the players in a wide open campaign means they must form a consensus of even what type of adventure they want to have. Further, party composition changes significantly from week to week in real AD&D. The players will have to figure out which adventure options best suit the party they have, causing them to explore many more approaches to the game. Finally, AD&D is comprised of many different modes of play– dungeon delving, large miniatures battles, wilderness travel, urban adventures, freeform scenarios, and so on. Gygax’s rules create a game where every group can eventually find the precise sweet spot for them. AD&D produces long-running campaigns because it is the most anti-fragile form of role-playing ever conceived.
So, the conventional method of running rpgs which caused countless theorists to have to juggle and break down and analyze various player types? It’s all bunk. It’s all a product of trying to prop up what is clearly D&D played wrong. All these guys have been barking up the wrong tree for decades.
But it gets worse.
The AD&D domain game which hardly anyone talks bout… yes it is a sort of grand strategic wargame played by the graduates of hilariously successful adventuring careers. But it is also something more than that.
Hand over a patron or a domain to somebody and I don’t think their first reflex is going to be to wreck everyone else in the game. There are games you can do that in, sure. And yeah, there are sharks out their that would maybe run the table. But AD&D is different. People come into this wanting to play a world. And the funny thing is, you don’t have to twist their arm to get them to flesh out the game world for you. IT JUST HAPPENS.
One more reason why adventure modules and game supplements are a complete waste! The stuff your players do is better. (Besides, the domain-level players don’t need a module per the BECMI line. Those guys play against each other in a game that’s on an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT LEVEL.)
But here’s the kicker. I haven’t even officially turned the campaign on and players are hassling me to get in the game. One of them wanted to take his half-elf fighter/cleric to visit the cave men because he knew the guy running them. I let it go after checking for wilderness encounters as he made the journey there. The interactions from then on were all 100% handled between the patron player and the player-character player. (Spoiler: the guy died.)
So not only does “1:1” time create a campaign that is always on. But player run patrons and domains create players that blur the lines between dungeon master and player. That last bit is something that rpg theorists and story gamers have tinkered with mightily without a whole lot to show for it. But I’m here to tell you that AD&D not only has always done that, but AD&D has always done it better.