Monday, 14 May 2018

Guardians of the World-tree... perhaps some progress

Some lore and other ancient history...

In the distant past there were only Elves. Some myths say that Eru created the Elves but they slept until Eru had made the stars; then the Elves awoke beside a lake. Some myths say that Corellon Larethian fought the demon Lolth and the Elves sprang from the drops of Corellon's blood shed in the fight (in one version, the Drow from Lolth's blood, the ancestors of the good Elves from Corellon's).

I don't know other Elven myths, but certainly in Azeroth there is (or was rather) a 'World Tree' that the Elves lived around. They're supposed to be the oldest race, and they have split into different kindreds, primarily the Night Elves and the Blood Elves (the Blood Elves, originally High Elves, were the ruling class of Elven society).

Whatever the version, the Elves are divided. In at least some versions, there are World Trees.

Malekith the King of the Dark Elves (Marvel) is certainly the inspiration for Malekith King of the Dark Elves (Warhammer). The Marvel Dark Elves also imply 'Light Elves', and obviously, these are all derived pretty squarely from nordo-germanic myths with the 'svartalfar' and 'liosalfar'. Why have I never realised Malekith of Marvel's Dark Elves are blue? This might explain those blue Citadel Dark Elves that used to pop up in the late 1980s. They weren't 'Drow' per se, they were Marvel Dark Elves not TSR Dark Elves.

Anyway, I've been painting Elves again. Maybe they'll see action in Warhammer or Kings of War someday soon. Maybe they won't in the end but hell I like painting Elves. And not those camo-clad guerrilla-fighters that GW have been pushing for the last 10 years or so. No, proper guards-of-the-Fairy-Queen type. They wear blue, and red, and white, and bright green, as well as cloaks of dappled green that hide them in the forests. Some of my Elves are Blood Elves, some will be various kinds of Dark Elves, some will be Night Elves and so on.

Some of my Elves
It's only about 10 years since I started on this idea of a united force of Elves. That's probably slow even by my standards!

Monday, 30 April 2018

A new setting... as if it were needed

I'm working on a setting. Not a wildly individual supercool and sideways offering - in some ways, rather the opposite. The idea I'm going for is more generic than that. In fact, what I'm aiming for is to smash right through 'generic' and end at somewhere near quintessential. Generic deals in stereotypes, I'm more aiming at archetypes.

Hyboria is an original setting. Middle-earth is an original setting. Barsoom is an original setting. Mostly what came after was somewhat derivative of these and some other examples of what came to define the genre. But we can take what is derivative, and in turn boil that down and find out what is near-universal. This is what I'm trying to get at. A setting that will be particularly useful I think for relatively-inexperienced players.

There are a bunch of inspirations for this. A while ago I was talking about the 'Tough Guide to Fantasyland' by Diana Wynne Jones (this post). It's the point of departure for this project, for reasons which I hope will become clear.

Angry GM has a great post from the end of last year called 'How NOT to teach newbies D&D', which (in ironic and convoluted fashion, because he's pretending that the idea is to put off new players) has the excellent advice that you should try to make the setting easy to grasp. Instead of your own totally original setting with all of its own monsters and an arcane and convoluted background, something familiar will help the new players make the adjustment. I think this is extremely sensible. It's not so necessary for more experienced players, but if you're unfamiliar with both the rules and the setting of the game, then I'd think it would be very easy to get lost and be put off. Going for the familiar in setting terms makes it easier to accept the novelty of the rules.

Trollsmyth's blog had a recently looking at something similar, or at least related. In 'Would you play with E.L. James?' Trollsmyth puts forward an argument that boils down to something like: 'Old gamers have old cultural reference points; people coming into gaming now have different cultural reference points'.  I think is also very true and sensible (though I've simplified an important argument almost to the point of tautology). Teenagers aren't reading Michael Moorcock and Fritz Lieber like we were 30 or 40 years ago, they're much more likely to have read (or watched) Harry Potter and Hunger Games.

The consequence of all of this is, 'our' references won't have the same resonance for younger/newer gamers that they did for us. So - and this a bit of leap - if we 'old gamers' are trying to get new gamers to play 'old games', we need to be mindful of how to play 'old games' with 'new content'. How do we adapt D&D for people who aren't so well-versed in Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard, who haven't read Lord of the Rings but have seen the Peter Jackson films, who know Twilight and maybe some of the vast amount of fantasy literature out there written in the last 40 years?

There are I think some games that have started to tackle that, particularly from the angle of gaming 'romantic fantasy (link to the wiki)' rather than the 'sword and sorcery' angle D&D has traditionally promoted. I don't know how many other games there are like Blue Rose, that are specifically designed for such settings, but I want to combine something like that with more 'standard' D&D. Is it possible to render those sorts of stories with 'our' sorts of rules? Is it just a question of the setting? Some posts on Against the Wiked City here and MetaFilter here (which heavily references Against the Wicked City) go into more depth, and at least indicate ways that D&D can be used to tell different stories from 'smash the door, kill the monster, take the treasure', in particular by more extensive use of Morale and Reaction rules, and de-emphasising combat. Not that I'm trying to eliminate combat but the default for PC actions perhaps shouldn't be 'stab it in the face'. At the very least, 'stab it in the face' should be one among a range of potential actions the PCs can take. So I'd like to emphasise the existence of other possibilities at least. And in case this seems like a bit of a weird concept in D&D, I'm going to mention A Song of Ice & Fire/Game of Thrones, which is the most popular fantasy franchise in ages, and includes, among the spectacular and bloody violence, intrigue, politicking and manipulation on a grand scale. Complex characters abound and everyone has conflicts and motivations, secrets and desires. It's not all about the fighting.

Mostly, fantasy stories are set in a self-contained world. There are great numbers of examples. Conan, Lord of the Rings, the Belgariad and the Lankhmar stories come to mind, Willow, Dragonslayer and Krull as fantasy movies that are also based in self-contained worlds. But I've also been thinking about what might be called 'portal' settings. These come in some different, though related, types.

Probably the most common type involves someone - or very often a group of people - from our world who make a journey through some sort of portal to another world. The 'heroes' must adjust to a strange new world - literally learning the rules - while (generally) working to defeat the Big Bad in order to come home. This is literally the plot of the old D&D cartoon from the early 1980s. The Chronicles of Narnia, Red Moon & Black Mountain and the Fionavar Tapestry are of this type. It's also by analogy what new players are doing as they learn to cope in a strange new world.

Then there is the portal setting where something from another world comes to this. Elements of the story in Elidor are of this type, though Elidor contains both types: it is the a journey-to-another-world which precipitates the magical invasion of our world. Labyrinth is certainly something like it, but is the opposite of Elidor - the journey to the Otherworld is prompted by the invasion into this. Stranger Things is probably a modern version of this type, though honestly it's hard to know whether 'the Underneath comes to Hawkins' is before or after 'Evil Scientician Dudes go to the Underneath'. One is a consequence of the other but is it the scientists sending 11 into the Underneath that summons the creature to the boundary or is it the existence of the boundary that draws the scientists? It doesn't in the end matter: from the point of view of Will, Mike, Lucas and Dustin, as well as for Nancy and Steve, it's the invasion of this world that sparks the story.

A third type of story, which is very closely related to the second type of portal setting, though it doesn't actually involve a portal at all, is the story which is set in our world, but one where magic secretly exists. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen/Moon of Gomrath, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are of this kind, as are many superhero stories (where magical effects are generally given a pseudo-scientific rationale). Here the hero generally discovers a secret which means they have power in this strangely-altered world, and they must learn to use it. This power may be intrinsic (Harry Potter and Percy Jackson) or the result of an inherited or found magical object (Weirdstone) and they 'ways in' may be many and various, but often boil down to 'impossible forces attack for unknown reasons' and the hero(ine)(s) must discover why they're involved in this secret war. Even for those few that don't (eg Twilight, in my understanding) the set-up isn't massively different.

I'm going to make a special mention of Dr Who here as it combines all of the above. The TARDIS of course is a portal in its own right, taking the Doctor and the Companions throughout time and space; but also, aliens and other malevolent intelligences often visit Earth; and finally, things what man was not meant to wot of but that have been around for ages are sometimes turned up (Silurians, I'm looking at you). So Dr Who can go anywhere and do anything (story-wise). One reason why Dungeons & Daleks is such an awesome concept.

So - where is all this going? Is it possible to leave the mechanics of B/X-BECMI D&D relatively untouched, but have a setting that includes a) a world containing quintessential fantasy tropes; b) the ability to use other mechanics than combat to solve problems and c) the option to use this in conjunction with 'real world' characters or in a 'real world' setting? In other words, to tell stories a bit closer to the fiction that people are actually reading, and is maybe therefore a bit more culturally-familiar to people who might be interested in D&D but currently aren't?

I don't know, but I hope to have fun finding out.



Saturday, 28 April 2018

Rift City Session 9

I've left it too long to be able to provide much detail on this: what I can remember is that the party was composed of:

Cnut the Fighter
Galen the Elf
Gene the Fighter
Gibbet the Thief
Karensa the Elf
Shazam the Elf

and we were joined by a new player, who was running Marl the Halfling.

Oh, and Shazam's Charmed Orc, who is called is called Keith, not Barry.

The party wanted to get to back to the area with the good corridors, where the Orcs were. So, they headed back that way. In the room of sarcophagi, where previously they'd encountered Skeletons, they came across some Ghouls. There seems to be some malign influence in that place that keeps bring back Undead. The party doesn't seem to have noticed, but maybe a spring-clean with some Holy Water might keep things quiet for a bit. The Elves went point and took out the Ghouls, due to a general immunity to Ghoul-paralysis. Someone was injured, but not paralysed (can't remember who it was now).

Scouting a bit further the party came to the room where Keith had been stationed as a guard. As there were now only two guards there (Keith's old mates) they rapidly surrendered rather than face the wrath of 7 PCs and their henchorc. Searching about the party found another door. It was the Orcs' privy, occupied by a few more Orcs. A quick fight and it was all over. I can see I'm going to have to beef up some of the encounters in this area, I think they're more geared for parties of 3-5. 8 (or even 7, Keith is basically a torch-bearer) is just tending to overwhelm the monsters.

That part of the dungeon done the party headed north from the room with the Orc/Ogre corpses and big pit. They found a room that had most recently been used an armoury, but the majority of weapons had gone. Certainly those that were left looked mostly broken or at least rusty, except one. Karensa took that, a sword. There was also a chest with a false bottom that contained a small amount of treasure.

North of this room they encountered a meditating Elf who had barricaded himself in and was attempting to regain his spells, having been separated from his adventuring party, made up of some Dwarves.

The party did find the Dwarves, who said it was the Elf's fault he'd got lost.

On the way out, the party ran into some Fire Beetles, which were quickly defeated, and even though Polly the Magic User wasn't there, the PCs harvested the usable glands to take back to Guisintha at Rift City. They've been trained well.

One of the players produced this lovely sketch of the day's shenanigans:

Session 9 by Cnut Cutlet - clockwise from top: Keef the lantern-bearing Orc, a dwarf, a Ghoul Rising, a Fire Beetle and a Ghoul Attacking




Saturday, 17 March 2018

Rift City session 8

Another new player joined us for this adventure with a Fighter called Gene, and Shazam the Elf's player made it back too. Long-time PC Gwynthor the Cleric, and our occasional Dwarf PC Berg, missed this one however, so the party looked like this:

Cnut (Fighter)
Daisy (Halfling)
Frost (Fighter)
Galen (Elf)
Gene (Fighter)
Gibbet (Thief)
Karenza (Elf)
Polly (Magic User)
Shazam (Elf), with his attendant Charmed Kobold Norbert (I think)

I've been a bit busy with real-world stuff (and my posts about questing are a kind of procrastination) so I'm not going to deny I wasn't massively well-prepared for this one. I'd grabbed some monster-stats from online lists to plug into gaps caused by previous attacks in this area, but hadn't double-checked the blocks of text. But more of that in a moment...

I have a relatively simple procedure for re-stocking the dungeon. I roll a d6 for each day that passes between the party trashing an occupied room, and their return. If a '1' comes up I'll re-stock from the Wandering Monster Table to represent some monster moving in, then place another monster from my master-list on the Wandering Monster Table. I'm currently re-thinking this system. This area of the dungeon is patrolled and occupied by relatively-well-organised forces - primarily, the Orcs and Death-cultists I was talking about in the last report. They should probably be better at re-occupying cleared areas than 'random' monsters would be - it's likely that if the PCs clear an Orc guard-post, a few days later those Orcs will have been replaced with more Orcs, or some Cultists, or some Undead, rather than Killer Bees or Lizard Men or Pixies.

Anyway - rooms are re-occupied. It needs to make sense in terms of the organisation of the dungeon not just randomly. I think I shall prioritise the 'organised' inhabitants for re-occupation rather than the opportunistic squatters. But I should also take care to read the entries not just copy them over.

Things started reasonably enough. The party set off for the caves, and almost immediately bumped into another NPC party. This is the third party I think that the PCs have found so far, and I would say a sign that dungeon-delving is the closest thing in Rift City to an organised sport. Negotiating a division of the caves so that the two parties weren't chasing each other's tails, the NPC party went east, the PCs went west.

So, having already cleared these areas but nothing yet having moved in, the first few rooms in this area were empty but for the detritus of previous fights. The PCs quickly became aware however that there were some Orcs up ahead. Deciding that a sudden and overwhelming show of force was in order, the PCs took them down brutally, quickly and without mercy.

And then I did a foolish thing. As intimated, I'd just copied-and-pasted some stats from elsewhere to plug a gap. That's not the problem, the problem was reading the information I'd copied without mentally filtering it.

"We search the bodies," the PCs said.

"You, errm, notice that all the Orcs have backpacks on, with sacks inside that make suspicious clinking sounds," said I, desperately wondering why 4 wandering Orcs were carrying 3,000GP and jewellery worth another 900GP.

Now that in itself isn't a problem. It's a bribe from the Cultists to keep the Orcs on their side, destined to be the Orc-soldiers' pay-chest. It's loot from lower in the caverns that the Orcs have collected together and are using it to buy equipment from the Cultists. It's the result of wiping out another adventuring party and taking their stuff, which must have included treasures from lower levels. It's the profits of overground banditry waged by the Orcs in recent weeks. It doesn't really matter. Any and all of these are plausible suggestions in line with what the Orcs are doing.

The problem is more in terms of risk-v-reward, and how the sudden acquisition of wealth makes the party do weird things. Immediately they realised they'd hit the jackpot, they decided to go home. This was still early in the day, only their second encounter, and 4 Orcs had produced more loot than the party had gained in the previous 7 sessions combined. As far as they were concerned, carrying that amount of treasure for the rest of the day would be ludicrous. And really, I agree with them.

What I should have done is knocked a zero off the loot. If they'd found 390GP in coins and jewellery, I'm sure they'd have been very pleased. But they'd have kept going. As it was, there was a 5-hour section of the day when they trekked back to town, sold the jewellery (the 'Faberge Egg' as they referred to it), bought more jewellery (because it's more portable than coins), and then went back to the caves with 3900GPs' worth of necklaces, jewelled daggers and gold cutlery sets. And Shazam went to the Elven Sanctuary and gave the mystics there 400GP to keep up the good work. They were very happy and slipped him a Healing Potion in return.

Now, I'm not particularly bothered about screwing the PCs out of cash here. If they want to play D&D as a trading game that's fine, we'll do that. At the moment, if they want to turn cash into gold because it's easier to carry I don't see I need to tax them as I do it. So they sold everything for its value and bought things for their value.

To their credit once the PCs were back they carried on as before. Checking rooms, bashing down doors, trying to find gold, information, the glands of magical animals...

They ran into some prisoners of the Orcs, who told them their captors were close-by with large amounts of cash. On being re-assured that the Orcs were dead and the entrance was close, the slaves took the opportunity to run for it. The party took the rope that had held the chain-gang together though.

In the tunnels the party also found a snake. Not a massive one but it didn't matter, they killed it with a sling-stone and cut off its head in case Gisuintha the Wizard wanted any parts of it. On the way, they also bumped into some Gnolls! Big buggers they are but there are currently 9 PCs and their Kobold-friend so the Gnolls didn't last long. Only 40SP of treasure but so what? They'd already had the big haul...

After that it was back to raiding for the PCs. One room was full of spiders (not giant-sized, and quickly dealt with via a Sleep spell), as well as the remains of a battle between Orcs and Ogres. It looked like the Ogres might have come up a well-like shaft in the centre of the room, which seemed to go a long way down according to one of the Elves who checked it with infravision (it goes to what will be an Ogre lair on Level 3). A quick search of the bodies revealed that they'd been stripped of useful weapons and equipment already.

The party exited that room and took a door across the corridor. Here they found a large and strange room, containing a large cage with the corpse of a Hobgoblin in it. It looked like the cage might have originally swung from the ceiling but it had fallen at some point either before or after the Hobgoblin had died, it was difficult to tell. Another corpse, with no head, was also present. There was a door from this room to the east, but when Daisy the Halfling found a secret door in the south wall, the party headed for that instead.

Here was another large hall-like room, this one with carved pillars that resembled trees with spreading branches, holding up the ceiling. Four Orcs occupied this room, and again they proved very little challenge to the party. Once the first one was dead the others surrendered. Shazam the Elf, using his Charm Person spell, decided he was sick of Norbert the Kobold and used Charm on one of the Orcs (who Shazam is now calling 'Barry' I believe... still, at least he actually speaks Orc so can communicate with this friend/servant/pet).

Charm is a bit of a weird one. Saving throw once per month as long as you don't treat the Charmee too egregiously, but no other notification of how and why it wears off. I know this lot, if I let them get away with it, they'll just charm one of everything they encounter every day and build an army of a months' worth of Charmed monsters. So I ruled that only one Charm can be operation at a time, which seems right. Having Charmed Barry the Orc, Shazam realised that Norbert the Kobold was freed from the spell, and the little dog-like monster fled... to some dank cavern no doubt, possibly one close by. Now Shazam has an Orc for a companion, which might not be too popular a move in Rift City. The Orcs had an unidentifiable potion and some 'shiny stuff'. The party took it all after Barry helpfully showed Shazam where it was.

More wandering monsters appeared - a Dwarf, shortly followed by some other Dwarves. They were all part of a party that had got split up. By this time the party was wanting to leave. Leaving the Dwarves to find each other (or not) the PCs started heading for the exit.

So it was off back to the city (we've joked that the Wilderness can't kill them until they reach Level 4) to flog their loot and get the Orcs' potion identified and to see if Gisuintha wanted a snake-head. She took the one in exchange for identifying the other. I might make them wait a session or two to get that back, I haven't decided yet how easy it is to identify...

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Questing in Elfgames IV - Adventuring in the Ship of Theseus (very long post)

This is a step away from determining backgrounds. Still about procedures for epic questing and more closely gaming the tales we read, though.

I've mentioned the Ship of Theseus before. I first heard of it as 'the Grandfather's Axe Problem' and in the UK now is often known as 'Trigger's Broom'.

The idea is simple. You replace all the timbers and rigging of a ship. When is it not the same ship? When you replace the handle and head of an axe, does it stop being the same axe? When Trigger has replaced the handle and bristles of his broom several times, is it the same broom?

A similar thing can happen to bands. Napalm Death, Christian Death and Dr Feelgood, for example, somewhat famously continued even though there were no original members left. A party is like that sometimes. Members come and go, either because of player drop-outs or PC death (even without going into TPKs). After a while a party may have little or no resemblance to the original membership.

So, in this instance, is it the same party? And, yes or no, is it possible for an ever-changing constellation of characters to have a 'quest'?

As a thought-experiment going back to the Lord of the Rings...

Session 1 - The Shire (Hobbiton to Crickhollow):

Three players - Alan (Frodo), Barbara (Sam) and Charles (Pippin) decide they want to run 'Ring-Quest': the DM tells Frodo's player that his uncle gave him a magic ring before disappearing into the Wild, and Frodo is going to find out what happened to him. If the Hobbits had (for example) lost Pippin to a Tiger Beetle attack in Woody End (I once rolled up encounters for the Fellowship as per the Mentzer wilderness rules and this happened on the first night, as described in the reply to this post in 3d6, Traps & Thieves), they could then have been joined by Gildor (Charles thought he'd play an Elf next session).

(This part has been edited to make it more true as well as functional.)

Session 2 - The Old Forest (Crickhollow to Tom's House):

Frodo, Sam and Gildor are joined by Deirdre playing Merry, but Merry is killed in the Old Forest. The rest of the party makes it safely to Tom's House, and Deirdre rolls up a Magic User, Goldberry, who will join the next leg of the journey.

Session 3 - The Barrow Downs (Tom's House to Bree):

The party departs from Tom's House. They get involved in a dungeon-delve, but Barbara's character Sam is killed by the Barrow-wights. Barbara rolls up a Ranger for her next character (maybe in Basic D&D terms this is a Cleric, but Barbara says she really thinks he should have a sword. The DM agrees, as long as it's broken and can't be fixed until Rivendell) as the party continues on to Bree.

Session 4 - Midgewater (Bree to Weathertop):

By the time they are leaving Bree the party is Frodo (still Alan's first PC and still the Ringbearer), Strider (Barbara's second PC), Gildor (Charles's second PC) and Goldberry (Deirdre's second PC). The quest continues on to Weathertop, where there is a big fight with the Nazgul and Frodo is injured (Strider the Cleric can only use a torch as a weapon).

Session 5 - the Trollshaws (Weathertop to Rivendell):

Another player, Erik, joins them for this session, with Glorfindel as his PC (an Elf scouting from Rivendell), and the quest continues to head in that direction. Again there is a confrontation with the Nazgul but the party makes it to Rivendell. At Rivendell after 5 sessions, Frodo's player Alan decides to jack it in. Frodo, it is decided, will stay in Rivendell healing from his wound. The DM tells Alan that Frodo's uncle is there, and the two Hobbits, in game terms at least, retire to study Elvish poetry. By now there are no Hobbits in the party. The PCs have completely changed from the group that left Hobbiton and entered the Old Forest. Strider (replaced Sam as Barbara's PC), Gildor (replaced Pippin as Charles's PC) and Goldberry (replaced Merry as Deirdre's PC), with Glorfindel (Erik's PC) however, still constitute a party. Alan agrees Frodo will hand over the Ring to Goldberry.

Session 6 - Moria (Rivendell to Lorien):

This session starts with a Ring-Quest party forming with Goldberry, Gildor, Strider, Glorfindel, Gloin (played by Faith), Gimli (played by Gary) and Boromir (played by Helen). Oh and an NPC Gandalf. Faith and Gary aren't really sure they're going to be able to stick around, but they've come along for a session anyway. Now apart from the fact that only Strider and Boromir have names that don't begin with 'G', that seems like a viable party, though maybe Gloin at 235 (40 years older than Thorin at the time of The Hobbit) is a bit old to be going adventuring. The party leaves Rivendell and travels towards Moria. Fights with the Watcher in the Water, a bit of riddling to find the secret door, and some fights in the tunnels with Orcs lead to a confrontation on the bridge where Glorfindel (Erik's PC) falls fighting the Balrog. The two Dwarven players decide they won't be coming back and drop out of the campaign. They decide that their characters are going to continue to fight in Moria against the Orc Hordes, trying to re-take it for the House of Durin; the rest of the party 'knows' they're still alive (in game terms) somewhere in Khazad Dum. Erik really wants to keep playing even though Glorfindel is dead, and likes Elves, so when the party rests up in Lorien, Haldir joins the party. However, Gildor's player Charles (who played Pippin originally) also drops out of the campaign and Gildor 'stays in Lorien', mourning the death of his friend Glorfindel.

Session 7 - Anduin I (Lorien to Amon Hen):

By this point eight players have been involved. Two of the three players from the first session have dropped out (Alan and Charles AKA Frodo and Pippin/Gildor). But the quest continues. Deirdre is keeping the quest alive with her character Goldberry acting as the Ringbearer. The party heads south - with Goldberry, Strider, Haldir and Boromir (with NPC Gandalf of course). The party reaches Amon Hen, where they are ambushed by Orcs. Goldberry is killed. The rest of the party send her body over the Falls of Rauros in an Elven boat. Before she dies she gives the Ring to Strider. He, Boromir and Haldir vow to continue.

Session 8 - Anduin II (Amon Hen to Cair Andros):

About to depart from Amon Hen, the PCs meet a Rohirric commander, Eomer (the PC of Iain, a new player), who is in the area on patrol. He joins the party. They journey downriver towards a Gondorian garrison near Cair Andros: on the way, they raid an Orcish stronghold in a cave-system near a Gondorian fort. Here, Strider is killed fighting a giant horned troll, but he impresses on Eomer the importance of the quest, and he takes the Ring. There's a whole bunch of caves here, enough for several sessions adventuring from this Gondorian keep on the borderlands if the party wishes, but having scouted the caves the party continues south.

Session 9 - Ithilien (Cair Andros to Osgiliath):

At Cair Andros, the party is joined by a new PC. Charles has decided that he wants to give the campaign another go so he rolls up a new character - a Thief, who he decides is a Gondorian soldier called Beregond. The DM decides that Beregond's commanding officer has sent him with the party as a guide to the next garrison, at Osgiliath. The PCs make their way to the ruined city and fight Orcs and Nazgul on the way.

Session 10 - Morgul Vale (Osgiliath to Minas Morgul):

At Osgiliath, two more PCs join the quest. These are Ioreth, a Cleric run by Deirdre, who re-joins the campaign, and Eowyn, a fighter, run by Jeanette, a new player. Ioreth is a healer attached to the Osgiliath garrison. The DM rules that a force from Rohan has arrived to bolster the Gondorian forces, which has included Eowyn disguised as a man. They join Eomer, Boromir, Haldir and Beregond in an journey to the fortress of Minas Morgul, where a Gondorian army is encamped in Morgul Vale. On the way they are ambushed by Southrons coming to break the siege, and nearly caught by the Witch-King's magic - but Eowyn eventually kills the Witch-King with a little help from Haldir. However, both Haldir and Eomer are killed; with his dying breath Eomer gives the Ring to Boromir.

Session 11 - Cirith Ungol (environs of Minas Morgul):

Not yet tiring of the shenanigans in Morgul Vale, the party decides at the next session to go on a little side-quest up into the hills. Erik, now that Haldir is dead, rolls up another Elf (he really likes Elves) called Imrahil. The DM says that there really aren't any Elves in the Gondorian army, but Eriks says "can he be a sort of Half-Elf... using the rules for an Elf?" Oh, all right says the DM. However Charles (the only original player, who had actually dropped out of the campaign for a bit) can't make this session. The DM rules that Beregond is busy with his military duties - in game terms, he is spending the day reporting to the commanders of the Gondorian army about the Mordorian forces to the north and the state of the defences. Nevertheless, Boromir, Eowyn, Iorweth and Imrahil go off into the hills above the Morgul Vale. There they meet a giant spider and some Orcs, and have some fun dungeon-bashing, before coming back to camp.

Session 12 - Gorgoroth (Minas Morgul to Orodruin):

Charles unfortunately can't make this session either (so Beregond is still busy doing stuff for the army, probably scouting). Boromir the Ringbearer, Eowyn, Ioreth and Imrahil head off across Gorgoroth to take the Ring to Mt Doom. They have some trouble with Orc patrols and have to evade Nazgul but eventually they get there. Boromir makes a speech remembering all the brave souls who have helped them and casts the Ring into the fire. Then the PCs are racing a volcano to get the hell out of there! Frankly at this point even if the PCs do snuff it they've already saved the world so they can congratulate themselves on a heroic sacrifice well-done. Haldir and Eowyn both fail their Save v Dragon Breath to avoid the fumes. Boromir and Ioreth decide they'll carry their unconscious brethren so the DM makes them take another Save - they both make it and the DM rules that they narrowly get their companions out of the danger zone. There's little point in role-playing the journey back so the DM concludes that at last, weary and dehydrated, they stagger into a Gondorian patrol who are amazed that they had not perished. Returning to a jubilant camp, they are told that a heroes' welcome awaits them in Minas Tirith.

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12 sessions. 10 players. 17 PCs (and Gandalf as an NPC). In that time the party fulfilled the point of 'Ring-Quest' and had a bunch of exciting adventures. None of the original PCs, or even players, finish the campaign. In a few places, the DM had interpret the actions of players that had an effect on characters (such as Beregond being absent). It's not quite as polished as Lord of the Rings but it's not bad I don't think. It's closer to 'heroic fantasy' than most D&D games I've played.

I've been trying to find a format for a travelling 'quest'-style game where the party is always changing. Even typing this out has made me realise something. Back in the old days when most of the 'scenarios' I read came from White Dwarf, there was a clich├ęd opening that was 'travelling all day you at last come to a village at sunset. As you make your way to the inn...'. Sometimes it was just 'Finding yourself in an inn...'. I used to wonder why. I've realised that 'the inn' in which the party finds itself is (spiritually) 'The Prancing Pony'. The things happening in the scenario weren't the 'quest': they were incidents along the way. They were the Barrow-wights' tombs. They were the diversions to Cirith Ungol. The 'quest' was the reason the party was always travelling. The way to get an episodic 'quest' with a changing party is to end each session (as the Rift City campaign ends) back at safety, at the next Inn, at the Keep, at the army camp, at the Homely House. There the PCs can rest and personnel can be swapped.

Every session needs to be like this - and the PCs either return to where they started to try again tomorrow, or go to the next point down the line. Bag End - Crickhollow - Tom's House - Bree - Weathertop Camp - Rivendell - Lorien - Amon Hen - Cair Andros - Osgiliath - Minas Morgul - Minas Morgul again: then Orodruin for a big climax. That's a fair campaign and allows plenty of opportunity for replacement PCs or new players to integrate themselves into the action.

The rules seem simple. If a PC is left behind, they're left behind, and they need a reason to do so, which means the DM needs to tell a story why. If the player comes back later, they need a new PC. If the quest has some McGuffin, the Guardian of the McGuffin must be appointed and successors designated as needed. Beyond that it just (just!) requires some flexibility by the DM. Parties can stay in one place (more adventures around Minas Morgul) or move on (in the example above the PCs barely glimpsed the Caves of Chaos before heading to Osgiliath). But whichever way, there must always be the possibility of integrating new PCs at the beginning of every session.

'Points of Light' + Nodes = 'Nodes of Light'. Cool. That might work.




Sunday, 4 March 2018

Questing in Elfgames III - character backgrounds

Some of this is re-capping and re-casting conversations I've had in several places over the last few weeks. If you've seen some of this before, please bear with me (especially you Jens!), it's all part of the process of trying to understand what's going on in my head. I've been particularly considering how to connect the epic with the pretty mundane stuff that most PCs do which is effectively being pest-controllers for the local nobility/communities. My thinking on this has lead to character backgrounds and how they can relate to the game-world.

Many variants of D&D use tables to determine backgrounds. Well, no such thing in B/X or BECMI obviously but I do remember having discussions with Jens over at the Disorientated Ranger when he was starting to get Lost Songs of the Nibelungs going about using 3d6 to suggest background.

In the discussion with Jens, I insisted to him that all heroes should be orphans brought up by Dwarves. I was exaggerating but the point I was trying to make is I think valid and deserves looking at. Jens was keen to have PCs rooted in the world and I think he's completely right. PCs need links into the world - it's their world after all, they should have features in their personal history that link them to the wider history. They should know where they were when they heard King Kenneth had been assassinated (or their parents should know), they should remember the War of the Two Towers, they should have a view of the Bretexian rebellion against Eutopia. They have family backgrounds and have had personal lives that exist inside a rich social tapestry. The PCs inhabit a social space, and there should be a way of generating some kind of information about where they are in society, maybe even a social position statistic.

I've been thinking about taking 3d6 rolls apart - this post some time ago talked about having three sets of stats to cover early childhood, later childhood and adolescence. In B/X I think there's a roll that can do something to say not just what events shaped your early life (as in the suggestions about using stat rolls to suggest events that may have affected you) but also your place in society too: the roll players make to determine starting gold. Taking the same idea that the first d6 represents 'inheritance' and the next d6 is what you get from your upbringing and the last d6 is how you've been living immediately before the beginning of your career as an adventurer, you roll your 3d6 and get 1,4,1 which means an early life of poverty, a later childhood of around-average wealth and teenage (or Elven, Dwarven and Hobbitish equivalents thereof) years of poverty again. Perhaps you were from a poor family but your parents worked hard and became successful (farmers, craftspeople, traders or whatever) but you rejected them and fled from home to become a wandering vagabond (or maybe they were killed when the Beastlord invaded causing you to flee, whatever the cause you ended up washing pots or working as farmhand somewhere, if that third roll of '1' is any guide).

It may make sense to conceptually at least split these all into 7-year blocks. Under Roman law in my understanding, children up to 7 were regarded as 'infans', which I believe means something like 'without speech'. They had no real rights and were not seen as 'people' - just the property of their parents (which is why infant burials are common inside Roman towns, even though the law forbade burials inside the city limits). So 7 years might reasonably mark the point where a child acquires legal status. In both the 'Gold' example above, and the stats examples from the post about character creation, the first lot of numbers can be seen as what happens up to 7. This broadly equates I think to an idea of 'inheritance' - what you get as your start in life (for stats it could be genetic and/or based on your 'early years'; for social position, it's where you are in the pecking order when you're born).

The second block would then represent what we might conventionally regard as 'childhood' - when a person is legally recognised as a person rather than a thing, but isn't yet really self-sufficient. This would be from 8-14 in this scheme.

At 14 children in the middle ages were often apprenticed out - again traditionally for 7 years, leading to finishing apprenticeship at 21. The alternative of course is going into the church and getting an education. The first degree also generally finished around 21 (as it still does in many places). So 'around 21' (or its equivalent for other races... I'm sure I can stop adding that qualifier now) could be the effective starting-point of a Level 1 character. In this case the last roll reflects what you've been doing more-or-less by choice - in the earlier post I thought for example higher STR might be because the PC has been doing lots of exercise or training, high INT would mean they'd been studying or whatever. Here, a high roll would indicate that the character was doing something lucrative/prestigious. This might mean serving in the household of a lord or having a part in some heroic deed that was rewarded or something of that nature.

So, this conceptually at least produces a character aged 21 for a Human. I've generally used a semi-random system for generating ages, something like 16+d6, if it's ever been important. It seems like the right ball-park - somewhere around 18-21 seems like the right kind of age for D&D adventurers... because going to University is like descending into a labyrinth of homicidal monsters, or something?

Anyway, in basic terms the 7 3d6 rolls that players make to determine their characters can be read in this sort of way to produce background. It can at least give you an idea of emotional, physical, financial and intellectual 'ups and downs'. Jens suggests getting the party to create characters as a group and connecting them together based on their rolls, using repeated numbers as points of contact. This is a great idea, but not one I think I can port over into my current campaign structure, as it has a large 'drop-out' rate. We've had something like 11 players and around 16 PCs so far; some of the players have only played 1 or 2 out of 7 sessions, and there have been several fatalities. In theory it's an open table so anyone can at any time join the group: this means the idea of rolling characters together at the beginning is a non-starter. I'd love to try it out with a small stable group for a more focused campaign, however.

So - what's the point of all this? I need another way to connect PCs together and to their world in a post-hoc way. The PCs are already given, and I need to be able to find ways that the PCs can have a connection the the world that will generate quests and missions and 'plot'.

Returning to Lord of the Rings for a moment, the members of the Fellowship are predominantly 'important' people in their societies. Aragorn is the heir of the Isildur and foster-son to Elrond, himself the heir of Turgon and Gil-Galad, son-in-law of Galadriel; Legolas is the son of Thranduil, King of Mirkwood; Gimli is a kinsman to Dain Ironfoot, the King under the Mountain, and Balin, Lord of Moria; Boromir is the eldest son of the Steward of Gondor. Even among the Hobbits, Merry and Pippin are the sons of the Master of Buckland and the Thain respectively, and Frodo is the heir of Bilbo, a rich and famous Hobbit who is well-connected both inside and outside the Shire. Only Sam is a relative nobody, though he is the nephew of Andy Roper, who is at least somewhat famous in Hobbit-circles.

Taking other fantasy stories we can see that there is a plethora of lost heirs, unknown youngsters with the potential to become powerful wizards, and others whose background has destined them to an extraordinary life. Frodo has extraordinary adventures because he inherits the Ring; Harry Potter (to move across genres a little) has extraordinary adventures because he inherits secret magical powers; Luke Skywalker likewise inherits secret magical powers, and meets Merlin who gives him Excali... no wait, meets Gandalf who gives him Nars... no, wait, I'm sure I know this... anyway there's Elof and Pug and Garion and Taran and Aldric and Ged and any number of others who have something - some gift or talent or secret or family tie or friendship - that throws them into adventure. Colin and Susan have a family heirloom that attracts the attention of a witch. Even Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy have adventures because their uncle has a magic wardrobe (though I'm not sure he's actually their uncle).

Links to the wider world are a way of providing plots. The PC has a brother - what is the brother up to? Kidnapped by a wizard? Leading a rebel army? Sitting at home dreaming of going to wizard-school? Fishing with the Lizard People of Storm Island? Joining the Thieves' Guild or the City Watch? Running for Mayor? Quietly tending the herb-garden of a monastery?

Who taught the PC Magic User to cast a 'Sleep' spell? How did the Cleric come to receive the blessing of the Lord of the Forest? Who trained the Fighter in the use of the longsword? Was it their mother or grandfather or an aunt or a wandering monk or a local hoodlum that taught the PC their skills? Were they inspired to adventure by tales of a heroic ancestor or watching their brother executed for a crime he didn't commit or seeing their village destroyed by the ravages of the Beastlord's armies?

Those option and possibilities took as long to write as to think of. Any could get the PC involved in something. All of the party members should have these sorts of links back to the world around them. Ties of family and background to events and people that have bearing on the world, and the things happening in it.

But how to implement this, in a campaign that is already in progress? That's the question I suppose, and I don't yet have an answer.

More to come, I think. I've been talking with Jens today, and he very kindly sent me Lost Songs of the Nibelungs in so far as it exists at the moment. I have some reading and thinking to do on the systems he's using there. I have also been thinking about how to have an 'epic quest' when the party itself is such a flexible beast - in the 7 sessions of my current Rift City campaign, for example, I'm the only constant. All of the players have missed at least 1 session, and even some of the players that have been to around 5 or 6 sessions have lost PCs. But perhaps there's a way. I shall think on that too.


Thursday, 1 March 2018

And now a break for some commercial messages... (not really)

... though it is an advertisement of sorts.

I don't usually do this but I thought I would for this. So, an unpaid and unsolicited testimonial.

I posted a few weeks ago to say that it was my birthday in January. One of the things I received, from my brother, sister-in-law and nephew, was the Adventurer, Conqueror, King System (the hardback rulebook) from Autarch Press.

A very fine book it is, and I expect that parts of it might see their way into my campaign at some point in the near future. After the current campaign is finished I may even run the next using ACKS.

Anyway, I noticed that it says on the back 'buy the hardback get the pdf for free', or words to that effect. That's not so unusual, the same is true of the Carcosa book from Lamentations of the Flame Princess that I was also given for my birthday.

However, because ACKS was bought by my sister-in-law, I needed to either get her to sort out the download or find which email address was linked to her account and yadda yadda. She's a bit busy so I thought it was easier to do it myself. Anyway, I emailed Autarch, and Alex from Autarch said yes, no problem, I could have the pdf. He seems like a cool guy, the email exchange we had at least shows he has a sense of humour. And I was told that I'd shortly get the download information.

Unfortunately something went wrong - I don't know what but I didn't receive the information for some reason. It possibly wasn't even Autarch's fault. But for whatever reason, I didn't get the download code. After some more weeks had passed, I contacted Autarch again to say that I hadn't had it, and could they re-send. Alex immediately emailed to apologise and said he'd be straight on it, and as a goodwill gift because I'd had to wait, said he'd give me access to the download of the Players' Companion book too. Sure enough in not-very-much-time, I had the codes and downloaded the main rulebook, the Players' Companion and something called Domains at War too.

Things go wrong. It happens, life is rarely perfect for long. What separates good service from bad service is how companies deal with things going wrong. Autarch could have made it much more difficult to access the downloads. They could have taken the view that the missing codes were not their fault and blamed DTRPG or Yahoo or anyone else. On the contrary, they took the view from the beginning that it was their business to sort this out and I think went above and beyond to make something right that might not even have been their fault.

So thanks Autarch (and Alex particularly)! I've already mentioned what I think are their excellent production values, and I can now say that I think they have excellent customer-service values too. They didn't have to be so awfully nice, even in terms of getting me the pdf they could have made that business much more complicated. They not only went beyond the minimum necessary, they went beyond it by a long way in my opinion, so hurrah to them. It's certainly left me with very warm and fuzzy feelings towards Autarch.

That's all, a return to the normal service of scratching my head and grumpily wondering what the hell I'm doing will resume shortly.