Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Old School D&D

West of the Keep on the Borderlands

I enjoy running Keep on the Borderlands with new players, however I find myself wanting to embellish the area map more and more the more I play it. I believe it is well known at this point that old pulp stories provide a better resource for stocking a wilderness map than either fantasy novels from after 1980 or rpg supplements. For those that are still not convinced, I offer this example.

Rather than start the classic module at the keep where the players can buy equipment and collect rumors, I want to play out part of the travelling that happens before they get there.

On the road to the keep, the players encounter a bedraggled survivor of a caravan that was destined for the keep. He tells of veritable army of bandits that emerged from the forest, ransacking and plundering the goods, killing the troops that were meant to relieve the forces of the keep, and kidnapping the merchants and artisans. And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the warriors with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The players have to decide whether to continue on the road and risk being waylaid by a superior force… or perhaps go around.

Now… to the north of the road, there is a random encounter table loaded up with mostly cannibals. (Give a 1-6 chance for a bear, spider, or wolf– otherwise it’s cannibals!) If the players strike off into the forest they will stumble across this grisly scene:

In a wide clearing, on a rather bold incline stood a grim stake, and to this stake was bound a thing that had once been a man. Kane had rowed, chained to the bench of a Turkish galley, and he had toiled in Barbary vineyards; he had battled red Indians in the New Lands and had languished in the dungeons of Spain’s Inquisition. He knew much of the fiendishness of man’s inhumanity, but now he shuddered and grew sick. Yet it was not so much the ghastliness of the mutilations, horrible as they were, that shook Kane’s soul, but the knowledge that the wretch still lived.

For as he drew near, the gory head that lolled on the butchered breast lifted and tossed from side to side, spattering blood from the stumps of ears, while a bestial, rattling whimper drooled from the shredded lips.

Kane spoke to the ghastly thing and it screamed unbearably, writhing in incredible contortions, while its head jerked up and down with the jerking of mangled nerves, and the empty, gaping eye-sockets seemed striving to see from their emptiness. And moaning low and brain-shatteringly it huddled its outraged self against the stake where it was bound and lifted its head in a grisly attitude of listening, as if it expected something out of the skies.

If the players want to follow this up, they will find the village “Bogonda, ruled by Kuroba the chief and Goru the priest.” They’ll be attacked by harpies on the way there, of course. And have to figure out what to do with a village penned in with harpies exacting an awful tribute on one side and merciless cannibals hemming them in on the other.

Meanwhile, to the southwest lies city of Ib. This is the closest thing to civilization that the players could reasonably get to if they would like to look for reinforcements.

It is told that in the immemorial years when the world was young, before ever the men of Sarnath came to the land of Mnar, another city stood beside the lake; the grey stone city of Ib, which was old as the lake itself, and peopled with beings not pleasing to behold. Very odd and ugly were these beings, as indeed are most beings of a world yet inchoate and rudely fashioned. It is written on the brick cylinders of Kadatheron that the beings of Ib were in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it; that they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice. It is also written that they descended one night from the moon in a mist; they and the vast still lake and grey stone city Ib.

To the south there is a strange mausoleum:

And so they passed through the jungle until they came to a strange clearing among the giant trees—strange because nothing grew there. The trees ringed it in a disquieting symmetrical manner, and no lichen or moss grew on the earth, which seemed to have been blasted and blighted in a strange fashion. And in the midst of the glade stood the mausoleum.

A great brooding mass of stone it was, pregnant with ancient evil. Dead with the dead of a hundred centuries it seemed, yet Kane was aware that the air pulsed about it, as with the slow, unhuman breathing of some gigantic, invisible monster.

To the southeast the players will eventually stumble across the bandit’s camp. The players could attempt to infiltrate it and rescue captives or else try some other insane scheme.

How much should you prep for this scenario…? Eh, D&D is not that complicated. Make something up! You don’t know which way the players will go or if they will bypass most of this altogether. The point is to throw all this at them as the need for it arises and then see what they are most into playing. Read the three pulp stories referenced here before the game. Be prepared to wing it. Do additional prep if any of this strikes a note with the players.

It’s okay if the players ignore all of this and instead make for the keep as quick as they can manage. There’s nothing wrong with looting the Caves of Chaos instead! Of course, if they want to sell certain offbeat magic items, the City of Ib is going to be their best bet. And getting additional gear at the keep is going to be tough until those bandits are dealt with!

Advertisements

Should RPG Campaigns Have a Plot?

The question is asked, “What are your favorite ways of coming up with an engaging campaign plot line for role playing games?”

My answer to this is that it’s an inherently wrongheaded question: If your campaign has a plot line, you are not just doing it wrong. You have repudiated the very concept of fantasy role-playing games!

The most common structure in “plot oriented” game sessions is going to be the Pathfinder/Wizards series of combat encounters that are perfectly balanced to the party’s assets such that they can win against a “boss” of some sort with their last hit point. At the campaign level, you would then have a series of these scenarios that are strung together that all culminate into a satisfying climax where something resembling an epic plot is resolved.

This is no doubt a lot of people playing tabletop games in this manner. Is it legitimate or is it intrinsically, morally, and ethically wrong to do it that way? Now, you might think I’m being facetious, unnecessarily bombastic, or just plain silly… but I honestly think that it really is WRONG. And the reason is… it’s boring!

Not that we didn’t have linear adventures in the bad old days before this new type of play became the norm. I just ran the Car Wars adventure “Convoy” for someone this summer and it’s about as linear as it gets. Heck, even the combats are played out on road sections where the average speed of the combatants is sixty miles an hour.

But note that little bit of a fractal-like quality emerging here: road combats like this are intrinsically less interesting than the insane ballet of destruction that goes on in the arenas. The elimination of dimensionality in game-play really is boring. “Convoy” compensates for this by moving the more significant aspects of player choice up to the resource management level. It’s not any one combat that matters. It’s how you pace yourself to get through them all in time that counts.

But what happens at the end? Everything suddenly opens up! The surviving drivers split up their take. Players kick back with an Uncle Albert’s catalog and go shopping for ways to pimp out their rides. They look back on everything that went wrong in the session and start hashing out ways to avoid that stuff the next time around.

This sort of planning is the bread and butter of any rpg session, but the next thing that happens is the best part. When the dust finally settles, the referee turns to the players and asks… “what do you do now?”

And while you may have used somebody else’s convention scenario to get your campaign off the ground, I would argue that you really haven’t started playing until you ask this question. It really is the entire point of this enterprise, and if your game system or campaign system precludes it from ever truly and honestly being asked, you’re not really playing a genuine role-playing game.

(And note that James Streissand’s answer to this question on Quora is predicated on the players having a choice even of which type of campaign to pursue. This is solid… and it mirrors the same type of choices available to players when they’re dropped into even a classic module like B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Ah, and check out his expansion on this over at his blog. I think it’s clear we are pretty well on the same page with this. To be precise, I would say that role-playing games do not have plots. They have situations at the campaign, adventure, and encounter level which the players are free to interact with however they wish– as long as they accept the consequences!)

Kasimir Urbanski and Appendix N on Geek Gab!

Okay, it finally happened. Kasimir Urbanski and I have finally had a big sit down on the topic of Appendix N. Note that we did not have a formal debate; rather, this was more just a friendly conversation on the subject. Anyone that has followed Urbanski’s blog posts and Google+ threads on this topic will, I think, be very surprised by the results here. Yeah, the usual straw man arguments do make a cameo appearance, but it is relatively brief. And for the record, below are my notes for the key points I wanted to have covered during the exchange.

Listen to the whole show and decide for yourself how well they got argued!

What is Appendix N?

** It is more or less a significant subset of the fantasy and science fiction canon– and consistent with what the typical fantasy fan of the seventies understood about the genre.

Does it shed light on why classic editions of Dungeons & Dragons are the way that they are?

** Yes…. See also Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, Marc Miller’s Traveller and James Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha. All of them leveraged a synthesis of weird books in order to get off the ground. All of them took no thought of slinging elements from contradictory stories and series together into one great game of “play anything from any book you like– as a player or a dungeon master!”

Does it have any utility for game masters that are running fantasy campaigns of their own?

** If you struggle with imagining worlds where alignment, spell memorization, and mega-dungeons are “real”, then you are going to get a real kick out of seeing these things in their original contexts. Contrarwise, if you assume that The Lord of the Rings is the starting point for how fantasy even works, you are going to inevitably be frustrated by how classic D&D is implemented and how it plays. Further, a person that thinks only in terms of derivative eighties style fantasy will be tempted to sacrifice player autonomy in order to produce the sort of “epic” story arcs that you take for granted as being the entire point of the fantasy genre.

Are some types of fantasy a better fit for classic D&D than others?

** You’re going to have far less friction adapting situations from Burroughs, Leiber, Howard, and Vance to D&D than you are trying to make it fit with Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Just as one major example: the need for backgrounds and motivations is simply absent from pulp stories in general. This is the first thing that is added to movie adaptations of Conan and Solomon Cane, but it’s pretty well absent from the source material. It’s not an accident there’s no space for “background” on you Moldvay Basic character sheet!

Today’s Forecast: A “Definitive End” to Appendix N Discussion!

Pop the popcorn, y’all! This is going to be good!

Cognitive dissonance, thy name is Urbanski. You probably don’t have the balls to appear someplace where your presence is inappropriate anyway. (h/t Neal Durando!)

It is absolutely baffling to me why the topic of Appendix N is just so triggering to certain people.  It’s been asked before: “why does the idea that Gygax got specific ideas for D&D from specific sources, and that these can be identified, seem to offend some people? Are they invested in the idea that it was all original for some reason?”

Good questions! Maybe we’ll get some answers today on Geek Gab.

And just for the record… before we go onto the show, here are my questions for the RPG Pundit:

  • What is Appendix N?
  • Does it shed light on why classic editions of Dungeons & Dragons are the way that they are?
  • Does it have any utility for game masters that are running fantasy campaigns of their own?
  • Are some types of fantasy a better fit for classic D&D than others?

Seems like pretty tame stuff to me. It doesn’t have to be so difficult to have a conversation about this. But for some reason, it just is.

Don’t miss it! We should be live in a couple of hours here…!

Unfrozen Gaming Caveman Speaks: The Truth About Today’s D&D

 

Seriously, just read it:

I used to be an avid gamer. From the moment I first saw people playing D&D in junior high school (1976 or so) to the early 1980s when my life turned into a Hunter Thompson/William S Burroughs mashup, RPGs were my main avocation.

In the years between then and now I’ve played on the rare occasions that a game has been available, but between getting married and raising children and learning to hold down a job and becoming an internationally unknown least-selling New Wave writer, I really haven’t taken the time to seek out a gaming group.

Over the last few years I have been reading and commenting on OSR blogs, mostly from following people who have interesting comments on other blogs (+Jeffro Johnson was my OSR gateway drug) but I haven’t really been exposed to what might be called the mainstream of RPG writing over the last few decades.

Even when my eldest daughter started playing D&D I didn’t pay a lot of attention. A few things she said about her games struck me as odd, but I shrugged it off with paternal indulgence.

Recently, though, I have been following links and reading articles written (allegedly) by gamers for gamers.

And what the actual fuck, people?

This is not like going back to my hometown and seeing that they tore down the old mall and widened the highway and put a McMansion Estates where the old high school stood. This is more like going back to what I thought was my old hometown and ending up in the Silent City of The Dessicated Dead on the lost Plateau of Leng.

What the people I am reading now are talking about is not the game that I used to play. It’s not even the type of game that I used to play–or the category of activity that I used to play. The difference isn’t like Chess and Checkers, or Golf and Bowling.

It’s like the difference between cooking chili in a crockpot and blindfolded bicycle racing. The points of similarity are so rare and so irrelevant that I can’t say it’s the same thing at all, despite using many of the same names and much of the same specialized vocabulary.

I mean, I thought that the OSR gang was exaggerating the differences between Old School gaming and the modern… whatever for effect. I figured that they were just getting hung up on a few rule changes as a kind of group shibboleth–if you use these rules from this edition then you’re not one of us.

Not so much. If anything, what I’ve read from the OSR has been understating the case.

What I used to do that I called playing RPGs was having fun playing make believe Heroes vs Monsters and rolling dice to see who killed who first.

What people are doing that they call playing RPGs today seems to be using writing fanfic as a group therapy session.

Misha Burnett is spot on here.

What little I know of contemporary incarnations of D&D is via the “nobody dies everybody wins” tables that are inevitably next to mine at the conventions. It wasn’t until some of the people that switched to Moldvay Basic D&D as a result of my posts over at Castalia House Blog that I found out what was really going on. Seriously, the first hand accounts of what people actually did in these 5th edition sessions made my jaw drop. Horrible!

David Burge summed it all up thusly: “1. Identify a respected institution. 2. kill it. 3. gut it. 4. wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect.”

The few people that stumble their way towards something almost resembling what gaming used to be like find themselves having to reinvent not only things like morale checks, but even non-linear dungeons where the players have control of how far down they delve, whereby they would be handed the capability to select the difficultly level that gives the the sort of gaming they are looking for!

Truly, a dark age of gaming is upon us!