Friday, April 27, 2012

My Trinity of Old School Gaming (Part 4)

After explaining the relationship between a game’s mortality rate and its method of character creation, how the former leads to simple and exciting combat, and why all of this makes it easy to form or find a gaming group, I finally get to analyze how it all relates to challenging and creative roleplay.  
Random character generation results in quirky characters (an intelligent warrior, a nimble wizard etc.) and, perhaps more importantly, in characters one might not have chosen to play otherwise.

A high mortality rate leads to a much, much more intense roleplaying experience. Consider the following scenario:

Peasants ask the adventurers to help them against a terrible monster. It’s a sandbox campaign, so the monster might indeed outmatch the characters and it’s up to the players to decide whether to tackle it or not.

If the players know that the DM will let them escape in case things go wrong, or will adapt the monster to the party’s strength, or fudge, then the choice to play the heroes is an easy one.

(And that’s exactly what the players will do: play the heroes.)

If the players know - from actual experience - that PC death is a very real possibility and a TPK is not out of the question, then the choice to play the heroes is a tough one.

(And if the players go through with it, they are the heroes, at least to the extent it’s possible to vicariously experience such a thing through fiction.)

In the former case, you’re emulating a genre and creating a story (with high drama and heroic deeds).

In the latter case, you’re putting yourself in a character's shoes to make challenging choices and suffer the consequences, for good or ill.

Of course, similarly negative consequences for the players also work to some extent. If the risk is real, the play is intense. Choosing to enter a tomb when you know it’s full of level-draining wights takes guts on the part of the player. Choosing to save an NPC’s life instead of escaping with gold worth 3000 XP requires that the player is really invested in the in-game fiction or his vision of the character.

(Risking a -1 penalty for the next three encounters or getting those 3000 XP or whatever from the ‘story award’ for saving the NPC – well, that’s just not the same.)

Oh, and then there’s simple combat. A simple combat system frees up mental space for creative solutions or evocative descriptions. In complicated games, players are so busy tracking multiple variables and weighing (preconfigured) options that there is hardly any time to appreciate the fiction or think outside the box. It was a running gag in one of my Rolemaster campaigns that, after a long fight, the players and DM would enumerate all the mechanical advantages and bonuses they had forgotten about.
That's it for now with My Trinity of Old School Gaming. Next, I'll start a series on Becoming a Killer DM, but I plan to throw in some rants and reviews as well.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My Trinity of Old School Gaming (Part 3)

Now that I’ve explained the relationship between a game’s mortality rate and its method of character creation and how the former leads to simple and exciting combat, I’ll focus on how quick character creation, a high mortality rate and simple, exciting combat make it easy to form or find a gaming group.

Quick character generation is the most obvious aspect here, as it lowers the entry bar. A newbie who has never roleplayed before can hop right in. Similarly, guest players, tryouts, spouses or kids can effortlessly join in, even for just a session or two.

Poster Brendan directed me towards another point with his comment on participating in a character's evolution through actual play: To wit, quick character creation can easily be done at the table and as a group (rather than at home alone with a dozen source books and spreadsheets). Ideally, everyone is somewhat invested in everyone else's character which makes newbies feel more welcome.

('New school' games such as those coming out of the Forge movement often emphasize joint character creation for this reason, among others.)

Quick character generation is my N° 1 requirement for the one-shot games I occasionally spring on my group - and what better way to get my players interested in a new (or very old) game than to provide an evening of fun?

Simple, exciting combat is another factor in forming or finding a group. First of all, it’s uncomplicated fun and thus a great attraction. It makes people actually want to play. More subtly, though, simple combat is usually quite fast, which allows one to have larger and more robust groups. In D&D 4e, a typical fight is anything but simple and in my experience takes about 30 min per player character involved. So a group of four players will need 2 hours for a regular fight – add another two players (and a bunch of monsters on the DM’s side) and you’re probably looking at a single fight per session.

Contrast this to a game where a fight takes about 5 min per player involved. Even a fight with 10 PCs will be over in under an hour (and most likely keep everyone’s attention, too). On top of all that, handling the characters of absentee players is no problem with a simple system. In D&D 4e, a high-level character has 20+ cards detailing powers, magic items and such – good luck trying to run two or three of those on short notice.

What about a high mortality rate though? Simply put, it can be a bit intimidating to join a group who has played the same characters for years. Moreover, well-designed RPGs with a high mortality rate not only provide a method for quick character generation but also ways to catch up in a reasonable amount of time.

All in all, I think that the above factors make it much easier to assemble, find and maintain a robust gaming group.

Next up: How randomness, simple combat and death make for some excellent roleplaying!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Actual Play Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC)

I’m interrupting the series of articles about my trinity of old school gaming for a review of Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (or DCC RPG), more specifically for my first impressions and observations after running the introductory adventure for “15-20 0-level characters” (Hint: Not all of them survived.). I hope I'll get around to writing an in-depth review at some point.
I pre-ordered the game back in March and apparently it’s off to the printers now, as Goodman Games has sent out its delightful pre-order bonus: the PDF of the complete book. I would have been willing to pay extra for the PDF so this bonus makes me very happy indeed.

It’s inevitably going to be pirated but I think it’s a good strategy nonetheless. On the one hand, I suspect that old school gamers have considerable disposable income and are willing to spend it on good product. On the other hand, I’d wager that Goodman aims to make money mostly by selling modules.

In fact, the massive support from Goodman Games is one reason I picked this up. I’m usually strapped for time these days and look forward to plenty of ready-to-play modules.

Anyway, on to the review:

I haven’t got the physical book yet, but the PDF looks great. It’s chock-full of old school art, ranging from full-page illustrations to little cartoons at the bottom of a page. All of it evokes adventure modules and fanzines of decades past and if you’re into old school art even a little bit, the book is worth getting on that count alone.

The layout is a bit cluttered as a result, though, and the spells, which take up a good portion of the massive 488-page file, unfortunately share pages in some instances. I don’t mind the occasional spell taking up more than one page, but I’d have preferred some white space or another illustration. The way it is, printing out individual spell books is less than perfect.

Joseph Goodman’s comments on running DCC and the OSR in general are very interesting and well-worth reading. I especially like his advice on “making monsters mysterious” (by avoiding easy labels such as “goblin” or “orc”, among other things) and his call for new game designs with Appendix N (rather than D&D) as a starting point.

I’m not going to comment on character classes and spells, as I haven’t run a game with these yet. The first introductory adventure at the back of the book is for 0-level characters which have access to none of these. I printed out about a dozen pages of the massive book and that’s all we needed.

The adventure, called “The Portal under the Stars”, is a classic dungeon crawl and sports a compact and beautiful dungeon map that immediately made me want to run it. My gaming group was at half strength on account of the Easter holidays so we put our Warhammer campaign on the backburner for a week for this DCC one-shot.

Each of my four players rolled up four characters, for a total of 16 PCs. Character creation was a breeze and did not just provide stats, but also occupations and some equipment (such as a pushcart that became an invaluable makeshift siege engine).

The dungeon turned out to be excellent: It’s got a pulpy backstory and evocative monsters and contraptions; more importantly, those traps are dangerous and logical and can be avoided (or their effects mitigated) by smart play. My players were shocked when the first casualty occurred after about five minutes of play and after a few more deaths, they really pulled together and started to think.

They largely neutralized the next couple of threats, got cocky, and lost a few more characters. In the end, 5 of 16 made it to the secret treasure chamber where intra-party conflict took another two lives. Everyone agreed we’d had a blast, though some were doubtful about the viability of a long-term campaign.

Some further observations:
  1. The adventure fit perfectly into about three-and-a-half hours of gaming.
  2. The traps have limited ammunition and fuel. A nice touch and a shimmer of hope for delvers.
  3. The dungeon is designed to be partially demolished and dismantled. This was great fun.
  4. The Luck stat proved invaluable to handle the large group of characters. I only bothered with precise positioning once all night. The rest of the time clues from general chit-chat, Luck scores and the dice determined who got attacked by a monster first.
  5. The character funnel (i.e. the idea of starting with a huge party and whittling them down to a few survivors) worked brilliantly. The names of the dead were mostly forgotten by the end of the night, but the survivors’ stars shone the more brightly for it.
In a nutshell, the introductory adventure is excellent and the DCC rules make it easy to dive right in.

I’m itching to run DCC again so that’s a preliminary 4 out of 4 stars from me.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Trinity of Old School Gaming (Part 2)

Last week, I examined the relationship between a game’s mortality rate and its method of character creation. Let me expand my diagram to look at some ramifications of my trinity of old school gaming. This week I’d like to focus on one of the main effects of a high mortality rate among player characters: Simple, yet exciting combat.

One of the foundations of old school gaming is killing things and taking their stuff, so a satisfying combat system is of paramount importance.

A high mortality rate allows for just that. If those dice clattering onto the table just now might spell your character’s death, you’ll be fully invested in the action regardless of the complexity of the rules. When I roll monster damage in WFRP, for instance, all my players’ eyes are glued to the dice, even if they concern another player’s character.

If, on the other hand, you take away the risk of death, you will either end up with boring combat (DSA3, I’m looking at you!) or you will have to compensate for the thrill of danger by offering tactical depth (the D&D 4e approach), evocative tables (the Rolemaster approach) or whatever—at which point combat will no longer be a simple affair.

(Admittedly, things other than your character’s life might be at stake. Maybe an NPC could die, your character could be traumatized etc. I maintain that the threat of character death is the key, though. In-the-moment, the inevitably occuring deaths often suck but that’s the price you have to pay – and a topic for another day.)

I'll explain more of those arrows next week.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Trinity of Old School Gaming (Part 1)

Hello and welcome to my blog on Dungeons & Dragons, old school gaming and becoming a Killer DM!

I’ll kick off my blog with some thoughts on the relationship between a game’s mortality rate and its method of character generation. Here’s a diagram of my trinity of old school gaming:
In short, random character generation enables us to achieve quick character generation which in turn enables us to have a high mortality rate. And – coming full circle – a brutal culling of player characters is needed to make random character generation fair, as I’ll explain below.

For starters, random character generation is one of the best ways to quickly make characters, at least if you want some depth and variety. The moment you start using building points, for instance, you will usually sacrifice complexity (i.e. offer few options) or speed (i.e. make players spend a lot of time weighing and choosing options).

(A counter example is James V. West’s excellent game The Pool. Character creation is quick but offers surprising depth and has long legs. But then, The Pool is a very different type of RPG than D&D.)

Quick character generation then allows us to kill off characters with abandon. If character creation takes hours, a player who has lost his character may end up sitting out the rest of the session. Even if he doesn’t (because the sessions ends or the player gets to control an NPC etc.) that’s an awful lot of time down the drain. Al from Beyond the Black Gate touches upon this topic in his post Character death = Fun!

(Just imagine telling a Magic: the Gathering player that he has to scrap his meticulously assembled new deck if he loses a single match with it (i.e. ‘dies’).)

I also believe that a high mortality rate is a prerequisite for random character creation. Else, the latter is simply unfair. When you roll up characters for a game expected to take characters from 1st to 20th level without anyone ever (permanently) dying, bad luck during character generation might doom a player to playing a weak character for years. To me, that’s unacceptable.

Contrast this to, say, a deadly OD&D campaign: Rolling up a character with excellent stats is no guarantee he’ll make to 2nd level or beyond. Player skill (and yet more luck) will be the deciding factor. And once a character has run the gauntlet, he will have grown on you and weak stats might actually be endearing. James Maliszewski has more to say on this in his excellent post character death in old school gaming over at Grognardia.

More on the various implications of my trinity next week!