Monday, May 20, 2019

Helgacon: Lessons Learned

A top-ten (in no particular order) list of observations and lessons from this year's house con:

  1. I still need to get better about handling ("accordioning" per BJ) adventures for time constraints in the convention setting. I did better than Tomb of Horrors a decade ago, but still was over by an hour with the Tomb of Ra-Hotep run-through. 
  2. I'm liking bare-bones minimalist adventure text (like Ra-Hotep) more than towering wall-of-text give-all-details-imaginable (like in the Slavers modules). Easier to "own" the adventure and play loose and flexibly, with less note-lookups. Sometimes the wall-of-text approach (e.g., A2) loses its own plot, becoming incoherent or self-contradictory itself!
  3. In Outdoor Spoliation, I simply must offload the administration-handling to pre-game, if I run it again in the future. 
  4. There's surprising potential for a minimal PC team to do well in a game meant for lots of other players (e.g., the 4-person team in the stockade game). Does a streamlined communication network assist this? 
  5. On a related note, I got away from using the Caller role, and this might have contributed to bogging down the games with larger number of players (esp., Slavers Stockade part 2, Outdoor Spoliation). Part of what explains that is in the last year I've had a bi-weekly campaign that has a smaller number of players (usually 4-6) who also know each other and communicate/coordinate really well. So over time I simply forgot about Callers and if I thought about it, came to think I'd discovered they weren't necessary. But for larger groups (and those who may not know each other so well at a convention), it may in fact be very beneficial. I really need to keep in mind the need to switch protocols with a group of over 6 players, or something like that. 
  6. Also, I was trying out a new method for marching order in these games: Ask the players to sit down at the table the same as their standard 2x2 marching order; for round resolution I then went down the table likewise left-right, left-right and so forth. I officially made this optional but with a +1 bonus to all initiative if they did so. Every team took me up on this, and it seemed to work pretty well (didn't hear any complaints, and nicely represented the front-line people being in contact first). Note that Gygax specifically called out marching order as the one thing that was hard to handle for very large groups of around 20 or so players (I quoted him at Stack Exchange at the link there, from a 2005 ENWorld Q&A). So this real-world physical representation is feeling like a pretty good solution to me.
  7. For the last year or so I've used placecards (folded-up index cards) in front of each player to advertise what everyone's PC name, armor, and weapon are. That's largely so I can address everyone in-character on sight (I've seen a few people do this at other conventions, or else use lapel name stickers, etc.). This year I stumbled into the idea of having players also write their "preferred pronouns" on the placecard (granted that many of my pregenerated PCs have ambiguously gendered names, or else I'm just happy for players to pick which they want to play as in any case). This also may make me seem more "woke" than I probably really am. 
  8. For a climactic final boss fight in a convention game, a battlemap and minis (as used in Ra-Hotep) or something vaguely similar (as in the Slavers games) has a nice impact. This was complimented by at least one player. On the other hand, I need to gauge the extra time this may take. This may be unusual; most games I see with other people are either battlemap-all-the-time of else none-of-the-time. In all my games at Helgacon I had it as a possibility and made a call on the fly about whether to use it or not. 
  9. I may need to find a way to streamline calling distances in combat. The combination of feet (dungeons), yards (wilderness), and inches (rulebooks; 5' for me) definitely confused and frustrated some players. I'm thinking about trying to call all combat distances in "paces" (Roman paces, 5'), which would directly synch up to the "inches" specifier for movement and spells in OD&D. Haven't tried that yet as of this writing. (Alternatively, this possibly suggests the Holmesian approach of just jettisoning the "inches" and writing everything in terms of feet.) 
  10. Granted that intelligent swords were in use in all of my games, Paul's suggested streamlining of OD&D's complicated control-check rules to a Target 20 idiom saved me gobs of time in both preparation and at the table. Highly recommended; I just wrote it into my OD&D rulebook.

Monday, May 13, 2019

HelgaCon: Outdoor Spoliation Ep. 7

In the last reflection on my individual games at Helgacon this year, I also ran:

Outdoor Spoliation Ep. 7

This was probably the weakest performance in my games at Helgacon this year, and I'm fairly embarrassed and sorry for the players involved about what happened here. Particularly because the solution is rather obvious in retrospect, but it's taken me to years of lackluster session to realize what I should have done.

When I started running Outdoor Spoliation games a number of years ago, it was my attempt/experiment at running the OD&D wilderness rules as close to by-the-book as I could manage, using the famous (an truly masterful) Outdoor Survival map as a game board. This was a free-wheeling, free-booting game of amoral ne'er-do-wells in the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser mold, looting treasure and sacking castles willy-nilly in attempt to score a particular number of gold pieces for a "victory" (in-game, rationalized as achieving a level to be made barons by the king).

(Side note: I've done this so much that several of us now accidentally say "Outdoor Spoliation" every time we're trying to say "Outdoor Survival".)

I think at the end of the 3rd season, the players actually succeeded at the goal. I thought that would wrap things up, but there was some demand for me to run it again, so I brought it back two years later. The next year or so after that, the players decided to follow-through and commit to the "barons" idea, taking over a castle permanently and setting up for an expanding dominion there.

So that obviously changed the game a lot, and I haven't quite managed to dial in how to handle that change in action. I realize now we might be trying to do something entirely unique: run a dominion as a team of oligarchs at a once-a-year session at a convention, in a 4-hour time slot. What I've done for two years is to come to the table with a budget and "menu" of possible improvements/investments for the expanding domain (a la the list of investments ideas in OD&D Vol-3, p. 24, under "Baronies"), each with a secret "complication" that would drive the need for some in-person adventuring. In the past I've had as many as a dozen players at the table; this year I had seven.

So problem (1) is that the level of complication and cross-complication to prioritizing the dominion budget can create a round-table debate which stretches on almost indefinitely (this year: maybe 1.5 hours? Ouch). If that weren't bad enough, problem (2) is that maybe half the players or more simply didn't sign up for an hours-long administrative council meeting, expecting the mercenary high action from earlier years, and so rightfully might get distressed or frustrated by that. And the problem (3) might be that once the "complications" are revealed, another (potentially very long) round of debate can take place over which of the resulting "quests" should be prioritized first, and how (e.g., Which is most important to secure? But which are conveniently located close to each other? Can we hire and trust NPCs to any of these jobs? Oh, that spins us back to the budget debate.)

Awkward, and I didn't handle the responsibility to rein it in well at all. Kind of upsetting on my part.

Almost immediately afterward, the answer sprang to mind: If I do this again in the future, I should offload the "domain administration" to an online survey mechanism in the days pre-game, and have people do ranked-choice-voting for the preferred budget priorities or things like that. If anyone's not interested in that component, simple; just ignore that online component, no problem (in fact, that would even nicely simulate that idea that only some of the PCs are willing to take on the burden of rulership roles while others drink and wench until the next plundering expedition). Possibly also address item (3) with a similar pre-game vote on what relevant "quests" to take on, so that D&D action can start more immediately when we get to the table face-to-face.

Ultimately decisions were made, and we did get to play out a little bit of nice negotiation with a powerful and semi-trustworthy lord-wizard, as well as two excursion into the mountains versus alien monsters for critical pieces of the political puzzle. But it was definitely slower-moving than I'd planned on, and not all the players were happy with me failing to meet advertised expectations. Mea culpa.

In this one, Jon's griffon-riding fighter got knocked out of the sky and then death-criticaled by one of a flock of roc-sized cockatrice. He was wished back to life, and then basically melted down again later against a squad of black puddings against which his weapons were useless. He wins the "most stoically abused" award for the weekend.

Favorite random scribble on PC sheet: This one.

Monday, May 6, 2019

HelgaCon: Tomb of Ra-Hotep

Continuing the Helgacon wrap-up this year. For the first time I also ran:

The Lost Tomb of Ra-Hotep

Originally written by Mr. Alan Lucien, this is the precursor and inspiration for Gygax's infamous Tomb of Horrors, and was recently published (for the first time to my knowledge) as a small part of the Dungeons & Dragons: Art and Arcana product. Small spoiler: it has the first invention/appearance of the sphere of annihilation and stuff like that.I did an OED-style conversion of the very sketchy original text (4 handwritten notebook pages) and ran it like that.

Part of my desire for running this is that I ran Tomb of Horrors itself over the first two Helgacons (one, two) and felt in retrospect that I didn't do a very great job with it (actually: only got to about 2/3 of it over two very-late-night running sessions). Major lesson in retrospect: GIVE THE RIDDLE from the first area no matter what (that totally shift the PCs from just blundering into trap after trap, to actively engaging the dungeon and giving them the tools to try and outwit each succeeding area). Also, I was still trying to run with actual 1E AD&D rules at the time, and a pretty strict reading of each encounter area as given in the text (so: achingly slow progress) -- so I wanted to see if my OED rules a decade on, and a hopefully more looser/flexible DM'ing philosophy, would make things run more successfully. 

This seemed to be my biggest hit of the convention. We had 9 players at the table (would've been 10 but for illness) with approximately 10th level PCs each (250K XP, to be precise). I think I initially estimated that I might have about 5 players, so the night before the game I decided to double all of the monsters and traps on the fly, and this seemed just about right in-game (of course I'd estimated danger levels in advance with my Equivalent Hit Dice system; also, I'd made sure to supply some magic weapons that could hit the invulnerable-to-everything-but-+2-weapons monsters involved).

I think it moved along pretty well and I gave players lots of chances to find ways to succeed (e.g., using passwall on the starting entrance to avoid technically opening the door and summoning extradimensional monsters). At a particular point in the game, I arbitrarily sealed off a side-wing to force the PCs more towards the climactic fight(s) at the end. Even so, the huge embarrassment for me is that I went over the allocated convention time (4 hours) by an entire hour, a tremendous faux pas (and surely anathema at a real convention, if I weren't playing at a table where everyone was friends). That said, I was immensely curious at how the last two encounters were going to play out (I really didn't know if they'd be total TPK's or not), so as a gaming scientist I couldn't stop myself from running them. I actually completely forgot about the problem of opening the final doors, even. I suppose I'm at least getting closer to "good" than when Tomb of Horrors was taking us 3 years and around 20 hours of play to get through (actually it hurts me to even write that).

One weird thing that came into play is that my friend Paul loaned me the piece of Art & Arcana to see this dungeon myself for the first time. Then his (brilliantly resourceful) automatic convention scheduler actually put him in the game, and neither of us noticed this until a single day before the convention. We quickly cycled an idea to have him run a "ringer" character, a lost reincarnated soul of Ra-Hotep in the world, with dim memories of the dungeon and a compulsion to be reunited with the master creature -- such that Paul could play the Adversary at the end like I did for him recently. When we reached the final area, a black beam annihilated his PC, I handed him a sheet for Ra-Hotep, and he studied that while I was rolling out a big battlemap for the climactic fight. (Note that these few minutes were the entirety of the study time for the monster that Paul had; I didn't give him anything at all prior to that time.)

Among the most beautiful pieces of play from this was that one of our friends (expert hobbit thief player) had been loudly trash-talking Ra-Hotep all through the adventure, using that to aggravate monsters into attacking them, etc., and at some point had turned to Paul and said, "Geez, I hope Ra-Hotep can't actually hear any of this!". (I was too busy to hear that myself.) So when Paul was revealed as actually Ra-Hotep himself, he pointed an outstretched finger at that player, and shrieked in the most evil voice possible, "You shall be the one to die first, in the most painful manner imaginable!". That was simply priceless.

Pretty compelling fight at the end. Arguably I should have also given Paul control of the mob of Ra-Hotep's evil minions. Having the PCs summon an earth elemental and cast haste on the whole party turned out to be critical in the enormous final tomb area. (Note that I give only double moves, no extra attacks or other side benefits from haste, and it was still a key to victory in 2 of my 4 games that weekend.) On the other hand, Ra-Hotep using his sphere and casting charm monster to turn the lead fighter to his side, and attack a PC wizard, was quite the nail-biter. In the end, he was beaten down by a crush of hasted PC fighters and thieves.

Also, Jon again fought all the way to the end here and then actually got disintegrated by Ra-Hotep in the final encounter.

Favorite random scribble on PC sheet: "Punching Mummies".

Monday, April 29, 2019

HelgaCon: The Slavers Stockade

Here's the first part of a belated recap of our HelgaCon house-convention action from the first weekend in April. This year I ran 4 games across the 5 sessions of the weekend. These included the following:

Secret of the Slavers Stockade (Ad&D Module A2)

I'm on year 2 of a multi-year run to play through the famous A-series, which I've never done, sticking to the "tournament" subsections, rules, and scoring guidelines. This was (obviously) two separate sessions: one for the above-ground hill fort, and one for the below-ground dungeons section. Of course, I'm translating the content as best I can to OED rules, clerics become fighter/wizards or a fighter with a special-power sword, etc.

One thing in trying to recreate the "tournaments" on a small scale is that you can't guarantee you'll get all 9 players expected by the original setup. In the first session of A2, I actually only had 4 players at the table (another was scheduled but got sick). I started out halving the number/power of the monsters, but found these players were just carving through everything like a knife through hot butter, so I ramped up the proportion from half, to three-quarters, to full-strength by about the half-way point. Still they plunged into the final encounter and swept the board for a victory. It seemed like they could do no wrong.

For the second session, I had 7 players (again, missing the same extra player). It seems like this group didn't have a noticeably easier time with the event. They overcame traps/puzzles admirably and fought through the final encounter. Here, the boss wizard let loose with an opening lightning bolt that felled either 2 or 3 of the party's 4 wizard PCs. The two sides then basically fought to a nail-biting standstill until the remaining party wizard used his last spell, suggestion: "I suggest this fighting does neither side any good and we should part ways in a truce," which was successful. So: a draw, although the party still scored almost all the points for the game.

I'm a little baffled at how the 4-player group did so remarkably well with the hill fort scenario (I expected to roll in replacement characters, but none were needed). Is the first session simply easier? Does the smaller group make it simpler for the team to communicate and coordinate?

Regarding this and other A-series modules that I've seen: (a) the text seems wall-of-words copious (many paragraphs per area) and frankly it's a real burden to parse and translate it (both before and during the game), and (b) many of the puzzles/traps are somewhere between inexplicable-unworkable-incomprehensible, both in terms of describing/explaining and running them mechanically. Example of the former: The text for the single new "cloaker" monster, with all its various "subsonic" powers, alone spans 7 big paragraphs in the adventure text (I'm pretty sure I missed some components in-game). Examples of the latter: Many of the A-series traps are hard-to-believe mundane traps (toppling stuffed bear, pillowcase in flue that looks like a ghost, humanoids dressed as mummies in angled mirror) so you can't even hand-wave it away as "it's magic". For the players' benefit I started to set expectations with, "the slave lords might just be mentally ill", and on my end, I tried to be sensitive to the point when we all started becoming disinterested in a particular barrier and then say "yes" to whatever idea the PCs came up with to bypass it. I think I'm coming to a philosophy that the very-wordy classic AD&D modules are not my favorite thing to run; I'd really rather have very terse, couple-line areas that I can expand on improvisationally during the game (and very clear stats for monsters, tricks, and traps).

I should point out that the design for the A-series is extremely regimented. It's usually a linear path (no surprise), with the 5 sessions from A1, A2, and start of A3 all with about 16 areas areas each, 9 "significant" ones for scoring, with exactly 5 monster encounters and 5-7 traps (and also one "new" monster per section). I will say that this seems pretty well-timed, as both my groups reached the final encounter with a comfortable amount of time (although last year in the dungeon part of A1 we did not reach the final room). The scoring system is surprising: although given as a table, it boils down to 45 points for each of 9 significant areas cleared out (not explicit in the text; you must decide which 9 of the 16 areas count), minus 5 points per character death. Note that the lives of the entire party are worth the same as a single encounter area (45 points in each case); so this equivalent to a scoring system of, "count areas cleared from 1-9; for a tiebreaker, count surviving party members". I suppose for brevity this system means the one table can be used for all the sessions in A1-4 uniformly; although more recent tournament scoring I've seen has more detail in terms of specific tasks accomplished, which I think I do prefer (not having tested them to date as a DM).

One other thing I stumbled into is that (for example) the A2 module has "battlemaps" with detailed furnishings and monster starting positions for three of the most climactic encounter areas. I blew these up to a full-page each and printed them out, but didn't actually expect to use them. (They're sized so a single letter-size page can only show them at about 1" = 10' scale; for my preferred 1" = 5' scale, I'd need to split and paste together 4 sheets each, i.e., 12 total pages, which was more work/resources than I wanted to spend.) But when the first such encounter came, I did find myself pulling out the blow-up and handing it to the players as a shortcut to explain all the details. We didn't use minis, but instead just jotted some notes in pencil as the action took place. This seemed to work out very slickly and I continued that for the other areas that had such blow-ups.

Special shout-out to my player Jon who took the modified Eljayess character, scratched out my "wizard" and wrote in "cleric", and then got KIA'd in the final encounter of both sessions.

Favorite random scribble on PC sheet: "Leave No Door" (this from Elwita's player, usually following behind the max-strength "Ogre" character who tended to smash all the doors to splinters; and in other cases tear them off the hinges to use as platforms over pits and such).

More to come. In the meantime, you can look back at the Wandering DMs wrap-up livecast we did when when Paul & myself were still hot from the convention just wrapping up a few weeks ago. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

OD&D Critical Hits

I'm recovering from "convention season", and running a week or two behind on blogging and responses to emails. Still need to write a short recap of this year's HelgaCon games. I just got to our school's spring break week, so hopefully I can catch up soon.

In the meantime, here's a little historical note that came up on yesterday's Wandering DMs livecast on critical hits, death, and reincarnation: Does OD&D have critical hits? The obvious answer is "no", but the semi-snarky answer is "yes". In the original LBBs (little brown books), within the Vol-3 Aerial Combat section (p. 27), you do have a specific Critical Hit Table just for flyers. Here you get the following tables and no other text explanations (apparently checked with the 2 or 3 extra rolls on every single hit):

I've done some playtesting with streamlining those rules (actually: that fed into my friend B.J.'s game at HelgaCon two weekends ago), and therefore played a number of games with my partner Isabelle. I kind of like the extra spice from those tables, but Isabelle rather hates the whole concept as an unwanted surprise/complication. Obviously she's not the only person to ever feel that way.

The other thing that exists in OD&D with critical-hit-like capabilities is the "Hit Location System" in Supplement II, Blackmoor, by Dave Arneson. This runs about 7 pages and dictates apportioning creature hit points into separate limbs and body parts, and rolling on tables for each hit to determine which part takes the damage. For example: once the fraction of "head" or "body" hit points are depleted, then the creature is immediately dead. There are separate charts and specification for different types of creatures (humanoid, flyer, reptile, insectoid, fish, snake), and also a 20 × 20 matrix of attacker-versus-defender height comparisons (in one foot increments) with various adjustments or restrictions to what body parts can be hit. Here's an excerpt just for humanoids:

Nowadays there's an opinion in some quarters that Dave Arneson represented the "radical freedom" side of D&D, and that he ran his games in the spirit of total improvisation, without regards to any systematized rules whatsoever. I find this pretty hard to digest when it seems like he has his name on the most complicated and baroque parts of the OD&D game system: the aerial combat, the naval combat, the hit location tables, etc. Some might defend this as "he wrote them but didn't play them", but to my ear that comes across as "fraud" or something very close to it.

On the other hand, I now read many of the Gygaxian comments in AD&D as mostly responding and rejecting to these complicated ideas by Arneson in Sup-II. E.g.: "[D&D] does little to attempt to simulate anything either" (in the "The Game", p. 9), and "... the location of hits and the type of damage caused are not germane to them... Lest some purist immediately object, consider the many charts and tables necessary to handle this sort of detail..." (opening to "Combat", p. 61). Any argument that D&D has "fully abstracted combat" or whatever definitely has to play monkey-covers-its-eyes in regard to these kind of rules from OD&D; and indeed they've mostly been successfully shoved down the memory hole at this point.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Stats Saturday: AD&D Wandering Monster Rankings

Commentator G. B. Veras has generously shared with us this delightful piece of work; a complete analysis of the relative chances of encountering any AD&D monster in the dungeon, based on the encounter tables in the 1E DMG. Stunning! It's best if you download the spreadsheet locally and poke around at the chart (which in Libre Office lets me select certain bars and easily see which of the 165 monsters they represent). Thanks to G.B. for making this available!

Monday, April 1, 2019

Co-DMs for Boss Fights

I must reflect on an experiment from last month's TotalCon that worked smashingly well (likely my favorite event of the con). My friend and co-Wandering DM Paul invited me to join him for his recurring Sunday-morning "Boss Fight for Breakfast", a two-hour all-out fight between players and some major D&D bad guy in an interesting lair with various environmental hazards.

In this case he invited me to participate as something of a co-DM, namely, the dedicated brains behind the boss -- here, Flame, an ancient red dragon of maximum size, power, and spellcasting ability, from the Dungeon Magazine #1 adventure "Into the Fire".

Specifically, my role was this guy.

I was really thrilled by how this worked out. Sometimes with a single large bad guy there's a danger that PCs are going to swamp him with the "action economy" of getting lots of actions while the boss only gets one per round. There were 9 high-level PCs coming at me with lots of spells, magic items, cold abilities, magic detecting swords, etc., etc. -- which I was not allowed to inspect before the game -- so I was worried this was a distinct possibility.

Situation as PCs saw it at the start.

But as it turned out I was really quite happy with how challenging I could make this. I used illusions layered on illusions on top of other illusions to distract the players. I hit them with two 88-point flame breaths while they were carefully trying to avoid a major trap. I got one player to run to their death into a hidden chasm. Another, flying on a magic carpet, conked their head on a cavern roof hidden by magic. I hit a batch of them with a hold spell (although all but one made their saves), and managed to drop a portcullis trap on them. I even taunted them into using the one spell against which I had an item giving me immunity. I was defeated in the last 5 minutes of the session, but I think I put up a fair game.

Situation as everyone saw it at the end.

When we left the convention, both Paul and I shared the same observation; neither of us could have made that game work the same way working alone. As referee, your hands are definitely full going around the table adjudicating (high-level) player actions, questions, details on spells, saving throws and damage, etc., etc. When it gets to the monster turn, I would feel compelled to take an action in 5 seconds or so -- the same as I permit players, to keep the action fast-paced -- regardless of whether it was a very well-considered move or not. But by separating the jobs here, Paul could focus on rulings on player actions, while I had the whole 10 minutes or so to meditate on my options, look at my big hand of spell cards, estimate distances, reflect on player actions, etc., and come up with the best and most devious response possible.

In particular for these kinds of "genius-level" take-no-prisoners opponents, this approach definitely resulted in me running the most devastating boss monster that I've accomplished to date. I think that may be generally true; simply put, getting 100 times more processing power is going to make your simulation look a whole lot smarter than normal. That may not be something feasible all the time (e.g., in a campaign game where combat is not happening all the time, there wouldn't always be something for the boss-actor to do), but in climactic set-pieces with mastermind spell-casters, now I might think this is the best possible thing to do, if I can find a co-DM for it.

More: Our March 10th Wandering DM livecast was on the subject of Dragons, and lessons that we'd learned from the very game. Watch it here.