Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 8)

Session 8: A New Entrance

The party moves into the mountains to cure the cursed dwarf. His trials - being made feverish and then jumping into a cool mountain lake - yield additionally, albeit quickly degrading saving throws. He lives. On their way to the Barrowmaze the party encounters and secretly follows others  tomb raiders who are doing excavation work on another mound. Back underground, the party discovers a staircase leading to the surface -- another entrance to the Barrowmaze! A fight with skeletons turns ugly when one the party's fighter fumbles on the first round, killing the dwarf. Critical hits by the skeletons take another life. Armed with two new magic weapons the party leaves via the newly discovered entrance, narrowly evading another group that apparently uses it on a regular basis. They cut a deal with the village witch to help with identifying one of the new weapons.

  • CD and KT cook up a new maneuver between sessions - enter the flaming tennis ball (lint and tinder, really) to light up long passages and prevent monsters from advancing to just beyond the party's torchlight.
  • There have been very few fumbles and critical hits until this evening. DCC's tables can be very dangerous indeed. 
  • There is an interesting debate on whether to sell magic items for XP (to level up) or to keep them in the party. (XP is only awarded for wasting hard-won gold on boozing and wenching etc.)
An intense session with tons of interesting encounters and discoveries!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 7)

Session 7: A Tragic Death

The party moves its supply depot deeper into the dungeon. The witch charms the deluded ghost encountered in the last session who then reveals the creatures and treasures in the immediate surroundings. A fight with a mysterious skeleton puts the fear into the players' hearts but their characters prevail. Ladden with magic items they return to the surface. With the exit less than 100 feet away, the party is attacked by robed skeletons. Bhain the Dwarf, carrying enough gold to level up, dies and Thorin the Dwarf is cursed and - pending another save next week - may very well die, too. The party vanquishes the skeletons and chops off Bhain's arms to retrieve his magical chainshirt (as Dwarves turn to stone upon death).

  • CD suggests a contract among the adventurers to deal with various money issues (e.g. buying healing potions together, handling the property of dead characters etc.). I never saw much point in founding 'adventuring companies' before but now - given the high death rates - this makes perfect sense! Another revelation regarding old school social dynamics.
  • The party gathers information about certain monsters rumored to prowl the dungeon and buys silver weapons and ammunition. Knowledge = Power.
  • In DCC, it's possible to charm un-dead (with a penalty). I like that because they have unusual points of view and information.
  • When a mysterious skeleton reduces GB's character from 10 to 1 hp with one hit, he almost panics and wants his character to flee the scene. Massive pressure from the other players - "Our guys are as just as dead as yours if that skeleton hits any of them" - and even death threats convince him to stay and fight from the second rank. He's in a bad mood after that.
  • CD saves the witch's life by preventing her from entering a tomb with a green slime. After the fight with the skeleton everyone but CD seemed to have forgotten about the party's suspicions regarding that tomb. It's one of several close calls, not all of which the players involved are aware of.
  • The death of CD's dwarf continues his streak of bad luck. He is a cautious yet proactive player but the dice have been against him for many sessions now. Here's hoping his luck will change!
In a nutshell
A succesful delve that ended on a grim note.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Eero Tuovinen Is My Hero (Part II)

Here's another great quote from Eero Tuovinen (lifted from the discussion Old School Renaissance: Actual Play - Greysands Campaign). It's good advice if you are making mistakes like this.

Regarding the hygiene in determining whether things are dangers or tourist sights, my general advice is to train yourself out of the habit of teleological deduction and categories associated with it: don't frame decisions for yourself in terms of what will supposedly happen. As long as you're thinking of a sea serpent in terms of whether it's a combat encounter or not, you're not being hygienic. The only things you need to know are the in-fiction circumstances and such; those you either intuit, have in your notes, or roll randomly. Once you know that the sea serpent hates surface shipping, or is hungry, or is angry, you have something to work with in determining whether it might attack a ship. If you first decide that it's a color encounter, and then retroactively justify that by deciding that it's sated, then you're doing it wrong.
"Colour event", "tourist sighting", "combat encounter", "deadly" and so on are all terms of unhygienic teleological thinking: they're all about what you imagine might happen either immediately or later. You do not need to know the future, you merely need to know the past and the present.

Eero is even sterner regarding another event in that game (a storm that was never meant to be a real threat).

Edit: The DM running the sea voyage has since commented that the storm had been dangerous, but not able to single-handedly sink the ship (unless the party had done nothing to fix the situation).

This is less relevant for my example of poor DMing (which was about laziness, not mercy) but relevant to the overall topic:
The big, fat hygienic issue with not wanting PC death, though, is that a GM unwilling to face the nihilistic void is a slave to his aesthetic hopes and dreams. In the worst case this causes him to build invisible boundaries around the other players, protecting them from an honest judgement of their choices. Thus the content of play actually transforms from an even-handed struggle into puppetry. For example: when you demand players for initiative in a storm that threatens their ship, and they act upon the matter, but your threat was actually a false ritualistic declaration - what is that if not puppeteering, demanding that the players dance to your amusement? Worse yet, such a GM might end up determining the shape of their ship on nothing more than their own sense of entitlement: dance not well enough my puppets, show not enough fear, and I shall sink your ship out of spite. As you choose to not entertain the possibility of the ship sinking fairly, you have at that moment removed any storm-combating moves out of the realm of actual play, and into the realm of color narration. The least courtesy a GM can make is to make this clear to the players, so they can join in narrating, rather than dancing desperately in their false understanding of the interaction in play. 

Actual Play: Improvisation Done Wrong

A recent session of DCC in the Wilderlands has prompted a number of thoughts on the role of the DM (at least as I see it in the context of old school play):

Actual Play Analysis

A random encounter roll provided the result "chalk marks". I liberally interpreted this and decided to make a tableau of chalk representations of the party appear practically under their noses (i.e. in a corridor they had just passed through and were presently returning to).

The party's ranger decided to search for tracks (which takes a turn and thus increases the risk of random encounters). I decided that the chalk marks had been made by a ghost and that he could not find any tracks.

This was a bad decision because my motivation was to get on with the game, i.e. I was not interested in the chalk marks except as a minor distraction to create a spooky atmosphere.

However, it's the players' job to decide which things to investigate, not mine. Moreover, I should not create illusions but run the world -- I should have impartially determined what caused the marks in the first place (using my intution regarding the world and/or the dice).

(In my defence, I was prepared to stand by my decision and, for example, reveal the ghost to a detect magic spell (recently acquired by the party's witch).)

Next, the party decided to modify their representations: A recently killed dog puppy was part of the tableau and depicted as crossed out. The party carefully removed the cross. I rolled a d6, deciding to have the puppy's corpse rise on a 6 as per animate dead (a power I would then have to attribute to the ghost). Nothing happened.

This was an even worse decision because I acted on the players' speculations (i.e. on a 6, they would have come true). This procedure is remniscient of the RPG Donjon by Clinton R. Nixon. In Donjon, a successful check to detect secret doors means that you do indeed find a secret door (i.e. it is invented on the spot and incorporated into the fiction if it was not there before). Donjon is cool, but a very different kind of game than the old school D&D I'm striving for.

The players should feel free to openly speculate about the world or discuss their plans -- without fear of the DM making their fears (or hopes) come true or preempting (or facilitating) their plans.

(At least I rolled a d6 so things did not rely on DM whim alone.)


A note on the nature of random content

Random content is neither arbitrary nor unimportant:

Random encounter tables, for instance, are carefully constructed to reflect the environment. The Barrowmaze features different tables for different sections or different times of the day and my wilderness encounter tables likewise cover different geographical areas.

A random encounter with other tomb raiders should be treated as just as real and important as other stuff. A random roll creates a part of the world that both players and DM can refer back to. Further rolls and/or impartial DM improvisation should flesh out the details as needed.


I failed to take my own roll seriously in the situation described above, deciding it was merely "color" (i.e. window dressing). Eero Tuovinen has more to say about this -- please check out my next post.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 6)

Session 6: Traps & Treasure

During downtime, one PC tames a wolf and another arranges a marriage for the village crone. Also, the party is invited by Hirot's ruler for a chat. Back in the Barrowmaze, the party discovers a heavily trapped cul-de-sac with a mysterious key in a silver casket. Careful maneuvering neutralizes all threats. Later, they find the richly decorated remains of a beastman recently sacrificed on a dark altar...

  • CD notes that wandering monsters rarely carry any treasure.
  • KT styles his rogue as a ranger (with skills like Survial, Stealth and Beast Mastery and a tame wolf).
  • A random encounter indicates a graffiti and leads to a lot of soul searching for the DM. More about this when I find the time to sort my thoughts.
A nice session. The players expertly navigated the cul-de-sac situation.

Eero Tuovinen Is My Hero (Part I)

Eero Tuovinen writes very eloquently and with great insight about playing D&D. He is currently discussing his approach and an ongoing IRC game at the Story Games forums here: Writing up Eero's Primordial D&D and here: Old School Renaissance: Actual Play - Greysands Campaign.

Here are some nice quotes (emphasis mine):

I am admittedly beyond hardcore on [the matter of low-level lethality]. I entertain myself thinking up ways to make the D&D support even more meaningless lethality. I find that the constant, nihilistic existential pressure focuses minds wonderfully, and makes the occasional streak of success taste all the more sweet. I simply don't have any interest for facilitating the survival of this particular character any further than his choices, talents and luck take him.

I basically just don't take a D&D GM seriously before they've killed a few PCs. We can talk about it all we like, but until I see them do it, it's all insubstantial theory - maybe their characters have just been skilled and lucky, but also maybe the GM is misusing their wide influence to undermine the supposed dangers. (The D&D GM has such a multitude of influences that it's almost impossible to get a legit game if the GM doesn't want one.) Not that I want my character to die when playing, it's just that I want a legit resolution even more. The only difference between a gauntlet by fire and a puppet theater is in whether there actually is a legitimate possibility of failure.

I should say that while it is possible to make things "too difficult", my experience is that GMs generally vastly underestimate the level to which players are willing to rise. The thing is, if you've already decided that the PCs shall, by and large, live and prosper, then you've already made it impossible for the group to find out how high you can go on the difficulty before the players give up. They'll never have the chance to encounter the setting in all of its true brutality if you as GM shirk away from it. You have to be brave first, or the players never get the chance to be.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 5)

Session 5: Victory!

The party encounters another group of tomb raiders in the Barrowmaze. They manage to steal their clueless rivals' gold but then help them against a skeleton attack. The party's two new dwarf characters sniff out some gems and the party returns to the surface, fighting a series of small battles (with giant rats, mysterious skeletons and a lone skeleton, respectively). For the first time, they return from their adventures without casualties. Three PCs reach level 2.

  • KT had studied the combat rules and led the way setting up flanking positions, using Luck and reminding other players of their characters' special powers. 
  • When KT began to describe his new character at the beginning of the session, cries of "One line of background only!" erupted. KT, known for writing pages and pages of backstory, continued unperturbed -- he is used to friendly ribbing in this matter.
  • Players got more cocky with 1st level characters, particularly ones with poor stats.
  • The way back to the exit was again a tense affair but also took up quite a bit of time. I wonder if we should double the movement rate in known and mapped territory...
  • The players were very pleased with their success (and rightly so, I might add).
  • I keep 'revealing' rules from D&D 3.5e that are second nature to me but which I never bothered explaining. This is a bit irritating to the players but I'm not sure if a huge infodump at the beginning would have been better. Ask me about charging enemies, for instance, and you shall be rewarded!
In a nutshell
A very satisfying session - the characters' success nicely counterbalances the bloodbaths behind (and most likely ahead of) them!