Saturday, July 23, 2016

Mining for Gygax Quotes - ENWorld Q&A from 2002 Part 1

Okay, so I should do something else and I'm reading my blogroll instead. As those things never go well, I read a post quoting Gygax by Delta from the great Delta's D&D Hotspot. And I think, yeah, why not read some Q&A with the man himself while I should do something else ... and off I went.

The ENWorld Q&A with Gary Gygax from 2002 we are talking about here sports 880 pages, going strong for 6 years, no less and Gygax was very active in it, questions coming from all kinds of directions. Around page 8 I thought, I need to collect some of those for later reference (as I always lack those) and the logical consequence is making a post out of it!

Still one of my favorite memes with the man :D [source]
And here it is, questions and answers I thought interesting and relevant from the first 50 pages. Please remember, selection is always also a form of interpretation, but I linked the exact spot I took the quote from to have some context for those in the mood to dig in further. Other than that I didn't alter what was written nor do any spell correction (Mr. G. took the time to answer lots of questions, but he did so very fast, too, it seems).

Thanks, Delta, for pointing me in this direction! This is a great source of all kinds of information about our hobby and I'm really enjoying working my way through this :) Also a warning: this starts 2002, so there's lots of talk about 3e ...


Q: 1. To what degree, in your opinion, has D&D returned to its original roots (style and spirit-wise)?

A: 1. There is no relationship between 3E and original D&D, or OAD&D for that matter. Different games, style, and spirit.

A: The main differences in the older works I did and 3E are style of writing, reliance on archetypes, limitatations on character advancement, availability of and creation of magic items, and general single-class play for human characters.

Play is mainly reliant on rules. I ignored those I write when DMing if the game called for that, and in all added what was logical in terms of the game environment to play. Thus much of adventuring was not "by the book," but rather seat of the pants play by DM and players alike.

Rules lawyers are unmentionable...

Creating adventures is something that generally relies a lot on the system bases, rules, monsters, eivironments, etc. In regards to the first named, the more rules one must pay close attention to, the more difficult it is to create adventure material.

Q: 2. In your own words, how would you summarize the difference between AD&D and Basic/Expert/etc. D&D?

Q: 3. How important do you feel the concept of 'character archtypes' is to the D&D game? Do you feel that 3e rules, by going away from having core character classes, has lost something important here?

A: 2. I am not going to try to do critical comparative anayyses here or in any chat. That's a task that demands much careful thinking and effort. The only thing I can say about the matter is this: Play the two and judge for yourself. I think that AD&D is a "tighter" game than D&D was, more directed, less free-form. However, that applies mainly to those DMs who followed the book, if you will, as AD&D could be played in the same style as D&D.

A: 3. I feel very strongly that the archetype is crucial to the D&D game, and yes, I believe that 3E has suffered by virtually abandoning that concept. Without it I don't think the game will maintain so strong an appeal as it originally possessed. Time will tell.

Q: 3) How do you explain hit points, or do you even bother?

Q: 4) In 3e, there's one big goal - Become the hardest bastard you can (I.E., gain power and lots of it.) What were the big goals in OD&D? Wealth? Land? Nobility?

A: 3) That's easy. HPs represent not only the physical person, but that one's luck, skill in avoiding damage. As luck runs low, muscles tire, and reflexes slow their measure, HPs. are lost to reflect this. The last few remaining are the actual physical body being harmed. Okay, its rationalizing, but it works pretty well, I think

A: 4) In OAD&D there was plenty of play aimed at power, just as there is in 3E. Of course those that I knew as "good" players aimed first and foremost at having fun playing the game, regardless of rise in rabk and all the rest that goes with power gaming. The challenge of each session was enjoyed more from a group perspective, likely. As the team prospered, so too the enjoyment, cameraderie, and resulting stories. Many a group downplayed combat, developed campaigns in which roleplay was the key. Politics and economics? Sure. While OAD&D certainly focused on combat mechanics and rules, it did not hinder other sorts of play. The XP system in 3E does that with a vengence.

In comment 371

Q: Of course, OAD&D's XP system promoted the gaining of treasure above all else. At least there are plenty of ideas in the 3E DMG for changing the XP system, and more online. Is that comment due to (a) the rate of advancement in 3E, (b) that XP is given only for overcoming monsters, (c) some other reason, or (d) some combination of (a), (b) and/or (c)?

On a related topic, what are the highest level OAD&D characters you've played or DMed? (That have started at a low level and worked their way upwards, of course!)

A: Indeed, the wealth was featured--most realistically if one considers human motivations. If you, the real you, were an adventurerer, what would miotivate you more that the lure of riches? Sure, altruistic things, honor, patriotism and the like come into play, but most adventures are based on the lure of treasure. Note also that casting spells earned XPs, as did successful performance of various class abilities not related to fighting. But enough comparative analysis.

I have played a PC of over 20th but less than 30th level. Advancement of that particular character came because of long play and some pretty clever stuff done therein, if I do say so myself. I have DMed for some higher level PCS, and my observation was that the players really didn't have the expertise to have gained such level in my campaigm. the highest level ever gained in my campaign is around 20th, Some players could have gotten above the level their best PC had attained, but they preferred to play several, as I have always done, and keep the levels lower.

In comment 376

Q: XP for casting spells in OAD&D? I must have missed that, as I've never seen it used - or perhaps it's one of the many features of your campaign that wasn't in the original rules. Not that it matters!

A: Now I could swear that's in the rules somewhere, maybe UA? Anyway, we always played it as 100 XP per level of the spell cast--usefully in an adventure or to assist someone during or after, so clerics were rewarded as well as m-us.

Q: Gary, I'm curious about your thoughts on the D&D (or AD&D) Paladin class. Many gamers see the Paladin's Lawful Good alignment restriction as an essential part of this class. Other players, however, have no problem with allowing Chaotic Good Paladins, Lawful Evil Paladins, and Paladins of any and all alignments.

Do you think that the Paladin's Lawful Good alignment restriction is an appropriate, or even an essential, element of this class? I myself am all for having "Holy Warriors" of all alignments, but I've always viewed the "Paladin" title as being uniquely bound to the service of both Law and Goodness. Maybe I'm just a traditionalist.

Also, from where did the class concept originate? Is it true that Poul Anderson'sThree Hearts and Three Lions story is one of the main influences of the AD&D Paladin?

A: As far as I am concerned, the Paladin is Lawful Good--perior. The class takes vows, swears an oath, and then follows it. The concept is drawn from some legend--Authurian--and some quasi-legend--the paladins of Charlemaine plus the code of chivalry as it was written, more honored in the breach than the keeping. As described in the game system, any characyer that was of paladin class would cease being so immediately his vows were broken.

Playing a proper paladin is often mishandled also. They are not stupid per se, only bound by oaths. For example I did allow paladins to slay dangerous prisoners if those individuals renounced Evil. In such a state of grace, killing them is actually a Good act, for they will then go on to a better life in another world instead of being sent to some dark and dismal plane to suffer for their ways after death. While a paladin will fight to the death if necessary, they are not usually bound to suicidal valor for no pirpose.

Anyway, while Poul Anderson in his excellent THREE HEARTS & THREE LIONS was treating Oiger the Dane as his protagonist, that work was not the source for the paladin class. I did borrow a good deal from the troll he had in the yarn though

In comment 439

Q: 3. I'm sure the answer to this is available elsewhere, but could you say how you came up with the name Dungeons and Dragons? (if it was covered earlier in the thread, sorry).

A: There is some false information put out on this subject from T$R after I split. When I wrote the initial and second drafts of the D&D game ms. I had it's title as "The Fantasy Game." This was for two reasons: One, I hadn't settled on a name yet. Two, when I did choose a name, I didn't want it known intil a product was out. During this period I made up a two-column list of names. All in column one could stand alone or go with one in the second column to form a longer title. I read the lists to my regular players, and my family, asking what they thought best. Of course the list had both "Dungeons" and "Dragons" on it. Those two in combination were the favorites, and when my (then) little daughter Cindy clapped her hands and said the really liked that name, I agreed. It was my favorite too--after all, I had formed the Castle & Crusade Society as a part of the International Federation of Wargaming about three years before that.


That's it for today, all I found interesting enough to collect from the first 50 pages, either for later reference or because it's relevant to posts I written in the past (like about experience in the old RC just the other day). Damn, it's fascinating and I'm really curious what's still in store. I like what I read from the man, too. Seemed to be a very nice guy to chat with and pleasant all around.

I hope you found it as interesting and I will continue this series eventually (Gary Gygax Day is coming up fast, so there is hope for another installment soon). But now I really should do something else ...

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 5: Experience

I should sit here and write about something else. So here I am, writing about something else instead ... But did you ever think that the reputation D&D has for being about killing things and taking their stuff is unjustified? I did and there is yet another odd thing about the D&D Rules Cyclopedia that could shed some light on why that is so.

Just killing monsters and taking their stuff?

No, definitely not. Sure, you get xp for treasure and for defeating monsters and that makes a good portion of the low to mid-level game. But the fact of the matter is that you'll need far more juice than what you'll get for killing and looting once you enter, say, level 10 or higher. Actually, one wizard'll need to kill the equivalent of 455 red dragons or loot 4.350.000 gp (mix and match, of course) to reach level 36. That's ONE character. Just isn't happening by killing and looting alone.

On the contrary. Chapter 10: Experience is very illuminating in that regard. For starters, by concluding an adventure or quest, characters will get the amount xp they gained for defeating monsters during that quest again as a bonus. So just murderhoboing around won't double the monster xp like that. Finishing adventures does. And I agree, killing overcoming is still a motivator here. But the story gets a major highlight with those rules, so there you go.

And it doesn't stop with that. A character furthermore gets 1/20 of the base xp he needs to reach next level for "good role playing". A thief, for instance, needs 120.000 xp from level 16 to level 17 (incidentally that's also the level range between all following levels). 1/20 would mean 6.000 xp just like that per session. "Good role playing" covers a lot of ground here and you only get it once per session. But it shows the emphasis of the game towards playing a character well. And since it's individually connected to level, it's a bonus far easier to get on higher levels than killing beasties (a group of four characters without help would have to kill a monster worth 24.000 xp to get that kind of xp ...).

And here is the kicker. Characters also get 1/20 of the base xp they need to reach next level for Exceptional Actions, or in other words, clever play. It's also an award you can get more than once per session. Saving allies from harm or clever skill use are just two examples here. It sure is not an easy thing to achieve, but possible once per session. Especially in high level games, where wrong decisions will have a far bigger impact.

The book also advises to aim level advancement to every 5 sessions (with no indications how long one of those sessions might be ... I might have to check on that). Going with simple math here and the assumption that an experienced player is able to gain at least 1/10 of the base xp he needs to reach next level through role playing and clever play per session. And that means half the xp we'd need in 5 sessions (5/10) are not for fighting and killing and looting.

That'd be 60.000 xp for the thief mentioned above. The rest comes from defeating monsters, gaining treasure and fulfilling quests. If we take a third each here, that'd mean 20.000 xp for killing, quests and loot each. All in all killing and looting makes a third of the game, experience-wise. Two thirds is what you get for good and clever role playing and going on quests.

That's his 1/10 to reach next level right there!
The new equipment was a nice bonus, too ... [source]
Here is one last thing: Defeating Monsters and Gaining Treasure do not necessarily mean killing and looting. You don't need to kill a monster in D&D to gain the full xp award for overcoming it as a challenge. Actually, even losing a fight against a monster will net the characters a quarter of the monsters xp value just for facing it!

Now that's some stubborn rumor, I'd say!

I'm not saying there's no killing and looting in D&D or that it isn't fun (or can't be, anyway). But it is not what the game is about. Not by a long shot and not going by the rules. I'd think a DM might actually hurt his game, if he insists to reduce the game to it. It might work for the first couple of levels but it will get very difficult later on as the game shifts gears with huge amounts of xp between levels. That's the moment when those other aspects, like good role playing or going on quests, gain traction and need proper rewards.

You see, if the assumed mode of play as described above isn't established from the beginning, it'll be experienced as a different game as they hit mid-level and the players could lose interest because of that. Might very well be the reason why many campaigns won't last beyond levels 6 to 10 and that's a well known problem.

Anyway, this is a great experience system, allowing for several different ways of play and it's somewhat odd that people keep insisting on saying D&D 1e is nothing more but this or that. It's actually way more versatile than later editions managed to be (especially 3 and 4e) and not at all geared towards combat as ultimo ratio.

So what can we take away from this? How a DM rewards a game will give players an impression what sort of play is the most beneficial at the table and they'll start playing accordingly. It's something a DM needs to communicate as clear and careful as possible. Much of the same goes for a system: how experience is gained will have a huge impact on how a game is played. In case of the D&D RC I'd say play it as written and see what happens. It won't be the D&D some would make you believe it is.

If you liked this post, you might want to check out the other oddities in this series. Comments are, as always, very welcome. Especially if they praise the Rules Cyclopedia :)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Narrative Flow vs. Player Skill

Well, when I'm on a roll, I'm on a roll. I closed my last post with the idea that players always have the possibility to influence the flow of a narrative by concreting it up to a point where the result is calculable for the players. Here's about how ... Might be my shortest post this year, too!

Narrative Flow

The wobbly core of every role playing game is the narrative flow that emerges when playing the it. It's that picaresque narrative that forms in hindsight our stories and all that forms over time the campaign. Again, because it bears repeating, the perception of our role playing experience is comprised out of 3 levels:
The Narrative 

The Story 

The Campaign
Everything we do in the game informs and/or forms those levels. Player decisions, DM reactions, system responses, idle chatter, movie references, they all become in retrospective the gaming experience. It's how our brain works, I guess. We interpret our reality to stories, because context is a process of understanding.

But that's not the narrative flow. Not per se, anyway. The flow describes that specific moment when the narrative clicks at the table. There is tension and all involved ride the narrative like a wave. You won't have that for a complete gaming session, but ideally you should have it several times during one, bridging the rest as good as possible (and this is, again, where interpretation helps ... the DMs duty).

There is clear distinction in classic role playing games between 
what informs the narrative and what forms it.

On the informing side are system and players, both feed with their intertwined dynamic of attempt and result the narrative with fragments. The DM then, traditionally, forms all that into a coherent interpretation, closing narrative arcs or creating new ones as needed.

All participants of two sides are connected through communication. This is no surprise, of course, but it is very relevant for the game. The system communicates results and the DM communicates context. Both DM and system are somewhat bound to integrity, they function under fixed rules when forming narratives, like arcs of suspense, internal coherence and suspension of disbelief. If rules or a DM produce unlikely results, they destroy (or at least damage) the flow. Maybe we could describe them as agents of harmony towards the narrative.

Players are in a unique position here. They communicate possibilities and this is, finally, where player skill is situated.

Player Skill

Communication is always between all participants. Players communicate with the system to optimize their decisions from a technical side, so to say. With the DM they communicate about the specifics in the narrative. What is possible and how is it achievable. Possibilities, but not necessarily harmony.

So players are, in a way (and going with the analogy above), agents of chaos. A disruptive power, if you will. They are bound to the narrative, but since they are not forming it, as described above, they are free to challenge the harmony instead.

If you think about it, that's all the players do: disrupting the narrative towards a more favorable outcome. And that's it. Sure, some like to immerse themselves in a role and play that and there is a wide range of goals you might associate with role playing games and all those things are legit. But if you look at the game from the storytelling perspective (not just the white wolf variant, but in general) you'll see that this is what it's all about. Anything you want to achieve as a player in a traditional role playing starts with exactly that basic assumption.

Now, where from there? Well, a player could use this for all kinds of things. Recognizing important NPCs or plot devices and killing them off when the DM is careless would be a classic in that regard. But although the ability to destroy a game on a purely narrative basis shows the right talent, it is not yet fully realized player skill at all. It's just destructive.

It might just work ... [source]
So what is player skill? As a consequence of the argument I'm making here, it is using player communication with system and DM to inform a narrative beneficially towards the goals all participants formulated in the game they are playing by narrowing down the narrative options to a manageable scale.

In other words: the best technique to achieve any goal as a player in a role playing game, in my experience, is limiting as many options in the ongoing narrative as possible. A DM is obliged to communicate what a character can know. But every time you get an answer about the current situation in the narrative, the DM also codifies (forms) the result. He has to make decisions and with that he limits his options in the narrative.

Ideally this is a part of the game without dice or system up to the point where a player has enough information to get advantages out of it. No rolls in the beginning, easy pickings afterwards.

Using "blind spots" in a system is another way to make this work. That's how lamp oil and fire or the ten foot pole got so popular in early D&D. Clever usage of the environment that somehow circumvents the system to get an advantage in the narrative. This and limiting DM options obviously go very well hand in hand.

Everything a player might want to achieve starts here and a player being good (skilled) at playing it like that is a real asset at the table. For all involved, actually, as most DM's I know really appreciate a challenge like that.


Damn, I've been writing towards this specific point for a long time now. Never quite got to it until now, though. There are many games out there today that allow players the power to actually form the narrative instead of "just" informing it. I never liked that, to be honest. Another trend is to reduce the system information process in a narrative towards the bare minimum (rules light systems) and I never liked that, too. Now I know why. Balance:
The Triquetra are players, system and DM, the circle is the narrative [source]
I mean, sure, I get it. Playing with those elements has merit (like with InSpectres*, for instance) and helps producing very specific results (My Life with Master comes to mind), but are they fully actualized role playing games? Maybe not. For me at least the beauty of playing is in the balance you can find in, say, the (wait for it ....) D&D Rules Cyclopedia, for instance**. Because all participants (and that includes the rules) play an equal (if different) part in creating the narrative that make the stories we love.

Other games with different emphases do that, too, of course. But it's the "equal"-part I'm talking about here. It's all a matter of taste, of course.

* Which obviously has a movie now? The random things you discover doing research ...

**  There are many, many other games that fulfill the criteria I formulated above. Cyberpunk, Runequest, the oWoD games ... there is a lot of them :)

Sunday, July 10, 2016


You know what those letters mean: they all died. I'm talking our last game of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs here. Players took it like champs and we talked more about it than necessary. Nonetheless, the discussion after the game was left, as you would have it with half a bottle of vine in the brain, incomplete. Or so I think. And there is always something to learn from the ill fate of characters. So a post it is ...

This will scratch several topics I already wrote about all over the blog and connect to some extent to this post about sandbox gaming and my last post about improvisation and preparation.

This is how I roll

Let's start with a few sentences about how I DM my games. I think it's important to understand where my decisions come from to evaluate them properly.

First things first, it's all random. Down the road I fill it with internal logic where I need to and randomize the rest. The setting is the historical Dark Ages around 550 AC and with a touch of magic. The sandbox the players get to explore is fictional (there are no proper topographical maps of the time anyway, btw) and also random (using this system). Their tribe, at the center of that random map, is also fictional and I allow some customizing regarding appearance and culture (tattoos, burials, and so on).

Character creation is a mix of random results and player customization. I have no story to speak of at the beginning of a campaign/game, just some random seeds (mostly what fascinates/intrigues me at the moment), random tables, background information (many of that as a random result of the setting creation with as much actual history as I can summon and what the narrative already produced) and dice. The rest is interaction with the players, rolling the dice and improvisation.

In this the players are free to do with their characters what they want. A career in the Arena? Not a problem. Becoming drug barons? Show me how to do it ... I propose and react, they do.

I'd like to stress that I'm very laid back about all of this, mostly working with internal logic of a setting or situation. I have no dog in this fight, as they say. Being a neutral party like that should have the great advantage for players to solve problems with as much ingenuity as they can gather and not just by knowing the rules. Everything can be done if it's within the realm of possibility.

It also means that wrong player decisions might bear dire consequences for the characters.

I admit, I will soften a blow somewhat if I get the opportunity. But a blow it will be nonetheless. Nowadays I even roll in the open most of the time and without a DM screen.

That being said, I'd like to add that I'm only human and I make mistakes. So that is in the mix, too :)

Finally, this is play-testing. To some extent this means putting the system under stress to see if and where it might break and that means players might end up in situations the system can't handle some way or another. Not saying it happened here, but it could have and everybody was aware of that.

What happened before

The quest of our heroes started in the (totally fictional) Roman city Ovicuria with a mourning mother (a sad prostitute one of the characters met in a tavern) and her missing child. The group decided it was a proper quest for the heroes they aspire to become, so they promised to reunite the family. They did a lot of questioning and listening before they found out that the mayor of the city, a self-proclaimed Caesar, is somehow involved with stealing babies for some demonic rituals involving orgies somewhere under the palace in the center of town.

Part of every Roman cityscape [source]
Their questioning already aroused some suspicion from several parties and they got followed by humans and phantoms (both spotted by the group, so they knew). But the opportunity arose to infiltrate the catacombs during an uprising against the evil Caesar (was a result of this here random table) and while said Caesar was having one of his rituals below the palace. So down into the catacombs it was. They found a secured entrance easy enough, guarded by two of those sinister legionaries they keep seeing patrolling the streets.

It'd been a short and brutal fight. Although those guys were really tough, they went down. And this was the moment the group found out that those guys could regenerate. Cutting them open revealed that they had strange purple worms residing in their hearts. Cutting them out and killing them killed the legionary, too.

But all that took a lot of time and this being an exit provoked a situation where they encounter some traffic. And so it was, two noble Romans with their escort, another pair of legionaries, showed up. They fought them, but one of the nobles got away and it didn't take long for that guy to raise the alarm. The group cut their losses and off they were.

It had been a wild chase through the city and the group had been lucky that the riots spread into their direction (again, a random roll). They found an abandoned house to lay low for a few days and heal. In the night they heard (and some of them saw) a huge demon flying over the burning town. At that point they had some idea what they are up against.

Something like this: A blood demon by albino-z [source]
There is one more incident I need to report before I write about that final and fatal game night. One of the characters had been out of luck with his stress saves and his character was a bit shaken. That was why they decided on a full nights rest. Another character had a light sleep that first night and woke up, thinking some of the rioters tried to force their entry. Not being a fighter, he decided to wake up the shaken character with a kick to the kidneys and the claim that they are about to get attacked.

They all being under lots of pressure, I demanded another stress save from the character with the boot in his kidneys and he fails dramatically. A botch, if I recall correctly, with the character ending up in a corner whimpering and shaking. A real nervous break down for an attack that never happened, as the doors held and the rioters moved on.

A fatal last descent 

Orientation: They came from south, there on the
right, A is where they ended up.
Time was definitely a problem, so they took as much rest as they dared and prepared for their next foray into the catacombs. With the riots just being crushed and their first attack from that direction being as effective as it has been (four dead legionaries and one witch down), the palace guards decided to be extra careful about it. They had sentries early in the catacombs, mainly runners. The group gets spotted then and there. Another fight, two legionaries join the fray. All enemies die, but some characters get wounded, too.

Still, all is well and they press onward. The door those soldiers had been guarding is the next obstacle, but not that big a problem. The group enters the palace dungeon. There are some statues, some doors with magic warding (probably tombs, they conclude) and an opulent entrance to what seems the dungeon proper. Since they have a mission (rescuing the baby) they store that information for later and move on.

The entrance: They had something Egyptian going on down there, too [source]
Two choices, left or right. Left gets the popular vote first and they follow that broad hall way a bit until the get to a crossroads of sorts, with a smaller corridor going off to the right and the hallway going on ahead. On the left the see a ghostly legionary kneeling in front of the wall between two columns. That seems dangerous so they head back and into the other direction.

The never ending watch: Well, I really came prepared ...
[source ... no idea where I got that]
Right it is now, still on that main hallway. It's when they start hearing the screams of tormented souls that things start going south. It threatens their nerves and that allows for a (normal) stress save. Failing this would make characters nervous, nothing more. But the one player with the nervous break down just the other day, well, he fails and with his nerves already being shot, he is not able to move on as the shadows themselves threaten him.

They put him into an alcove and he hides behind his shield, the white in his eyes way to visible as he tries to penetrate the darkness around him in fear and finally decides to move back to those statues before the entrance and between the tombs. He has no luck there, as a creature is imprisoned in one of those tombs, between bones and dust. It is an oracle from another world and the dice decide that he encounters her. I interpret this as him hearing her otherworldly voice singing. He rolls his save for sanity and ... botches. One epileptic seizure later is is out of the game for good. His body just couldn't take it.
The otherworldly oracle by
the great Bastien L. Deharme [source]
One down, three to go ...

The character being unconscious means he can't hear the patrol passing the entrance, moving towards his friends.

Meanwhile the others came to another junction with some legionaries guarding another opulent exit to the right and another corridor opposite of them. Or so the group assumes. Deciding on a course of action, they decide to trick those legionaries into turning away from them with a sling shot and attack them from behind. Tension being high, I decide the legionaries don't move towards the noise, but move back into the corridor they are guarding instead, closing the gate.

That crossroad, the lights leading into A on the map [source unknown]
One of them gets hit with an arrow as a going away present before the two are out of sight, but the noise of the bow in the hallway and the gate closing alerts the patrol coming in from behind the group and they engage.

Having no time, they decide to make a run for it and instead of running ahead, the group aims for the corridor they assume to the right (see the map, at that point the players had figured out that this entrance might correspond with the other one opposite of the ghostly legionary on the other side). So they ran and they had no time to check that entrance or see anything other than that it was actually there. They saw the two stone faces at the entrance, but they couldn't see the shimmering veil between them. A trap ...

A trap [source]
The first ran through and there was a flash of light, but he had cast some magic protection and he managed to pass unharmed. The second character rolls for a full stop and makes it, but the character behind her is not that lucky and she stumbles between the faces, barely avoiding running into the character before her.

That one gets badly burned and she's barely conscious when the horrible, now unfiltered screams, the irregular proportions and the eerie light of the area they just entered gives her the rest and she loses consciousness before she loses her mind (two failed saves later, so to say).

Two down, two still moving forward

With the legionaries approaching and two characters already being in the other side, the third character decides to go for it, too. A spectacular save later, she passes the stone masks unharmed. The legionaries don't follow them and they realize they have entered a labyrinth of sorts. After having the second unconscious character stored somewhere in a dead end, the remaining two characters head towards the screams.

What they find is disturbing: people, pinned to the walls and knotted into unholy symbols, forcing their souls into infinite torment. The proper thing to do is to free those souls, so they cut their throats and silence them. As the last soul dies with a thankful sigh, one character starts to hear children crying and they find an air slit leading downwards. They immediately start looking for a secret door. The silence also alarms one of the residents of the labyrinth and she comes looking, but the characters find the secret door in the last moment and barely avoid detection.

They find themselves atop a narrow circular staircase. The noise of crying babies is way louder here and the make their way downstairs. But this secret laboratory in the heart of the inner sanctum of the palace dungeon is protected by a bone maelstrom that makes the unwary lose their balance and fall into it, grinding them to death. The first character falls and loses consciousness, but the second is able to catch her before he himself fails his save and falls towards his doom ...

Another trap [source]
Death scenes

They infiltrated a highly protected and well guarded area and although none of them died, they did all lose consciousness one way or another. So they got caught and all of them found horrible deaths. One ended up at the wall where he just hours before freed those tormented souls, two got sacrificed in a blood ritual and the last one, the guy that had the seizure, well he got gutted by the oracle for one of her readings.

At this point, I really was left with no choice at all.


The players took it really well. They had been happy with the campaign and Lost Songs as a system so far. We'll make new characters and explore other directions. They also get the xp their characters earned from that sessions, so chances are they won't start at level zero. So that's something.

A few points came up, though, and I'd like to address them. There is a point in the system where failure starts a cascade of effects that will harm a character way more before the body gives up and denies consciousness. That needs to change. It wouldn't have changed a thing here in the end, but if the characters somehow managed to get out of there, they'd have more damage to heal than is reasonable.

Instead there is a threshold of pain now, where if the disadvantage on a roll is higher than the save, the save fails automatically instead without doing any further harm than the effect (losing consciousness, that is).

One other point of critique had been that I reveal too much in my narrative and descriptive parts as I give interpretations for the characters. I do that mostly because I believe if games are longer apart as a few weeks, details get lost on the players and the game suffers a bit because of it (the opposing argument was that what the players don't know anymore has no place in the game). I also like to talk a lot. There, I said it.

Joking aside, I'm not sure I want to tune that down in the future and I think it's worse if the characters end up in a situation where I have to say "Well, that's bad luck. You have been warned about this three games ago ... you know, two months ago, talking to that swamp witch?" (or some such thing) because that just doesn't sit well with me. I have to think about it some more, but it directly leads to the last point (and the one I definitely do not agree with).

Where we didn't agree

That final point was that I, as a DM, have to balance encounters for the group so a TPK doesn't happen. That I won't do. It is a sandbox game and the course of action the characters chose brought them where they ended up. I didn't enforce any of that and kept is as fair as possible. The dungeon was set up before the game so their decisions mattered and their observations had value, stuff like that.

Interestingly enough, the case of the missing children was a direct result of the randomized setting creation. Something dark stirred there and affected something combat related. I decided early on that the legionaries where connected (actually long before that campaign started) and the missing babies were connected with tat, too (they bred the legionaries out of them ...). So it was very likely that they encountered people with missing babies (still was a random result, though).

But they saw the warning signs and decided that what they did is what their characters would do because they are inexperienced Germanic warriors from the country. I don't agree. Or not completely. It would have been totally legit to consult a holy man before taking on that palace dungeon. Gathering more information would have been possible. They already got some allies in town.

I admit that time was a pressing matter and that the challenge was hard. But it was impossible if you just run into it unprepared or careless (or both). And I don't bend narrative or setting just because some players miscalculated or can't remember important details (see above). But there is also no need to for highly trained and well tuned tactical group machine to make it happen.

For me at least it's about finding that sweet spot between what a character should do (or be) from the "playing a game" perspective and how that could be explained in the narrative (the storyteller perspective). So if you as a player thinks that his character should check for traps and move silently, but he is an oaf from the country and wouldn't do that, it's for the player to find a way to make it work. And there always is a way. 

What happens next?

I don't know. I really hope we get to play more together, because I had loads of fun with those guys. And although I don't necessarily say their character decisions had been, well, wise there in the end, I definitely say that they made for a great story and I'm looking forward to continue in that tradition :)

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is a demanding game, both on DM and on the players. You get a very detailed picture how your character feels and if you ignore that, it might result in dire consequences. Sandboxing i demanding, too. Morrowind is still my high standard here. Do what you want, make it work. It sure means investing into it and it means you might fail by chance. But if you play along, it can be very rewarding. On the one hand I'm very happy with that, on the other hand I hope it isn't too much. Either way, the game keeps growing.

Damn, that's a long text again. Couldn't help it. Still left things unsaid, too (I think). There is, for instance, something to be said how filling the narrative with information might be a good way for the players to dam the randomness to a point where you make success almost impossible with established facts. Taming the narrative, of sorts. But that is for another post and you can read it here.

Next week I'll finish the Dragon's Cough scenario here on the blog and after that ... I don't know, maybe another review?

Thoughts and comments are, as always, very welcome.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

About improvisation and preparation

I encounter every so often arguments about improvisation versus preparation or how Dungeon Masters don't need mountains of material to make a good game. Or the opposite, where it's all about the strict adherence to a "script" of sorts, be it rules or module or what-have-you . But the whole thing is way more grey than black and white. Since that's a discussion that came up a few days ago with a friend, I'll write a bit about this as a change of pace before we get back to The Dragon's Cough ...

Examples from people who know what they do ...

The discussion started with an article about Inland Empire I saw over at A Kingdom Is. We (that is me and a friend) saw that movie back when he came out on DVD and dissected it afterwards over a few beers, as we would do with David Lynch material. It's been a while, but I remember that it had been a long discussion with the attempt to put some sense to the whole thing. Ultimately, we failed to come to an conclusion (was a good discussion, though).

So years later I read the article linked above and I'm thinking, well, we never had a chance. Lynch had no script and had handed the cast it's dialogue as he needed it. Lynch's comment:
“I write the thing scene by scene and I don’t have much of a clue where it will end,” he said in a 2005 interview. “It’s a risk, but I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room.” [source]
That's Lynch for you. I'm not sure he managed to accomplish what he tried here in a traditional sense, but I have to see that movie now with fresh eyes. Maybe it connects on a level I didn't consider ... Anyway, this being about improvisation, I'd say it is a great example how to do it. There are, from the top of my head, three levels of creation here: (1) he writes it spontaneously, (2) the scene is filmed, interpreted by the cast and gets additional meaning with the set design, lighting and all that jazz and (3) all that material is condensed down to the cut and gets a musical score, the final composition, again with meaning added to it.

Just one WTF?! scene from Inland Empire [source]
It starts with spontaneous creation, improvises ahead and gets very structured towards the end. As a viewer you can't even be sure that you see the scenes in the order they'd been filmed (most likely not), so there is no way to tell what the initial train of thought or state of mind must have been to write a scene the way it got written.

That discrepancy between the process of creation and the process of consuming the result is one aspect of what I'm talking about here.

Another, also very interesting process can be seen by the writing of a series like, for instance, Breaking Bad. Here is a great article about what happens in a writers' room. It's highly structured as a collaborative effort up until a point where one of the writers is able to write it on his own. After that it goes through a ridiculous amount of hands before someone starts filming it. Nothing is kept unplanned and there is almost no room for improvisation after that first stage of planning.

But writing a movie or tv series is not like DMing a game, right!?

The result for the viewer is in both cases, as you'd expect, the same: a complete story. And this is where we bridge the whole thing to role playing games. Improvisation is in different levels of the creation of a story, depending on the medium that is used. With Lynch it's the whole process, from the first word to the final movie, structuring it stage after stage. It's an example of a writer/director having control over the whole process and taking advantage of it.

Writing Breaking Bad is the complete opposite approach. The process of creating the story episode by episode needs very thorough planning with the writers improvising (brain-storming, really) as they fill the gaps in the different story arcs because they often don't know much more than where they are supposed to end up. But as  soon as this is done, it's codified to a poit where it's ensured that the writers' vision is translated as intended.

But with DMing a game it's quite different. The improvisation in a role playing game starts at the table, when the players start influencing the narrative, so the game arguably starts with a structure of sorts (rules, stage, meta-plot) and when the players get to interact with all that, improvisation is paramount. The goal is still the same: manufacturing the illusion of something that resembles a complete story!

And still, I'd argue that what needs improvisation is in all cases the same. It's about bending a narrative towards meaning and closure, producing tension along the way. It's under different circumstances in every case and I really believe that the DM has the shit-end of the stick here (as we don't have the luxury of taking time to reflect our choices or only after the game/between games), but it's very much the same.

So, the story is the thing ...

It's like Lynch says above: all elements somehow connect. It's the sum of all the parts, really, the banter and chatter, what the players decide, what the rules say or how they work and how all of that is set into context by a DM. The rest is retrospective and that's what forms coherence in a campaign.

Somewhere in the cracks it's all improvisation. A word on that. I think we all know what "to improvise" means. But it is a bit more tricky than what the definition would let you believe. Actually, the general assumption (in my perception, anyway) is that improvising means doing something without preparation and, although true, I think that simplification like this is misleading to some degree. 

Take any jazz session as an example. You really need to know what you are doing with your instrument to make something like that work. So although a jazz musician might go completely off script, he couldn't do so without that kind of expertise. Same goes for those script writers linked to above. They need to know how stories work, how people react (on several levels) and how to move within the suspension of disbelief in general to be successful. Those are the tools of the trade (among other, related things).

They are prepared to improvise and the amount of available material is what brings variety to the whole thing. The better they are at what they do, the more likely it is that what they do will work.

All this is very much true for role playing games. A DM needs to know the rules of the game like a musician needs to know his instrument. He needs to know what stories are composed of and his setting just like the musician needs to know songs and styles. And then he gets to improvise with the goal to connect the fragments the game produces to a narrative during the game and a story afterwards. Both, DM and musician, need to know what they did already and what they have to build upon.

Improvisation without preparation?

As I'm writing this I'm beginning to ask myself what that actually means: improvising the whole game, completely unprepared. Is it even possible? Think about it. No rules, no setting, no character sheets, damn, to improvise a game entirely would be a mean task. Not without merit, but in that sense more like being stranded on an island with a few other guys and all you have is a coconut and a piece of string to make it work kind of way ...

I'm exaggerating, of course. But it illustrates my point. You must have an idea what a role playing game is (which is where the problem starts, right?) to be able to improvise it. But even if you just take the usual approach and bring knowledge of the rules, the dice you need and maybe even some character sheets, pencils and blank paper, you'll get to a point where you need to improvise sooner or later.

It's one thing to spin what the players do and there is almost no way to prepare for that but knowing them and their characters. Where we have control, though, is how much information and tools we'll have handy to riff off of. My point is that the level of preparation is directly connected to how well the improvisation will work. That's due to the fact that we improvise the course of the narrative during the game with what we have, not in the beginning. We improvise structure.

Here is the thing: improvisation on the fly is always limited to what we have in reach and how far we can go with that. It starts with our brain. And if the brain needs inspiration, it'll check the surroundings for material. Free association works that way and we are talking very fast and fragile bonds here. How often did you, as a DM, sit there, eyes wandering through the room, looking for ideas? That's what I'm talking about.

Sometimes all you need is a DM screen and a map ... [source]
Closure is the other end of the spectrum. that's what structure is all about. Beginning and end, funny business in between. How long those arcs of improvisation are is a matter of training, I guess, but you'll always have a pattern like that resolving again and again in the game.

Such thinking is categorized, of course. Specific topics start with a tag or a catchphrase. What guy am I looking at, for example? Race, culture, cloths, specifics, behavior, situation ... stuff like that. Now if you have tags and you are prepared, well, then you can take what is already there (like a culture and typical garments you prepared at some point or a fitting random table) and start improvising from that point onward instead!

More material means more variety means more depth in your game , as simple as that. You still improvise, but from a higher vantage point, so to say.

Final thoughts ...

Ultimately that's what I mean when I say it's a grey area, not black and white. We already bring a lot to the table if we bring what is needed to play and know a setting and the rules, maybe even have an idea for a story or two. On the other hand you won't DM a (good?) game without the need to improvise at some point, no matter how well you are prepared.

It's like the both examples above are two extremes here. Lynch, who has total control over the whole process and improvises it all (maybe a very experienced DM going rules-light, making it all up as he goes) or the writers from Breaking Bad, relying heavily on the structures they are able to formulate up front (maybe a DM using a complex set of rules RAW and a fitting module/campaign alongside ... I'm thinking AD&D with T 1-4, for instance) and going from there.

As a DM you'll always be somewhere in between, hopefully developing your on style over time (if you haven't already!), maybe even different repertoires (conventions, for the kids, a long campaign, different games ...). Which ratio between preparation and improvisation you'll need for the optimal game is a matter of taste. But I'd like to stress here at the end that they are not opposites. On the contrary, they compliment each other a great deal.

But the important thing is that it all connects in the end.