Saturday, March 19, 2011

Seeing what sticks

Okay, so over the past month I've both three D&D Essentials books: the core rulebook and the two "player's handbooks" or whatever they are being called.  I picked them up more out of curiosity as someone who's been playing 4E for the past few years to see what's changed, and because the Borders in my town is closing and everything had been significantly discounted.
I would just like to express my outrage at the fact that the original three hardbound 4E books have been replaced with three softbound books and two box sets, all of which you need for certain parts of the game, but a lot of stuff that you don't.  I'm talking in particular about the box sets, which contain both the treasure tables in one and the monsters in the other.  But I have to get a ton of dungeon tiles and ridiculous cardboard tokens I neither need nor want, making me think I'll just stick with the 4E treasure from the DMG and the MM1-3 I already own.
I understand the math works out about the same, once you buy all the books, and maybe a new player out there just might buy the Heroes of the Fallen Lands and spare themselves the rest and thus enter into this hobby instead of computer games or CMG's or whatever, but I doubt it.
Anyways, that's more of a rant than I intended.  Thursday night I had my weekly phone call from one of my best friends and longtime RPG player.   Until I moved West, I can't remember the last time I ran and/or played and he wasn't at the table, and he keeps leaning on me to get more into RPG's in my new locale.
Right now I spend more time painting miniatures than anything else, a practice which my friend referred to as "being akin to knitting," which is to say that it mostly engages the fingers and not the brain (knitters may be offended, if they wish).  I have, in the past, actually argued the opposite: that painting miniatures and wargaming has such a tangible quality which makes them inherently more valuable as a past-time.
But, I'm pretty set for my painting goal right now, and thought I might take a week, completely pack up all my brushes and flocking, and put my brain in neutral to coast a while.  Ever since I gave up the GM screen to allow one of my players to take over the 4E game, I've missed it.  Don't get me wrong, I love the chance to play, but I like having something to chew on when I have a long drive or a slow afternoon at work (RPG's have than over wargaming, I'll give it that).  I've been considering picking up the third edition of Mutants & Masterminds, but $40 for a softcover feels steep, especially after all the D&D Essentials I just bought.
So my plan?  Spend a week enjoying the warm weather in a lounge chair on the lanai and see what my creative muse wants to do.  If she gives me 20 NPC's for a superhero game, I'll go pick up M&M.  If I get orc PC's flying skyships, I'll go get Earthdawn. If I get the megadungeon mojo going, I'll go run an "Essentials Only" game or something.
One part of that weekly conversation with my friend was that inspiration tends to hit in waves like that.  You get 80-90% of the adventure/campaign/whatever and then spend a good bit of time hammering out the rest, which is usually working out the stats, etc.  These "hobby vacations" have been one of those places where I get the big creative surge like that.  My "Scion of the Dragon" mega-campaign arc for Castles & Crusades was composed practically in a day, and my biggest problem was sitting around for months at a time not being able to do much with it because it was all done.  So we'll see what the week brings.

A little retitling of an earlier post

I said in the last post "how I'd structure my D&D Campaign (if I was still running one)."  Perhaps I should have said, "How I would structure my FRPG" campaign, because there's nothing to say that I'd use D&D if I was to shackle myself to the task of running a megadungeon.  There are some other options, with a lot to offer.
First, there are all the OSR (Old School Renaissance) clones out there, e.g. Basic Fantasy, Swords and Wizardry, or Labyrinth Lord.  OSR clones of early editions of D&D feature spartan stat lines for monsters, encourage exploration over "room cleaning", etc.  The downside is that you might not want to get too attached to your character, since in all likelihood he's going to die from a goblin's arrow to the throat.
Second, there's Earthdawn, the second edition of which is for sale over at Half Price Books right now.  I honestly think Earthdawn got people believing they could do something different than AD&D for fantasy games, and a lot of features, including special powers for every PC class (or in Earthdawn's case, "discipline") made its way into Fourth Edition D&D.  Earthdawn's background had the fundamental tropes of FRPG's built in, including a pretty reasonable explanation why large underground complexes full of monsters could exist in the world (instead of being burned out or bricked up by the local authorities).  Earthdawn also had that quality that one reviewer on RPGnet called "D&D meets Cthulu) and I know what they mean.  Earthdawn's monsters weren't the stock-and-trade baddies that have become so well known in the D&D mythos.  They were "horrors" that more often than not were unique to their environment.  That unfamiliarity breeds discomfort, and that discomfort leads to the rare quality of horror in Fantasy RPG's.  I know Earthdawn has a third edition, but I could pick up Earthdawn without too much hassle, especially with HFB's upcoming sale next week.
Then of course there is D&D Essentials, which WotC refuses to call 4.5 or 5E.  I picked up the main rulebook and the Heroes of the Whatever that has the primary classes in it.  It's totally compatible with 4E, but the classes have been tidied up a bit to resemble their earlier edition counterparts and streamlined so you don't have all the build (read: powergaming) options.  D&D 4E/Essentials continues to have an edge over Pathfinder in my opinion when it comes to the ease of putting an adventure together, but I know Pathfinder is more the player's game when it comes to customizing your character.
My attempts at getting a 4E game together got me a handful of players, which have now declined to three.  I need to either change games or try out a new time, so hence my musings on this topic.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How I'd Structure my D&D campaign (if I was still running one)

Naturally, having yielded my responsibilities as DM, I now miss it.  One of things I wish I had done was construct the campaign around a mega-dungeon, rather than use episodic pre-generated adventures.  Part of my decision to use pre-writ adventures was because I was frankly unsure whether a group could develop out of this.  So I didn't want to commit a ton of time to a campaign only to see it fizzle, and I instead focused on painting miniatures that will never see a tabletop.  Sometimes my internal "logic" amazes me.
Megadungeons have several appealing qualities.  First, they are extremely easy to organize and facilitate.  As many have pointed out, dungeons (mega or otherwise) are essentially narrative flow charts, with the decisions made in its exploration determining the course of the adventure.  Unless they are deliberately designed as such, they are nearly impossible to "railroad," although most of WotC's free Game Day adventures with their point-to-point structures do exactly that.  But what you don't have are gaming groups just running off the page to do whatever and you're making stuff up on the fly.
Second, good megadungeons can be organic.  Monte Cook's DungeonaDay project has a nice quality, namely each encounter area has a "restock" listed, namely what is there when the PC's stop back a second time.  Maybe it is just a replacement of the first encounter, but sometimes something very different has managed to inhabit the area.  I like thinking about what the "restock" might be, because it moves the environment from being fairly static to something that is adaptive and living, which adds to its character and makes it more interesting.
Third, there's a certain classic, sentimental quality to it.  Dark, dangerous, irredeemable evil--very rarely are there moral quandaries in a dungeon, and frankly I'm not a big fan of moral quandaries.  Last Fall I played in a one-shot where we were gaming soldiers in the Middle East who were stranded when the US basically imploded into civil war.  And I'll tell you, it was seven hours of nothing but bad choices.   It's you against a world of monsters that could wipe you out in one fell swoop, so you're tackling them piecemeal and will take them down through a combination of luck and pluck.  That hits my sweet spot.

Next: organizing the encounters.

Over at Strange Vistas