Tag: dungeons & dragons

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 1

Unfortunately, I’ve never been to a gaming convention, but for years I have been intrigued by the early tournament adventures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At Origins II in 1976, several DMs ran Gary Gygax’s new science-fiction/fantasy crossover, later called S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. This stand-alone adventure was a simple one-round affair, in which various gaming groups competed. A uniform scoring system allowed DMs to give each group a score (and perhaps each player—I’m not sure).

Later, Gygax expanded the scope of his idea to a series of linked adventures. At Origins IV in 1978, over the course of two days, DMs ran dozens of groups through Gygax’s new, three-part adventure, later titled G1-3: Against the Giants. The groups that did best with the first adventure in the first round got to play the subsequent adventures in the second and third rounds, either later that day or on the following day. The sequel, D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, was not used in a tournament, but at GenCon XI that same year, DMs ran two follow-up adventures in the series, namely D2: Shrine of the Koa-Toa and D3: Vault of the Drow. Two years later, at GenCon XIII in 1980, DMs ran players through the entirety of Gygax’s new Slaver series, including A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Sometime after each convention, Gygax published the adventures. Generations of gamers have rated several of these series as their favorites of all time.

An experienced DM that tries their hand at writing a single-session adventure, whether for their personal gaming group or for strangers at a convention—whether as a scored tournament or not—will quickly find that it requires a very specific design. You simply cannot plan it in the same way that you would a long-term campaign or even a stand-alone adventure that will take many gaming sessions. What are the required differences? What tips can we use to produce successful single-session adventures? Let’s take a look. Read more

Faith in Play #32: Zealots

This is Faith in Play #32:  Zealots, for July 2020.

Some years back in one of my games an important local military official was murdered, and under the authority of their cavalier the party took over investigating the crime.  They had out-of-character reason to believe that a certain local cleric and his two acolytes were responsible, so they focused on these.  They had been told that the acolytes had taken vows of silence, but were intent on getting them to talk, so they used torture.

Simon the Zealot by Reubens

After the session I commented that their adventure “grades” were going to be penalized for acting against their alignment.  One player objected.  His character was a Neutral Good cleric/fighter, and he said that he could see penalizing him if he were Lawful Good, but somehow he did not think that he had to be quite as Good if he were “only” Neutral Good.

My response was, for what does a Neutral Good character stand, if not Good?

This is the trick to the “side alignments”, that they are ultimately about one value.  In our miniseries on alignment we recognized that the character alignment is the True Religion of the characters in the game, and talked about what each of the four values means in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism.  We also considered neutrality in Believing Balance, and that can certainly impact how you play your side alignment.  But ultimately someone who declares an alignment of Lawful Neutral has as first priority the interests of Law, the orderly preservation of the social order, and so with each of the side alignments it is the non-neutral part that ultimately matters.

And it matters pointedly.  Someone who is Chaotic Neutral is zealously interested in the rights of individuals.  The Neutral Evil character is unmitigatingly selfish.  This is the one principle that drives your life, the one thing you believe matters, the one concept from which your actions spring.

For my player of the Neutral Good cleric, if he had been a corner alignment, there would be other values at play–but that’s really a subject for the next article in the series, the corner alignments.  We’ll get to that.

Previous article:  Magic Roads.
Next article:  Psionics.

Faith in Play #30: Conflict

This is Faith in Play #30:  Conflict, for May 2020.

A few years back my band Collision left its equipment set up in a church in which we had been practicing.  The drummer had gotten our logo made as a drum head cover, so there was this picture of the earth crashing into a giant cross and exploding.  (I don’t know whether you can see that in the picture, but that’s what it is.)  The youth pastor saw this and complained to the pastor about it; the pastor replied, “Are you kidding?  That’s what it’s really all about.”

My Multiverser co-author E. R. Jones was at a church service somewhere and the pastor asked the congregation how they would define Christianity in one word.  Several other people gave the kinds of responses one expects, and then he gave his:  War.  Our religion is, on one level, about a major spiritual battle between God and all that would oppose Him; we are soldiers in that battle.

When I first read about Dungeons & Dragons™ back in 1980, I was drawn to it because it sounded like this was finally a game that could actually reproduce the kinds of adventures we read about in Tolkien and Lewis and other fantasy authors.  Once I started playing it, though, I realized that it went much deeper than that.  Its use of magic and demons, of good and evil alignments, of spiritual forces, made it a wonderful metaphor for the real battle in which we are all immersed, whether or not we are aware of it.  It reminds us that only spiritual weapons can be used against spiritual adversaries, and that our enemy often is not flesh and blood, even when it uses people as its weapons.

There is some reason to think, and some believers do think, that the ritual of bread and wine was never intended to be a special moment overseen by a priest, but was supposed to force us to take our everyday meals as a reminder of what Christ did, that every time we opened a meal with a bite of food and closed it with a final drink that this would remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice, of the body and blood given for us.  Our faith is filled with images and objects whose purpose is to remind us, to cause us to think in terms of our faith.  How wonderful would it be if we played a game that also reminded us, that we are in a spiritual battle fighting on God’s side against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

That’s where we are, what we are called to do.

Fight the good fight.

Previous article:  Victims.
Next article:  Magic Roads.

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

This is RPG-ology #28:  Character Death, for March 2020.

A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death.  The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject.  So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it.  Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.

I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played.  It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set.  My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief.  There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.

I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral.  I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played.  I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type.  In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.

The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game.  After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible.  One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.

That, though, is the other side of the coin.  For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake.  A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away.  It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character.  I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming.  Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting.  Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.

I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.

The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world.  Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath.  The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember.  If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush.  Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.

The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.

One way to do this is to have players run more than one character.  I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type.  This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.

Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin.  Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party.  In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.

Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper.  Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.

I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem.  When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe.  Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot.  It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.

So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities.  Find a way to do that in your games.

Previous article:  Cures for Dropping Dice.
Next article:  Political Correction.

RPG-ology #26: Monster Design

This is RPG-ology #26:  Monster Design, for January 2020.

Not long ago a member of the Christian Gamers Guild asked for advice in designing monsters.  This article has been republished from Gaming Outpost’s Game Ideas Unlimited series from August, 2001, only slightly edited for republication here, originally entitled “Game Ideas Unlimited:  Monster Design.”

Sometime a couple decades ago, someone I had known over the Internet and met at a convention asked me to be a judge in a contest he was running.  Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was slated to be released in perhaps a couple of months, and there was already a lot of pre-release information about it floating around.  He wanted to have people submit new monsters for use in future D&D games.  Knowing of my somewhat intimate familiarity with the old Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ rules set and acquaintance with at least three of the other versions of the game, he thought I would be able to contribute something to the judging.  He also asked two other people to judge, whose skills and perspectives were very different from mine.

I took the notion very seriously.  Before I looked at the first of the entries, I gave a lot of thought to what made a good monster.  Some of the things I valued were contradictory—that is, it would be very difficult for a creature to score high on every quality I sought.  But I reduced my consideration to eight qualities, eight aspects of creatures which I thought made them, in a general sense, well-designed monsters.

And if you’re designing monsters for your own campaign, or for some Internet contest, or for publication somewhere, you might like to give some thought to these qualities.  You won’t always try to make every creature score high in every category.  But if you’ve thought about the categories, you’ll be making tradeoffs that reach your goals at a reasonable “cost” in terms of what you sacrifice. Read more

RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon

This is RPG-ology #24:  An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.

On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan.  The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title
Game Ideas Unlimited:  An Amusing Dungeon.

Photo by flickr user Waldo Jacquith under Creative Commons 2.0 license, no changes were made.

  Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players.  After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me.  I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting.  But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one.  One of those was that dungeons had to make sense:  there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built.  And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.

  The story I invented was fairly simple.  Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren.  It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction.  The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy.  The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.

  The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others.  The newcomers made changes, making this their homes.  Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.

  Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers.  They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts.  A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes.  One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age.  Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.

  And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries.  For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.

  It was an amusement park.

  It wasn’t difficult to design.  I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion.  There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs.  Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.

  Some of these were very straightforward.  There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display.  Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear.  A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one.  A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat.  And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked.  I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin.  But there was so much more.

  The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive.  The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi.  The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level.  The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters.  And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.

  My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl.  The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south.  The room had a thirty foot ceiling.  There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front.  The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall.  A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning.  As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall.  Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them.  This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall.  But then the truly terrifying happened:  the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below.  They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun.  Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop.  One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon.  Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth.  But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.

  But their favorite was probably the roller coaster.  This began as a bench at the end of a hall.  If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall.  I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them.  But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant.  Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them.  The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another.  I think one of the players may actually have screamed.  I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.

  I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember.  They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried.  Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had.  Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.

  I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work.  It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map.  Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war.  This was just part of the show.  What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.

  A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined.  This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon.  I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality.  I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions.  The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical.  By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.

Previous article:  Nonrandom Thought.
Next article:  Transmats.

Faith in Play #22: Individualism

This is Faith in Play #22:  Individualism, for September 2019.

Quite a few years ago now I was playing a character in an experimental Attorney class in a game largely based on original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™.  I had just successfully defended a player character (an Antipaladin) on a murder and robbery charge, and the player said to me, “Boy, your character must be really lawful.”

I answered, “No, he’s Chaotic Neutral.”

And that illustrates just why it is that the Chaos side of the alignment graph is so badly misunderstood and so poorly handled.  My attorney was Chaotic in the best traditions of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):  he firmly believed that every person (character) had the right to be and to do whatever he wanted, as long as in doing so he did not unfairly infringe on the right of any other character to do or be what he wanted.  Although anarchy can be the consequence of chaos pushed to the extreme, chaos is not about anarchy, but about liberty.  It is the alignment expressed in the Bill of Rights, espoused by the Libertarian Party, and represented by Democracy. Read more

Faith in Play #20: The Problem with Protests

This is Faith in Play #20:  The Problem with Protests, for July 2019.

It was brought to my attention that twenty thousand well-meaning wrong-headed religious conservatives have signed a petition asking Netflix not to run a show produced by Amazon exclusively for Amazon Prime subscribers.  The show is a scripting by Neil Gaiman of a book he co-wrote with the late Terry Pratchett, and centers on an angel and a demon cooperating to prevent the Antichrist from coming to power and bringing the apocalypse.

The most cogent of the objections, I suppose, is that it makes Satanism seem light and acceptable.  That’s not really surprising, given that Pratchett was a brilliant humorist and satirist, and Gaiman is a respected fantasy author; one would expect anything they wrote together to be funny on some level.  Other complaints are just foolish, such as that God is voiced by a woman (God in Genesis clearly embodies all that is masculine and feminine in one being, and so could express Himself as Herself if that suited His/Her purpose), and that the Antichrist is portrayed as a normal child (we know so little about The Antichrist, or even if that’s a proper designation for any individual—the word appears only four times, all in John’s first two letters, and always in ways that suggest a generalized bunch of people who share the title and were active when John wrote).

I’m told that Netflix has agreed not to air the show, which is both funny and sad—sad because I don’t have an Amazon Prime account but I do have a Netflix account, so unless I give in to the pressure from my Patrons and spend the money on Amazon I’m not going to be able to see it, funny because of course Netflix was never going to be offered the opportunity to air it so it’s an empty concession.

And this highlights the first big problem with these Christian protests.  I am one of probably millions who would not have heard about this show but for the news of the petition.  Many will have considered subscribing to Amazon Prime for the opportunity to see it—a Neil Gaiman scripting of a book he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett is going to attract a lot of potential viewers, and Amazon could not have asked for better publicity.  When I was a boy, there was a cartoon show about a flying squirrel and his friend, a moose.  (It was originally entitled Rocky and His Friends, after the lead character Rocket J. Squirrel, but the sidekick became so popular he soon got equal billing in Rocky and Bullwinkle and then top billing as it became The Bullwinkle Show.)  At one point they did a story arc about the “search for the Kirward Derby”.  What we kids didn’t know was that at the time there was a successful television personality named Durward Kirby.  Reportedly Kirby threatened to sue, but Rocky producer Jay Adams replied by letter saying, “Please do, we need the publicity.”  That may be the first time anyone recognized that in the entertainment world there is no such thing as bad publicity, and loudly objecting to anything in that field can only make it more popular.  It is said that one of the reasons TSR did not more aggressively attempt to address Christian objections to Dungeons & Dragons back in the 80s was because the young people the game was targeting were more likely to want to know about a game that their parents and the churches condemned.  The probability that Amazon would have pulled the show in response to a petition was negligible, and so the only likely outcome of the petition is exactly what it achieved, advertising the show to many who would not otherwise have been aware of it.

That the petitioners don’t recognize this also makes them look foolish.  Of course, these particular petitioners look the more foolish because they petitioned the wrong network.  That is not only foolish in itself, it makes it blatantly evident that possibly not a single person who signed that petition knew what it was to which they were objecting—they had never seen the show, perhaps not even a trailer for it.  Had they seen it, at least some of them would have realized that it was not on Netflix but on Amazon, and so that ignorance is underscored in this case.  Yet apparently not even the people who started the petition saw the show, because they didn’t know it was on Amazon, either.  I don’t know who started the petition, but even if that person saw the show, for twenty thousand sheep to sign a petition against something about which they know only that one person didn’t like it—well, it reminds me of the Penn and Teller riff where they attend an environmental rally and get people to sign a petition to ban the potentially dangerous chemical di-hydrous oxygen (which is in fact water).  I’m not against anyone protesting for or against anything in which they believe, but I really do think that before you sign your name to a petition you ought to know what it is really protesting.  These people didn’t—and that is so frequently the case with petitions launched by the religious right that such petitions make religious people look more foolish.

Which further means that we become more marginalized.  Objecting to a fantasy television series on a limited access channel does not make us relevant; it makes us laughingstocks.  There go those Christians, once again condemning what they don’t understand.  They did it with rock music; they did it with role playing games; they did it with modern art.  Now once again they’re shooting off their mouths about what’s wrong with something about which they know absolutely nothing, and want us to believe that what they say has any meaning.  There’s no point listening to anything they say, because it’s obvious they don’t know what they’re talking about.  That’s what we’re teaching the world every time we sign another of these foolish counter-productive petitions.  If you’re wondering why no one listens when you preach the gospel, well, it’s because so much else that you said was nonsense that nonsense is what the world expects to hear from you.

I’m sure my request that we give up these petitions will fall on deaf ears.  I only hope that perhaps you might know better than to sign one in the future.  Certainly there are things in the world to which we ought to object, against which we ought to take a stand.  Do so, but only if you are personally informed concerning the object you are protesting and can, yourself, speak intelligently against it without regurgitating lines that you’ve been fed by someone who perhaps knows as little as you.

The title of the show is Good Omens.

Previous article:  Simulationism.
Next article:  Villainy.

Christ and the Dice #2: My Current Game (a brief overview)

I have played in and run many games, and many types of games, over the years. From high fantasy to low, from games of nobles intriguing to pirates at sea, I have been on a star-ship crew and run with a coterie of vampires, vast epics and simple one shots, and everything in between. And drawing from all of those gaming experiences I feel that I can safely say that my favorite type of game is an Epic Good Guy game in a fantasy setting.

While I have had a lot of fun with most games I have played in and run, nothing seems to beat running an epic story with a diverse party of good guys—which is why I am enjoying my group’s current game so much. I am running a largely high fantasy game, set in our home brewed world, using D&D 3.x (plus our house rules).

The world we are playing in is one that several of my friends and I started working on more than two decades ago. It is a collaborative effort that several of us have continued to this day. (We still haven’t named it, we just call it the Composite World.)

The game so far has taken place on a continent named Oirth, in and around the Empire of Torell. The party has four members, three of whom are from Torell; the fourth is from far away. They are all some flavor of Good for their alignments and spend more time, in character, worrying about doing good than they worry about getting loot.

The nominal leader of the party is Van, a half-elf paladin/priest following the god of knowledge. This character is interesting to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is both of his parents were half-elves. His father was born full human, but he drank from a magic pool that turned him into a half-elf. Also both his father and his mother were PCs in a previous campaign, and his father’s parents were PCs in a game before that!

Van’s “wife” is Xu, a warrior monk from a powerful and rich nation state known as Cho, which is far away from our empire. The word wife is in quotes because in the back story they developed, it was decided that Van and Xu traveled together in a great caravan and at one point came upon a village where, unknowingly, they met the requirements to be husband and wife by the village’s customs. So they had to agree that they were married (that is all that it took there, no ceremony needed). And since then, Van, being a religious and honest type has presented them as married, while Xu keeps denying it, providing some amusing comic relief.

Shrike is a human wizard/rogue, and was a friend of Van’s from their youth. Though he largely grew up on the streets, he hasn’t let that turn him from the path of good. It could be because his master, the wizard who taught him how to control his magic, was gentle but adamant about doing the right thing. And while he is definitely a good guy, he seems to be the most interested in worldly riches. And spell books, always spell books.

Our final party member is Raif the halfling bard/druid. He was raised in small village in Bain’s Hope Forest, a large forest in Torell, and he grew up interacting with the fey, elves, and the immortal human Bain, whom the forest is named for. This has made for a character who is largely innocent, devoutly good and, until he began adventuring with our party, very naive about “civilization”. He may have a touch of fey blood in his lineage, or maybe it’s a bit of dragon blood, but there is something a little otherworldly about him. And he travels with a big celestial dog named Loup. I should mention that Loup is a Very Good Dog, just ask Raif, or wait a few minutes and he will tell you.

The characters who already knew each other met Raif in the backstory we developed for the game. This happened when Raif ran into them while they were trying to deal with an evil sorcerer who was despoiling the forest Raif called home. After a spring, a summer and a fall of adventuring together to defeat this vile evil, they wintered in a village on the edge of the forest, which is where and when the game proper began.

The story started out simple enough, with a lieutenant of the empress’s own guard asking them to investigate a missing agent in a relatively nearby but hostile kingdom, Kand. They traveled to the nearest port city, Serrael, and took a sail to the capital of Kand, where they encountered the blatant bigotry of a very xenophobic nation. It quickly became apparent that they didn’t like this nation. While there they fought some giant spiders in a nearby forest, and in town they defeated a couple of evil fighters, one of which was being influenced by an evil intelligent sword.

The party was able to establish an underground branch of the empire’s church through some few faithful who lived there. They were attacked by the secret police, though they were not identified. Through some subterfuge and careful planning, they were able to rescue the agent, and his wife, and smuggle them out of the kingdom and back to home.

During their adventures in Kand, they recovered a very old set of full plate from their home empire, and decided that they should try to return it to the family, if any remained. They also formed a profitable mushroom import business (it was a cover that paid off handsomely). Also in Kand they began to get the first clues that the Servants of Sutek (an evil god) were active again.

On their way home they took care to drop the evil sword in the deep ocean. And upon their return from Kand they spent a week resting at a very nice upscale inn, on the empire’s coin. They took this down time to learn some spells, identify some magic items and to spend some gold.

As their rest week came to an end our intrepid adventures were approached by a high ranking member of the church, and asked to travel far to the north, across the sea to the land of Hest. They knew that Hest was a region that had supplied raiders and conquerors who had harried and fought the empire for centuries so they were cautious. But the bishop revealed that he had learned about a cache of books from many centuries ago that were reported to be extant somewhere in the vast lands of Hest and he wanted the characters to find and recover them if possible.

Of course the paladin Van, being clergy of the church, and a paladin, agreed immediately, and the rest of the party quickly joined in, perhaps due to the promise of glory and a respectable reward.

On their way to Hest they were able to find the family that the full plate armor belonged to and returned it to much fanfare and gratitude, and they also defeated a band of river pirates. It turns out that they really don’t like pirates.

They are currently in Hest, far from home and trying to deal with peoples who do not like them and whose languages they only barely understand. In the course of this quest, they have continued to encounter the priests and followers of Sutek, adding to the growing evidence that something dark is afoot. They have also helped marry a couple of young loves who were running away from their warlike families (the druid performed the ceremony). They have fought trolls, various outsiders, undead, and more. And they have had an interesting conversation with a fairy lord.

Our last game left them at the city of Hvammr, a city founded a little over a century ago, by a warlord sorcerer, who, according to legend, disappeared a decade or two after founding the city. The city was abandoned around the time the sorcerer disappeared but is a magnet for treasure hunters.

Since entering the city they have fought more Servants of Sutek and a party of treasure hunters who were not the friendliest. And they have met a young child-like being who they believe to be the spirit of the city.

And then half of my gaming group had to go to Origins Game Fair, so I didn’t get to game this past weekend. But we should be picking up the story this weekend and I am hoping to drop some more clues about what the Servants of Sutek are up to, if we get far enough.

RPG-ology #19: Treasure Auction

This is RPG-ology #19:  Treasure Auction, for June 2019.

A recent article by Michael Garcia, Treasure Division:  A Case Study From Northumbria, got me remembering treasure division from the past.  I was in quite a few games, and we had quite a few ways of doing it.  In more than one group, the party leader decided who got what, and tried to keep everyone happy while ensuring that useful objects went to the party members who could most benefit the party with them.  One of the groups tried a method recommended in one of the Original Dungeons & Dragons™ rulebooks that involved rolling dice, with higher level characters rolling more dice and henchmen rolling fewer, which one of the groups tried once or twice at least; I might have modified it for their use.  At least one party regarded every object property of the party, and it wasn’t given to you but put in your care for you to use for the benefit of the party, to be returned if you left the party or died.  These are all interesting and useful methods, but with one party I needed a very different method–and as party leader, I found one, which some of the players loved and others hated.

First, the party situation should be backgrounded.  My character was hired to go on a mission, promised a few thousand gold coins and permission to keep anything we obtained along the way other than the object we were to retrieve.  I hired seven people of different races, classes, and alignments to be part of that mission, promising each of them a specific share of what we obtained–two of them, whom I hired to be my lieutenants, were to receive larger shares than the others.  The mission took more than a week but less than two, if I recall correctly, and we recovered the object and a few thousand in cash, plus something approaching two hundred objects some of which were obviously useful for some characters (e.g., swords and other weapons) and others of which might be either worthless or strange magic artifacts.  It fell to me to find a way to divide these fairly, and there were a few items that certain characters particularly wanted.  I also faced the fact that once the treasure was divided the characters would also divide, and if there were another mission it would fall on someone, probably me, to hire a team for it, and up to them whether to accept my offer.

My solution was to hold an auction.

Because there was no loyalty and my character did not use magic, it was stated up front that no one was permitted to use any magic such as detect spells on any of the objects prior to distribution.  Just because the wizard says something is not magical does not mean he isn’t intending to buy it cheap and sell it to someone else.  Only hired members of the party were permitted to bid, or to be present during the bidding.

I organized the items in what I thought made sense as the least to most valuable, given what could be told by looking at them.  I then divided the cash between the party members according to their promised portions, and put the first item on the table.  I had prepared myself by jotting down for each object what my character would give as the opening bid (and if no one else bid, it defaulted to me for that amount), and how high I was willing to bid for objects I particularly wanted.  Everyone else could then bid in an open auction until there was a highest bid no one would overcall.  That person then paid the amount into the pot and received the item, and we moved to the next.

As auctioneer and party leader, I would periodically decide that the pot had grown large enough that I should divide it according to the proportions promised each party member, partly so that they would have cash to keep bidding.  I knew (but had not anticipated) that several of them had borrowed money from non-player characters so they could bid high on objects they particularly wanted, so the pots got rather large sometimes.

The logic of the system is that every object we obtained went to whatever character placed the highest value on it, or at least within the bounds of their funds, and for at least the value of the person who put the second highest value on it.  Objects thus went to the people who thought them most valuable, and everyone was compensated for the value of every object, having tacitly agreed that it was not worth more than that.  The people who love the system love it for that reason.

Of course, auctioning almost two hundred objects among eight players was an extended bit of roleplaying.  With interruptions for the shenanigans of some of the player characters, it took most of three game sessions to complete, and people who don’t like the system generally remember that “waste of time” and the tensions of trying to bid high enough to get the objects they really wanted.

I swear by it, and whenever I’m the party leader I use it; I’ve been in games where others from that game or even others who heard about that game think that the auction is the best way to divide treasure objects.  I’ve also known at least one gamer who won’t play in a game if the auction system is going to be used, but I’m not sure his absence is all that much of a loss.

I would be interested in how your parties divide treasure.

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