Type III D&D + Old School sensibilities equals what?

This awesome lizardman illustration has nothing at all to do with this article.

I recently started (and ended) a very short-lived RPG campaign with the stated goal of using Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG rules set, and Paizo’s Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path, but with the rules mechanics pared down to resemble earlier versions of D&D, and with the Old School no-nonsense sensibilities of gaming style, e.g. lethality, rulings not rules, no battle mat, rolled attributes straight down the line, only four character classes and three races, considerably less skill points, slower feat progression, no easy access to healing magic, and no resurrection of any kind. An ambitious rules hack to be sure, and an interesting experiment on the compatibility of, in my opinion, two very different rules sets and the gaming styles derived thereof.

To start of, let me state that I’m strongly of the opinion, that rules sets are never just “the rules” and thus separate from the game world and what the actual game is like, but always strongly connected, e.g. the rules describe the metaphysics of the game world, and thus form the meta-culture of the way the game is played as a whole. You cannot separate the two more than you could use a spoon to extract oxygen from water.

The gaming group I had consisted of two players with a wide range of experience with different editions of D&D, including Mentzer D&D, AD&D, Pathfinder, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess; a player who had only played LotFP before this; and two players who had only played WotC 3.5./Pathfinder. The characters were created at the start of the first game session. We ended up with a fighter, two clerics, a rogue and a wizard, e.g. all four available classes represented.

Right off the bat we ran into some group dynamic problems, when one of the PF-players concocted an rather convoluted character backstory, which was soon revealed to the other players, but not the other characters. This is for for the most part fine when playing some more modern RPG’s, but for an old school style game, it just doesn’t work, as the intent is that first level characters aren’t supposed to really have complex backstories (“Character background is what happens during levels 1-4” -G.Gygax), and also, in old school play, the line between player and character knowledge is so blurred it might as well be non-existent. The backstory had other problems as well (for one, the character was the cleric of an evil deity), but these problems have little to do with the topic of this post.

It soon became apparent, that there would be problems in more than one area. For one, the players who were only familiar with Type III were in no way prepared for how lethal combat becomes, when the characters aren’t superheroes anymore. Instead (as typical of Type III play), then met dangers head on with the expectation, that of course the challenge would be level-appropriate, thus providing a safe and sanitized moment of heroics, that would at most drain some consumable resources. Not so in old school, though. A few character deaths later, and they were starting to pay more attention to the fact, that the best way to survive is to avoid fighting, and if things start to look grim, its time to run. One also needs to realize, that sometimes not even the best preparations in the world will save characters from totally random death by trap or poison. This is also a feature (not a bug, mind you) not really present in Type III, but there in abundance in old school play.

An unexpected development from the rules changes was this: Since a lot of the combat rules and of course the battle mat of Type III wasn’t used, a lot more of what was actually happening in the game rested on so-called GM fiat. The actions of players had become decidedly less important than the description provided by the GM. This is something I’ve become very familiar with when running White Wolf games, where the system itself doesn’t tell you much of what’s happening. For White Wolf games, however, that’s perfectly OK, since the emphasis is supposed to be storytelling, not conflict resolution. In old school games, however, it most definitely isn’t OK, since the GM is supposed to be an impartial referee who just sets the challenges, rolls the dice, and lets them fall where they may. In fact, that particular trait of storytelling games is one of the main reasons why I started to gravitate away from them towards the OSR some years ago. Why was this happening, though?

I came to this conclusion: Since a pared down, or “vague” rules-system (such as Storyteller and my chopped up Pathfinder) sets a framework that tells you what the rules are like, without providing the actual nitty-gritty on how it actually works, the blanks (e.g. setting appropriate challenges and moderating troublespots) are left for the GM to fill. In my experience, this doesn’t really happen with either Pathfinder proper or with old school games. I think I need to ponder on this some more, though.

In conclusion, the experiment was successful in proving that a proper merger of two game systems so dissimilar is impossible without sacrificing some of the traits that are essential to actually making said game systems what they are. Pathfinder is fine if you want to run a system-heavy heroic game, with an incredibly detailed combat system, and old school style games work the best when using an old school style rules system. Oh, and of course Storyteller (briefly mentioned) is just fine if you don’t care about system at all, and would rather concentrate on co-operative storytelling.

Did I learn anything? Maybe. Next up, something completely different.

Lamentations of the Whispering Tyrant II

Since my last update on the topic at hand, the Ustalav campaign, my experiment in combining old school rules with new school adventuring material, has progressed rather nicely. We’ve managed a total of nine game sessions on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. I originally intended to have four players in the group, but as one of my intended players never managed to make it to a game session, we’ve had to make do with just three.

Here’s a brief recap of the first two game sessions:

Session 1: The characters’ carriage breakes down en route to the town of Ravengro, and they are forced to seek shelter from the ghastly weather. A weird old tosser living alone in a small house on a hill reluctantly agrees to grant them lodging.

In the darkness of the night, the restless dead rise from their graves, and come demanding their pound of flesh from the old tosser. The characters do their best to fend off the skeletal horde, but are eventually forced to ditch the old man, and make for the tunnel entrance under the house. The tunnel leads down into an old crypt, where the PC get to fight some more skeletons. They also manage to score some loot.

This game session was intended as an introduction to the rules, and the intended mood of the game. Worked out rather nicely, I’d say. The one-liner back story about the old man and the restless dead was nicked from an old issue of Creepy.

Session 2: The characters arrive in Ravengro, stock up on supplies, and head back to the old crypt. They get to fight some more skeletons, and manage to make it out alive, their packs filled to capacity with loot. Back in Ravengro, the town Sheriff grows a bit suspicious about this group of outsiders leaving for a day, and returning wounded and battered carrying heavy burdens. The sheriff’s investigation is cut short (heh, heh), as a ghostly horseman decapitates him while he’s wandering about on the moors.

The Headless Horseman is another classic of early horror literature, and deserves a place in a campaign such as this. The townies growing suspicious of the adventurers, however, is something rather rarely seen in D&D-type play, but it was well received by the players, who had a blast trying to cover up their grave robbing activities.

As evident to those familiar with Paizo’s Carrion Crown Pathfinder Adventure Path, the players have so far not even gotten to the actual contents of said adventure path. Not to worry, though. Old School play has a tendency to drag on a fair bit longer than the quite a bit more combat-intensive type III D&D the adventure path was originally written for. By my estimate it will take the group about 20 game sessions just to make it through the first book of the series. I’m, however, in no hurry whatsoever.

More on the rest of the game sessions later!

Lamentations of the Whispering Tyrant

For a long time now, my two main interests in role-playing have been Old School games (mainly Lamentations of the Flame Princess), and “new school” fantasy role-playing (D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG). I’ve participated in over 50 game sessions of each in the past few years, and have more than a passing familiarity with both game systems and play-styles. Both of these games have their roots in Dungeons & Dragons, but are nevertheless fundamentally different on almost every level. The only thing they seem to have in common is that both claim to be D&D, and both are fantasy role-playing games.

Each of these games provide something the other does not. Old school gives me easy, flexible rules, a free-form type of play, an emphasis on player skill and ingenuity, and a focus on exploration and investigation. New school gives me a robust game system, that appeals to the gamist in me, and a wealth of enticing campaign world and story material.

And so, after some brainstorming and research, I’ve decided to try and combine elements of both games into one campaign. The new campaign is going to be called Ustalav. It uses the LotFP rules, and old school sensibilities in play-style. Pathfinder RPG provides the story fodder in the form of the Carrion Crown Adventure Path, a new school mega-adventure about the gothic horror -themed nation of Ustalav in Paizo’s campaign world Golarion. The adventure path spans six books, for a total of around 300 pages of gaming material. Considering the relatively slow pace of old school campaigns, this campaign has the potential to last years.

Lets see how it turns out shall we.

Edit: An earlier post I wrote has relevance the topic of this one. For anyone interested in the topic, it might be worth checking out: D&D 3.5 Mega-Adventures Old School Style.

D&D 3.5 Mega-Adventures Old School Style

I have a problem of sorts.

I don’t have a regular game of my own at the moment. There are a few reasons (that I can think of) for this, but one I’ve recently been ruminating on relates to players I’ve gamed with quite a lot with in past years. See, I like this thing called old school, which to me says freedom, rules-light, adventure, and fun, and to many others it says simplistic rules, cardboard characters, narrow focus on killing monsters and looting. As you might have guessed already, the people with whom I used to game a lot are of the latter opinion.

So I got this idea of running one of the published D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder RPG Mega-Adventures (or Adventure Paths as Paizo likes to call them) using an old school rules system. Now, I realize this would mean some heavy-duty converting, as the differences in the old school rules systems and 3.5 aren’t “just the rules mechanics”. In fact, the whole play style is so radically different I’d have to rewrite pretty much everything except the basic backstory and the setting. I’d have to do away with everything even remotely resembling a pre-ordained plot, as in my view having a railroad of events is anathema to anything calling itself old school. The question arises: Why in Hell would I want to go through all that trouble, when what’s most likely to happen is the players doing the usual player thing of doing anything but going along nicely with the material at hand?

There are a few reasons. The Paizo adventure path material is (for the most part) quite good, and I since I’ve spent hard-earned money on buying the books, I should find a use for them, even though I can’t stomach the rules system they were written for anymore. Another reason would obviously be to bring some of the lost sheep back into the fold, and show them how old school games can be used to run an interesting, long-running, epic fantasy campaign, which doesn’t concentrate on clearing 10´by 10´rooms of orcs, and getting killed by random and instantly deadly traps.

Now the question arises which Paizo adventure path or mega-dungeon, or other long D&D fantasy epic campaign should I use for this project. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations, preferably with commentary on why that particular one, and how you’d go about making it Old School?

Edit: A more recent post I wrote has relevance the topic of this one. For anyone interested in the topic, it might be worth checking out: Lamentations of the Whispering Tyrant.

Second Darkness recap, part 1

My main home game for the six months was Toinen Pimeys, an epic Pathfinder RPG fantasy campaign based on Paizo’s Second Darkness Adventure Path, spanning 15 character levels and a total of 19 game sessions. We played the last session of the campaign last Monday. A brief recap follows.

Shadow in the Sky

The campaign started out in Riddleport in northern Varisia, in Pathfinder RPG’s default setting world Golarion. Riddleport is a lawless frontier city founded by thieves, scoundrels and pirates. The premise for player characters in the module is quite simple: Make a character who’d have a reason to travel to Riddleport. As such, the simplicity of the premise is quite typical of published modules, in that it is assumed that adventurers adventure because that’s what adventurers do. The module’s base assumption works well enough if the GM and the players have a social contract, which states that the characters will follow the plot, regardless of what or who the characters themselves are. For any other kind of gaming, the premise simply doesn’t work, as the campaign really doesn’t provide enough incentive for the characters to stay motivated and on track for the whole six book campaign arc. So, the first thing I did was change the basic premise to one which provides solid rationale for the player characters to stay on track to the bitter end. As the main enemy of the campaign are the drow, I decided that all the player characters would be members of a team of elves working for a secret organization within the elf nation, with the stated goal of protecting the elf nation from enemies within. As low level operatives, the characters didn’t yet know, that the true enemies are one of elvenkinds best kepts secrets, the corrupted, demon-worshiping dark elves. The identity of the true enemy was no secret to the players, however, as pictures of drow grace pretty much every cover in the series. The first mission would be infiltrating Riddleport, and investigating rumors of corrupt elves working with the criminal underworld.

The Player Characters dived in head first, and were soon embroiled in the machinations of Riddleport’s many Crime Bosses. Tracking funds and mysterious cargo manifests, they soon discovered which one of Crime Bosses was the one they were looking for. It didn’t take them long to discover the “power behind the throne”, a dark elf coordinating the underhanded dealings from a secret lair beneath the city. A first inkling of the drows’ fiendish master plan was uncovered as well: Apparently they were attempting to pull a meteorite down on the surface of the planet, using it as a weapon of mass destruction against their surface kin. The book ended with a shooting star hitting an island off the coast of Varisia, with the ensuing tidal wave throwing Riddleport into chaos.

With the first four game sessions set in Riddleport, the campaign was off to a good start. Riddleport is great as a setting, and the players really enjoyed playing the Crime Bosses against each other. Riddleport would serve quite well as a setting for a complete campaign, instead of just four games, and so it is a pity, that after these four sessions, the characters would never again adventure in Riddleport.

Children of the Void

The next book of the series started out with the characters heading to Devil’s Elbow, the island off the coast of Varisia, where the meteorite had struck down. There were several other expeditions heading the same way, as it was rumored that the meteorite was composed of rare and extremely valuable Starmetal. Turns out the meteorite had brought passengers with it, strange alien beasts with a parasitic life cycle involving re-animated human corpses. Arriving on the island, the characters had a few run-ins with these aliens, a strange breed of zombies, marooned pirate crews, the ghosts of previous occupants, and finally, the drow expedition responsible for the magical ritual which had pulled down the meteorite.

The module itself was an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements. The setting of Devil’s Island would have provided lots of material for exploration and running into weird stuff, but as the character troupe was quite focused on stopping the drow, they pretty much breezed through the key plot points of the book, managing to finish it in just two game sessions.

The Armageddon Echo

The third book of the series had the characters travel to the formerly abandoned elven city Celwynvian, now infested with drow invaders. The characters were part of a small army sent to reclaim the city from the dark elves. Serving as advance scouts, the characters’ infiltration skills soon proved invaluable in the sort of urban guerrilla warfare being conducted among the ruins of the once-great city.

The whole book was pretty much skirmish fighting from house to house, with little other plot or character content. The group of four players were reinforced by a new player, giving the formerly slightly stagnant player group dynamic a shot of fresh blood. The characters’ power curve was starting to reach the point where managing the ever increasing amount of different powers the characters had at their disposal was starting to take way too much time out of actual play. I’ve, however, blogged on this particular topic already, so I won’t go into it here.

I’ve now covered the first half of the campaign arc, and I that’s about all I have time and energy for right now. Next up, the latter part of the Adventure Path.

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.

Clash of cultures

We played the penultimate game session before the summer break of my home-brew campaign Stories from Darkmoon Vale yesterday. The game’s main McGuffin was the demise of a tyrannical lumber baron. The session contained lots of interesting character-driven scenes and a lot of cloak & dagger -style manipulations and investigations. About 3/4 through the game session something very strange happened…

I really like character-driven scenes, that have a strong immersive quality. In my opinion this is the meat of a role-playing session, whereas game mechanics are just the potatoes. I have this habit of pushing my players into situations, where they are forced to act out their character’s personality and motivations. One of the players in my group is very much into mechanics, but he doesn’t know dick about character or drama, so for the past few sessions I’ve done my utmost to force a reaction (any kind of reaction, really) out of this player.

This player’s character is a nobleman who dabbles with arcane magic. The player has described the character’s personality as “rash and hot-headed”, so one would think pushing the character would be a breeze, right? Wrong. Permit me to elaborate. I started out easy with a few burly mercenaries quipping, throwing thinly veiled insults, and hinting about said nobleman’s sexual preferences. The player’s reaction was: “These guys are dicks. My character walks out of the room.” And here I was expecting fire and brimstone. Silly me.

During the game session I gradually increased the pressure on the player. The climax was a meeting with a fellow nobleman, an elderly gentleman wizard with a preference for young boys. I started with descriptions of light flirtations and sexual advances like touching hands and thighs. No reaction.

Later on, when the wizard was encountered in the bar of a brothel, I turned the heat fully on. The wizard was drunk as a skunk, and took to desperate measures to get the younger man into bed: He cast a dominate spell on the PC, who promptly failed his Will Save. Then he started to force himself on the player character. The poor PC was dragged upstairs to a room, and the wizard started undressing the player character. I gave the player a lot of wiggle room to get out of the situation his honor intact, allowing him new Will Saves about once a minute. He didn’t succeed on the save until the point when the NPC was down on his knees between the PC’s legs giving him a blow-job. Did I expect him to blast the old pervert with a lightning bolt? Yes, definitely. Did this happen? Nope. The player just sat there opening and closing his mouth like a guppy out of water. It took the combined efforts of two other player’s to actually get him to do anything at all: “Come on, blast him already! Your character’s supposed to be a hot-head!” and such. Eventually, the player got out of his stupor and started rolling his damage dice. Sigh. My experiment had failed miserably and I now consider this particular player a lost cause. There is nothing else I can do. Oh, almost forgot. I did get one reaction out of the player: He threatened to tear his character sheet in half if his character got one up the ass.

Another unexpected consequence of this scene was the strongly averse reactions I got from two other players. After the game session they berated me for including a scene, which (their words, not mine) made them feel extremely squeamish and uncomfortable. I replied with the question: “Would you have been equally uncomfortable, if instead of a homosexual old wizard, the seducer would have been a hot succubus with a huge rack?” to which one of the offended players remarked: “No, since that would have been funny and entertaining.”

This is how I read this: The players weren’t really that uncomfortable with a scene depicting explicit sexual acts. The problem was, that the scene depicted very explicitly HOMOsexual acts. Also, none of the player’s have any problems whatsoever with scenes containing graphic, gory violence. To me this smacks strongly of hypocrisy and homophobia.

I’d like to point out that I have no problems with people choosing what kind of content they want in their role-playing experience. As long as they tell me about it. If you have a problem with something, just speak up. Open your goddamn mouth and bloody well tell me if something I’m narrating makes you uncomfortable. I’m not a mind reader, after all.

Gaming versus character

I just ran another game session of Stories from Darkmoon Vale yesterday. After the game session I started thinking about playing styles and game systems as they relate to character immersion and story. I doubt anyone is surprised by the observation that the more the game contains competitive elements and “hard” game mechanics, the less there is room for narration and immersion. There just isn’t enough room for “getting into character” if the actual gaming situations require the need for tactical use of character resources and powers. The latter is really empasized in game systems such as the D&D 3.5 game system. I’m sure its possible to play a character oriented D&D game that’s light on game mechanics, its just that the game system doesn’t support that kind of gaming style very well. In fact, playing 3.5 in any other way than the creator intent (and prevalent gaming style) implies it should be played, would be doing the system a disservice. A more character- and/or story-driven campaign would be better served by using a completely different game system.

My own preferences for gaming styles go in phases. For the past year I’ve pretty much played only D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG (a D&D 3.5 derivative). There was a short stint playing another old favourite, Vampire: The Dark Ages, but that game fizzled out due to lack of inspiration mostly attributed to game session scheduling difficulties. I think I’m starting to reach another turn of the cycle as I find myself wanting more story and character and less mechanics and gaming table off-game banter. We’ll see how it develops.