Catacombs of the Shield Queen

s-l300.jpgThe Shield Queen ruled benevolently over her realm for years, served by her faithful shield maidens. During that time, the land experienced peace & prosperity. Justice extended from the highest courtier to the lowliest servant. But the official records show that an attempted palace coup by a vassal knight led to her death. The squabbling over her legacy brought an end to the golden age.

Catacombs of the Shield Queen is a dungeon I’ve used a bit in home play, so I thought I’d throw it out there for anyone else to hack on and use for their own campaigns. The map comes from Dyson based on the Dungeon Architect Cards. I used monsters from the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book, all of which can be found on D20SWSRD.com. That means it should work with just about any older version of D&D, and probably with 5e if you squint a little bit.

Have fun with it and let me know what you think!

Goblin Gully at TheLab

So I ran a game at a makerspace in Plano, Texas, not too far from my home. Despite my nervousness, it went pretty well. A few people had already played lots of D&D – one showed up with his original stuff including goldenrod character sheets! – which made me even more nervous.

When we finally got started, about half the group had at least some D&D experience (ranging from 1e to 5e) and the other half had never played at all before. We went through character generation, which actually took longer than I expected, but I super-simplified equipment choices. Pick an armor set, pick a weapon or two, let’s go. (Yes, I knew this would eliminate much of the resource management but I could see the newer players were already overwhelmed and some of the experienced players were confused that this wasn’t exactly what they already knew.)

goblin-gully.pngI used Dyson’s Goblin Gully to get things started. As I expected, even a small dungeon like this took plenty of time. We played for about 2.5 to 3 hours, and having 6 players made things take a while as they got stuck trying to make a decision at a few points. Highlights included:

  • A fighter having a crisis of conscience as soon as a goblin begged for his life. “Why are we even invading their home and taking their stuff?” “THAT’S WHAT WE DO!”
  • Burning goblin corpses and kicking them down stairs to check for traps.
  • The magic-user blowing into the vocal cords of a decapitated goblin head as sort of a “goblin call”.
  • The thief dousing himself in goblin feces to cover his scent.
  • Engineering a revolution among the goblin inhabitants so that the new boss would be agreeable to their plan.
  • Half the group insisting on trying to find a way to defeat the flesh mass (black pudding) before giving up. Sadly, they did in fact give up before they took any real casualties.

I loved when some of the players talked about how much more they liked playing without miniatures and stacks of rule books. (One player kept calling for “arcane checks” and “morale checks” and “called shots”. He did not seem to understand the freewheeling nature of this type of play.) The only things we had were my S&W Core rulebook and the monster book, plus my Chromebook. They’ve already started talking about when to play again!

Play options in 2016

isue5full.jpgI didn’t actually play much D&D during most of 2015 for various reasons. This year, I want to do a lot more of that. So I started thinking about how I can do that in ways that work for my life: father of older children, a relatively demanding job with intermittent travel, social anxiety that sometimes keeps me from wanting to go play at a FLGS, etc etc.

Family home game

Most of my 2015 gaming fell into this category: D&D with kids. This sort of play works best when kept light, like for an occasional “family game night” or when the kids ask to spend a Saturday afternoon rolling dice. However, I would like to make it slightly more regular so that it doesn’t get lost so easily in the shuffle of everything else. We currently use Swords & Wizardry for simplicity and I think we’ll stay with that for a while.

Some family members have asked about joining the game, including those who don’t live nearby. I have started to consider a mixture of in-person players and one or two people participating via video chat, like Google Hangouts from a Chromebook sitting at the table.

TheLab

This coming Saturday (January 23, 2016, for time travelers reading this from the future), I will be running a one-shot at TheLab.ms in Plano, Texas, for some friends. We had intended to play a couple of weeks before but illness kept me home. While this will start as a one-shot dungeon run, I have hopes it could turn into more. A lot depends on the players, of course. They include experienced players and total newcomers. If all goes well, we could turn it into a semi-open game running more regularly. Since it’s at a makerspace, that presents fun possibilities for props and stuff that I don’t get to do at home or online.

Roll20

I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Roll20. Over the last year and a half, I have learned some lessons about playing on a VTT. Voice chat is hard for me because of the interruptions at home, otherwise I have to wait until the kids go to bed. I have not yet tried a text-only game on Roll20, but years of experience roleplaying in Star Wars Galaxies and other MMORPGs has prepared me well for it (I hope).

If I can make this work again, then three possibilities come to mind. First, a megadungeon lends itself to the mapping capabilities. I would probably do this via an open table approach since the site has tens of thousands of players. (The clamoring for spots in a 5E game gets out of control sometimes.) Alternately, I could focus on the text chat capabilities and run an urban campaign focused on intrigue, social interaction, diplomacy, espionage… And finally, I have a number of friends who don’t live near me but would like to play. This is the closest to using Roll20 in the stead of a traditional game, but that carries the traditional headaches of scheduling and whatnot. I have to think hard about that one.

Play by post

Text chat also means thinking about play by post. Of course, Roll20 could support this style (private forums for each campaign, character sheets), but other platforms do so in a more integrated fashion. Campaigns that de-emphasize combat and “adventuring” in favor of heavy RP, such as the above-mentioned urban campaign, fit this style much better, I think.

Musing on the implications of the D&D 5e SRD

Little Dorrit, Musing and dreaming, by PhizThe main reason I stopped playing D&D Fifth Edition was that it read too much like a set of software requirements (use cases). 5e writes everything out in expansive detail, rather than in a concise “Strunk & White-esque” manner.

This drove me back to simpler rule sets like Swords & Wizardry and even Microlite20 or Searchers of the Unknown. For some purposes (e.g. playing with my kids), those still make the most sense. I need the ability to riff on what my players do as quickly as they  do it. Otherwise, their interest starts to wane and they want to go watch anime or play Minecraft or something.

But the release of the Systems Reference Document and Open Gaming License for 5e might change things a little. +Stan Shinn already has a project titled Dungeonesque: Red Box RPG that will provide a streamlined version of the 5e rules based on the SRD. I expect a number of similar projects to come out soon as well. While the so-called “O5R” movement may not have gathered much steam, this sort of approach might do enough to make it worthwhile for me. In fact, incorporating the best parts of other games (e.g. the encumbrance rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the domain level play from Adventurer Conqueror King System) just became a lot more viable.

Related to this, I have trouble playing via Roll20 in part because data entry for the monsters takes so much time. (Voice chat has become less workable for me due to my home environment as well.) I expect we’ll see the monsters from the SRD available on Roll20 soon based on comments from the developers there, however.  They can’t afford to miss the opportunity to streamline play for the most popular game on their platform.

I’d like to come back to 5e for something other than dungeon crawling. Perhaps a game of urban intrigue and espionage using text chat on Roll20 would work better, as it involves a lot less crunch and a lot more roleplaying. (The reason for sticking with 5e comes down to the interest level from players.) I also like designing monsters and such using the 5e crunch, ironically enough, so I might stat up a few things from my Roll For Initiative collection and put them out on the Dungeon Master’s Guild for people to use.

Certainly this started me thinking about 5e again in a way I haven’t in quite a while. Good job, WotC.

Exploring the Ruins of the Undercity

Great success playing with my kids tonight! They’d lost most of their old character sheets, but no problem – we rolled up new ones pretty quickly. My favorite part of old-school gaming is how little time character generation takes. I let them roll 3d6 6 times and assign each as they wished, mostly using Swords & Wizardry Core. The 12 year old wanted to play a sort of “battle mage”, so I grabbed the variant Elf from S&W and told her she only knew “Read Magic”. The 9yo wanted a Fighter – simple enough. He’s done this before and knows that’s basically the simplest class to play. “I want a shield and a sword and chain mail.” Rock on, little dude.

IMG_20151230_215250.jpg

Allen Deger, “Rebel Dragon”, and a hastily scribbled map…

We also used the overlay system from Scarlet Heroes. This basically means you get a “fray die” to represent all the smaller attacks and by-blows over the course of a round, plus you read hit and damage dice slightly differently, so that you can play effectively with 1 or 2 characters. Because we were going for a simple dungeon crawl, I didn’t want to overthink it and they don’t have much fun when they have to spend all their time bleeding out on the dungeon floor. (Careful play is not quite in their mindset yet.)

So we started off using Ruins of the Undercity. The 9yo did most of the mapping and the 12yo tried to keep a narrative going in a Google Doc. That last part only made it about halfway through the session because it just slows down the pace too much. Also, kids roleplay way better than adults. “Describe your attack” leads to jumping around with air swords, and describing kobolds all burning to death from lamp oil leads to running around the living room with screams and flailing arms.

Lessons for next time:

  • On-the-fly dungeon generation slows the game down too much compared to basic dungeon preparation in advance. I like to improvise details (because players always ask questions about stuff I hadn’t previously considered), but figuring out the basics of what’s behind a door or inside a room should be done ahead of time, at least in games where there’s an actual GM. This isn’t a fault of RotU which is really designed for GM-less play.
  • Equipment “packages” can really speed up character generation. Buying equipment is the longest part of that process for us. The players can customize the packages, of course, but depending on the class and adventure type, they’re going to get almost the same stuff each time anyway.
  • Funny voices are still the best part of being a GM. The looks on the players’ faces when I say “hmmm…” and start rolling a bunch of dice are the second best part. It’s a good way to get them thinking more about what might occur and how they should prepare, because it makes it clear that things can happen even if the GM hasn’t specifically decided they should happen.
  • Set a time limit. Even older kids may get antsy after an hour or more of play and want to do something else. Be prepared to suggest ways to wrap up a session logically. In my case, this means “we’re not pausing in the middle of the dungeon, so you need to head back to the entrance.”

We’ll probably play again tomorrow, or at least the 9yo and I will. He wants that treasure!

Rooted in make-believe

Land-of-make-believe-sign

When I was a kid, seeing a movie meant more than just a couple of hours of entertainment. It meant hours or maybe days of material for playing “make-believe” or “pretend”. After The Goonies or Return of the Jedi or anything else I liked, the ideas and characters and settings and themes would inform my playtime for a while afterwards. (In the case of Star Wars, I guess that was true for years…)

Now that I’m a dad, of course, I’ve realized how normal this is. Kids watch an adventure movie, and then they go replay the movie in their own ways, either with their own dolls & “action figures” (i.e. dolls), or maybe they run around in the living room yelling and laughing and pretending they are the characters.

The more things change…

…the more they stay the same. After all, what are role-playing games but semi-structured make-believe? When I’m playing some computer game or reading a book for a while, I end up wanting to emulate that in my RPGs. Earlier this year, I played lots of Diablo 3. That led to making new lists of monsters, researching cathedral floor plans, working on archetypes and character classes for demon hunter-esque characters, and so forth. It didn’t lead to an actual campaign, though. Maybe the game prep was enough to satisfy that thirst for a while.

Now lately I’ve been listening to the audiobooks in the series A Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) and I’ve reached about the midpoint, halfway through the third book of five. I love the intrigues and scheming far more than the battles and bad sex (don’t judge me). Any scene with Tyrion and Varys grabs my attention far more than another account of outlaws in the forest. So my solo Scarlet Heroes campaign has been all urban adventures. I’m trying to establish this character as something akin to a Master of Whisperers, I suppose – an information broker, eventually, but one who occasionally pulls out the short sword to get things done. (It’s a good method for world building, too, but that’s another post for another day.)

The bleedover goes in all directions, of course. Game of Thrones has led me to spend more evenings playing Civilization V again, going for diplomatic and culture victores. Actually, it’s circular, because playing D&D again drove me to fantasy fiction again like GoT and the Kingkiller Chronicles (Name of the Wind, Wise Man’s Fear, etc by Patrick Rothfuss).

Next!

Dungeon crawling is fun and still probably where D&D games shine the most, especially those based on older editions. My occasional game with my kids mostly consists of random encounters and some underground exploration so I can just keep pace with their insatiable curiosity and creativity.

It could be that this is actually where I’d like 5e more than B/X or Swords and Wizardry. Perhaps a play-by-post or text-based Roll20 game would provide the right medium for a game of urban intrigue and mysteries.

What I know for sure is that I’m having tons of fun even just with game prep I never use and solo RP and gaming with the kids. The 8-year-old in my heart is giggling once more.

Losing ruleset weight: evaluating older RPG games

D&D 5e has started to frustrate me. I feel like I spend way too much time looking stuff up when running a game. Some of that comes from poor information organization in the core books. This leads to too much time looking up spells and so forth. Another large chunk results directly from the amount of rules: conditions, cover, grappling, etc. Wizards of the Coast has made the business decision not to provide us with electronic materials. As a result, we have to depend on books, player-generated material that lawyers don’t take down, or our own preparation efforts. The amount of time taken by data entry in various applications and private documents doesn’t help.

As the DM, I can decide to change the rules, of course. But I want to take care when doing so. DM fiat shouldn’t frustrate players more than absolutely necessary. That doesn’t even include the optional rules I’ve chosen to exclude, like multiclassing and feats. Some of the things that take more time than I’d like actually include some of the most fun bits, like the different monster abilities and features.

Switching to another simpler game could certainly work. I don’t care one way or the other about labels like “OSR” (including whatever the abbreviation actually means to someone). But I do like the balance between crunch and freeform play in older games and “retroclones“, which I lump together here for this purpose.

Game analyses

A sorcerer comes to a peasant wedding. I’ve been re-reading various versions of a number of games. As much as I like Microlite20 and Microlite74, they just don’t seem to have much traction in terms of finding groups. For players, this choice might look like a distinction without a difference. None of the systems differ in large ways. Find a group you like on Roll20 and use what they use, since the DM will probably have tons of house rules anyway. But as a DM myself, I need to choose a place to begin. All three of these systems have tremendous community support. In addition, they are cross-compatible with each other and lots of other older games or clones (which is largely the point).

Dungeons & Dragons

OGL-based games constantly refer to “the Original Fantasy Roleplaying Game”, or  they use some other euphemism for actual Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards of the Coast has made available legitimate (non-infringing) electronic copies of older editions. This includes 3.5e and 4e, editions I prefer not to play, but also B/X and AD&D. A little time and effort can find actual books for sale on Amazon, eBay, and other places like that. Used bookstores and local gaming stores also carry them at times. The organization and lack of clarity in some of these editions has left me a bit cold, though I have some of this material for reference as needed.

In the meantime, my campaign in 5e will continue. I still plan to finish running Dyson’s Delve with the Relic Hunters Guild if the players keep going. I also play in a meatspace 5e game and find the new Dungeon Master’s Guide useful for everything, not to mention that gorgeous Monster Manual.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game

Basic Fantasy has something of an “Acme Industries” vibe to it. It focuses on doing what it does very well, including mechanics as well as production value, without embellishment to the point of distraction. BF uses ascending armor class, which I like, but it also has the older-style saving throws (“Dragon Breath”? “Wands”?). These never made much sense to me. It also uses the modern separation of race and class. I’ve never used the older approach of race-as-class and would like to experiment a bit, but I don’t know how players typically feel about that.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth 28, etching, aquatint, soft-ground etching, mm.180x330, Engraved and designed by Toni Pecoraro 2007.Labyrinth Lord supports race-as-class directly in the core book. It seems closest to the older edition it seeks to emulate, including descending AC and all the old saving throws. This system has a bit more heft to it, though in this case that means “completeness” rather than rules-heaviness. I’ve joined a campaign using LL rules on Roll20 that will start in the new year, but this time I’ll get to participate as a player rather than DM. We will play in a really unusual campaign setting: the Anomalous Subsurface Environment. I have high hopes for that!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a beautiful approach in terms of its simplicity (e.g. the silver standard) and just enough “weirdness” to make it stand out. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading an adventure as much as I did Death Frost Doom. It uses race-as-class & ascending armor class and has extensive domain management rules. The old-style saving throws are a turn-off, as is the fact that, for reasons I do not understand at all, James Raggi has blocked me personally on Google+. I’ve never had any interaction with him that I recall, so it strikes me as somewhat odd.

Swords & Wizardry

Swords & Wizardry seems the most hackable. It supports both ascending and descending armor class. Since I prefer ascending, this helps a lot. A single number for saving throws might go too far in the other direction from the original game. In fact, D&D 5e probably does this in the way that makes the most sense to me, tying saving throws to ability scores. SW does modify certain types of saves based on character class, though, which helps. And it has both “race-as-class” and the more modern approach available depending on which edition you use.

What’s next?

For now I will start from S&W, though I have much love for all the systems above in their own ways. This will immediately require a few small tweaks, such as bringing in Advantage/Disadvantage. I also have taken some cues from Microlite74 OSS and some rules variants in 5e regarding skills. Characters who specify a particular skill or background at creation time will get advantage on relevant attempts. I will also use some of the material in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, like the extensive support for strongholds and hirelings.

In reality, no two RPG campaigns truly use the same system once you include house rules and such. Systems like these, all based on more or less the same game, just provide a framework from which we can begin.

Time to do work.