Thursday, February 25, 2016

Two groups, one sandbox, some OSR musings and someone dies in the end ...

Dang, I'm busy right now. Started school again and I don't know how much time I'll have to post more regularly. But I'll work on that and experience tells me it's just a matter of time before I find a rhythm that allows me to write some more here. Anyway, testing LSotN is still on a good way and I have two face-to-face groups sharing the same sandbox. I wanted to share some thoughts.

Two groups ...

Originally I planned to have one group to test the game, but Leipzig is a great place for role playing gamers and I had way more feedback than I could have anticipated. After the first quite cozy session (I don't have that much room right now) we decided to split the group in two and see what happens. My main problem had been that they were from the same clan and were, after that first session, all headed in the same direction.

But more on that later. Another thing that came up during character generation and those first steps with the new characters were very different play styles. I knew only one player (my girlfriend) and none of the others. In this first session I was (naturally?) especially eager to make the game and my way of DMing work for each of them, not necessarily among each other.

It's a part of the whole deal, of course, but the way I saw it, the players needed to decide if they'd like to keep me as a DM in the first place, then there was me assessing with whom I will get along and only as a third part how they get along together as a group. In a way I could only tell by the feedback for the next session how the chips may fall. Again, this is to be expected if you start a new group in a new town.
Not the group, but some Frankish warriors that get the point across ...[source]
It would take until January to get them all together for a second session. By that time it had become clear that splitting the group would be the best option, having no room to play comfortably being the main concern. I also had some more requests of people to join the fray, so it turned out to be the only way to make it work.

It's good for a DM to have an idea (or feeling, if all else fails) how the dynamics are with a certain group of individuals might influence a campaign. So after that initial game, knowing that of the initial 5 new players 4 would like to keep going, with 2 more interested to join and a general idea who preferred which style of play, furthermore with the players themselves communicating their ideas openly, I ended up with two groups: one of 3 players with a more martial inclination and one of 4 players with what I may call a storyteller approach to the game.

I don't need to explain why I think that this is a rather perfect constellation for testing a game :) All in all there are 3 girls and 4 guys on the player's side and that's also something I'm happy to have. A good beginning.

... one historical sandbox

So this was the first time I planned on playing with the setting as a part of the experience. As much history as I could cram in my poor little brain and all that in a sandbox. Having two groups now in the same sandbox with the same background, the characters not only knowing each other, but also starting their journey to become heroes together, well, I really thought about not doing it, to be honest.

Anyway, both groups wanted to keep their characters and just go their separate ways. So that's what happened. And I gotta say, if you ever get the chance to do something like this, give it a shot. It brings the setting to life in a way that can be really satisfying for DM and players. But I shouldn't get ahead of myself here. We have a few sessions under our belts now, people will reach level 1 soon and both campaigns develop rather nice, if I may say so. Some of that is due to luck, another big part is having experienced players at the table that are interested in the setting.

My qualities as a DM (meager as they are) aside, two other things are tested here: the rules, of course, and the setting. The setting will be to some extend part of the DM tools in the final game, but the ideas themselves need to work at the table. It bears the interesting problem that I try to learn a lot about how people lived back then and what world views they might have had and also try to reflect that in the rules wherever I can, but it will always demand a lot from a DM and his players.

So during the preparation of the first sessions I read a bit about Roman architecture, since the characters were headed towards one of the remaining Roman cities in the area. It is an interesting topic how the Romans planned and structured those cities and you could go to any kinds of depths just by googling it. To some extent it's important to just get a feeling for the topic and some of the Latin descriptions. The questions I asked myself had been what it looked like, what it might have felt like (or how was it different from what one would expect) and what they called it.

This is very close to what I ended up with! [source]
Add to that some Germanic culture(s) and a realistic idea of the surroundings, the weather, the gear ... you get my drift. It's a lot. And it needs to be or it won't feel much different from your basic fantasy setting. in the last session we had one player actually said that we had to stop for the day (after 6 hours game, but anyway), because it's so much information and connections that it needed some digestion.

It is hard work, I guess, and because of that and the open world approach, I feel unprepared most of the time. But when it clicks, it's a beautiful thing to behold. I can't go much into detail, since the groups only have vague or no intel about each other and I intend to keep it that way, but I can tell a bit of it at least.

I'd like to stress again that I knew nothing of any of it as the game started. if possible, I decide things with the role of a die, so the adventure seeds were all random and "spur of the moment" events that gained momentum over the last few sessions (more on randomness further below).

Adventures in a Roman city

I'll keep that one short (and hope people are still reading at this point). The group had their rite of passage with the Easter festival (which seems to be as old as time, by the way). There'd been lots of drinking and games, as one would imagine for the beginning of spring. Drinking contests, brawls shield runs, hot coals and reciting poems had been among the tests the characters had to struggle with to get their blessing for the journey ahead (every player was to come up with a test for his character and it had been great fun).

The next morning they were to consult the oracle and go out into the world to seek fame and glory and the direction they had to take was over the great lake that served their young settlement as main source of food. Across the lake (ca. 50 km) was an old Roman city that clung to the now defunct Roman ways and one of it's merchants had been in town for the festivities.

Barbarous radiate ... ancient copper coins [source]
With no money and no possessions to speak of (other than what they needed, of course), they asked the captain of the ship what they could do to gain passage and it turned out that the captain's son was AWOL. If they track him down and bring him back to the ship, they'd be allowed to travel over the lake with them. Their first quest turned out to be easy enough and the first session closed with them on the ship, heading through a rough sea towards adventure.

In between sessions the group split up, we lost one player and gained two more. They arrived with bad weather. Ice rain, hail, you name it. The captain offered everyone willing to help unloading the boat a few copper pieces, so the group earned their first coin, made some sailors happy and followed them into different taverns out of the storm.

The first group meets a prostitute that lost her child to evil men and so far they found a reluctant father, some criminal activity a pimp offering them work they wouldn't do because of their honor and a Christian underground organisation helping those in need. They start to see the big picture and something evil is stirring the dark, waiting for them.

The second group meets a merchant in dire straits. He owes lots of gold to a loan shark, but he lost the money to a dishonest tribesman who claimed to know directions to a lost Roman silver mine in the mountains. They are body guards of that merchant right now, investigating the whereabouts of said tribesmen. But he's difficult to find and that loan shark starts getting restless. And then there is a possible treasure hunt ...

It's old school, all right!

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, at it's core, is all about rolling ability scores/skills and saves. Ability scores will change as characters get scarred, combat and magic are systems of their own (as with most game, actually), but that's it. Seeing it like that makes the D&D heritage quite obvious, I think. But the game felt very different to what I thought was OD&D and I started to muse that lost Songs won't be recognized as OSR in the end.

That changed after the last two sessions, though. The sandbox approach and the very idea of randomizing as much as possible on the DM-side of things, ability scores and saves, although named different, as the main source of player-world interaction, getting xp for treasure (sort of), the necessity for player skill and the brutality of it all really start to feel "old school". And not to me either, but to the players.

To some extent that's how I DM the game, for sure, but a lot of it is the game itself. So I will describe this as an OSR game. Definitely with a high difficulty, some new ideas and demanding in many aspects, but old school nonetheless. Not only due to the mind-set it originates from, but also because it does what those old games did, only a bit different.

And then someone dies ...

Anyway, the players seem to like it, too. They are careful, avoiding combat if possible and try to get a feeling for the world and how to explore (or exploit) it. That Roman city gains more and more depth every time one of the groups gets deeper into the plot lines they decided to follow.

Two things happened recently that really brought across how the sandbox lets them interact with the environment and from group to group. The first was about one player using a chimney to suffogate some bullies to break their hands and loot them afterwards. No fight, just calculation. And quite efficient at that. I personally think it was way more cruel than actually slitting their throats, but who am I to say.

The second thing was that one character actually died in a fight. He'd been led into a trap by some criminals working for that loan shark I mentioned before and he was dead meat after facing those five cutthroats and rolling a critical failure.

Well, the other characters swore bitter vengeance and gave the dead (and looted) character the proper burial and player made a new character. He'd been back into the game half an hour later. Nice as that is, way better was the reaction of that other group, as they, too, swore bitter vengeance (even without me telling what the others did) and went to see where he died to pay their respect. I thought it was great.

Not only to let them explore a place the others had visited before (though that had been nice, too!), but also that they really took the character from that other game as one of their own. We are already planning how to bring those characters together to help each other in an epic show down, whenever it occurs. I'm thinking dream messages and rituals here ...

I'm really having a blast with those people, if you haven't guessed yet.

Well, hear me rambling :)

Sorry about that huge wall of text just to say I'm still alive, playing and kicking. I hope to write something a bit more meaty soon. Maybe next week. I got some ideas, but most of the time I'm too drained out to get anything done after school. Well, it's getting better already. Expect more of the same soon.

And if some of you have experience with running more than one group through the same sandbox at the same time, please share your thoughts about it. How did it go down? Is it something that can work for a campaign?


  1. I separated them by a continent. I found that one group, the tabletop, moved "faster" in game-time than PbP, the second group. So while I have to allow each of them the ability to affect my world, I have to do with an eye towards not breaking other things.

    I now understand what writers who have a show like Star Trek, and then have to write something that came before Star Trek (like "Enterprise") go through.

    As long as each party/group can affect the world, and be affected, I think it's awesome.

    1. Thank you for taking the time! You describe exactly the bind I'm in right now: one group is developing faster than the other and I had to pause that game for two sessions. Not the best of solutions, but it works for now and I get a chance to test Legend of the 5 Rings as a player (I have heard good things). But there's actually lots of potential to use that free time of the main game to expand on the universe. I was thinking about all kinds of shenanigans, like giving them high level characters to decide some things that might affect the area. Never thought about army scale war fare, though (and I don't have any rules for that yet ...). You gave me an idea here.

      Yeah, the risk of producing a paradox by changing the past :) I'd welcome the challenge to find a story that makes the campaign snap back into place.


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