Wednesday, February 1, 2023

I have a new blog about weird old SFF novels

 Well, as you can see I haven't updated this blog in many years. I still play D&D but I don't get creative ideas for it in the same way that I used to. Instead I have started a new blog where I review classic sci-fi and fantasy novels, focusing on the strange and the obscure.

There is obviously a lot of crossover in interest between this and old-school D&D. Old-school players will particularly enjoy my writeups of Roger Zelazny's The Changing Land (a psychedelic wizard novel that seems to have drawn directly on D&D 1e) and Jack L. Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls (a bizarre sci-fi-fantasy-fetish mashup that manages to be videogame-like despite being written before videogames were really invented).

Check it out here:

You can even subscribe and have it delivered straight to your inbox, as is the new fashion!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Weird Camelot Campaign - Sessions 1-3

After about a year's hiatus from RPGs I've started a new campaign with D&D 5th edition. The setting is a weird, sci-fi-tinged take on Arthur's Camelot. This is my latest attempt at a sandbox campaign, something that has always eluded me in the past. The last time I tried it was with DCC, which I found a little too loose and unbalanced for it to really work in long-term play. 5th edition seems to hit the sweet spot between B/X's simplicity and 4E's tactical crunch.

I generally find session reports pretty boring so I won't go through a blow-by-blow account of everything that's been happening. I'll just point out some things I've been learning about the craft of DMing:

- My players like fiddling with mechanical widgets if they're there, but they don't really miss them if they aren't. Nobody cares that they don't have the "shift 1 square, 3 temp hp" type powers from 4E. Even when the fights devolve down into "I roll attack, you roll attack" they are still engaging, though eventually this might change.
- Random wilderness encounters take up a lot of time and are a bigger deal than I had anticipated. The second session consisted entirely of a single random encounter with some Space Vikings, after which the party had to go back to town and recuperate. However they did manage to score a sweet flying boat out of the deal.
- Trying to predict everything mathematically like you can do in 4E does not really work in a sandbox environment. I had planned to build the adventures around 5E's target of 6-8 encounters between long rests. To do this I had houseruled that the PCs could only take a long rest when they're at Camelot or another large town. All my assumptions about this were thrown out the window when they got the flying boat which would allow them to bypass most wilderness encounters. Rather than trying to bring them back in line with my assumptions, I think I can just roll with it.
- The deadliness of low-level 5E seems overstated. I fretted about accidentally TPKing them in a dumb way, but if anything I need to go harder on them.
- Talking to the players about expectations is really useful. In the 3rd session they were raiding a castle and I told them straight up that if they didn't play strategically, they would have a much harder time of it. After they failed their stealth rolls early on, they wisely retreated rather than wading into battle.
- I still wish there was a more formalised system for stealth rolls (and to a lesser extent, athletics rolls during chases). How many rolls they have to make is pretty much entirely up to me as a DM, so it feels a lot more arbitrary than combat. When I ran 4th edition I always used to heap shit on the skill challenge rules for being artificial and pointless. Ironically it's now that I'm running 5E that I want to use them for situations like the above.

Monday, May 20, 2013

DCC Fimbulwinter - Session 5

Once again the session revolved around Magnus McAnthony, the asshole wizard with the d30 choking cloud spell.

Eventually one of the level 0 characters tired of this and stabbed him in the back, ending his reign of dungeon genocide. Then he was stabbed in turn by the other PCs.

Meanwhile the players encountered two really cool villains I'd developed and killed them both before they got to do anything cool.

PC deaths: 5
Treasure obtained: ~1500sp (that's silver standard mind you)

The high lethality has been fun but it's getting old. Only one character still survives from the 2nd session. Most of the deaths today could have been prevented if they hadn't fought each other and if they'd remembered to bring a cleric.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

DCC Fimbulwinter Session 4

"This choking cloud only lasts for another 2 minutes, so let's just run through the dungeon so we can clear as many rooms as possible before it expires!"

This was after the cloud had already killed three party members.

Three more PCs died before the session was over - the last of them by falling down a hole while fleeing from the dungeon.

No treasure acquired.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dead Company

(Wrote this post a looong time ago and never got round to publishing it, but Gus L's latest post got me thinking about it again.)

One day, while arguing about different editions of D&D, somebody told me that frequent character death was antithetical to roleplaying or character development. The premise being that if characters don't have time to develop, they won't be interesting, and if characters are at constant risk of death then players won't get attached to them.

I figured this was bunk, because a) there is plenty of character development in "highly lethal" works of fiction like Game of Thrones or The Wire, and b) it's easy to roleplay and get attached to a character in, say, Fiasco, or any other one-shot for that matter, despite the fact that the character is certain to "die" (i.e. cease to be played) at the end of the session. While it's true that most old-school D&D games don't have a lot of character depth, that's more because killing monsters in a cave is a premise inherently lacking in opportunities for roleplaying*.

So I began to think about an RPG which revolves around an ensemble cast of characters with a high turnover rate - often, but not always, because of death. You could probably do this already with a collaborative story engine like Smallville or DramaSystem, but I'm aiming for something a little more traditional.

This is a game about the Dead Company - a renowned mercenary company in the midst of a brutal war. Individuals come and go, but the company remains. I'd say that it's like the Black Company, but I haven't actually read those books yet :( Of course that's just the default, and you could run a variety of different groups: revolutionaries, pirates, dungeon delvers, colonists, Jomsvikings, etc. However, the assumption is that the company will get mixed up in ongoing plots, deal with different factions, and influence the world around them. Fifteen guys crawling through a dungeon full of hostile, mute undead is not the goal here.

The game goes like this:
- All players generate three PCs at the start of the game. These PCs then go into the pool of playable characters. They are not 'your' PCs because you made them; anyone can play any PC and the roles can change from session to session.
- PCs don't have stats, at least not to begin with. They are primarily defined by their class and by their relationships. Each PC must have at least one relationship to another, which will be something like the relationships in Fiasco. All the PCs must be connected to each other at least indirectly. You will draw a chart of the relationships to make sure everyone is linked up to the 'web'.
- Each session consists of a mission in which one PC will be selected for each player, while the other PCs stay at home or act off-screen.
- The turnover rate is up to the group to decide, but by default you should expect 1-3 fatalities per session. There might also be rules for characters burning out and quitting the company.
- New PCs can be brought in naturally through play, or through a mechanical device that generates them with new relationships to the existing PCs. It's possible to have relationships with deceased/retired PCs as well, e.g. a son who joins up after his father was killed.
- PCs don't advance in the sense of growing stronger, but they do grow more complex. Each time a PC survives a mission, they get an extra bit of nuance added to their character, based off something they did that session. This might be an Attribute (e.g. Strong, Weak, Clever, Stupid - equivalent of D&D stats) a Trait (personality, unusual skill, etc.) a Background (think 13th Age) a Secret (flashback to past, possible plot hook) or a Link (gained an enemy, impressed the king, downloaded the crystal memories of an alien civilisation into your brain, etc.)
- The Company as a whole advances by gaining money and renown. However, the major form of advancement in the game is simply the development of the plot towards a satisfying conclusion.
- The core resolution system needs to be simple and easy to use. I would probably use the chassis of Basic D&D since that's something that many players are already familiar with.
- By default, the classes would not include spellcasters, since I'm going for a more down to earth sword & sorcery tone. Also, there would be no 'fighter' class since everyone in the Dead Company is expected to be a fighter. So you might have healers, minstrels, assassins, etc. but all of that goes on top of a basic proficiency in combat.

*hurdy dur, not real roleplaying, etc., what I here mean by roleplaying is acting and thinking as your character and developing a story about the characters. Much as I love old-school D&D, it doesn't make it easy to play the role of anything but a psychopathic murderer.

More inspirational imagery:

 & and meanwhile, in anime:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

DCC Fimbulwinter, Session 3

They finally got to level 1 and picked character classes.
- One PC is an absolute monster with 18hp and +5+d3 attack bonus. But to get his full attack bonus he must wield a pitchfork.
- A wizard PC rolled 98 for mercurial magic - can cast Choking Cloud with a d30 instead of d20.
- Party was hired to carry out a blood feud assassination. Reminded not to kill too many people or the feud would only be perpetuated further.
- Attack on the longhouse ended with the aforementioned wizard casting Choking Cloud, rolling a 30 on the d30 and slaughtering everyone in the building, men women children and slaves (but sparing the goat). No save - or rather, the save DC is equal to the spell check, so nobody short of a deity could have passed it.
- Then they burned down the longhouse to 'hide the evidence'. Now they have to leave town in a hurry, but they did get paid.

The group seems to love DCC. One player who started on 4th edition said he preferred this because he felt like he had "earned" the right to be 1st level (and have 18hp and a game-breaking perfect storm of attack bonuses.)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

DCC Fimbulwinter Session 2

- Reskinned 'Portal Under the Stars' as a buried longship
- A more balanced slaughterfest than last week: seven died and nine survived to reach level 1
- four PCs killed by the shitty sub-zero-level skull monsters; the giant snake miniboss was killed before he got a chance to act. Teamwork and planning made all the difference.
- The final fight is kind of a joke if the PCs do all the stuff that mitigates the threat: the clay soldiers all melted, the generals all turned to dust, so it was just the PCs against one lone warlord. A crit reduced his movement speed to 0 and they kicked him into the pool.
- When tallying up treasure I always think "I gave them way too much" and after it's divided between the party I always think "I gave them too little"

Also, though this may be of limited interest to those outside the game: a high score board for all characters living and dead: