22 February, 2013

Chronicles of the Saturday Group - 2 February 2013

I'm beginning to get annoyed with this adventure.  Thankfully I think we're almost done with it.  I mentioned before that our characters have had their equipment removed from them and that therefore we've had to conserve spells and scrounge for gear.  That's fine; that's a different challenge.  The module consistently throws nasty stuff at us, mostly in the form of hordes of fighters from the various houses that we can barely hold our own against without all the spells and goodies we usually have access to.  That's also not a big deal.  But after being taught beyond the shadow of any doubt that we cannot trust anyone in this stinking city, we are set upon by too many opponents to defeat, boxed in at both sides with a civilian target we're trying to protect, trying to survive long enough to get away, on the edge of getting TPK'd, maybe, and the Deus Ex Machina comes out in the form of some other force attacking our enemies.  Twice.  The first time we didn't know who they were, though I now suspect I know their identities.  The second time they revealed themselves, but the problem is this: I'm trying to conserve my spells.  I'm not playing a combat character.  I'm trying to solve problems without hitting them with a stick this go-round.  So when I hold off on using my Spectral Force spell for two rounds, three rounds... and then I start casting it one segment before the cavalry shows up and instantly annihilates our foes, ensuring that not only will it not be necessary or useful but that it will be completely wasted and I have no way of replacing it... come on.  It feels too much like a 'gotcha!'.  Maybe it's nothing more than bad timing on my part, but I could have just sat back, hid behind the fighters and waited until the story (this is a module for an adventure game, recall) saved our asses itself.  That's not why I play.  I don't want to take part in a TPK either, but it's shown me that the players have no control over our destinies in this module.  Our DM actually stopped play early a few weeks earlier because he had to work out how to deal with our (well, one of our) actions.  Not because he's a bad DM or is unintelligent, but because the module is so heavily scripted.  Bleah and bleah.

20 February, 2013

My First D&D

I recently found the folder I used when I first played what I called D&D with my little brother, back in the early eighties or so.  It's falling apart and suffered water damage at some point, but it's a treasure trove of what D&D meant to me in those days of my youth.

I used to think that I hadn't had any exposure to "real" D&D, such as a book from Moldvay's Basic Set or a copy of the Advanced D&D Players' Handbook.  But a look at a character sheet from the old orange folder shows me something else.  Clearly I had been exposed to D&D at this point.  I did take part in a D&D club in middle school, so that might be where that came from.  I have a memory of being handed a triple-class character, on a sheet with stat names and such drawn in marker and the changeable information in pencil, all written on plain notebook paper.  Beyond that my only contact with role-playing games at that time was from the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks.  These were basically Choose Your Own Adventure stories, but they included a combat resolution system that required a simple character sheet and a pair of six-sided dice.  My first polyhedral dice came from my Mentzer Basic Set, so I'm fairly certain we were using six-siders when we played.

When I played this "D&D" with my younger brother, I was both a player and a DM.  I drew the dungeon maps, I described the surroundings, but I had characters in the mix too.  I can only assume I stayed out of the way when my brother encountered one of the tricks or puzzles I put into the dungeon.  What fun would it be to solve my own riddle?

I've scanned in a few pages from this folder and I'll be posting about them from time to time, in the hope that this personal archaeology trip is of interest to anyone besides me.

18 February, 2013

Character and the D&D player

Does a character have to have its own detailled background or at least a definite personality and a name before it can be played?  After one of my Saturday night gaming sessions, I mentioned that in the old days, the first D&D players sometimes/often didn't even name their characters until the third level or so.  I've heard that Melf (of Melf's Minute Meteors, etc.) was so named because the player's character sheet said "M Elf" for male elf.*  When I mentioned this little anecdote to one of my Saturday gamers, she did a thing that was awfully close to shuddering in horror. 

I fancy myself a writer, and I often find myself building backgrounds and/or personalities for my characters.  In a PbP game I'm playing in, I created a character and then thought, "Well, maybe he's from Ylarum."  After doing a little research I found I didn't like that place as much as I thought I might, and eventually settled for the idea that the character is originally from Thyatis, though he's most recently been in Slagovich, and is now back in Specularum seeking adventure.  I guess maybe he's gotten tired of spending weeks in the Sind desert looking for ancient artifacts.

But does it matter when you're first starting out?  I shouldn't need to have a book in my back pocket with my character's background and homeland information and a flowchart of how he'll act in any given situation.  I thought that was the actual original point of "role-playing": you assume a role, usually in the form of somebody who wants to go exploring something, and then you do what you think a person in that situation would do. As I understand it, in the old days the personality of the character was that of the player: the character was a tool the player used to experience what happened in the game; it was a pawn in the sense of a token on a gameboard.  The character's background or race or class may have an effect on how it behaves in the game, but it doesn't need to step off the pages of a 200-page novel to be a valid character.

*  I've since discovered that this anecdote is not literally true, but according to Melf's player, the character was named "Because Melf rhymes with elf and it's fun to say."

15 February, 2013

Chronicles of the Saturday Group: 26 Jan 2013 - Beneath Two Suns

Our DM is running "Beneath Two Suns". Suffice it to say that these posts will include at least minor spoilers for any module/adventure we're playing in. We've been conserving our spells because we don't have any of our equipment and can't rememorise spells once we've cast them.  It wasn't apparently taken from us by our captors, but none of us has any gear of any kind, including spellbooks (though the DM has ruled we have any material components we may need to cast the spells we have memorised). 

I like this on one hand, but dislike it on another.  Maybe I'm just cranky about 2nd Edition S&P.  Taking away our stuff makes us use our brains.  And I think I've been conditioned, after ten years with this group, to look at my character sheet for answers instead of using my grey matter.  Without the ability to use most of what's on that sheet, I feel shortchanged somehow.  I know I oughtn't, as I'm an advocate of player agency, but it's out of the ordinary for this group.  Cue clip of Yoda saying, "You must unlearn what you have learned..."

We ambushed a patrol and knocked some of them into a pit, and our machine-gun dart thrower punched a few of them to death.   There was a somewhat lengthy discussion about what to do with the one guy who wasn't put into the pit or outright killed.   The half-orc wanted to just kill him, but there are too many Good characters around now, and he was outvoted (Remind me to tell you about how the bard was made Neutral Evil by a Helm of Alignment Change and then made Lawful Good by another magic item.  He's not playing Lawful Stupid, but he is playing Lawful Really Nice, which is nearly as bad.  Good guys can be jerks. They don't have to be, but they can be.).  The Witcher (1), who purports to only be able to kill 'monsters' or 'evil people', wanted to just kill the remaining guard.  When it was rapidly pointed out that that would be murder, she tried to explain why it wasn't.  Insert facepalm here.  In the end we tied the guy's arms and blindfolded him or some nonsense, and punted him off into the swamp, hopefully not to be eaten by some random animal.  You know, I think I had more fun when I was running a morally grey character.  But our Witcher's player gets so upset with quote-unquote evil characters.  She has a very narrow definition of what the game should be, and it includes cooperation.  The PCs should never be at odds with each other, oh my!

Anyway, my illusionist used her Improved Phantasmal Force to simulate an attack on the castle whilst the others went in and fought with the guys inside.    They freed the person we'd come to free and that was the end of that segment of the story.

(1) A custom character build approved by our DM and basically ripped from here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witcher

13 February, 2013

Skills and the Ghostbusters-inspired simple system. Also, rantage.

Dammit, I just realised that if I run a fantasy game with the GB-style rules, I'm gonna have skills.  Only four per player, but... nngh.

I believe that skills take away from a gaming experience rather than add to it.  They tell you what you can't do rather than what you can.  You can do these things, but no other ones.  You fell into a river.  What's that?  You don't have Swimming on your list of Skills/NWPs?  Oh, dear, dear me.  It looks like you're going to be able to go fishing in your lungs now!  Yay for you!  I find it far better to do away with skills entirely.  Adventurers are considered to be the unusual ones for various reasons.  If your raison d'etre includes stomping about in haunted ruins, falling into rivers and other stuff that your average citizen likes to read about but never ever actually do, you probably have all the basic skills you need for such activity.  Swimming.  Horseback riding. Knowledge of rope use.  If I didn't spend the slot/points for Rope Use, I don't know how to make a knot?  Seriously?  And doing away with skills leaves the necessary room for player agency.  If you can't fast talk your way out of a situation with a die roll, guess what?  You have to actually do the talking.  If you don't have Find Secret Doors on your character sheet, you'll have to ask the GM what things look like, whether there's a loose stone or pivot point or hollow section of wall, by interacting with the game world.  You, the player, with the soda in your hand.  Yeah, you. Because what are you here for if not to role-play?  I've often heard "roll-playing" contrasted to "role-playing", but if you just roll your dice for success all the time (combat mechanics aside, of course), you're "roll-playing".  And you might as well go play Neverwinter Nights or Worlds of Warcraft, at that rate.

I also am of the opinion that weapon proficiences are for the birds, for fighters at the least.  I just read an article by Gygax in a Dragon collection wherein he denounces weapon profs (as well as critical hit/miss systems, which I also disdain).  In my Saturday game, our group has been dropped into a place where we're being hunted and we don't have any of our equipment.  It's not kept the machine gun dart thrower from punching people to death (it only takes a few hits from a dude with +11 to damage from strength to make most opponents fall the hell over), but the others, such as the bard and the militant mage who are proficient/specialised in longsword have to wield short swords at a slightly reduced penalty due to familiarity, are having some troubles.  If you can use a sword, you can use a sword!  Use it!  I don't care if you've been in the SCA for eleventy billion years!  This is a game, not a simulation.  I don't care about 'sword and board' and how it *really* is!  Augh!  Ahem.

So... what was I originally talking about?  Right, the fantasy Ghostbusters system thing and the skills and whatnot.  That's something I'll have to deal with when I get that off the ground.  Can there be a happy application of player agency when the players have skills on their sheets, or is that just my pessimism reinforced by ten years of playing with "roll-players"?

11 February, 2013

Grumblings, Part the First: Hit points are an abstraction

When a character at my 2nd Edition S&P game does more than half an opponent's hit points in damage with a single blow from an edged weapon, the DM makes the NPC's system shock roll, then mentions that the blow is fatal but the guy's still fighting.  There aren't any adjustments to the way he fights, but the DM says something about how that NPC is gonna have to use one hand to hold his guts in.

Hit points are an abstraction.  They're luck, they're skill with your weapon, ability to dodge, grace of the gods, whatever.  You know that.  I know that.  The folks at my gaming group seem not to, however.

From the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, page 61:
As has been detailed, hit points are not actually a measure of physical damage, by and large, as far as characters (and some other creatures as well) are concerned.  Therefore, the location of hits and the type of damage caused are not germane to them.  While this is not true with respect to most monsters, it is neither necessary nor particularly useful.

In the section on hit points on page 82, Gygax says,
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place.  It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain!  Why then the increase in hit points?  Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage -- as indicated by constitution bonuses -- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.

In a game where combat is common, there needs to be a way to tell when a particular character falls in combat.  That doesn't mean that method has to reflect physical damage.  In the example above, the DM didn't change the way the guy was fighting.  The comment was more-or-less off-the-cuff, but it certainly reflects the beliefs of the other players: hit point damage is physical damage (to them).  I've played with them long enough I find myself asking how beat-up an opponent looks, just like the others sometimes do.  Pardon me whilst I mentally dopeslap myself.  It's one of several things I hope to unlearn as I continue to explore old-school gaming, the world of player agency, rules-light play, and sandboxing.