NTRPGCon: A Tale of Three DMs

This is not a full con report, and I don’t know if I’ll have time to give one, but I’d like to share my experience of the games I signed up for. I won’t use any names, but suffice it to say that these are all well-known and famous DMs.

DM the First –

This DM was running OD&D, 3 volumes only. We were all pre-gen 2nd level characters, Fighters, Clerics, and MUs. The party had a list of general adventuring equipment that we were assumed to have, and before we went to the dungeon, we were told we could get one or two reasonable miscellaneous items. The dungeon was a simple and straight-forward (though non-linear) old school dungeon, with each room as a set-piece puzzle or encounter. The encounters/puzzles were well hinted at, and while not particularly inspired, enjoyable and not unfair. Obvious ogre lair was obvious enough to not mess with, for instance. Fake vampire room was an easy enough puzzle and someone only died because we couldn’t leave well enough alone. The fights we had, we both got lucky AND made correct tactical choices, so we won them. The final set-piece encounter was a cheesy Fleetwood Mac joke. It was not a mind-blowing experience, but the DM was a nice guy, fun to be around, friendly, and I had a pretty good time. I would not mind gaming with him again, though I’d prefer more of an experience of ‘this is what it’s like to game at my table’ than ‘this is a simulation of what it’s like to game at my table’.

DM the Second –

This DM was running OD&D + Greyhawk. We were playing 9th level pre-gen characters with some pretty tough and high level equipment. This DM was an asshole. He would berate players and treat them like they were stupid for not asking enough questions and would berate players and treat them like they were stupid for asking too many questions. One door that sealed in a couple of undead trolls was apparently covered with sigils and warnings about the trolls, but, oh, we didn’t see the sigils and warnings because we didn’t specifically look at the door for them. I got yelled at for overthinking when I asked if a pair of silver manacles in a dungeon cell included both pieces for hands and for legs and was told to use it as hack-silver and divide it among the party because ‘old school’. An AOE sleep hit my character at one point, and the lady next to me said “I try to wake him up” – DM says “okay, you hit him to wake him up, and he punches you in the face”; she did one damage to me and I apparently punched her for 8. At one point, he berated the party for not mapping, the whole “mapping is a dying art” bit, despite the fact that one player HAD been mapping for the first half of the session before giving up. Turns out, the entire “adventure” was a playtest of a series of TPK monsters famous DM had been hired to design based on an early monster he’d designed. He was very proud of the fact that even the friendly-ish neutral good variant managed to kill and eat us. I was scheduled for another game with this DM on Sunday, but he was such an abrasive dick that I skipped out and we left the con a few hours early.

DM the Third –

This DM was running BECMI with 5th level pre-gen characters that also had some pretty cool equipment and unique abilities. The setting was awesome and I was really excited about it at first, especially playing a mid-level magic user with a couple really sweet scrying abilities on top of my base spells. The flying circus was in town and we were hired by the ringmaster to investigate a murder and by an asshole mayor to retrieve his hot daughter who’d run away to join the circus. Things started to unravel for me a couple hours in when it became clear that it was going to be a purely investigative game with almost nothing but talking to NPCs and asking them questions. The DM was actually VERY good at running an investigation game, and I feel bad about being so bored, but investigation games, in my experience, work best with 4 players, 6 max, and we had 9. Also, the setting was so neat that it seemed like a damned waste to be spending all of our time asking questions about the murder. I’m like “I don’t care about who murdered the dwarf bearded lady; there is a haunted train ride on an airship! Why aren’t we riding it?!” The carnie games, the roller coasters, the Ferris wheel, the menagerie of monsters were all things I desperately wanted to be able to interact with in some way, meaningfully or not, but I couldn’t. So, about 3 and a half hours in, I lost my ability to functionally interact with the rest of the group. 5 hours in, some carnie finally threw a punch at a fighter. 45 minutes after that, by the time the one encounter the game had been building towards, I had no idea what was going on, who we were fighting or why, because I’d zoned out so bad. Half-way through the encounter, several folks begged out because their next game was starting. I didn’t have another game, but used the excuse to leave the table as well.

Guns of Pellucidar – Pt 1

So, a few interesting things happened Friday when running my Pellucidar game.

We had only three people able to make it, so we ended up not only doubling up on characters, but did something of a squad-based system for the big combat at the end. Now, if only two people had shown up, I was prepared to fully wargame it, but as it was, we did kind of a hybrid.

The random world generation I used accidentally created some super relevant, almost plot-related content in the first hex the party explored.

Due south of the dirigible’s landing zone, I rolled for mountains. Whenever a party “explores” a hex (rather than simply move through it), I roll again on the terrain and by animal/encounter type, and plan to cook something up in my head based on what I roll. That way, the game isn’t just running around through hexes looking for random encounters; a “search” of the hex will force some sort of relevant content to be there. So, on the second roll, I got “body of water” and “Lizardmen”. When rolling how many Lizardmen there were, I rolled ridiculously high (nothing lower than a 5 or 6 or 6d6), so I figured “Okay, there is a mountain spring and small lake here in a rocky bowl, with a Lizardman village just above it on a plateau.”

Guy taking point on the way up the mountain trail critically fails his psych roll, so something bad’s going to happen. While the recon team is filling canteens in the spring, a group of Lizardmen spot them and attack from above. A handful of them charge down the slope with spears and clubs while several from above rain javelins down on the soldiers. A couple of well thrown grenades and rifle-fire are able to scatter the attacking Lizardmen, but those up on the slope throwing spears do their damage and hurt some folks pretty badly. The team beats it back to base where they are debriefed.

The Colonel fills them in on why they’re there, what the Hollow Earth is, what the Nazis may be planning there, and says that it’s imperative that they seize that hill – with high-ground and a source of fresh water, it would make an ideal spot for a base-camp that would be far more secure than the present LZ. The team is given additional men to take the plateau, including a fire-team of riflemen and a 3 man mortar team. (Yeah, I got to use the mortar!)

Team goes up the trails to the spring just below the plateau, sending one two-man fire-team around the west, a two man fire-team to cover the spring and guard the mortar team, one guy at the base of the hill with the Commu man, and the rest set to climb up the direction they’d been attacked from.

The Lizardmen fishing on the far side of the pond critically failed their Psych roll, so did not manage to spot any of the guys in the two eastern teams moving into position. Sure enough, on top of the plateau, the troops spotted an entire lizardman village. The sergeant signaled the mortar team to start laying in fire. All hell broke loose once the first shells started landing. The lizardmen scrambled and started rushing to their defenses. Plus, their chieftain hopped onto a big dinosaur. It was a damn bloody fight, and including both PCs and NPCs, the party lost around 1/3 of their men, but able to route the Lizardmen. One of the highlights was the NPC mortar team killing the chieftain’s mount with an almost point-blank mortar shell at the charging beast.

So far, combat worked out both as designed and as expected – soldiers with fire-arms will have an extreme advantage against any opponents at range. Since I’m using Star Frontier’s order of combat, anyone with a fire-arm will always have advantage over someone trying to close in without a ranged weapon, regardless of initiative. Once opponents are able to close the distance, it becomes another story – the lizardmen who were able to get into melee range (except for the few who rolled exceptionally poorly) tore into infantrymen who couldn’t go toe-to-toe with them. Suppressive fire rules worked out well in most cases. Because of the shift in scale (we used minis, but it was done a bit abstractly), it was a little trickier to adjudicate things like grenades, so I allowed 1d4 and 1d4+1 on groupings.

The soldiers took the hilltop, the medic patched up the guys who were not dead, and the commu man radioed for reinforcements to secure and hold the village. After a couple of hours, another 40 soldiers showed up, carrying light and heavy machine guns to begin fortifying the position. In the aftermath, the Colonel made the call to move everything from the LZ to the new location, setting up a permanent base-camp in the Lizardman village. The dirigible could then be sent off for additional troops and supplies.

Anyway, I have no idea what next session will bring. We might have more players, but everyone got down how things worked pretty well. Since there’s high-ground, we might have long range artillery after all! I haven’t rolled up any other hexes, but if we ended up with something that awesome on the fly, I have high hopes for how things will turn out.

Guest Post by J. Comer: On Playing Altars & Archetypes

Graham Jackson’s roleplaying game Altars & Archetypes (mentioned here on Cirsova) first came to my attention on a list of other rules-light free RPG downloads.  Its rules file, six to eight pages at best, was encouragingly short, and I eventually got my local game group to try it in 2012-3. As I’ve recently run the game a second time, and as there is very little online about playing it, this essay seemed like a good idea.  The game itself is available here:

http://livingfree.wikidot.com/altars-archetypes

The game’s simplicity shows in character creation.  Characters are a series of ‘archetypes’: Highwayman, Beastmaster, Alchemist, Hunter, etc.  Each is a broadly read set of skills: a Thief can pick locks and fence gems but isn’t able to fight or cast spells; a Soldier can fight or fortify a spot, but doesn’t know how to make potions, etc.  Each archetype a character has is one die: d6, d8, d10, d12.  Anything not represented by an archetype defaults to d4.  One die for each character is initiative, so fighters need a high initiative die.  In other words, this is the same idea that’s behind Savage Worlds or Throwing Stones.

https://rpggeek.com/geeklist/71238/item/1790871#item1790871

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savage_Worlds

The rest of the rules are easy to follow. Roll for combat. Higher number wins and the difference is the damage inflicted. The GM sets the difficulty for any task, and players roll an appropriate die: use your Acrobat archetype to leap from stone to stone in the river, but your Diplomat to negotiate safe passage.  Experience points allow you to add new dice archetypes, or improve the ones you do have.

How did this work out in practice when I ran two multi-session games of A&A on my sword-and-planet setting, called Pendleton’s World? Some things were obvious.  The armor system of the game (double damage unless you wear armor!) was easy to replace by stating that armor absorbs damage. The Action Point system (add a d4 by spending an action point) wasn’t useful and players ignored it. Combat is deadly, since players start with 10 health points and can lose 4-5 in one blow. The assumption of the game is that healing is easy to find, and that it works fast. I had to allow this, even though ‘real’ medicine doesn’t heal wounds so quickly.  Other rules (half damage from improvised weapons) seemed to work well.  When allowing characters to buy up from d12 to d20, however, the GM needs to impose intermediate steps.  Two characters with d20 archetypes nearly broke the game.  For the curious, d14, d16, and d18 can be found at Gamescience:

Adding crunch is pretty easy: if you want a psi stat, or magic points, just add them.  Encumbrance? Lists of monsters?  Chances of encounters?  This is the Mr/s Potato Head of RPGs, and the price is right.  For a beer-and-pretzels game, the system is hard to beat.

The game itself was also simple enough, though the setting took some getting used to. Two players were so creeped out by the horse-analog species being a huge human-like primate that their characters ended up walking almost the whole game.  The four player characters (three humans: a wizard, a hunter, a shaman, and a warrior-princess of the mole-folk) were sent on a quest to find an ancient ‘knowstone’, a relic engraved with scientific knowledge by a long-gone civilization.  

I had made changes to the adventure, following the advice of a friend.  There was more semi-magic (remote seeing, added strength, etc) for the Rhuthuok shaman PC. I slipped in a Burrower (mole-rat hominid) male as a potential mate for the Burrower princess player character.  And I made the bandits who were scheduled to attack the party a hit squad, headed by a monk jealous of the PCs, who wanted the secrets of the knowstone for himself.  While this did not produce ‘character-driven’ adventures, as Powered By The Apocalypse tends to do, it did make the adventure much less of a ‘tour of Jim’s made-up world’ and more of a story whose characters had motives beyond ‘kill the ugly people and take their stuff’.

The story began with the departure from Vokherkhe, the huge monastery university where so much happens in my vision of Pendleton’s.  The PCs were attacked by predators, then entertained by a drunken, lecherous nobleman. The princess’ air of command enabled her to prevent a massacre when the noble’s subjects revolted.  The players then climbed into a mountain range with the help of a map stolen from the noble’s library, and found another party of adventurers dying from a ‘cursed’ tomb (which had deadly mold growing all over everything).  After a long argument about how to dispose of the bodies, the party climbed to the tomb, decided not to go in, and climbed down (This group had problems, but decisiveness wasn’t one!). They found the cave of the knowstone as a Neanderthal food-gathering party approached over a glacier. By making offerings to the wolf-spirit, the players appeased the Neanderthals, and then fled.  They were attacked by bandits, whom they defeated (those d20s again!) and returned to the monastery with drawings of the ancient stone.  

What would I do differently next time? One problem was players stretching the archetypes. Enforcing them too strictly results in lots of d4 rolls, so compromise.  The idea of a fumble or critical success resulting from one player rolling the highest number and the other the lowest is an appealing one, and I think I’ll keep it.  And, as I said above, no more d20 superheroes!

I asked the players about how things had gone, after the game was done.  Two of them said that they had enjoyed the setting. One said that Altars & Archetypes’ system was too simple. He found that narrating an action so as to cause the GM to roll a lower difficulty die was more important than other strategies. (This narrativist approach pleases me.)  He also complained that characters progressed too slowly.  I found this odd, as shifting from a d8 to a d10 is a much larger power shift than progressing from being, for example, a 32-pt TFT character to being a 34-pt, or adding a level as a Ranger in AD&D.  Nevertheless, a short game such as the one I ran might choose to include more character progression.  

Recommended for lovers of simple, rules-light fun.  

Another A&A game is detailed here.

 

Dungeon Mechs and Implausible Anime Swords

Random synergy can be a great thing.

Last night, for index card D&D, I created a mech pilot character class whose starting item was a mech. Now, the mech was OP as hell, had ridiculous attack powers and was really hard to destroy. The catch, however, was that being a mech, it could only fit down certain corridors. It pretty much had to be abandoned in the first room of the dungeon. One of the other random items I’d made up for the dungeon deck was a 20 ft. Vibro-blade. It did 4d6+8 damage, except it could only be used by giants, high-level ogres, and mechs; it specifically counted as a “useless item” (certain classes benefited from acquisition or destruction of said useless items) if no one was present who could use it. It was a joke item that couldn’t really be used. Except it was used.

One of the players had written up an item of “Eat Me” Cookies that would triple your size. I found them. Of course the catch was that, much like the mech, you couldn’t leave the room you were in because you were too big and you could only shrink by crying or using the “Drink Me” Potion (which got smashed when it was dropped when people were trying to get the roaches from the Cardboard Garden brushed off of them). But being tripled in size would clearly fulfill the “giant” criteria.

We were experimenting with new boss rules this time, and had a path that specifically led to a “Boss” that was on the other side of a crocodile filled moat. So, we had the whole party carry the 20 ft Vibro-blade, used it to bridge the moat, pulled it across behind us, I ate the cookies and used it to fight the Ogre King, a 15’ tall 70HP badass. I nat 20ed him, and knocked him down almost 50 points.

Except, awesome as that was, in the end, what really did him in was a spell I’d written that someone else had found and cast, Derrik’s Daring Dweomer. It was a high casting cost spell that would either severely hurt the caster, turn enemies into metal, turn enemies into kittens, cause the magic user to explode and do stupid amounts of damage to all enemies (20 dmg for 100), or a couple other weird things. It turned the Ogre King into a 1hp kitten that I had to smash with the Vibro-blade so that I could cry and return to my normal size.

Sexy Minotaur Best Friend – Index Card D&D Character Class

Hit Dice: 1d12 + 8 HP at 1st Level

AC:10 or by armor

Dmg: 1d8 or by weapon

Ability: May block any hit on another PC

Level Up: Blocks number of hits x current level that would otherwise kill the intended target.

+1 ATT, +1HD per level

cry silver bells

This character class was inspired by the title character of Thomas Burnett Swann’s novel Cry Silver Bells. Everyone loves Silver Bells and would do anything for him because they know that he would do anything for them. In Cry Silver Bells, a thief and a courtesan have fled from Egypt to Crete after their parents had been killed by Sphinxes; when the thief is caught stealing, they’re exiled from the Cretan port and have to cross the island’s wilderness, where they’re set upon by vicious Panisci girls; Silver Bells and his dryad friend Zoe save them, but the centaur king Chiron banishes the humans as well. As the thief and courtesan set out from shore, they’re immediately attacked by Tritons-Silver Bells tries to help them, but is captured, too. The three are sold to Cretans for use in their bull games; Zoe takes Silver Bells’ nephew and a cadre of monster girls to Phaistos to rescue them.

 

Index Card D&D (Now With Rules!)

You may have seen me blog a bit in the past about a game my group occasionally plays that we call “Index Card D&D”. It’s a player-created deck-based dungeon crawl game that is sort of like playing a tabletop version of a roguelike where all of the monsters are out of depth.

Well, my DM friend has put together the written rules for it if you want to try it out for yourself.

http://thebonehoard.blogspot.com/2017/03/index-card-d.html

Here are a couple previous posts from Cirsova on Index Card D&D:

https://cirsova.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/index-card-dd/

https://cirsova.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/monster-for-index-card-dd-osr-blogger/

https://cirsova.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/more-index-card-dd/

Also, if you’re going to be at North Texas RPG Con, we’ll be running a table of it.

Big Monster Fight

Well, we may have found the solution to the balance issue we’ve begun to encounter in Gutters, Guilds, & Grimoires: bigger monsters.

Most of what we’ve fought has been fairly close to man-sized. Even the bigger things have been between bear and small elephant sized.

Last session, we fought something three stories tall.

Well, okay, some of us fought it, while many of us ran like hell.

We were completing a quest in someplace that was a pocket dimension, a moon, or some other part of the world (we never really figured it out), which meant freeing a celestial or demonic creature we called Jeff. We found Jeff in the middle of an abandoned village located between a fork in a stream surrounded by megalithic wards.

Since Jeff couldn’t talk (he could only sign yes or no), we had a hard time getting a complete picture of what was going on with him and the weird abandoned village. We found that he was trapped, the person who trapped him was nearby, we could free him, the villagers had not trapped him, he had not killed the villagers, he would help us if we freed him, and he would not hurt us if we helped him. We got a nice one point stat boost to luck for freeing him.

We set off to see if we could find the person who’d trapped him and we eventually found a wizard’s cottage. It was locked from the inside, empty, and had a hole in the roof. We dicked around way too long debating whether we should loot the cottage, wait for the person to come back, or decide that Jeff (or someone) had pulled the wizard straight through the roof of his own house.

Then we heard some crashing sounds.

Poking around the village was a thing described as being over 30 feet tall, having a three-eyed Cthulhu head and long spindly Salvador Dali Elephant legs.

Oh, right, I forgot to mention the other complication – the area was filled with obscuring mist and unless you had one of the sage torches with you, you could neither see in the mist nor were you safe from the mist folk who would tear you apart in four rounds tops. We’d left several torches lit along the path back to the mirror, but had only taken three with us. And the bridge across the stream consisted only of a series of rotting logs propped up by piles of rock, and several of the logs had already broken loose on the way over.

When the thing noticed us, we started running like hell. A few of us barely made it across. Others got swept down the stream a bit as the fell in, landing further down the shore out of the light and safety of the torches. Others eventually had to try to jump and swim for it, with most of the bridge gone, losing at least one torch in the process.

The thing used its tendrils to snatch up and try to eat people. Those who couldn’t get away ended up badly mangled and one was eaten. While they figured out that they could hurt it (a couple characters managed to cut off a few of its mouth tendrils and one guy even managed to tie its legs like an AT-AT) the thing was NOT going down easily and there was little indication that it was being more than really annoyed. After it had staggered a bit and fallen into the stream, the characters who’d stayed to fight saw more of them coming –they had just barely managed to convince ONE of the things that they were not worth trying to eat, but there was absolutely nothing they could’ve done once more of them showed up.

Eventually, everyone except for the character who was eaten had either run back or was carried through the mirror portal which we immediately sealed before they could come through. Hoping we don’t have to fight those things again any time soon.

The one really funny thing is that in the big battle against Lord Brinston’s armed guard awhile back, just about everyone in the party ended up with an open-faced helm, so everyone had really good head armor (4); were it not for those helmets doing damage reduction, everyone in the party who did not just run like hell would have had their heads popped off in no more than two hits and been eaten.

Fighting big monsters should be very different than fighting small and medium sized monsters, and it shouldn’t just be reflected in hit points. PCs typically won’t even be able to hit most locations on such creatures (I’ve always thought that if a DM has something like a dragon go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow, with the PCs he’s running the encounter wrong). A big monster should keep its vital locations out of reach as is reasonable. Really big monsters absolutely should have subparts which could be crippled or destroyed; definitely makes things more interesting than the old Critical Existence Failure at 0HP.