Critical Role, Character Death, and Inclusivity — Further Oncological Discourses in Dungeons & Dragons

I originally wasn’t going to weigh in on the whole Critical Role thing in a blog post, because it was easier to just make fun of it on Twitter, but some conversations yesterday have me thinking this is worth a post.

First of all, if you’re not familiar with Critical Role, it is essentially people LARPing as tabletop gamers.

Don’t watch too long, it’ll make you want to tear your hair out.

What they’re doing is basically Soap Opera with D&D trappings, and they have a following of both gamers and people who are just tuning in for their stories. The questions of whether or not people who don’t actually play D&D but listen to shows like Critical Role are “part of the community” ruffled a lot of feathers recently.

The current debacle stems from a “beloved” Critical Role PC dying in the game. The DM/Showrunner claimed he had been getting tons of hate from fans about how awful it was that this character died. While I didn’t see any of these threats on twitter, where there was mostly an outpouring of “we lurve u”, someone did link me to a now deleted Tumblr post [gone before I could even archive it], so I suspect that a lot of it coming from the D&D Tumblr crowd.

Black Leaf died

D&D is a game. It is a game where characters CAN and DO die. People who are unable to accept that fact, or worse, blurf about “muh favorite LGBT fictional character was murdered by a cis het DM!” are garbage.

But there’s more at play than just Critical Role having a character die.

There are two major reasons why character death has become taboo in D&D.

The first is something that’s always an issue for new DMs and people that are new to the game: people are scared of letting characters die because they worry how it will reflect on them as a person and as a friend because they can’t gauge the seriousness of the emotional reaction it may elicit.

The second stems from mechanics that make character creation a tedious and laborious process; if it takes over an hour to create a new character, any PC death means that the game either stops for the group or for the player for an extended period of time while they create a new character. It becomes easier to go along to get along, fudging to keep characters alive, especially since D&D has shifted away from “game” and towards “story”. Characters dying derails or delays the “story”, and many people have a hard time accepting that (and expectations set by D&D-grotesque online soap operas don’t help).

Black Leaf

These are both things that can be fixed, however.

The first PC death for a DM and a group is the hardest, but once it’s out of the way, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief after realizing that life, and the game, goes on. It’s cathartic. While I don’t advocate going out of your way to kill a PC as soon as possible, I do advocate letting the dice do their job. The sooner a new DM and their players realize “we’re playing a game, we’re not making a soap opera, and Marcie isn’t really going to hang herself because Black Leaf died”, and the sooner the new DM is no longer worrying about what their friends will think when the inevitable happens, the sooner the group can actually start enjoying D&D for what it is—a game of daring adventure.

Unfortunately, this is apparently a VERY controversial piece of advice.

It even got me attacked on grounds of “inclusivity”.

twitter spergout

Popularity and Inclusivity are two things, and I’ll address both. Popularity quickly, because I think it’s less important.

In the 80s, D&D:

  • Was selling over 750k copies a year
  • Was publishing multiple NYT Best Selling books
  • Had a cartoon show
  • Had two official magazines and countless fanzines creating community content around the globe
  • Was culturally relevant enough to scare reactionaries absolutely shitless
  • Was sold in toy stores

D&D today is still popular, and the internet allows for fan content to be created and shared more easily, but it’s hardly the culturally significant phenomenon that it was. Cameos in TV shows written by and for Gen-Xers may inflate the significance a bit, but the number of people playing D&D is harder to figure. Sales for the 5e PHB only reached 800K in total in 2017, according to what sources I could find. And that’s not a complete game the way that TSR’s Basic line (which sold better than AD&D because it was in the toy sections at retailers) was, so it’s kind of an apples to oranges comparison.

Inclusivity is the more serious issue that I think needs to be addressed. (The notion that B/X is racist, however, is so ludicrous that it merits no response.)

I believe that inclusivity is more than just “muh representation”. It’s about accessibility. A game that is inclusive is a game that almost anyone can pick up and learn to play and can teach to others.

why bx

Is 5e accessible? To run a game of 5e, you need to buy about $90 worth of books. If you want to just be a player, you could get away with the Player handbook, which costs $30ish (apparently you can “rent” a copy for $20?!?), though everyone who knows the game knows that the best way to play and find people to play with is to be able to run the game yourself. But three thick-ass books that you’ve sunk nearly $100 into is a lot to digest. The size and cost alone may be daunting enough to discourage new players from entering the hobby.

Compare that to Holmes or Moldvay or Mentzer. You went to a toy store and for ~$5 you could get a box that had a short booklet with an easy to learn and well-presented set of rules for both players and DMs, an adventure that was written to teach players how to run a game and ultimately create their own campaign, and even the dice you needed to play.

So, which is more “inclusive”? The game that any kid could pick up with his allowance, that only cost a bit more than a couple of comic books, that he could read cover to cover in an hour and teach to his friends, or the game that costs as much as your utility bill with books so thick you could kill a man with them?



Holmes D&D: An Interesting Conundrum

Next month at a local RPG con, I plan on running the Holmes Basic sample dungeon, Tower of Zenopus, and I intend to run it using Holmes Basic/Blueholme rules. I’ve run it in the past before using B/X, and one of the reasons why I want to run this at the con is that I’ve run it before for a library program and know I can run it in a 6 hour timeslot.

Now, because I am a very busy person with a day job, a weekly column, a gig moonlighting as a retro-game reviewer, and will be shipping out a book I’ve published this month, I was hoping to find some reliable char-gen out of the OSR community so I wouldn’t need to roll up 20 characters by hand. I mean, it wouldn’t take me more than a couple of hours, but still, I wouldn’t mind saving the time.

What I found in the character generators I came across was interesting… While they had some really good features, particularly equipment generation, they either made the mistake of assuming Holmes used B/X’s magic system or they paid lipservice to the INT % modifier but did not calculate a list of known spells. Typically, they would just list one random level one spell that the MU/Elf knew.

I think part of it boils down to early D&D weirdness; the early games don’t actually work the way that most of us assume they work. Whether it’s giving all Magic Users “Read Magic” “because you need it to learn spells” or having B/X characters learn new spells from scrolls and having a spellbook containing more spells than the character has levels, DMs do a lot of stuff that’s not in the book. I’ve done it, too, sometimes from ignorance, sometimes for convenience. But we tend to make a lot of assumptions on how things works and cobble something together from memory and experience of multiple different systems rather than go by the rules.

I’ve never run pure Holmes before. In fact, this summer’s Ultralich mini-campaign is the first time I’ve tried running pure B/X [usually I’ve done weird alternate magic rules that are slightly more AD&D-esque, because those have a more Vancian feel].

I want to get that weird “this is not like D&D you’ve ever played” experience from the game I’ll be running, so I’ll be adhering to the following:

-No STR bonuses. Yes, that’s right, OD&D and Holmes did not have Strength bonuses. STR was purely a “roll under” stat.

-Magic Users will have their spellbooks with all 1st level spells, some of which they’ll know, others they will not.

-Dex-based paired initiatives.

-No Variable Weapon Damage

-Variable Weapon Speed

We’ll see how it goes! I’ll be brushing up on Holmes the next few weeks and see just how little I actually know about this edition!

DMing is Not the Same Thing as Writing Prose Fiction: This Should Not Be Controversial

The other day, some folks were discussing 5e’s Appendix E (the PHB’s “new” Appendix N) and how most of the new additions were not very good. I pointed out that while App E is bad, it is nothing compared to the DMG’s Appendix D whose “Dungeon Master Inspiration” list is actually detrimental to DMs, particularly inexperienced ones trying to learn the game, because they will see all of those books on fiction writing and assume that a DM must be a fiction writer.

appendix d list

That’s right, guy I stole your spreadsheet you tweeted at me.

Someone tried to point out that books on writing fiction only make up 25% of the list, but that means that 25% of a list of books meant to provide inspiration for DMs are actively sabotaging their understanding of what makes for good D&D, because it implies that DMing is writing fantasy fiction and storytelling. It’s not.

The DM’s job is NOT to write their fantasy story and have their friends live it out for them around the table. The DM’s job is to create game content within reactive environments for their players to interact with. The story that happens in D&D is not the story that the DM tells, it’s the emergent story that comes from the players’ interaction with the content that the DM provides.

As both a fiction writer and a DM, I understand that the storytelling skills involved in writing and structuring fiction are not the same skills that bring a story to life at the table.  It’s apples and oranges, and trying to use the approach of one for the other can be detrimental.

Though it’s a different medium, an excellent example of emergent story is the history of Boatmurdered. Boatmurdered was a succession game of Dwarf Fortress, where each player played for an in-game year before passing off the save file to someone else. Each player chronicled the history of the fortress of Boatmurdered as it played out. What resulted was an absolutely legendary story of murder, madness and rampaging elephants.

Take a bit and read it.

You don’t get that sort of story from using the tools that a writer uses to write fiction; you get that from the game-content components and the emergent events surrounding them. It’s the way you get “truth stranger than fiction” from a purely fictional setting.

So what IS the approach DMs should take? What IS “inspirational reading” for DMs? Honestly, one question does not answer the other.

A DM needs to first gain a good grasp of the system and mechanics. Once that’s achieved, it becomes easier to pull in outside ideas and inspirations. The question is not “what weird thing do I want to put in my game?” but rather “how do I put a weird thing in my game?” A DM’s ideas must be translated into game content that players can interact with.

The answer to the second question is “anything, really”. Sure, Appendix N has great stuff and helps answer “what were the literary antecedents of the mechanics used in D&D”, but a DM can get inspiration from just about anything. And with a grasp of system and mechanics, it’s easy to drag and drop content to your game.

Want combat robot maids?

4HD*, AC3, 40′ 1d6*/1d6. (*stun for one round)

They’re almost tough as ogres (4HD), hard to hit (AC3), quicker than encumbered humans (40′), and high output with flip-kicks and one-two punches (1d6/1d6).

Need a reason for them to be somewhere?

A mad scientist somewhere in part of the dungeon built them because he was lonely.

Do you need to have a grasp of the finer points of fiction writing to include weird stuff in your D&D game?



Keep on the Borderlands (Sort Of)

At Free RPG Day, I got to game with a buddy who runs the local RPG con–B/X is his jam, and I love him for it.

He runs his somewhat uniquely, and there are aspects I disagree with (using a d8 base for semi-non-variable damage rather than d6), but there are others which I’ve stolen to make my own game run smoother (rotating initiative by side).

But the most important way he runs his game is that it’s fair–he’s not going to kick you when you’re down, but when you’ve goofed you’re done. PC death can and will happen in his games.

He’d run off some fairly wacky pre-gens from a site that gave stats and equipment that were all over the place. I ran a thief with 17 STR, 18 Dex, 8 Int, 18 WIS 14 CON, and CHA 4. Crusty Jim! I’ve learned from my own players and realized that Thieves have the potential to be the most stupid overpowered class, especially at lower levels. I cut my way through several orcs, bugbears, and giant spiders with my trusty Zweihander. With an AC of 4 and the potential to do over 20 damage in a single hit, I was a force to be reckoned with!

It’s also nice to play Borderlands without the moral quandaries that modernist gaming culture has tried to impose on it. We were told up-front: there are no orc babies; greenskins are creatures of evil that are born from, created by, and composed of evil and chaos taken shape. The goal was to kill them, rescue humans, recover treasure, and work to make the Borderlands just a little bit safer.

It wasn’t run straight from the module, but rather thematic, adjusted for a one-off. The keep was there, but we were given the choice to look for caves, small ruins, or large ruins (all home-made content). So I’ve still never played Borderland proper, but it was still a lot of fun cleaving through gobbos.

Death Crypt of the Ultralich – The Artificer’s Workshop

The artificer’s workshop is below the south end of the abbey. It can be reached either by the stairs in the annex behind the hidden door or via the well.

Dungeon Level 3 - Workshop

  1. Artificer’s Bedroom. Skeleton*. Desk w/notes–Read Language will reveal his attempts to build “Daughters”. +1 Plate.
  2. Inner workshop. All manner of tools & blueprints, cogs, springs. A desk, tables, half-assembled bronze constructs. 4x “Daughters” 4HD*, AC3, 40′ 1d6*/1d6. (*stun for one round). Scrap worth 6k gold.
  3. 2x Iron Living Statues. 500 steel ingots.
  4. Workshop supplies. 100 hammers. 25 screwdrivers. 50 wrenches. 25 unknown tools.
  5. 3 patrolling bronze walkers. HD2, AC4 30′ 1d6 (will flee if attacked and summon LS then Daughters.
  6. Anvils, barrels of springs (5x 100 gp each) and gears (5x 100 gp each).

*:active if seal in L2-26 is broken.

Death Crypt of the Ultra Lich – Old Buried Abbey (Level 2)

This second level is the lower, original abbey that was buried under a layer of dirt and ash. The hole in the chapel of the newer, upper church leads to room 10. The stairs north of 1 lead to the Library. Well in 22 is the back door to the Artificer’s workshop. Capstone in 26 leads to the Crypts (Level 3). Stairs in 27 are the main entrance to the Artificer’s workshop.

Space between 16, 19, 22, and all between 17 and 20 used to be an herb garden for soap-making; it can theoretically be cleared enough to create a “short cut”, but it would hardly be worth the effort. Exterior doors open to solid walls of dirt, stone, and ash. These can be excavated, but will take much longer than the upper tunnels.

Dungeon Level 2 - Main

  1. High arched wall w/stairs going down; spider webs
  2. 1d4 crab spiders
  3. 1d4 crab spiders; rack w/tattered clothes
  4. 1 Mage Spider (2HD)–Light, Read Magic; Scroll of Magic Missile x3; 5pp
  5. Several tables w/books. Most crumble at the touch. 1 is open to an illuminated page showing battle of wizards. Falls apart when touched.
  6. Webbed antechamber
  7. Narthex. 2 empty fonts. Door cannot open. Lever to secret door by west font
  8. 1d4 faded wraiths (2HD, drain only on a 6); 8 vials of holy water. 3k gp, 8 holy symbols
  9. Caved in room. Can be tunneled/excavated
  10. Four Saint Statues making holy gestures (1k gp each)
  11. 1d4 crab spiders; 22 cp, +1 mace
  12. Rows of wooden benches; Altar w/book (scroll of Bless, 5x charges)
  13. Missing door, 2 skeletons*
  14. (Monks’ cells) 2 skeletons*, 85 sp in d
  15. Long tables w/benches
  16. Kitchen. Oven. 4 bottles of wine (bad); rotted, useless ingredients; 24 blackened silver plates (1gp each)
  17. Prayer room w/empty pool
  18. Cabinet reliquary, trapped door (poison needle on cabinet door); Gold Chalice (500 gp), +1 mace, +1 shield
  19. 1 wight*; 700 gp, tapestries/fur blankets, +1 robe
  20. Soap making chemicals, dried plants, 20 bars of fragrant soap (10 gp each)
  21. A piece of tooled metal
  22. A well in the middle of this room goes 50-ft deep; there are buckets (4), rotting rope and 60 ft of chain; 1d8 fire beetles in the well
  23. 3d4 skeletons*; south door has holy symbols and writing. Read magic, languages or local cleric “Beware the life curse”; below is carved “Blessed be the Resurrection”
  24. A bronze, bi-pedal construct [1.5′] wanders these halls clockwise. 4 mauls
  25. Shelves. 2x sets of thieves tools
  26. 9 ghouls – 3 in each alcove. Attack when party enters the room. Jars w/3k cp, 5k sp, 900 gp, jeweled bracelet (1.2k gp), and rosary. Stone circle [capstone] in center of room. Sigil reads “Beware the life curse”
  27. Two metal faces in corners of the room. Stepping into the room triggers them. 1d6 arrow. 1 per round. Attacks as 1HD monser, 30 arrows. Disassembled, worth 1k gp each
  28. Barrels of nails (3), scrap metal (all rusted together)
  29. Barrels of scrap copper 4x (200 gp each)

*Become active undead if capstone seal in room 26 is broken.

The Ghouls’ Chapel

Last session, we had our largest party yet. One of the new players rolled a Cleric and I convinced another to play a MU to take advantage of the surfeit of scrolls the party had stockpiled.

A player who’d been a Fighter the previous session misplaced his character sheet for a bit (it was found later that evening) so ran a Cleric. The guy whose thief died last session rolled another thief, and we still had a thief who lived and was level 2.

Unfortunately, someone who’d played a fighter last session wasn’t there and had taken his character sheet and the party’s +1/+3 vs undead sword with him.

With some Clerics finally in the party, they had a bit of the benefit of the NPC party being led by a fellow member of the order. They got to know the layout of the lower abbey, some more of its history, and what the order was looking for. I figure I’ll give them more hints as they level up. If they survive…

On the way in, they noticed one of the 4 saint statues at a principal junction had been removed, but more on that later. They found the old abbot’s cell, looting it of some, but not all of its treasure (they missed out on the +1 robes). They also checked various doors that opened onto solid walls of dirt and rocks and figured out that a small central garden had probably been buried with the rest of the temple.

In the well-house, one of the thieves found the “back entrance” to the artificer’s workshop, but determined they’d be unable to easily carry any of the heavy loot through the side tunnel and back up the well. He went back up before any of the metal walkers (think children of Karras)  made their patrols through the room.

The party found a workshop for making soaps using the herbs and flowers from the now-buried garden before checking out the southeast corner of the abbey, which is just above the entrance to the crypts.

Here, there was a room full of smashed up and battered skeletons, all outside a door with the cryptic phrase “Beware the life-curse” and an indistinguishable reference to “the Blessed Resurrection”.

One of the clerics opened the door and stepped into the room, which had a large capstone on the floor with sigils. Nine ghouls sprung out of various alcoves and were all over the cleric. And somehow, out of nearly 30 attacks, all of the ghouls missed! To be fair, the cleric was in plate and had something like AC 1 or 2, but still!

There was a brief argument about the treasure value of scrolls vs. their situational efficacy, which ended in the MU fireballing the room. But with 13 damage rolled, and half of the ghouls making their saves and clinging on with 1 HP, they weren’t out of the woods by a longshot. Oh, and the Cleric was barbecued and the loot from the soap room ruined. The party managed to kill most of the rest of the ghouls, but one lone ghoul kept dodging and taking down party members one-by-one. The MU was prepared to run when the thief finally got him. I would’ve laughed if a single 1HP ghoul had TPKed them after his buddies had all been killed.

The party waited for their paralyzed companions to come round while they gathered the coin treasure that had been scattered throughout the room (the fireball had shattered the jars that coins were in). They left the charred meat of their cleric friend on the capstone to see if that would bring him back to life. I mean, it will, but they’re not doing it right, and when it works, it won’t be what they were hoping for. Other than the faded wraiths guarding the stash of holy equipment, level 2 has been mostly empty. Because as soon as they open that capstone, the abbey will become haunted as fuck when the sealed powers of the least-lich necromancer who’s been buried there will seep out and taint everything.

On the way out of the dungeon, they ran across the NPC party trying to move out the other two statues (this time without the help of the elf’s magic; she’s a scroller and only had one Floating Disc). Unfortunately, the party had their hands full with other loot and were pretty banged up, so they declined to help the NPC party with the last statue. So, they’re slowly losing a chance to get any XP for those, or the saint statues in the library.

Still, the party got a decent haul for the session, with just over 900 XP per person. That was enough to bump the longest-lived thief up to level 3.

The only thing the party has left, really, of the lower abbey is the sealed annex to the artificer’s workshop and the more-or-less empty monks’ cells. If and when they unseal the capstone, there may be more stuff in this level of the dungeon again, but things are pretty cleared.

If I remember, tomorrow I’ll post my map of the lower abbey with my notes for it.