Insect Shrine, session 1

As promised, I’ll take a stab at writing a sort of report from a player’s perspective on the Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill playtest refereed by Jim Raggi. We played our first game session yesterday, and had five players participating. The system used was Goblinoid Games’s Labyrinth Lord, a Mentzer edition retro-clone. I’ll concentrate on what was going on at the table instead of what happened in the game. Some basic information on the module is, however, included, so to a prospective future player of this module, there might be some spoilers.

Of the players, two were from Jim’s regular game group, and as such already familiar with the rules and the type of game being played. I and the rest of the players (two guys from my regular gaming group) were the new faces here. Two of us had played the Finnish version of the Mentzer basic set back in the late eighties, whereas the third one of us was still learning to walk and talk when it came out. His experience with D&D was mainly AD&D 2nd edition, and D&D 3.5 edition. The rules system is, however, simple enough to explain and start playing from the get-go.

We started out with character creation. The abilities were rolled straight up 3d6, with a re-rolling of the whole set if the total ability bonuses were less than +0. None of us rolled very high scores, with a total average ability bonus of around +1. As the class requirements aren’t very stringent, this allowed us to pretty much decide who’d play which class of character. We ended up with the following group of miscreants: Groosh, the brave but gruff Dwarf; Utz, the somewhat amoral Fighter; Pudgynero, the pot-bellied Thief; Brother Ragnar, the pious Cleric of the All-Seeing Sun-God, and my character Skelg the Frail, the Magic-User. The whole process of character creation was easy and fast. The most time consuming portion of character creation was spending the starting gold. One of the players commented, that the existence of an “adventurer’s kit” with backpack, bedroll, flint & steel, and such, might speed up this part of character creation somewhat. The atmosphere was laid back and friendly, with a lot of casual banter and getting to know the other participants.

The main difference from my normal gaming groups would be, that there wasn’t a lot of emphasis placed on character backgrounds. It was basically just: “You’ve adventured together for a while now, and gotten to know each other.” (As the characters were started at 2nd level). I don’t really see this as a fault, however. Its actually more of a feature of the gaming style, where the focus is firmly on what the characters are doing in the now, and what their plans are for the immediate future. The relative two-dimensionality of the characters also served as a springboard for creating characteristics on the spot, during actual in-game conversations. For example, it was established, that the dwarf snores loudly, to which the dwarf player’s reply was: “Dwarves do not snore. We rumble!”

Actual play started with a brief description of the setting; a trade route through a wilderness region between two kingdoms. The characters were on their way to an inn run by a group of former adventurers about half-way between the kingdoms Barodone and Pasland. The inn had become a sort of hot-spot for adventuring parties heading out into the surrounding wilds. The resident NPC-characters were painted in broad brush-strokes, but with enough detail to bring the setting to life. Almost immediately, the player characters were getting bombarded with possible adventuring opportunities ranging from discovering the whereabouts of a lost trading caravan, to exploring an abandoned tower about a days journey from the inn. The characters decided to eat well, rest for the night, and head out towards to tower the next morning.

Here the main difference from some of my own games was, that since the narrative didn’t provide an obvious direction, the players were actively asking around about adventuring opportunities, and making decisions on where to go next. There were no road signs pointing to The Dungeon. Instead there were, on a rough estimate,  at least half a dozen possible ventures to consider.

During the night, Pudgynero the Thief had had an encounter with some sort of pixie looking for “Long-legged big’uns to help with a problem with one of their own”. Apparently, a wild man had taken control of the animals, which had turned bloodthirsty and dangerous to the fey folk. As the fey wood was in the same general direction as the tower (and the abandoned village, and the possible whereabouts of the lost trade caravan), we decided to give the wee chap a helping hand.  Turns out the wild man was a poor sod of an adventurer who’d come into the possession of a cursed ring, which had turned him feral, and given him the power to control carnivores. The wild man, and the beasts he was controlling were dealt with swiftly and quite easily. The Sleep spell in this edition is killer, albeit its balanced out by the fact, that after that particular combat, my character was out of spells, reducing him to a feeble-bodied middle-aged man in robes carrying a dagger and some darts.

Something interesting came up during the fey woods incursion. The characters came upon a large bird’s nest, and the Thief player decided he’d pull the nest down from the tree using his grappling hook. When I asked for the rationale for this, the player said: “There must be something up there. I know how Jim thinks, and, well, as this is D&D, you’re allowed to use a certain amount of meta-game knowledge.” I was a bit baffled by this, but since I was the guest here, I decided I’d just sit back and observe. Sure enough, the nest contained a clue about the lost wool trader’s caravan.

After helping the faeries we decided to continue towards the abandoned village and the tower beyond. As we didn’t have any kind of map, and none of the characters were local, we had only the directions given by the innkeeper and the faeries to go by. To our surprise, we came upon the tower first, without even finding the village. Since it was getting late, we decided to investigate if the tower would make for a safe place to put up camp.

The fact that we didn’t have a map to go by gave me as a player the impression, that getting lost in the wilderness was a very distinct possiblity, which added to the verisimilitude of the gaming experience. Something that wouldn’t have happened if we’d been using an accurate map of the area, meticulous player notes, and survival skill checks to get where we were going. This is a good thing, as in more games than I can recall, wilderness travel has been reduced to little other than “you travel for two days, and then you’re there”.

To the surprise of no-one, the tower wasn’t unoccupied. The beastie on the top floor was a tough nut to crack, and cost us the lives of two player characters. The rest either dead or unconscious left the Magic-User sans spells as the last man standing, with only a single dart remaining. As the mortally wounded beast charged, the fate of the entire expedition hinged on a to-hit roll of 15+ and a d4-damage roll of 3 or more. For a moment, there was only the sound of six people holding their breath and the rattle of the dice (or it might have been just me 😉 )… which came up as a 16 and a 3. Total party kill avoided by the skin of our teeth. Time to gather up the loot, load the bodies on horses, and head back to the inn to recuperate, and recruit new adventurers for the next game session.

That was it for the actual gameplay. There was some light post-game banter, some commentary on the module, and the decision to play the next session the same time next week. All in all, I consider this a very positive gaming experience, and I’m looking forward to discovering the secrets of the gaming world, and the future fate of my character, Skelg (formerly known as) the Frail, the Griffon Slayer, as well as continued observances relating to differences in gaming culture. Who knows, I might even pick up a trick or two myself.

Versus the World

Yeah, that title has nothing at all to do with the topic of this post. Hell of a song, though.

The games I’m running or playing in at the moment (linked when there’s something to link to, although the pages are in Finnish) are as follows:

Second Darkness

My main home game at the moment. Pathfinder RPG with some house rules. The Second Darkness Adventure Path from Paizo. Five players. We’ve played 15 game sessions so far on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. The campaign is on its last leg, with only around five to seven game sessions to go. Will probably wrap it up around the start of December. Light on crunch, although a bit heavy on combat. Some elbow room for character development, although not nearly enough, since the Adventure Path relies heavily (as do all the other Paizo Adventure Paths) on railroading to get the story to move forwards.

Pathfinder Society

Paizo’s global Pathfinder RPG organized play campaign. Somewhat similar to Living Greyhawk, although I’ve been told LG was a superior campaign by far. We’ve had about 20-30 people playing at one time or another, but as I write this, the Finnish Pathfinder Society is pretty much dead in the water. There are several reasons for this, the main one being the modules themselves, which, on average, aren’t very good. The standard module is a four hour slug-fest with about a page of backstory,  a simple dungeon or similar five-location railroad track, with five or six encounters, out of which four or five are specifically combat encounters. In addition to the emphasis on combat, the main stumbling block of the Society is the fact that there’s virtually no continuity from module to module. A lot of people have dropped out because of these reasons. The enthusiasm for the modules is at an all-time low at the moment, so I don’t really see a future for this campaign in Finland. A pity, really.

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

A D&D 3.5 campaign run by Otso, a friend of mine. The campaign started out in the Forgotten Realms, but around the time when the characters reached level six, the GM put on a wide grin and pulled out WotC’s Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. This campaign is a rarity for me, since I’m actually playing in it, and not GMing it. This is also the first game I’ve participated in with this particular group of players. The gaming style is similar to some other games I’ve played, but the whole attitude is a whole lot more laid back and easy going. None of the players are die-hard power gamers. The sessions have been great fun, with lots of hard and fast combat, zombies, vargouilles, dire wolves, and ghosts. The campaign has one other element I’ve missed greatly since I came back to gaming at an adult age: Good character deaths. So far I’ve lost two characters in five game sessions. The first one got eaten by zombies, the second one by dire wolves. I don’t know why, but I just love it. Must have something to do with my background of playing Storyteller games, where it is virtually impossible to kill a character, since so much time has been spent building the character’s and the whole campaign’s story arc.

Star Wars: Dawn of Defiance

Another campaign in which I’m just a player. This one using the Star Wars Saga Edition rules. I love Star Wars. It’s the quintessential Space Fantasy.

However, the gaming style of this group is a tad too crunchy for my tastes. There isn’t really much character development (except mechanically, that is), and the storyline is extremely railroady. A typical game session might go somewhat along these lines: The characters run into an NPC. A fight against Storm Troopers to escape with the NPC. The NPC knows about the McGuffin, the exact whereabouts of which is known by some smugglers. Fight with the smugglers. The McGuffin is in an Imperialist warehouse. Go there. Fight the imperials. Run like hell with the McGuffin. Also, the scheduling for this game has been Hell, and since one of the players now lives in Tampere I don’t really see a future for this one either.

That pretty much wraps it up for my current roster of games. Four games, all of them D20-based systems, three of them being pretty much the same D20-system. Small wonder, really, I’ve started getting burned out on 3.5.

A while back Sami Koponen asked me why I’m playing these games, even though they seem to generate so many problems. A very good question. I’ve tried answering it to the best of my abilities, but I’ve also come to at least one decision. Come December, there’s going to be a house-cleaning of sorts, as I expect at least three of these campaigns to end, or just plain die out.

Next up: something completely different.

“That’s not how it goes according to the rules.”

As could be deducted from reading a few of my earlier posts, I’ve recently had a sort of burn-out regarding D&D 3.5/Pathfinder RPG. I’ve simply been playing too much of the same thing. This has caused a few things:

1) The problems with the rules-system have really started to chafe, where earlier they just annoyed. There really are a lot of fiddly bits in the system, which the game, in my opinion really doesn’t need.

2) All the games I’m currently playing have started looking alike. Its like having steak for dinner every day. Sure, its meaty, full of proteins, fat, seasonings and all that, making for very good eating. But who want’s to eat steak every damn day? I’m sure someone does, but me, I prefer a bit of variety.

Point one brings me to the topic line of this post:

“That’s not how it goes according to the rules.”

There are few things in gaming I detest more than this This Sentence, when coming from a player during a game I’m running. Its like saying: “The rules are more important than the contents of the game session, and I don’t trust your judgment as a game master enough to let you break the rules for the sake of the game session’s needs.” Its like a slap in the face.

Actually, just thinking about the last time this happened during a game gets my blood boiling. If you’re ever playing in one of my games, and you get the sudden urge to speak up about a ruling or interpretation I’m making: Don’t. It will ruin the whole session for me, and, as a consequence, for you as well. Seriously. As a disclaimer: I have nothing against players speaking their minds about anything relating to the game I’m running. Just not during the game.

Damn.

More on point two, the current state of my games, and future projects later on.

Why D&D? – part 2

The last post was about the pros of why D&D. Now its time for the cons.

– The 3.5 rules system is massive. The same goes (obviously) for the Pathfinder RPG rules. The basic game mechanics are simple enough, but there are sub-sets of different rules mechanics for pretty much everything, the two most comprehensive sub-sets being the combat system, and the magic system. I could rant on the topic ’till the cows come home, but really, this topic is so old, the fungus on its decaying carcass has evolved into sentience. Suffice to say, I can’t even remember a game session during which we didn’t have to look up at least half a dozen rules in the core rulebook.

– There really isn’t anything in the above mentioned rules even resembling any kind of functional social mechanic. Well, yes, there is the skill system, which really doesn’t do anything except create the illusion of accomplishing something using dice. The mechanic also breaks down really fast if subjected to any kind of gaming sensibilities, that is, a knowledgeable, rules-savvy gamer will be able to create a social powerhouse able to make Thulsa Doom cry, pack his bags, and go home. And he’d do this with a few simple die-rolls. Granted, you could argue that a role-playing game doesn’t really need mechanics for social interaction, since you could “just role-play” the social interaction. To an extend, I agree. The problem with the above described skill system however is, that instead of requiring role-play to get things done, the player can just roll the dice and be over with it.

– The game seems to bring out the worst in certain players. Now, I don’t really blame this wholly on the game itself. It think it is more a case of the game having been played in a certain way by a large, rather vocal majority of players, for a very long time. This gaming style is, when encountered by non-gamers or someone into, say, White Wolf games, what makes them make a face when they say (condescendingly, maybe with a hint of pity) “Oh, you’re into Dungeons & Dragons… ” Now, I’m most definitely not saying the majority of D&D-players are geeks, losers and munchkins, who smell of cat urine. But there is a fair percentage of those among us. And for some unfathomable reason even some normally sensible role-players turn into rules-mongering, power-gaming dicks the moment they start playing D&D. Is the majority gaming culture I described above so strong and conformist, that it takes a player with an already ingrained sense of how role-playing should be done to avoid being swept away by it? I can’t wrap my head around this one. I just don’t get it.

There it is, plenty of pros, plenty of cons. I’m not sure what kind of conclusions I should draw from all of this, so I’ll just have to call it a day and let it simmer for a while.

Addendum (a disclaimer): Most of these cons have to do with the 3.5 (and Pathfinder RPG) version of the rules I’m currently playing. I really haven’t got enough experience with other versions of the game to comment on those with any accuracy.

Why D&D? – part 1

The latest series of articles I’ve written on the topic of D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG campaigns I’ve run during the past few years has raised questions from both readers and myself as to why I’m devoting so much time to a game system, that’s seems, on the surface at least, ill suited for my gaming preferences and needs. This article is an attempt at finding at least some of the answers to these questions. Why D&D 3.5 or the retro-clone of that one, Pathfinder RPG? Why not something with less crunch and more storytelling freedom? There is no simple answer to this one.

I’ll start by listing some pro’s.

+ There’s a hell of a lot of history involved. D&D (The 1983 Mentzer Basic set) was the first game I owned and read thoroughly. The art in the books, and the feel of the text was captivating. The basic set really made me want to explore those dungeons, ruins and caves shock-full of strange monsters, deadly traps and glorious treasure. I was sad when the lovely cleric Aleena died. I both hated and loved that bastard Bargle, who’s still one of my favorite villains, right up there with Darth Vader, Khan, the Witch-King of Angmar, the White Witch and Megatron.

+ There’s an abundance of material available for every edition and version of the game, be it modules, campaign settings, extra rules, novels, or what have you. Granted, a lot of the material is shite, but the sheer volume pretty much guarantees that there’s bound to be some gems among the silt. There’s also something for everyone, and every gaming style imaginable. I’ve never been a big fan of so-called splatbooks, that is, supplements shock full of new powers, races, classes, magic items and such. The core books have always been all I’ve needed in this department. The campaign and adventure material, however, I’ve used extensively. There are a few reasons for this, the main one being it saves me a lot of prep-time when creating the actual content for game sessions.

+ D&D 3.5+ has a very large player base. Its relatively easy to get together a gaming group, be it for a longer-running campaign or some short pick-up games. Also, pretty much everyone is already familiar with the basic system, that is, rolling a d20, hit points, armor class, Vancian magic, experience, and all that. The basic premise is also quite familiar to most people, that is, a pseudo-medieval society with fantasy races such as dwarfs, elves, halflings, orcs and goblins, where you’re playing a hero or adventurer who’s career consists of fighting fantastic monsters and memorable villains, and exploring strange and dangerous places. There is also the communality aspect of the game. It’s “our thing”, a place to visit, talk about and explore.

+ The rules system, while far from perfect, does an adequate job of creating a sense of playing a game, where choices made, both during character creation, and in game tactics, has direct repercussions on what your character is actually able to do within the collective imagined space of a game session. I’m sure there are other game systems that provide the same, but so far, I haven’t managed to find “the perfect system”, which would cater to the particular needs of my game, and those of my players.

It seems I’ll have to make this article the first part of a series after all, even though I kind of decided to try and tackle this whole subject in one sitting. Next up, some of the cons (most of which I’ve already discussed in previous posts as relating to the games I’ve run).

A Short Campaign History; Red Box to Pathfinder RPG, part 5

It just occured to me that this series of posts is really badly named. Five parts of anything isn’t short. I think I’ll just try and wrap this up fast and move on to other topics.

I’ve already written about some of the other D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG games I ran and played around this time, so I won’t dwell on the topic. After Darkmoon Vale, there was NiTessine’s Legacy of Fire, which was great fun for a while. I decided to stop playing in that particular game when NiTessine’s studies in Tampere made it quite a bit more difficult to schedule games. Another (rather big) reason for me quitting was the gaming group’s emphasis on crunch. At times it was actually like playing Diablo, only with all the fiddly mechanical bits done manually. I’ll just disclaim, that I have nothing against such a playing style. It just wasn’t what I was interested in anymore. For the past year I’d been playing games of this sort almost exclusively. The combat fatigue (sometimes literally) was starting to show.

My next campaign was Toinen Pimeys, based on Paizo’s Second Darkness adventure path. For this game I hand-picked my players with the criteria that the group should consist of players with less interest in crunch, and the ability to get into the story and their character’s mind-set. The players should also be able to get along. A reasonable amount of between-games upkeep was also expected of the players (character sheet upkeep and such), but as I found out later, this criteria was not met very well. A friend of mine pointed out that: “You can have good role-players with other things going on in their lives; or you can have players with all the time in the world to play, fiddle with their characters and talk about gaming. You can’t have both.” This is, to a point, quite an accurate statement, but I believe it is possible to find some sort of middle-ground. That is, players meeting my (perhaps rather strict) criteria, who can invest more time and effort into the game than just the four to six hours of weekly or bi-weekly time it takes to actually play.

Toinen Pimeys has had an excellent track record of regular attendance, and a total of 13 game sessions, making it my second-longest running adventure path. I expect the campaign arch to reach its finale in about 8-10 game sessions. So far so good. I fully expect to finish this one, which would make it the first adventure path I’ve started that actually has a proper ending.

I think I’m done here on the topic of my D&D campaign history. Was it an interesting read? Or did you find it rather boring and self-centered? Was there anything in it you’d like to know more about? Any feedback at all would be appreciated.