Friday, April 27, 2012

The Gamer's Journey

"The road (to adventure)
goes ever on and on ..."
(illustration by Theodor Kittelson)
Last week's article on "Fun Doesn't Mean Easy" pulled a long response from a player in an old school* game. The writer agreed with some of my points and disagreed with others. Reading it triggered a few thoughts that are worth setting down in writing.

The crux of the matter as laid out by the player seems to revolve around whether D&D** is a game or a collaborative story.

No one can answer that question definitively. It's both, of course, but we play it for different reasons at different times and with different people.

When I first picked up D&D, the only thing I cared about was the adventure. I came to D&D from wargaming, and D&D was an extension of that. We approached quests like military missions. That doesn't mean we were all about fighting. Everyone who's played early versions of D&D knows how quickly a fight can turn against you. If we could beat an enemy without fighting or rig the odds in our favor, those were plan A and plan B. When we were forced to use plan C--a fair fight--then we knew that casualties were almost inevitable, and the best we could do was minimize them. If you were smart and charismatic, you'd bring along sime hired muscle and let them take the brunt of the enemy's wrath. If you were dead but wealthy and high-level, you might get raised. But, as von Clausewitz stated, "blood is the price of victory."***

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

High Magic, Low Magic

There's no right or wrong side in the debate between high magic and low magic campaigns, only personal preference. If you're lucky, everyone in your group swings the same way. I've always leaned toward low magic campaigns. I don't expect to convert anyone who feels differently, but I can lay out the reasons why I tilt the way I do.

Before getting into the details, though--when I talk about low and high magic, I'm referring chiefly to how many magic items a character can expect to encounter and accrue during a career of adventuring. A secondary concern is the prevalence of magic-using NPCs. Player-character wizards are to be expected, but is yours an exceptional figure, or did he graduate 48th in a class of 650 that year at the wizard academy?

My preference starts with the influences that brought me to FRPGs in the first place. I "discovered" fantasy as an adult genre when an insightful high school English teacher steered me toward The Lord of the Rings, a distinctly low-magic tale. The magic of Middle Earth is subtle and seldom used--so unlike the structure of D&D that it's hard to mirror LotR with the D&D rules.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Black Powder--Friend or Foe?

It's Tuesday, which means Howling Tower does its thing over at Kobold Quarterly. Today's topic is mixing gunpowder with magic--a volatile combination. It's a subject that's been near and dear to my heart since I wrote the historical supplement A Mighty Fortress for AD&D back in the mid-'90s.

In this golden age when we have dozens of well-designed, polished FRPGs to choose from, gamer arguments tend to be about whether game A is “better” in some indefinable fashion than games B through Z. There was a time long ago when only a handful of FRPGs existed, and most roleplayers had tried all of them to one extent or another. Then, arguments tended to be about what you did or didn’t allow in your campaign. One of the most contentious campaign elements was gunpowder. If two gamers collided in a hallway, you could count on a “you got gunpowder in my magic/you got magic in my gunpowder” fight breaking out. (more at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Few (Almost Certainly Not) Final Thoughts on TPKs

When old-schoolers and new-schoolers get talking about TPKs, I suspect there's a certain amount of rose-colored nostalgia at work.

It's certainly true that TPKs were more common in OD&D and AD&D than they've become since the latter days of 2nd Edition. But the notion that back in the day everyone shrugged off TPKs and character death in general as "just the way things are--take it like a man and roll up a new sacrifice to the slaughter god" rings a bit false.

Here's what I recall. Characters were fragile. Most of them claimed a spot in the bone orchard before they reached 2nd level, and it was no big deal. Rolling up a new victim took 5 to 10 minutes, and you might do it two or three times in an afternoon.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Character Setbacks Aren't Adventure Setbacks

Paul Unwin (@pdunwin) made some excellent comments over at KQ regarding "Dragons: A Soar Spot."  Paul is a sharp observer whose opinion I respect, so I'd like to repeat his comments and my replies here, then enlarge on them just a bit.

Paul: "I think if I found myself DMing a situation like this and the PCs were clueless what to do, that I’d say “Look, two people are down and dying. Going by the book, the dragon can simply chase you down if you run. So, you can either die and roll up new characters, or you lose and you accept the results I impose on you.” Then I’d give them a few options, such as equipment ruined, nearby town laid waste, lost in a forest/cavern the dragon can’t enter, and/or now in service to the dragon."

Me: "The time to have a conversation with players about their options is before the fight begins, not when they’re running around on fire. ... Players push ahead with foolish ideas because they interpret a DM’s silence to be a sign that everything is going according to script. They assume that the DM won’t let them do anything lethally foolish. If they’re lining up to do something that looks lethally foolish and the DM isn’t stopping them, then it must be OK. They could even be excused for thinking this way if it’s always been true in the past."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fun Doesn't Mean Easy

Yesterday's column at Kobold Quarterly, "Dragons: A Soar Spot," touched on a point that's worth enlarging. That is, that players will still have fun if the GM makes the game hard.

Let me start by stating that I don't subscribe to the notion that the GM's job is guaranteeing that everyone at the table has fun. That's everyone's responsibility.

The GM's main job is to create challenges for players to overcome and to interpret the success of their efforts. Those challenges can be based around combat, puzzles, exploration, negotiation, or any of the other activities heroes engage in.

The job does not include providing ready solutions to those challenges. That is the players' part of the split. Not every gorge needs a handy log lying nearby. Not every trap needs a deactivation lever. Not every monster needs to be killable. Honestly, I don't believe the game master even needs to ensure that every problem has a solution.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dragons--A Soar Spot

At Kobold Quarterly today, some howling about "Dragons: A Soar Spot."

Dragons are the most iconic creatures in fantasy RPGs, for obvious reasons. They ought to be among the most impressive and frightening, too, but that isn’t always the case. It’s not because dragons don’t have the chops; on a stat-by-stat basis, your average dragon is terrifying. Yet player characters bring them down with shocking regularity.

How can that be? I blame two popular fancies, both of which are variations of namby-pambyism. (more ...)

Monday, April 16, 2012

2011 NTRPGCon Adventures Ready for Printing

Over the weekend, I finalized the PDFs of the adventures that I ran at last year's North Texas RPG Con in Dallas and fired them to Doug Rhea, the wellspring from which this convention flows. Doug will get them printed in limited quantities for sale at the convention. I intend to find another PDF/POD outlet for them afterward, for anyone who's interested in picking up a copy.

One of the most challenging but also most rewarding aspects of putting together these PDFs is assembling covers for them. I know plenty of illustrators and graphic designers and I ought to just turn to them for help, but I'm a hideous control freak. Plus, I enjoy putting together the covers, even if I'm not particularly good at it. My control-freakism is abated by the fact that I'm also a minimalist; I prefer simple designs on white backgrounds. So the covers are simple and mine, and I like them.

Friday, April 13, 2012


This June will mark my third year as a guest at the North Texas RPG Con. Aside from being a terrific old-school convention, Doug Rhea (the convention organizer) invites the con's guests to write up the adventures they run at the show. Each year, he publishes the previous year's adventures in limited numbers (~50 of each, I think) for sale solely at the show. Afterward, the authors can do whatever they want with them.

Right now, my 2010 adventures are sitting fallow, awaiting some sort of decision about how to release them. They are a D&D B/X adventure, The Dark Abbot of Kos, and a Gamma World adventure, Hive of the Wasp-men. Hive is short, so the two adventures were originally printed back-to-back in flip-book form. They could be split apart easily enough. I'm prepping my 2011 adventures for printing, and they will be available after June.

Personally, I'm a big-foam-hand-waving fan of PDFs. Almost all my RPG purchases these days are digital. I prefer PDFs because I can carry an entire library on my tablet and laptop, search quickly and easily, extract pages to make player handouts and reference books, print those pages that I really need printed, and PDFs don't add any more burden to my already groaning shelves. While I enjoy hanging out at game stores and rely on them for things like boardgames and dice, I dig being able to click on a URL, purchase, download, and dive into a cool new RPG or supplement within minutes of reading about it on someone's blog, all while sipping on my home-brewed Italian macchiato.

Plenty of people in this hobby who aren't me stridently resist the new tech. Where do you fall on that scale? Do you buy game PDFs enthusiastically? Buy them only if there's no other option? Use print on demand? Or buy only printed books? This isn't a scientific survey; I'm really more interested in the why behind this preference, rather than numbers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Chase Scenes

Yesterday's installment of Howling Tower at Kobold Quarterly looked at chase scenes. They ought to be exciting, which means they deserve something more than the string of skill checks they often become. My solution is a deck of cards and a bunch of dice.

A short-distance, high-speed chase is where things get exciting. Speed, agility, and alertness are key when pursuing your target at a dead sprint up busy streets, down narrow alleys, through crowds, and over and around obstacles. A few abstract dice rolls won’t cut it. Players want to make actual decisions about where to turn, how to shake off the guards, and whether to dodge the wedding party or plow right through it.

What I’m presenting here is a way to quickly map a foot chase through crowded city with zero prep work but infinite variety in the layout. (more ...)

Chase Scene Variations

Chase scenes (like many other RPG situations) are easy to over-orchestrate. If you find yourself planning where every pushcart and baby-toting mother will be encountered, then you're writing a script instead of setting up an adventure. I prefer leaving many things to chance, as in the almost entirely random approach like the one I outlined yesterday at Kobold Quarterly. (If you haven't read that column, what follows here might not make sense. You probably should read part 1 before this followup.)

It's astounding, the number of uses you can find for a standard deck of playing cards. The variations are almost endless. To demonstrate, let's look at what can be done with yesterday's simple foot chase.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Random Encounter Resources

Ideas for different and unusual random encounters won't be hard to come up with for most DMs. Just let your mind roam. All those great adventure ideas that you never had time to turn into full-blown adventures are great starting points, as are novels, movies, and the news.

The web offers plenty of help, too. Here's a list of useful sites for when you're building those random encounter lists.

Random Encounter Motivations from alltern8: Not simply motivations but a list of 20 things that a group of NPCs might be engaged in when they're encountered.

donjon d20 Random Encounter Generator: An online utility that creates wandering monsters. You input the level, climate, and terrain, and it spits out the stats of an appropriate, randomly-selected or monster or group of monsters. There are separate generators for 3E and 4E. Donjon is filled with fun  utilities for DMs. Spend a few minutes poking around there and you're sure to find something useful.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Improving Random Encounters

The word "encounter" has taken on narrower meaning since the advent of Third Edition. An encounter has become a discrete unit that can be weighed and measured according to mathematical standards. I'm not knocking this approach; it's a great boon to DMs who want to stage finely balanced fights. It has, however, cloistered the term into a tighter cell than it had in the past. Sectioning PC/NPC/monster interactions into fights, skill challenges, and roleplaying scenes erects artificial walls where there should be only clear, smooth pathways.

3rd and 4th Edition D&D also placed far more emphasis on movement grids and miniatures than previous editions did. These have the wonderful effect of reducing confusion and arguments, but they also drive a wedge between the combat and noncombat portions of an encounter. The physical process of placing dungeon tiles or drawing the battlefield on a grid and setting up miniatures interrupts the natural flow of an encounter and reinforces the idea that what happens before and after that process are separate situations.

In fairness, this has as much to do with player perception as with what the rulebooks actually tell DMs to do. It's the toolshed phenomenon at work: when you get a brand new, cordless jigsaw, you make every cut with it, even when your simple, scuffed up old coping saw or keyhole saw could do the job quicker and cleaner. 3rd and 4th Edition provided tools for balancing combat that were great improvements over what D&D had in the past, but they created an impression that storing combat and noncombat activities in separate bins was a good idea. It's not.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Case for Random Encounters

The reasons why I like random encounters are laid out over at Kobold Quarterly today. In a nutshell—they make the world seem like a bigger place.

Once upon a time, random encounters were standard fare in roleplaying games. Somewhere along the way, they fell out of fashion. Players, DMs, and game designers decided that random encounters embodied the worst of lazy DMing. They were indiscriminate party killers. Most of all, they were dumped because they were irrelevant to the ongoing story.

From my perspective, random encounters should be kept around because they’re irrelevant to the ongoing story. (more ...)

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Week of Random Encounters

This is Random Encounters week at Howling Tower. I believe random encounters are an important part of D&D and most other RPGs, so I'm devoting a whole week to them.

Monday: This brief outline plus some thoughts on random encounters vs. wandering monsters.

Tuesday (at Kobold Quarterly): The reasons why random encounters are important and why you, as a DM, should include them in your campaign.

Wednesday: How to build random encounters so they're engaging and enjoyable for everyone.

Thursday: Making random encounters an integral part of the campaign without diminishing story elements that are "more important."

Friday: Useful random encounter resources to have at your disposal.

Random Encounters, Wandering Monsters

Comic by J. D. Webster, from the mailing wrapper of
an old issue of The Space Gamer. Used
without permission. I hope J. D. won't mind.
Random encounters got a bad rap sometime around the 1980s. There had always been a quiet undercurrent of negativity, a sort of whispering campaign against them, as far back as when I first ran into D&D in the '70s.

In fairness, that bad reputation wasn't entirely undeserved, since "random encounter" was largely synonymous with "wandering monster."

Standard wandering monster tables were organized either by level or by terrain but seldom by both. Level-based tables produced a lot of nonsensical encounters, like ropers in the Governor's Palace or a plesiosaurus in the desert. Terrain-based tables resulted in a lot of mismatched massacres; the characters slaughtered whatever crossed their path until they had the misfortune of bumping into something big enough to slaughter them.

Too many DMs misused and overused wandering monster tables. Some tried to run entire campaigns off them. No time to prep for tonight's game? That's OK, just run the characters into some wandering monsters. There's a 20-page appendix devoted to Random Monster Encounters in the original Dungeon Masters Guide, after all. If you played in such a campaign, then you're probably justified in having a low opinion of random encounters.

The solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the safety posters down at the baby bathhouse remind us. It's to use random encounters sensibly.