Thursday, April 10, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 4)

Session 4: Level-up!

The party scares off a rival band of tomb robbers and later vanquishes its most dangerous foe so far: a giant rattlesnake. Two PCs fall to its poisonous bite and one more perishes as the party is surprised by stirges while looting the snake's rich hoard of gems. Ladden with treasure and snakeskin, the party makes its way back to Hirot. The longest-serving PC attains level 2 and three others are within 100 XP of level 2 as well. Also, the first dwarf character joins the party.

  • KT can't get over D&D's (Labyrinth Lord's, really) often ridiculous prices. I guess we'll switch to Adventurer, Conquerer, King System. I hope ACKS will appease him (and lay the groundwork for the domain game).
  • Several players tried to handwave logistics ("My new guy, who you meet in the dungeon, brought a ladder.", "We're establishing a depot in this room. Can we just say we've moved all the stuff on my shopping list down here?"). I grant them some leeway (i.e. the ladder) but I'm mostly insisting on proper procedure. High Encumbrance = Low Speed = Many Encounters = High Risk!
  • Speaking of which: Logistics and encumbrance are more work than I anticipated: We're using the brilliant encumbrance system of Lamentations of the Flame Princess but there are so many characters and especially recently deceased characters that inventories need to be redistributed frequently.
  • GB measures the dungeon doors to commission custom contraptions to block them. Adapt or die.
  • New PCs are introduced during the big fight. As a result, we didn't even bother with physical descriptions - the newcomers (four level 0 guys and a dwarf) are faceless cannon fodder at this point. We might want to slow down here a bit.
  • The rattlesnake's poison is lethal, but not immediately so. HM suggests brutally treating a victim right away, amputating if necessary. I improvise a harsh procedure, but the victim dies anyway. I'm not 100% happy with the specifics of my procedure but I do not want to stifle player creativity or slow down the game too much. HM's approach sounds reasonable so there should be a chance it works.
  • HM's rogue harvests the rattlesnake's poison. I use a different procedure than last time.  Gotta have more continuity.
  • It's exciting - and a little daunting - how fast the rulings pile up (harvesting poison, emergency amputations etc.). Once the players are more familiar with the rules - they are mostly new to D&D and its retroclones -, I plan to get their input on the specifics.
  • DMing is more strenuous than I'm used to. I'm looking up all sorts of tables and using proper procedure to be impartial. This takes time more time than just handwaving things or making gut decisions all the time. 
  • On the flip side, prep time is way down. I need about 15 min to prep a session (mostly restocking the dungeon).
  • I'm afraid I do have a sadistic streak (What a surprise, given the blog's name, eh?). During the big fight, I revelled in describing all the gore and even cracked some rather cruel jokes at the beleaguered players' expense (<points at battlemat> "So that's where you're moving to die?" etc.). I feel a bit ashamed of myself (Sorry, GB! I'm glad your fighter made level 2!). I hope my bloodthirst is balanced out by utter impartiality.
  • KT points out that CD has lost eight (six?) characters so far. Wow. CD is taking it well and has remained one of the most proactive players throughout.
  • HM remarks that he found the session "very satisfying" - and adds "... but that's probably because my guy survived."
  • Rolling for random encounters on the way back was very tense.
In a nutshell (and from this DM's point of view, I might add)
An immensly satsifying session with lots of suspense, near-death, death and hard-earned victory. I love this shit!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 3)

Session 3: Dungeon Delving 101

The party finds out that the dungeon has been repopulated. They carry on, using a (phenomenally tough) wardog named Gromit and charmed monsters to take the point. A major fight with giant beetles leaves two PCs dead and another (plus Gromit) unconscious. Things almost turn into a Total Party Kill (TPK). After some dealings in town, the party eagerly returns for a third foray. The players are getting the hang of dungeon delving and spot and neutralize a deadly spider, look in the right spot for a secret door, and leverage the movement rules to fight zombies without risk. W00t!

  • Everyone forgot about DCC's Luck mechanic. The two dead PCs might be alive if we hadn't.
  • There was a lot of heroism. CW has her (tough but injured) character attack with only 1 hp left and she dies. CD sends his character to the front line in order to match CW's courage. His character dies, too.
  • CW names her second PC "Secunda" and seems resigned to quickly lose her and all future characters. The new PC has poor-to-average stats, too, which visibly impacts her motivation.
  • I announce compensation for poor stats (50 gp or XP per total negative modifier or 100 - that is the question now...).
  • Reacting to player input, I introduce a new rule to make armor offer protection against poison needles and the like (i.e. in situations where no attack roll is involved).
  • I allowed the Charm spell to include low-key telepathy to enable communication with charmed vermin. This was a mistake. I was being soft on the player. Also, the spell is powerful enough as it is. I will rule that this is (a) limited to vermin and (b) specific to this character only. Fortunately, this perfectly fits on account of the mercurial magic roll for this spell.
  • I changed one (harmless) monster power on the fly: A ghost caused unconsciousness rather than fear. I don't like fear effects, as they are humiliating and take away agency. On second thought, however, the fear effect could and should have been described as magical, lessening the humiliating aspect. Also, this was a mistake as I violated my principles. I should not change the powers of monsters (at least not like this, i.e. on the fly and for dubious reasons).
  • Random rolls were really tough this time around: The dungeon was restocked with plenty of very dangerous monsters and the beetles' random reaction was "hostile". I fear that the dungeon seems insurmountable and video-gamey as a result.
  • The Barrowmaze has monsters popping up all over the place (due to the restocking rules) or waiting in isolated areas without exits, rhyme or reason. I do have an explanation for this but I'm afraid none is visible to the players at the moment. I'm afraid that the dungeon must seem very artificial and video-gamey as a result (and Philotomy's "Mythic Underworld" aesthetic is an acquired taste).
  • The zombie ploy should not have worked quite like this. I forgot about the maneuver "partial charge". Fortunately, the zombies rarely had the room for that so in this case the outcome was unaffected by my oversight. I will inform the players and/or change zombie tactics to "overrun the enemy regardless of opportunity attacks".
In a nutshell
An enjoyable session with lots of mistakes behind the scenes. I need to get my act together.

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 2)

Session 2: First Blood

The party manages to close the door with the rats still behind it. They explore several rooms and run into traps and zombies. 4 out of 10 PCs die and are replaced on the spot (i.e. another tomb raider rounds the corner to help out with the still unfinished battle). Perseverance and a hunch lead to the biggest treasure yet.

  • The characters of two absentee players died. Both were particularly cherished (having survived a funnel adventure in spectacular fashion and sporting a natural 18, respectively). The deaths were brutal but okay, but it sucks that the players were not present.
  • The players were disappointed with the treasure. The payout was 70 gp per character so level 2 (at 1000 XP) seems a looong way off. As I have read this complaint about Barrowmaze before, I will double all treasure values in the main complex.
  • I dropped my plan to use vague prices (for mundane goods) after only one session and gave the exact listed prices instead.
  • I had all random encounters materialize near the PCs, i.e. I rolled, got zombies, and had nearby corpses rise as said zombies. This was a mistake as it circumvents the rules for encounter distance (to be established randomly).
  • After the game, the players talked about establishing depots of oil etc., bringing a ladder and developing safety measures (e.g. securing characters with rope). They are rising to the challenge.
  • Via e-mail, the players further talked about establishing procedures for splitting the loot, unrealistic rules, and handling the PCs of players going to sleep during the session (one player's a kid, another a very busy working mom).
In a nutshell
Sitting back, just playing the world and not knowing how things would turn out was great fun.

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 1)

Session 1: To the Barrowmaze!

The newly created party meets up to plunder the recently discovered Barrowmaze. Play begins on the road. The characters travel from Zerthstone to Ottergild, buy some equipment and continue to Hirot. After checking in at the local inn, visiting Hirot's only temple and Ekim's Extraordinary Emporium, they start their first expedition into the Barrowmaze. After a couple of empty rooms, they open a door to encounter a swarm of huge rats. The session ends with a cliffhanger.

  • Character creation took two hours (twice as long as I estimated). I hope that the players will eventually learn to roll up a new character in five minutes.
  • Keeping track of encumbrance and rolling for (wilderness) encounters felt a bit tedious, but I think it is important to establish these key procedures.
  • The players scoffed at D&D's economy, specifically the gold standard and certain prices. I am considering switching the economy to Adventurer, Conqueror, King System (ACKS).
In a nutshell
A slow start but hopefully laying the groundwork.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Pre-game Notes)

I've finally started a Wilderlands campaign using my heavily house-ruled version of Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC). My goals are to provide challenge-based sandbox play in the mold of Ben Robbins' West Marches campaign and especially Eero Tuovinen's D&D campaigns (a huge topic you'll have to google by yourself if you are interested). To get the hang of the rules in practice, I've settled on the acclaimed Barrowmaze as a starting point. I plan on opening up the Wilderlands world as the game progresses.

DCC, especially in my version, offers fast character creation (to make a lethal game viable), fast play (to get lots of stuff done), high lethality (to make choices and die rolls matter) and its trademark unpredictability (to protect against lingering habits to railroad and to generate an Appendix N-feel).

The Wilderlands offers just the right ratio of inspiring detail and white space on outstanding maps. I'm using the excellent if somewhat verbose Necromancer edition. Of course, I've heavily modified the setting, too.

I plan to provide the first couple of session reports soon and to then switch to a more regular schedule.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Three Things I Love about DCC

The first thing I fell in love with about Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (DCC) was the new take on the fighter - thanks to the wonderful 'Mighty Deeds of Arms' mechanic.

It works like this: Among other perks, the 'Warrior' class gets a damage bonus (starting at +d3 and progressing to +d4, +d5 etc.). This bonus die also determines success or failure for any special maneuver you'd like to make up during the game (disarming an enemy, swinging from a chandelier etc.).

The mechanic is granular enough to be intuitive ("You wanna push him over the cliff? You'll need to roll a 4+ on your deed die.") and doubles as a reasonable damage (and attack) bonus. I'd personally prefer a trade-off (e.g. bonus damage or special maneuever) but that's easily house-ruled.

The mechanic constitutes a sub-system of its own and demonstrates that - far from needlessly complicating a set of rules - this approach can provide tailor-made solutions. Using the standard d20 resolution mechanic ("Pushing over a cliff is a DC 15 check.") would have required an extra roll or similar contortions.


The next thing I adore is that magic is inherently dangerous. Spell castings can go awry and displease the character's deity (clerics) or cause corruption (wizards).

This captues the feel of Appendix N fiction very nicely and solves the problem of magic being a reliable everyday resource. I don't want to think about settled wizards casting their daily allotment of spells and thereby competing with craftsmen etc. and requiring me to rethink the whole quasi-medieval world.

To this end (i.e. dangerous magic), the DCC rules provide many magnificent tables. Every spell has its own table with information on effects, side-effects, failure and so on.

These tables make up the bulk of the massive book (480+ pages) and make it a steal at $40. It's easy to lift ideas like Mighty Deeds for your own game, but lovingly detailed, well-made tables are invaluable. 


There are numerous other things I applaud (the character funnel, the Luck stat, the supporting line of adventure modules, the attitude) but if I had to choose just one more thing to single out for praise, it would be Doug Kovacs' outstanding dungeon maps (check out some samples here).

I find them very useful at the table. The artistic detail makes it easy to (a) remember what a room was all about -- which means less flipping through the adventure -- and (b) to envision the atmosphere and improvise evocative descriptions on the spot. This is vastly superior to reading out boxed flavor text (also provided by the adventures, if that's your thing) or hunting down the description of room 9b or whatever.

Perhaps more importantly, they look so damn cool that they make me want to run the corresponding adventure (or something of my own devising for that map). It's all well and good to have classic blue-and-white maps but to me, nothing screams "Run this adventure!" more loudly than Doug Kovacs' maps.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Three Things I Love About Rolemaster

The first one is obvious: The critical hit tables.

The critical hit system does not mesh well with the hit point system and the tables are far too erratic for my taste, but the descriptions provide such delightful detail that I perpetually come back to them, try to cook up a way to integrate them into whatever I'm playing at the moment, and give up in disgust.

The second thing I love about Rolemaster are the Angus McBride covers (for the second edition, later reused for the Rolemaster Standard System).

The ruined city on display on the cover of the three main books is my personal Skull Mountain, i.e. it fires my imagination like no other illustration of a fantastic location. If I ever design a megadungeon of my own this is it.

Finally, the rules - and I mean all the rules, e.g. the many Rolemaster Companions - form a huge, baroque encyclopaedia of fantasy roleplaying (of a particular kind, I admit).

It's impossible to use all the options, not only because many are mutually exclusive but mostly because an already complex game would collapse under their combined weight. Also, many options aren't even particularly well thought out or useful at the table -- I suspect many were never tested.

Just how useful is a table that tells you how much your character's Weather Watching skill improves for every 1000 years of age? This sort of thing is a prime example of silver age obsessions. It's not useful at the table but reading this stuff or - God forbid! - cooking up similarly byzantine subsystems can be immensely inspiring. These days, I'd rather get down to actually playing but I'll always have a soft spot for the treasure trove of ideas that is Rolemaster Second Edition.

My longest running and smallest campaign (five years and two players, respectively) used Rolemaster Second Edition and conjures up nothing but fond memories. Great times!