Friday, March 23, 2018

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 5

The party stops outside Mordoch’s lab and decide to take the passage south – the one passage in this area they had yet to explore. They oil the door to keep it from squeaking. They move into a room where they find a roomful of discarded weapons in poor condition. After breaking into a cabinet and chest, once Pater failed at picking the lock, the group finds a small arsenal of weapons in good condition, including a nice suit of chainmail and a sword which are obviously of special make. In opening the chest and cabinets, they attract a group of three ghouls with the noise they make. The battle is over quickly, but Nyphus is struck and paralyzed for a couple of turns. While he recovers the others hide the usable weapons and take the exceptional chainmail and sword with them.

They move through the passage west until they reach another room of similar size and shape. This room contains a pedestal with an offering basin on top. Pater discovers small cones of incense inside a compartment in the pedestal. The walls are covered with ancient-looking murals, fresco-style of a primitive tribe of people kneeing and genuflecting towards the passage west. The group continues onward.

Further on, the passage ends with two huge, bronze doors. Pater attempts to pick the lock, and succeeds. The lock gives with a loud clunk, but the door does not open. They then try to force them open through brute strength, but to no avail. Mel casts Detect Magic both on the door as well as the armor and sword. All three show a magical enchantment. Nyphus dons the new armor and Renic chooses the sword. Pater goes back to light the incense to see if that helps open the door. He returns and further attempts are made, but with no affect.

The group then hears human voices coming from the mural room. Wary, they go back to find the room filled with close to a dozen men and women in ragged clothing. The incense freed them from their prison within the walls’ mural. They speak a crude and archaic dialectic of the common tongue. They were members of the barbarian tribe who lived in the fortress two centuries ago. As the fog clears in their heads they can remember their complicity in the awful crimes against their own children. Mel makes an attempt to comfort them and gently tells them where they are at. They tell the party they do not wish to stay in the fortress.

The party begins to lead the newly-awakened tribe members out of the dungeon. Reaching the second floor, they can see the kobolds moving things through the entry chamber down the hall. They creep past the creatures undetected. As they head up the north passage, they hear, then see the two, unfriendly black-robed men they met a couple weeks earlier entering a room to the west. They follow them into the room which is empty. Mel finds a secret door in the corner and they continue down a back passage west out of the dungeon. The dungeon opens out into a cave where a small pack of wolves have been slain.

They come out of the cave onto the western slope of island outside of the fortress close to where they hid their boat. They notice their boat is gone. Coming out from the trees and underbrush they saw the two figures crossing the river with two boats (their own and the party’s). Waiting until they are out of site, the group follows down to the river. Nyphus strips down and swims the channel to retrieve a boat. It takes some time to get the entire group including the dozen barbarians to the other side.

Grelda confronts them in her front yard and asks them to come inside her home. They leave the barbarians upstairs while Grelda leads the PCs to the basement where she presents the two robed men, tied up.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Anticipating Into the Borderlands: Revisiting B1 and B2

I saw Erik Tenkar from Tenkar's Tavern post a pic of Goodman Games new book, Into the Borderlands (check it out), from Gary Con the other day. I heard a couple of months ago about this coming out and it made me really happy, but not out of any sense of nostalgia. I never actually owned a copy of B1 back in the day and the only version of B2 I currently have is the one in the 25th Anniversary TSR box (my original is long gone). I recently picked up the print-on-demand scanned versions of both modules from DriveThruRPG (pictured left) as a way to have disposable play copies. They're a little blurry, but they're serviceable.

Into the Borderlands is a compilation of both the original modules along with 5e updates of the adventures. Even though I don't play 5e D&D, I still may get this just for the new format and to have nice, clear copies of each (hopefully the Otus Minotaur is in there). My happiness about this release is really not about me owning a copy though. I'm happy that newer DMs will get to experience these modules because they fill a gap that I've noticed in modern editions. B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are two of the best training adventures for both players and DMs ever made, and they prepare gamers to create their own worlds in a way that perhaps modern RPG products don't.

Although I've played in very few modern D&D games, I've noticed a lot of current DMs rely on published adventures and campaign content for their games, much more than I remember doing in the 80s. Sure, everyone liked having the rite of passage of playing through classic adventures like Isle of Dread, Tomb of Horrors, and of course, B1 and B2; but the adventures I remember playing as kids were mostly of our own design. Coming back to gaming in the past year, I don't hear as much talk about people creating their own campaign worlds, at least outside of the OSR community. I see videos about how to run Curse of Strahd or Tomb of Annihilation, but not so much about how to come up with your own stuff. The OSR, by comparison, is all about sharing random tables, one-page dungeon advice, and sandbox toolkits. Meanwhile, the mainstream D&D community seem to view home-brewing as an eccentric option for fringe DMs who choose to miss out on the brilliance of the Forgotten Realms (not that there's anything wrong with FR).

It's possible that this is just my warped perception and foggy memory. However, I see a lot of new DMs asking questions on Facebook, G+, and other forums that I learned the answer to by playing Borderlands. Looking through my new POD copies of B1 and B2, I've started to understand their genius through a new lens of experience and perspective. These two early modules intentionally left a lot of space for the DM to fill in. B1 is completely un-keyed in terms of monsters and treasure. The DM is given lists to choose from and some advice to not use everything and leave some rooms empty. The inhabitants of The Keep in B2 are unnamed beyond their profession, leaving it up to the DM to provide their motives and backstory. B2 also doesn't direct you very much on how to get the players to the Caves of Chaos or give you some overarching plot to move the action. It keys the locations, but you need to make sense of it.

By modern players' and DMs' standards these two modules might seem incomplete, possibly not even suitable for publication compared to newer tomes filled with lore and legend in every hex. B1 and B2 don't do all the work for you. DMs have to do some heavy lifting and players need to ask questions and be curious. These modules don't lead anyone around by the nose to high adventure.

I'm curious to see how this new release plays to modern, 5e D&D gamers. My hopes are two-fold. First, I'd love for this book to teach newer generations of gamers how to think for themselves and come up with their own content, and how to be confident enough in their own ideas to fill in the details on-the-fly. Second, I'd love to introduce or re-acquaint the 5e crowd to the old school way of doing things, where you don't have to rely on official product to tell you how to D&D. We all love fancy new books, but in the end our own imaginations are the best engines of fantasy. I realize it's absurd to expect a complete sea change to happen, but a little bit of old school wisdom wouldn't hurt at all. It would also help to bridge the gap between editions a bit, and that's always a good thing.

One final note: While perusing the Monster stats at the back of B1, I noticed dual Descending/Ascending AC numbers. As the pic to the right shows, the explanation of AC gives the descending AC rank, followed by the to-hit number. Did Mike Carr invent ascending AC in 1979?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Challenge Ratings: Why To For Make So Hard?

Erol Otus is the best.
I had a conversation with my office mate this morning who happens to also be a player in my Basic Fantasy game. I was telling him about my idea for a different kind of bestiary that wasn't based around stat blocks (like Fire on the Velvet Horizon, but different). He listened and told me, "I hate coming up with stat blocks. It's too hard."

What's strange is that I find stat blocks to be the easiest part of designing a creature. It's literally a handful of numbers. The difficult part is coming up with something that looks and behaves in a new and mysterious way. It's tough to come up with something the players haven't encountered before, yet sounds plausible, not something that feels like a bunch of monster parts Frankensteined together from random tables, like a dwarfs head with a unicorn horn, a Displacer Beast's tentacles, and the trunk of a Roper.

The main issue for him was being uncertain of whether he was creating something too hard or too easy, and he found the whole 5e challenge rating system confusing and difficult to wrap his head around. I asked him why worry about it. If you make it too tough, you're players can run away and figure out a way to defeat it tactically. If it's too easy, have two or three more come around the corner.

Challenge Ratings are something I don't really understand the need for in D&D. Perhaps it's just because I have enough confidence and experience to feel what the right difficulty is. I don't really need to think about it anymore (if I ever did), and I certainly don't need to consult a set of rules for encounter balance. And if the first-level players don't do enough information gathering, ignore the blatant warnings, and go traipsing into the temple of a slumbering chaos demon, well, they get what's coming to them.

Say you have a standard D&D adventuring party of a couple fighters, a cleric, a magic-user, and a thief - all around 4-6 level.  How many ogres would you pit against them. If the setting and environment would support it, I would probably throw six at them. I would expect the party to (mostly) survive the encounter, but it might get a little hairy there depending on how the dice go. If the same PCs were 1-3 level I'd probably cut it down to two, maybe three. What's more important to me is picking a Number Appearing that makes sense for the environment that the players are exploring. In the above example, if six ogres would seem overcrowded in the area encountered, then I'd only have there be three, but just make them tougher.

That's just off the top of head. I'm sure someone would consult some official WotC oracle and tell me all the ways that encounter isn't balanced. Here's the thing: I don't care. If it proves too deadly, the worst that will happen is one of the players (or maybe more) will be making a new character. If you already have a predetermined outcome for the adventure, why play through it? Let things go wrong. That's part of the game. What do you think?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Corniness Threshold of High vs. Low Fantasy

I've come to the conclusion that my problems with or distaste for newer versions of D&D may be less about mechanics or rules and more about the fluff. I still have issues with the mechanics, but they're just different ways of arbitrating success or failure. What really turns me off anything 3e and up is I find the inherent high fantasy setting of modern D&D really corny.

There's way too much magic, too many superpowers, and an endless smorgasbord of player character options of classes and races of increasing silliness. The artwork matches this themepark/kitchen-sink setting where the weird and unusual - the truly magical - becomes mundane. It all crosses a threshold of credulity for me. Sure, I realize I'm complaining about my fantasy RPG having too much fantasy in it, but we all have a line where too much is too much.

All of these player options and powers in current 5e D&D are very popular - many feel the more, the better. At the same time, I doubt those players psyched to play a Tortle Monk in the style of Kung Fu Panda's Master Oogway would think playing something like a walking Lollipop Accountant to be just dumb. Everyone has their threshold.

I sometimes find myself watching 5e YouTuber character-build videos for a laugh, watching people talk seriously about playing something like a Dragonborn Paladin Warlock. To me, this is not any less corny than playing the aforementioned Lollipop Accountant, or an Arcane Barcalounger (see above). I don't really want to turn this into a rant of Bad-Wrong-Fun. If playing a Half-Dragonfruit Druid of the Lost Circle K is where it's at for you, go for it.

I've spent a lot of time recently trying to determine where this threshold lies for me. This is something I've always struggled with. Back when I played AD&D in the 80s, I was never particularly fond of Gnomes, and Half-Orc PCs were just right out. I've always been okay with the four standard Tolkien races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling), though lately I've even questioned these. Humanocentric games/campaigns have begun to appeal to me more, but I don't know that I'm absolutely done with demi-humans yet. I've been buying a lot of sword & sorcery-style games like Low Fantasy Gaming, Barbarians & Basilisks, and Crypts & Things. While these are all very cool, there is a definite jockish vibe about them and a real slavish worship of Howard's Conan. I'm sure from simulationist wargamer perspective, my preferred milieu is just as cartoony as I think 4e was, because perhaps it doesn't have enough historical, fact-based realism behind it.

Finding other players who have similar tastes and attitudes about how much fantasy is the right amount can be just as important as finding people who like the same systems or mechanics. We're all a little goofy in our preferences and we all take ourselves and our elf games a little too seriously from time to time.

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 14 - Death Frost Doom - Part 2 of 2

So, here stands the final chronicle of my two-year Basic Fantasy campaign. It ended a year ago and I'm just now getting around to fini...