Jun 24, 2009

Games are always better in re-telling.

So a couple of sessions before the events of the flaming warlock, the party had been tasked to investigate strange lights and sounds coming from the masterson estate - about 10 miles north of the village they were currently in.

Having fished the mighty whiskerfish (see Here). The emboldened party marched down the rutted country road for the better part of the afternoon, when they noticed that the sun was setting far too early - and doing it amazingly fast! Moments after it sets behind the hills, it reverses course, and rises back up to midday - before doing it all over again.

Skill checks ensue, and the best anyone can do is that there is an awesome amount of arcane energy permeating everything around them, and spreading slowly from a center - right where they are headed.

With renewed purpose, the party sets out and is at the manor house in minutes! Here at the manor house, things are definitely out of sorts. The ground trembles, and the very air feels heavy as lead. All are struck with a "static" in their thoughts that makes it difficult to concentrate. The house is dark, save for a bright bluish light that seems to emanate from deep within. Occasionally, the tremors rise, and the house flexes and groans like it's alive.

Stealthily making their way through the empty house, the make their way to an observatory on the rear of the building. The light, and frenzied chanting, seem to be coming from within. Worried over what the flickering shadows and shapes might portend, the heroes take positions and kick down the door.

Inside is a scene that takes some description. A large, high-ceilinged room 40 feet wide by 80 feet long. Overstuffed bookshelves lining every available wall. At the back, a large mechanical contraption, seemingly assmembled from equal amounts brass and glass, focuses a moonbeam through a shard of crystal. The beautiful and scintillating rainbow of colors fans out and spins around a circle of runes and computations drawn out on the floor.

Nearby, jarringly out of place, sits a medium sized stained stone altar. It's occupant is mostly out of view, but several slender tentacles extend from it's bowl, dripping bluish ichor onto the floor.

Around the altar is chaos. Above it, a nexus of shaking bluish light pulsates - almost in time with the fan of colors emanating from the crystal. Standing below the light are three grey robed humans. They are gesticulating and chanting frantically, but are plainly exhausted. As they watched, one is struck by a blast of blue-white light from the nexus he was gesturing at. He falls to the ground, joining two others already there. One - a young man with blonde hair, looks up at you through dead, glassy eyes. Blood pooling around his head, as it leaks slowly from his ears and nose.

About this time, two things happen. First, the leader of the ritual notices a bunch of armed intruders in her inner sanctum. And secondly, she stumbles on her incantation. There is an intense blast of light, and a shape begins to...pour into the confines of the ritual circle. A viscous, semi-transparent goo - filled with clotted whitish chunks.

The party springs into action, and gets right on it with learning :) The arcaney types begin analyzing the scene, trying to figure out what is going on. The ritual leader pulls back her hood, and turns out to be a hottie! Slbeit, a hottie about to collapse from fatigue. "Close the rift...break the binder..." and her eyes roll back. In unison, the three mages fall to the ground.

The party flounders around a few moments, trying desperately to plug the pieces together, when the slop in the circle begins to move! It forms long tentacles, and the pieces of matter within are migrating together. Lightning ripples across it's entire body, as it begins casting arcs of purple lightning around itself.

Wherever these arcs strike floor, the floor disintegrates, and a bright blue-white glow can be seen. From the larger cracks more clotted bluish ooze can be seen issuing forth. The party exchanges "oh shit" looks and goes to work :)

The battle is intense. The beast hurls bolts of screaming terror, as well as rage, and confusion. It's tentacles are also deadly accurate. Every three breaths, it splits off more smaller "children" that harry the flanks. With a combat going on at the same time as a skill challenge (see here). After a VERY tense touch-and-go battle, the warlock breaks the last thread of arcane power holding the whole mess together.

The ritual unwound, the beasts are banished back to the far plane. As a reward, they are granted a few precious baubles of magic, and a fortune telling:

"The path ahead of you and your is a twisted on indeed. I see trials and travails - alongside victories and rewards. In your next tenday, you will touch a darkness that knows nothing of you - as well as find an evil that seeks you - but only if you seek it in return. Go now, and bring the light of dawn to light the way in these troubled times."

We'll get to dawnbringer, and their other adventures, a wee bit later. Until then - game well :)

Jun 22, 2009

Spontaneity in 4E, winging it - and setting heads on fire.

Greetings all, apologies for the barren week - I was busy :) 'Nuff said.

Today, I wanted to talk about my 4E campaign - Assault on the Lightless Depths. Seemingly forever ago, I stated on this very blog, that I wanted to design the "perfect" adventure. This has been a mixed bag. So far, what I have to show for my efforts is 30 pages of sword-swinging, peasant bashing, giant catfish catching goodness. Soon, I hope to make a .PDF available for critique and such, but for now I want to talk a little about my last game.

The weekend before last (Due to Father's day and all) We played a 6 hour session at my house. We last left off with the party leaving the King's Road to investigate a rather close plume of black smoke they had spotted in the morning. There, they found "One".

One, is one of three white dragon younglings that were hatched and raised by a Kobold clan, after the abandoned nest was found. The knows nothing of any backstory, as they killed the dragon's keepers along with the beast itself. They DID, however, ask me why it's wings were nothing more than scabbed stumps. In fact, they were led to believe (Via Dungeoneering and nature checks) that dragons were intelligent as well. This odd beast seemed more like a giant, poorly trained lizard - something akin to a hunting dog the size of a pony :)

With two new party members being introduced (A Dhampyr swordmage, and a Kenku wizard) in the middle of a pretty nasty fight, the chaos was legendary! But they kept coming back to the dragon. "Why are it's wings missing?" "Why is it stupid?" "Why doesn't it just eat the Kobolds?" "How did they train it?" The party was intrigued.

As they floundered about in search of answers (not realizing that collectively they had already figured it all out) they continued on and began searching the wrecked camp that had attracted their attention (Via smoke) and evidently the ire of the kobolds.

Questioning the injured swordmage, they noticed that she was one of the runebound - just like they were. Backstories exchanged, she was invited to join the party until they reached civilization again. In the meantime, she informed them that she and a "bird-man" had been assigned to guard an archaeological expedition dispatched by a local wizard. The spring rains, along with the odd seismic activity recent to the region, had uncovered an ancient tomb that apparently dated back some 4-700 years.

Still missing the bird-man, as well as a Dragonborn paladin of the raven queen, it was decided that they would investigate the tomb - helping the swordmage to complete her mission. It soon dawned on the party that the tomb was infested with Kruthik!

Now, our party is mostly unaligned. We have an unaligned Warlord. An unaligned Swordmage. and an unaligned Kenku Wizard. They do their thing, and are always polite, courteous, and very mindful of their actions, and how they affect the world around them. But every group has their oddballs. Mine are a Lawful Good Dragonborn fighter, and her foil - and evil Shadar-kai warlock.

The warlock is a pretty twisted fellow. A runaway from his people for crimes that will not be mentioned...okay, he's a traitor and a coward, with a very powerful enemy who is actively seeking him out (though he doesn't know this yet). He always makes the choice that leads to personal gain and profit. He always chooses "Kill the captives, they are too expensive to feed" approach. He steals from the party at every turn, and routinely curses party member who look like they are near death.

While the rest of the party is pretty live-and-let-live, he is opposed by The fighter. She is a self-righteous, opinionated, first into combat type that rarely compromises on ANY issue that attracts her attention. Like a paladin - without all the foofy holy crap :)

She fastidiously shares loot and information, and is always first to charge to the front lines to defend the party or strike down bad guys.

This in mind, Lets return to the tomb. After a tough Kruthik encounter, the party takes a short rest, and hears a feeble cry for help echoing from a small tunnel broken into the granite walls of the tomb. The swordmage recognizes it as Otto, one of the henchman from her expedition. He is obviously terrified, and is calling out for death - due to unimagineable suffering.

While the party tries to decide what to do, the Warlock sneaks into the tunnel and finds the kenku wizard tangled up within a bloodstained canvas tent. No sooner is he freed, they look around and notice they are being watched by scores of little red glowing eyes - swaying rythmically in time to a rumbling inthe earth.

Backing away slowly, they both decide to leave the screaming man to his dark fate - when the earth explodes and a Kruthik Hive lord pops up - blocking their escape! The party has been bickering over the best course until this point, then it's GO time! With the two weakest member trapped in the hive, they choose to carve a path to their comrades and rescue them - treasure be damned!

Now, as they effortlessly cut through the lower level minions and other associated pissants, I paid attention to their in-character banter. In particular, the part where the fighter and warlord exchange boring bug squashing jokes :) The hive lord is not amused, and succeeds in luring them a few more precious squares - triggering the hive QUEEN to burst out behing them, effectively cutting the party in half. This ended the bug jokes, and began the soiled breeches jokes.

After a grueling battle of attrition, the hive lord (and lady) are defeated, leaving the party to tend to their wounds - when the piteous wailing from deeper within the caverns resume! The fighter is heart-wrenched to do SOMETHING, and proceeds further into the caves.

About this time, the rest of the party is rolling skill checks like mad and piece together that the "hive" is actually a partially finished crypt of some kind dating back to before the union of men and dwarves long ago. Apparently, barbarians of the Elk tribe dug this out as a resting place for their chieftains long before it was sealed up, and the newer tomb was built.

The warlock smells ancient treasure, and only a team of oxen could have kept him from joining his arch-nemesis in exploring the rest of the caves. The two of them exchange heated banter and insults as they enter the room holding a bloodied human partially encased in some sort of stone. His piteous screams caused by the kruthik larvae chewing on his exposed extremities.

Winning initiative, the warlock walks past him, pausing for a moment (The player asking what kind of action it would be to piss on him) before continuing back to where he sensed magical emanations. The VERY pissed off fighter saved the poor soul, BTW.

Moving into the final room, the warlock takes advantage of being alone to approach the stone sarcophogus placed between two large gilt sword bearing skeletons. Without hesitation, he slides the lid back...and is introduced to karma!

At this point, I might add, the players themselves were arguing a LOT. There was some tension, and in character threats had been made. Trying to defuse this to some extent, I made a spontaneous judgement call. The result of which being that the fighter rounded the corner just as the bright white flash of the radiant energy trap made itself known!

Picture if you will, the party dick talking all kinds of trash to you. You stop to help a wounded man KNOWING in your bones he is going to rob the party blind. Now picture coming around the corner, executioner's axe held at the ready - this time is one time too far - When there is a flash, and said party dick is running around in circles SCREAMING that his head is on FIRE! White fire no less :) Now ask yourself, "What would I do in that situation?" If you are my player, you flip your axe around and (using it's handle) start beating the fire out!

This went on for three rounds (bad saves!), well - 4 for the clubbing the fire out (I saw a cinder!) before all was under control. Fences were mended. Player tension defused.

And the best part? The entire session evolved from this note:

CR:7 Kruthik nest - tombs/catacombs - not too easy!
2 separate encounters!! (7 and 8?)
New players already in-situ. Characters unknown.
Treasure: Rune carved antlers (Arcana DC 18)
Healing potions in crude ceramic pots
Crude gold coins w/no stampings
Game well, folks :)

Jun 10, 2009

Qualia - Or why you have the RIGHT to dream about stepping on up to play in the story now.

Continuing down the well worn path, we can see the glimmer in the distance that must be the vaunted "salient point." It is as elusive as ever, so I will try and reframe my dithering in the context I was trying to communicate.

I was attempting to shine a light on how intricately intertwined game design was with not only playstyle, but the community as a whole. Instead, I got hung up on design theory, and chased that darned red-herring halfway across the ocean. The answer was right here under my nose the entire time.


You are doing it wrong. My game IS better than your game. Your game sucks.

That's right. You read my english correctly. I don't care what edition you are playing. I don't care what system you are using. I don't give two shits about you optimal build, OR your STR 8 fighter "for the RP Lulz". I simply do not care. In fact, You are an idiot for even TRYING to do it any other way than I do. Don't argue - I'm not listening, and will only mock you for daring to waste my time with your obvious stupidity.

I am absolutely right.
For the absolutely wrong reasons.
Or maybe the other way around.
Allow me to explain.

First off, my main goal of writing the last two posts was to attempt to demonstrate that most of the labels and schools and other silliness, are simply human nature. An excellent example of this is the big, abusive step-parent of GNS Theory - The Big Model. The big model is the entire framework used by Ron Edwards to unify the whole RPG design model. Love it or hate it, this appears to be the only model anyone seems to even care about. There are others, but having never heard of them, their influence is irrelevant to me - simply restatement of the same recycled words and concepts. I am not going to bore you for 1200 words or so recapping it, that's what the link is for. Instead, I will utterly destroy the entire modern theory of gaming using one wikipedia link.

QUALIA!!! I CHOOSE YOU!

In short, Qualia is the term used to explain subjective experiences, i.e. the reality of your experience as perceived by you - and only you. This is why men are from mars, and women from venus. This little term is the sawdust in the mortar that renders all edition wars and schools completely moot and devoid of anything but the part with monkeys banging on their chests for a mates or bananas.

The mere existence of Qualia is the reason why there is more than one RPG on the market. It's the reason we have to listen to overly loud gangster rap music in traffic. It is the reason why your wife's ex-husband thinks you are insane.

I pose to you, that this makes all game comparisons in any way moot. This is why even your favorite reviewer is never 100% right. This is why you liked battlefield earth on the big screen. This is why you gave up on lost. This is why Firefly got cancelled.

QUALIA!!!!!

In gaming, Qualia works a little like this: As avid RPG players, most of us have a lot of experience playing D&D, as well as many other systems and various editions of said systems. Yet we all have distinctly different tastes, based on our subjective experiences we had while playing them. This includes WHO, WHERE, WHEN - hell, it includes what cartoon you used to watch back in the day.

I mention this, because we see here the ludicrous nature of the edition wars. Two sides that cannot be wrong, opposed by sides that cannot be right, arguing and debating the relative merits or a SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!! Notice the Caps there, please.

For those who would scoff, I direct you to the english language. (And a big shout out to Merriam-Webster!)

Subjective:
1: of, relating to, or constituting a subject: as aobsolete : of, relating to, or characteristic of one that is a subject especially in lack of freedom of action or in submissiveness b: being or relating to a grammatical subject ; especially : nominative
2: of or relating to the essential being of that which has substance, qualities, attributes, or relations
3 a: characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind : phenomenal.
b: relating to or being experience or knowledge as conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states
4 a: (1): peculiar to a particular individual : personal
(2): modified or affected by personal views, experience, or background.
b: Arising from conditions within the brain or sense organs and not directly caused by external stimuli.
c: arising out of or identified by means of one's perception of one's own states and processes.

Experience:
1 a: direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge
b: the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation.
2 a: practical knowledge, skill, or practice derived from direct observation of or participation in events or in a particular activity.
b: the length of such participation.
3 a: the conscious events that make up an individual life.
b: the events that make up the conscious past of a community or nation or humankind generally.
4: something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through.
5: the act or process of directly perceiving events or reality.

Read it and choke. No really, can anyone defend the practice of arguing subjective experiences and "feelings"? Anyone? Please comment - I am all ears : )

I submit to you, dear readers, that this is why the edition wars, schoolism, and GNS theory is nothing more than a steaming pile of dragon dung. I don't LIKE playing older editions. You don't like playing in newer ones. That's fine. There doesn't need to be a debate. We CAN agree to disagree - as opposed to the endless posturing and accusations we see - why? - because neither side has the same subjective experiences.

What you call "old school sandbox style" gaming, I see as a swingy, overblown, snoozefest. What I see as a WHAM-POW action movie done right with dragons, you see as a box full of crap studded with ritalyn. This will not change simply because you point out another broken mechanic, any more than you will suddenly wake up and realize that with Gnomes back as player races - you can play it for reals this time!!

It IS alright to leave it at that. We do not HAVE to agree. In fact, it is impossible for the aforementioned reasons to have even a reasonable discussion on the topic - there can be no winners...so it just keeps going on...and on....and on...and on...

What edition / style wars are:
Don't DM like me? You suck.
Don't play like me? You suck.
Don't like edition ___? You Suck
Don't agree with me? You suck.

What they should be:
Gaming is fun
Play how you want.
What's THAT game like?
I'll try it out.

Jun 5, 2009

The light at the end of the sandbox is an oncoming train!

My goodness! In merging three of the more controversial elements of roleplaying, and then squishing them in a big ugly ball, I got some feedback!

First off, a big thank you to all of you for keeping it classy. While I sometimes fail utterly at this, it is still a bar I strive for when I can. Secondly, a big thank you beyond that for the constructive criticism. Even the snarks were well heeled - THANK YOU!

One session post in 3...2...1...showtime!

On to the meat. In the comments, I see three camps. One that agrees wholeheartedly enough to have nothing to add. One that disagrees completely - or near enough to count. And one that evidently sees some merit, but disagrees on specific points.

My question back to you Helmsman, would be "Is your game truly a sandbox game?" Or does it already incorporate elements of Linear plots, i.e. You've killed the priest in dungeon A, and a note leads you north toward swamp B? Would a "true" sandbox not be exactly what you described in your comment? WHY would the encounters make any sense in their placement at all, unless you were customizing (cough...railroading) them around to keep the training wheels touching the ground? Do the EL3 orcs feel a sudden urge to move closer to the PC's while the EL11 ones move farther away? Why wouldn't they terrorize a low level village? Why stick to somewhere that more powerful good guys hang out? Does the dragon decide he should go to a higher level area for a "real" challenge? Or does he stay where the pickings are easy?

I cannot get too specific about the background issue without actually having some hard info to go on. Are the PC's strangers to the area? Are they prisoners in a caravan? Are they merchants + guards? Are they bumpkins with a single magic sword? How far out DOES their information network spread out from their starting point? Are the villagers typical commoners - i.e. Int and Wis 10 or so each? Each answer changes the whole equation.

I am glad to see that you "do it right". But the unexpected ALWAYS happens in D&D. It's the only thing as certain as having to make saves :) In a living, breathing sandbox - with a little of uncle gary's random encounters, that dragon may be out looking for some white meat, or horseflesh. There are no rules dictating an all powerful CE monster's behavior. It does what it wishes, when it wishes. I should have been more specific in the last article, as a "true" sandbox would likely have lots of random encounters. The random part being my biggest beef with the older editions. I mean WOW, talk about disassociated mechanics!

And lastly, yes. You are using the middle ground quite well. Move here, now please :)

My article was meant to convey that a purist approach to GNS theory, Schoolism, or Gamestyle is nearly impossible. Making it's advocacy somewhat irresponsible.

Yes it is "possible" to have adventure paths in a sandbox, but you have an odd quandary by doing this.

Example: Deus Baaj (For you Sham :P) is working to release an eruption of necromantic energies that will kill every man, woman, and child on the continent - turning them into zombies under his control. Easy-peasy stereotypical "epic" adventure right? So what happens when the party misses a clue and goes off on a weird tangent? The clock should be ticking, and will eventually run out. Game over. That is, unless you send in the train to railroad them back in the right direction! Sure, you could say tough titties - but then you're technically just wasting everyones time watching them fiddle as Rome burns. The entire game derailed because of one missed roll or badly described action...Unless you intervene with a little DM fiat.

Make no mistake - DM Fiat IS Railroading. It just sounds better. The DM "deciding it does" is still an intervention more often than not.

Example: The party has been making a nuisance of themselves to the same BBEG. After a particularly good haul, they decide to kick back for a month or two and make some magical items and such. Does the world stop while they do this? Why doesn't a pack of highly trained assassins descend upon them? Then another. Then another. Why wouldn't Douchebag himself pop in for 10 rounds (60 seconds of his time + 2 teleport spells) to lay them to waste? Any bad guy with an INT of more than 14 has to realize that it would be a good investment of his time, right?

Are we railroading away from this encounter? Or railroading toward this encounter? Even in 1E, a 15-20th level wizard is a force of nature. If the slaves at his obsidian mine are released, wouldn't he invest a low-level scrying spell plus the aforementioned teleports and such to eliminate a threat? LOL! BBEG scry and die :)

As to poor games - I do not describe an actual game, but a logical extreme of one. A sandbox with a truly random dispersion of encounters of all kinds. Please forgive my somewhay jumbled prose, I write what I think, and sometimes it comes out in half baked chunks. I am working on this, but am a long way from publishing my first novel :) And Kudos for the author / editor simile, it was beautiful!

The black and white characitures (Bad sandbox and Bad railroad) used in the previous article were used for comparison purposes mostly. I posit that a "true" sandbox style game is a simulationist representation of a gameworld. You (as a DM) are trying to faithfully represent the impact of having a band of heroes moving in a random(?) fashion through an interactive environment. No "story" as such, until they decide to follow something that may or may not be what they are looking for.

A "true" Railroad style game forces the player to move from set-piece to set-piece. It is narrative in the sense that the story trumps all other considerations. That "chosen one" reference I made was based on experience. The character was a REQUIRED part of the endgame, so the DM had to make up all kinds of silly BS to keep the character alive. The rest of the world matters little, as gods (the DM's) magnifying glass is focused only on them - nothing else is really real.

While extreme, I would say that these silly cardboard cutouts are the reasons we, by necessity have to blend in other (sometimes contrary) philosophies to create a coherent game. Mashed potatos are alright, so is gravy. Add them together in the right proportion and you have a side dish that is more than the sum of it's parts. As opposed to flavorless mash and flavored schmoo getting all over our meat and veggies.

That brings us to the "gamist compromise" I brought us to yesterday. It is the Game that matters. And as we all know, the game is whatever in the hell we make it. This is where the houserules come in. Where we insert more G, N, or S (Or Dramatism - thanks Thanuir) into the homebrew we are serving up. Why doesn't the BBEG just take a short break to deal with the PC's? Add a little N with a dash of Railroading - he's busy with an involved ritual that requires ALL of his time. Why doesn't he send his slightly less powerful (but still more than capable of killing the PC's) Lieutenant to deal with them? A little S with a dash of Sandbox - he's a Blackguard and must travel for 3 weeks to get where he thinks the party is.

There's nothing wrong with this, I can't think of a lamer story than the party scoring a big victory, and then an epic bad guy shows up and sodomizes them with long pointed spikes.

As it stands, I disagree with Wikipedia's well referenced definition of GNS theory. I feel it suboordinates the true definition of the words themselves to make it relevant to too many mediums.

Gamist:
Gamist refers to decisions based on what will most effectively solve the problem posed. These decisions are most common in games which pit characters against successively tougher challenges and opponents. (Note - After this the definition descends into bullshit.)

Narrativist:
Narrativist refers to decisions based on what would best further a dramatic story or address a central theme. (Note - same as above re - bullshit.)

Simulationist:
Simulationist refers to decisions based on what would be most realistic or plausible within the game's setting, or to a game where the rules try to simulate the way that things work in that world, or at least the way that they could be thought of working. (Note - You get the idea.)

Anonymous, while I allow anonymous posting on my blog, I don't hold conversations with faceless entities. It puts me at a disadvantage - which is lame - and doesn't give me the chance to reconcile the comment with the poster's thoughts on other topics, which matters to me. If you live in a basement with a tinfoil hat, and refuse to make at least a blogger account, then I don't know if we can produce anything productive anyway. Start a blog! Tell the world I am a jackass! Just don't be faceless :)

Kaosdad, the "purist" sandbox is a totally simulationist approach. There is no story, that is, any story that does exist is always optional - simply another part of the landscape, to be pursued or ignored. This is contrary in every way to both published fantasy and every module ever created. While each and every encounter does not need to be linked to the same chain, too many optional side quests kill any impetus to advance at a reasonable pace. "Don't worry guys, the BBEG will wait for us, he wants an audience for his final victory, so lets take a vacation, go back
to that first town we partied in and kill the rest of those stupid goblins - then their mothers - then their aunts - then all of their distant relatives, just for kicks!"

MMO design gives this a REALLY bad name. You can pick up and drop the main quest as many times as you want. Go make potions. Go gather materials. Take the family to Hawaii for 2 weeks, It will all wait. Even games with DM toolkit like neverwinter nights are like this, the tools are finite, so the options and all that follow are as well.

Thanuir - The option you describe is my personal bane of all existence :) I don't know about any of you, but I have had the pleasure of watching the party discuss how to enter a garage door, secured by a mechanical lock for 2 1/2 hours. It was a d20 future game, with players wielding plasma cannons, mono-edge weapons, and hyper grenades, and yet they could not figure out how to get inside. If I could have swallowed my dice and choked to death - I would have! While it IS possible to free-form an encounter in most editions of the game, that tends to leave you very vulnerable to the "Diplomancer" of 3E and to a lesser extent 4E. With the older editions lack of structured skills to guide a conversational encounter, it leaves an awful lot to chance. I can see this working better with random encounters than plot encounters.

This is mostly a problem in terms of prep time. While I am not helpless when it come to improvising, when I get caught with my pants down, it tends to show. As to gathering information. This too is a good place to have randomness kick you in the balls. You either railroad them (just have someone spill their guts as to where you want them to go), or you sandbox them (roll on the random rumor table and they go in the direction the dice tell them to - stomping off blindly indeed :)

As to bloodshed :) With PC's it always come to bloodshed! They have pointy pieces of steel and want to use them to free the air trapped within their enemies abdominal cavities! Sure there is talking, but as one of my favorite book characters once said, "First there is smiling, then there is talking, after that the killing starts - don't be still talking when we get to that part." An orc is still an orc. A troll still just wants to eat you. A fire giant is still a great big red-skinned Nazi. Combat is too integral to D&D to remove, and while it isn't the only thing for sure, I don't think I would have any takers if I announced a campaign that consisted of being diplomats and trying to find compromises.

My goodness this has been hard. I've been working on this for nearly four hours now! My point (as it is clear I buried it well and often) is that the heart of any "good" game is always a compromise. On their own, none of the Schools, Theories, or styles can support a robust experience. There must always be an osmosing of fresh ideas, and as such, compromises to keep the desired game intact. You can't always trust your players to make the "right" decisions and more than they can trust the DM to always be right.

I hate to rush this out, but I am drained. Please let me know if I missed the point, jumped the shark, or deserve to be eaten alive by a pack of vicious snarks. This is a discussion, and as such - there is no right or wrong yet :)

Until next time, have a wonderful weekend, and wish me luck - those damn zombies aren't going to kill themselves!

Jun 4, 2009

Sandboxes are for kids and cat-turds. Railroads are for hobos and railcars.

Oh yes, he has been to your "sandbox" it was a good place for poops.

The sandbox. That iconic ideal we all strive for. The idea that the party should make their own decisions, and interact within an organic medium that reacts with their every action and choice. Let me tell you folks, it is over-rated as hell. Let me explain why.


First off, what is the antithesis of the sandbox? That's right, the railroad. That, to the uninitiated, is the literal "railroading" of the party to move along a pre-set course that the DM has charted out. This is prevalent in published modules and adventures that are usually light on any content not directly relating to the current adventure.


I am not aware of any other methods, if any of you would like to comment and point them out, I will edit or post a new article with them included.


First off, to quote a fellow blogger, "there is no spoon." We like to try and categorize ourselves like there are prizes awarded for most quirky, most old school, most new school, whatever. This is silly, and unfortunately very typical human behavior. GNS theory is a good example of this as well.


Truth is, no matter how much we try and pidgeonhole ourselves, we are so alike that any seppuku would serve only to take us all down. Back to the original topic!

The Simulationist Sandbox

Sandbox gaming is as far on the simulationist extreme as is possible to easily go. You are a member of a group of heroes(?) exploring an unknown area, interacting with it's inhabitants, and doing whatever in the hell they wish to do.

Where this really chaps my ass, is when the map or grid or whatever is being populated, the DM has to assume that a party that survives will "level up" and gain in power. Therefore, the encounters have to be truly random, spread out all over the place at all levels of play. This is effectively a double blind as the DM has no idea where the party will go, and the party has no idea what the DM has thrown down.

This fails in a couple of ways. The most obvious is the party encountering something that could de-flesh them with a mere thought. Does the party run away? - The dragon lazily flies over and nukes you from orbit. The giants are faster than you, etc. So the random direction you picked just killed you. How fun.

To those who would say, "but Donny, the dragon is full from eating a merchant caravan, and is willing to parley." I call Railroading! You have just metagamed yourself out of the sandbox. Unless that encounter was specifically designed around a dragon lounging on a bed of loot and skeletons - who just happend to be in a converational mood - you have failed. You had to change the parameters of the encounter to suit the story, commonly known as railroading.

The alternative to this is even worse. What do you get when you cross a "typical" 7th level party with a pack of kobolds? An extremely lackluster encounter. The kind of encounter where the highlight is the one rat that took TWO swings to drop. Yay, how awesome.

Randomness is just that, random. It is nobody's friend. It is nobody's mistress. It is a voluntary inclusion of chaos into a game defined by it's rules. It works, but too much randomness creates an incoherent game. For example, the party (3rd level we'll assume) moves north from the village.

Hex #c5 says, "A band of 2-12 orcs is terrorizing a farmhouse, it's residents still inside. The farmer has a magic sword, but doesn't know how to use it." The party has a tough time, but prevails.

Moving east, to hex #D5 says, "A pack of d4+1 dire weasels are eating berries off of a bush - the bush has 2D10 berries that will cure d4 HP each. The party manages to survive here as well.

Continuing on, they travel north again. Hex #D6 says, "Three hill giants are eating a woodsman they caught. They would love more meat." Guess what, the party dies. Wow, that was sure fun. Time for new characters.

Am I missing something? Are there actually people out there that LIKE this kind of game? Where you never know what is going on until you are suddenly dead? Here we had a total lose scenario - The giants are not only massively more powerful than the party, but also are faster than the party. What about an ochre jelly? It's mindless, it'll just keep following. A vampire? Another toasted party. How is this fun? Seriously, somebody let me know - I am at a loss.

It's not even about dying. THAT happens in D&D with clockwork regularity, it's a part of the game. However, a well designed encounter will ALWAYS have a way for the players to win. Before you start foaming at the mouth about the word win, I ask you who plays to lose? Any commenter who want to admit that they have secretly always played just to brag they've died or lost in every conceivable way will be trapped, tagged, and released with pity.

In my humble opinion. The sandbox fails because the very randomness it relys on to exist, is antithetical to an enjoyable game experience. This is not to say that randomness has no place by any means. Just that using randomness as a fudamental building block for a campaign is like playing russian roulette with your loved ones for giggles. "Gee dad, I thought this game was fun?" Thank you random troll pack encounter.

The Narrative Railroad

Railroad style gaming is Narrativism taken to the same ludicrous extreme. In this style, the DM reserves the right to do whatever it takes to "guide" you along a predetermined path to a specific event. Most game modules are good examples of this. They contain only information pertinent to the chain of events and encounters that lead from point A to point Z.

This is the method that currently gets all of the badmouthing. It's gonna get some more today. Railroading your party is a good way to have your party do stupid, silly, and otherwise idiotic behaviors - i.e. "Let's burn down the tavern!" or "I pick everyones pockets." They do this as a test of their boundaries. They know that the cage has bars, but cannot often see them. As such, they play with resignation.

This is why it is a BAD idea to allow a character in the party that is essential to the endgame of the campaign. Without them, the campaign collapses - and they will broom-handle you relentlessly once they figure that out!

As if that wasn't bad enough, when the party asks the DM where they should go - the DM is not doing their job. Either A. The information was not passed on properly. Or B. They honestly have no idea where your next set-piece event takes place, and don't want to piss you off.

The Gamist compromise

This is the game most of us actually play. Where the two circles come together into some common ground. This is where we can have a dragon encounter at level 5, and use it to further a story without the party feeling like well armed care bears. This is the game with an established plot line, random encounters, an A a Z and all points in between determined as needed. We get it ALL here. This is the game where your character is something other than a snack to a badly(?) placed encounter, or a wooden puppet marching to the last page of the module.

This is the game that gives you the tools to WIN! To accomplish the goals said character has set. This is the game where everyone is having fun. This is where the hex simply says, "Party level +2 encounter. Captive nymph in bad mood. May strip out of spite. No treasure." Is this old school? Is this new school? Does it matter? It's actually both. A winnable encounter, with a basic framework that (to me anyway) provides everything I need to have some good roleplaying as well! Is the nymph part of the encounter? Is it a trap? Does she kill the party out of annoyance? Who has her? All of these can be pencilled in on the fly, within the framework of an EL+2 encounter!

In my humble opinion, a lot of the "controversy" surrounding this leg of GNS theory has been the whole "win" thing. In fact, 4E was recipient to a lot of identical criticisms - lots of noise about every character winning everything or somesuch. I am not here to tell you how to game. Maybe your players are mongoloids that need to be herded. Maybe your group has a long standing bet relating to the total number of character deaths. I say that if you aren't in it to "win", what ARE you in it for? beer and pretzels? Funny looking dice? All the hot chicks? To die in an epically thematic way at the feet of the villain your party has spend the last 2 years of real world time trying to get to? To LOSE?

In my opinion, the biggest flaw in GNS is that the three exist in opposition to each other. Going in one direction distances you from the others. In my mind, they are all mishmashed together in a pile of nearly useless letters - until you form a group. At that point, you need to fish out the bits that will fit the group as a whole. A game "tailored" to 3 power gamers, one method actor, and two folks allergic to dice will look differently than, well...any other group on the planet - but I digress.

In summation, there is no one true way. The artificial divide between the "schools" of gaming thought is just that - artificial. We choose to build these walls around our narrow interpretations of the most subjective game on the planet. We choose to dig the moat, and how deep. We even choose when to fill it with water - and when to fill it with flaming trolls.

As to game design itself. Sometimes when you codify every minute detail into easily digested, modular little bites, you lose a little bit of perspective. D&D is not chess. D&D is not snakes and ladders. We get so pre-occupied with using formulae and rules that we forget there is likely not a single game ever published that is played RAW.

We all have different ideas as to how is "should" be. One person's Xanadu is another's steaming pile of poop. This summarizes the edition wars, Gaming theory and design, ans well as the silliness of the old school / new school movements. This is also the reason we have such a vibrant gaming community. Do we really need to build walls to feel better about our personal choices?

Long live gaming! And all of it's silly players.

Jun 3, 2009

Steal this hook!

Heroic tier - AKA lvls. 1-10

The party, a group of uber-noob adventurers, are tasked to root out an evil cult in a bustling fantasy metropolis. After many trial and travails, they discover the lair of the evil cult far below the foundations of the city.

Disrupting a crucial summoning ceremony, the party barely escapes a dramatic cave-in - blocking their only known means of egress. Their only option is to continue deeper into the earth, to discover a way out.

Paragon Tier - AKA lvls. 11-20

Exploring the subterranean caverns, the party discovers a thriving ecosystem of giant fungi, glowing predators and prey, and fanatical cultists - also escaping the cave-in. Only, the cultists seem to be seeking something down here as well.

Facing down a fearsome creature spawned in the very bowels of the earth, the party discovers a means to return to the surface for rest and resupply - before descending once more into the depths to stop an evil plan from being realized.

Epic Tier - AKA Lvls. 21-30

With their hopes and supplies renewed, the party must storm an underground fortress being used as ground zero for the cult's master plan. The compound is in reality a massive walled city-state, in which the one time citizens are being used as slaves and sacrifices.

The adventure climaxes with an epic battle against a great evil.

223 words that will eat up the next year or more of your life : ) Edition neutral, and including most of the tropes we all expect (and sometimes demand) in our stereotypical fantasy game.

Enjoy.