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?

No.

 

Advertisements

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.

High level design concept for a Fangbone! tabletop game

This is really just a broadside, where I’d start if I were to make a Fangbone! tabletop game. Needless to say, there’s no nitty-gritty, yet, because I just came up with this in the shower the other day – plus, since it’s a branded IP that I’m not affiliated with in any way nor being paid to design for, fleshing this out into something playable is extremely low on my list of priorities. Still, I thought I’d share.

Fangbone!_production_art

2-4 players

Character-deck based, similar to Red Dragon Inn.

Players:

  1. Drool
  2. Fangbone
  3. Bill
  4. CID

Note that for 2 players, player 2 controls both Fangbone and Bill characters/decks.

Game starts with the Fangbone player in possession of the Toe of Drool.

Drool player plays monsters, cards to enhance monsters, and cards that directly affect human players.

Drool player’s objective is to a) gain the Toe, b) open portal to Skullbania and get the Toe through. A monster gaining the Toe leads to a “sudden death” of X rounds before the Toe is lost and Drool player wins.

Fangbone/Bill player(s) goal is to defeat X number of Drool’s monsters while keeping the Toe between the two characters/players. Fangbone/Bill players always win and lose as a team (b/c battlebros). Certain cards may enable trading the Toe between characters – e.g., a monster seizes Toe from Fangbone, Fangbone player has a card allowing him to pass the Toe to another character to keep Drool player from capturing it.

CID player’s goal is to be in possession of the Toe when Drool’s final monster is defeated in the round. CID player may actively help or hinder Fangbone/Bill player(s) throughout the course of the game, but will lose if Drool possesses the Toe and opens the portal.

Drool would have two decks; one would consist of monsters and minions with different strengths and abilities-a round would begin with Drool playing a monster/minion with which he will attempt to seize the Toe. The other deck would consist of spells and actions that would allow the monster to take the Toe, evade attacks, weaken other player’s characters. Monster would have its own stats and fixed set of actions it could take in addition to those played by Drool.

Human players would have cards similar to the monster, but actions would be limited to playable cards. Characters have a limited amount of “health” each round. If the character becomes KOed, they lose action(s) and the player/character/monster that KOed them takes possession of the Toe.

Fangbone’s deck would consist largely of offensive actions, featuring weapons, animals, and Skullbanian characters.

Bill’s deck would consist largely of defensive actions, featuring earth stuff, classmates, etc. Bill’s damaging actions would make up a smaller portion of his deck, which instead would provide assists, and combos to Fangbone and recover/prevent loss of the Toe. Slightly more health recovery cards.

Cid’s deck would consist of thiefy “Shadowstepper” tricks, largely to prevent damage, prevent loss of the Toe, and to take control of the Toe.

Note that for balance, a game featuring Cid or any other additional characters, Drool player may need additional cards/actions/monsters.

If I were somehow tasked with actual creation of a licensed Fangbone game, I’d almost certainly opt to take these design notes and approach experienced card game designers (Red Dragon Inn or Epic Spell Wars teams) with additional setting info, characters, monsters, cards, and go from there rather than try to build it myself from the ground up. But hey, the 1st stage thinky work is already done!

The DCC Honeymoon Is Over

I still love you, DCC.  We’ve had some great times together, and I look forward to many more.  It’s just I’m starting to notice how long you take to get ready, sometimes you chew with your mouth open, and you’re always leaving lights on.

DCC really puts its best foot forward.  The level 0 funnel is just so much fun; it’s beautiful in its simplicity.  It’s light even compared to B/X!

But then everyone starts getting levels…  I absolutely loved playing my thief, and I’m realizing that a big part of that was just how easily the thief class played.  Roll for thiefy things and roll for combat (except I never rolled for combat, because thieves should not be fighting)!  But man!  The fighters with their stupid Deed dice, declaring their stupid deeds, and the magic users having to pass a freaking 8 pound book back and forth across the table to check all of the crazy spell tables.  Everything grinds to a halt, and even simple push-over combats can end up seeming like arduous affairs.

The crit and fumble tables, while inspirational for flavor, typically don’t make any sense in context of what’s going on, especially for any ranged attacks or thiefy backstabs.

Any fix for wizards would fundamentally undermine the feel of magic in DCC.  So the real fix is to have multiple copies of the book.

Fighters, though… Drop the deed.  Keep the deed die if you want.

So, thoughts for a FrankenDCC:

  • Take DCC’s 0 level funnel as a foundation.
  • Do some ratios, figure out the equivalent Class XP between B/X and DCC’s tiers.  Use those instead of the ones out of DCC.  Classes should level up at different rates.
  • Use B/X for hit dice and DCC for level-specific abilities/attacks.  Ignore crits or have crits do max damage.
  • Use Holmes for magic (sorry, B/X!) but use spells and spell tables from DCC.

Honestly, though, none of that solves the problems of DCC’s clunkiest elements.  There’s almost nothing that DCC does at the table mechanically that B/X doesn’t do smoother.  I do really like how weird the magic is in DCC’s implied setting, but god, the game balance!  A magic user can either be a magical Gatling gun or damn near useless depending on where he falls on his tables.  I also kinda wish scrolls and spellbooks were a thing, because I actually like Vancian magic.

I do still love DCC, but when I see even the fighters’ turns taking a relatively long time and combat dragging long enough that people are shocked when they find out that an encounter only lasted 3 or 4 rounds, I just get this feeling that something is wrong.  It could just be that DCC does not accommodate parties as large as the one I’m in very well.  Slow-down is not an issue I noticed until we were regularly having between 7 and 9 players, and one that I would not have begun to imagine when there were 4 or 5 of us.  But it’s a testament also to B/X that it can, perhaps better than any other system I’ve played, accommodate large groups of players with minimal slow-down.

Oh, yeah, we beat a bear!  It wasn’t the right bear, but we beat A bear.  And yeah, the hug would’ve killed me in one hit if my magic cursed half-plate of doom didn’t also have damage reduction.

Bull Run Pt. 2

The first part of our playthrough of Avalon Hill’s Bull Run can be found here.

My dad & my first play through of Bull Run is turning into a big flanking battle: we’re each delivering a strong punch from our right as our lefts collapse.  The question is who will deliver the knockout blow first?

We’ve made it into early afternoon and don’t anticipate the battle reaching evening.  Bee and Bartow’s brigades were surrounded and routed from hillock just northeast of New Market, but they managed to slow the Union advance just enough to allow a number of highly beneficial pieces to fall in place for the Rebs.  EK Smith arrived by train in time to ensure that my camp in Manassas won’t be a gimme.  Stuart along with some of Smith’s rear-guard regiments have been able to pick off the union men who got too far ahead of their column.  Meanwhile, Longstreet and “Rolling Thunder”(as he will be known hereafter in this alternate universe) Jackson have been making a coordinated push through the woods towards Centerville as Beauregard has ridden out with Ewell to attack the Union HQ from the East.

Early game, Command Path rules did not seem like a huge deal, especially when regiments were being automatically activated by proximity to enemy units.  Mid game, this turned into a real game changer.  With Confederate troops suddenly eliminated from Henry Hill to Flat Run, the Union commanders suddenly found themselves at a loss for what to do.  McDowell had ridden out back across the river down Warrenton Pike to shepherd a desperately needed relief brigade towards Centerville that had four brigades bearing down on it, leaving the bulk of the Union Army without orders.  McDowell literally spent two hours riding back and forth while three and a half divisions of Union troops sat with virtually nothing between them and Manassas!

My own issues with Command Path seem rather minor in comparison.  With both Jo Johnston and Pete Beauregard respectively leading the charge and flank through the woods south of Centerville, my batteries overlooking Blackburn’s and McLean’s Fords, as well as the infantry guarding the Union Mills Ford, have been left without orders.

1024px-First_Bull_Run_July21am

“First Bull Run July 21 am” by Hal Jespersen, cwmaps.com CC by 3.0 via Commons

Bull run map

Troop movements from morning until early afternoon.  Crosses where Confederate Brigades have been routed.  (original image from BGG).

My dad thinks I’ve won.  I think he may still have a chance to dislodge Smith if plays a hurry-up offence.  I’ve gone for an all or nothing gambit, as there’s no way I can hold that little church (red starred hex, lower portion of 2nd map board from left) for another 10 or so turns.  I’m hoping I have enough numbers I can overcome even the relief forces reaching Centerville, but a series of bad rolls could stall me out.  We’re already talking about setting up Malta next time we get together, so this game will hinge on the next few turns around Centerville I’m guessing.

One last note, It turns out that there’s very little “rallying” going on.  It could just be the way we’ve been playing, but by noon, all of my commanders were too busy driving towards the enemy or too busy being dead/captured/fleeing for their lives to spend a turn rallying a regiment.  The great mid-day stall-out of the Union advance gave my dad a chance to pull a few guys from the Rally-box, but the overwhelming majority of guys who go there are probably gone for good.

More DCC: Puzzles that Have Your Players Talking Behind Your Back

How do you know that you’ve created one hell of a set piece as a DM?  Well, I guess you might not know it if you’re not actually there, but  if after the session, players are in the parking lot or driveway discussing at length different ways to tackle the problem, something has been done right.  Well, my DCC group has taken it the next step further, and three days later folks are sharing statblocks and discussing options in an email chain.

Our group has been sent by the main library in the city to go retrieve a couple books from one of the branch locations on the other side of the river.  The only problem is that the other side of the river is Kowloon Walled City meets The Old Quarter from Thief: The Dark Project or Carcer City from Manhunt.  Okay, that’s not the only problem.  Once we stopped dithering about in the sandbox (closely placed 6-8 story buildings connected by sky bridges that are full of rats, giant hornets and really creepy scary decay-horror) and made a straight-shot to the library, we encountered the puzzle that we’re still struggling with.

See, the main library is guarded by these stone golems on the first floor.  I’m sure they didn’t bother us there because we were somehow under the protection of the librarians, but on the far side of the river in no man’s land, the protective golem seems set on keeping everyone out of the main foyer.  Everyone except me, that is.  My street urchin thief stole a library card from some patron shortly before we were given our quest (to some of the exasperation of our DM, perhaps).  See, my creepy homeless girl had it in mind that it would be easier to check books out of the library with someone else’s library card and sell them to a rich person than it would be to go on some adventure into an accursed part of the city.  Unfortunately, looking like a ragged and dirty Emily the Strange or Sunako from Wallflower, she wasn’t really able to convince the librarian that she was the wealthy aristocrat cardholder’s niece.

"I would like to check out these priceless illuminated manuscripts.  Not my name on the card?  Oh, I'm his niece and certainly not a level 1 chaotic thief with a 9 Personality score."

“I would like to check out these priceless illuminated manuscripts. Not my name on the card? Oh, I’m his niece and certainly not a level 1 chaotic thief with a 9 Personality score.”

On the plus side, the librarian didn’t confiscate the card.  So when the golem starts coming off its pedestal towards anyone coming through the wooden security gate, my character holds up the copper card she stole and is all “Library card!”  Amazingly it works, but only for me and for one character touching her.  The problem is, being DCC, there are 12 PCs, and my character sure as hell isn’t going to let anyone else “borrow” her card.

At one point I figured that I could tie up the golem and it would fall all over itself and ignore me when anyone else came across the threshold, but while my thief hid, 10 of the other characters derped around until it managed to get the ropes off its legs while another character rifled through some offices.  At least it didn’t seem to hold a grudge?

It’s hard to tell how much of this was planned and how much of it just turned out the way it is by coincidence.  For all we know, this was just some crazy murder piece that was supposed to kill us one by one and we just threw a monkey wrench in it by having that library card in the first place.  The library is 8 stories and there’s no way that my thief and one other character are going to be able to find 3 books in this place by ourselves (and I don’t know that the other 4 players who’d have to stay behind would be thrilled with the idea).  Now, we’re debating strategy, best courses of action, looking at various Stone Golem stat blocks (doesn’t matter if it’s 3e or AD&D, it can one-hit any of us and has something like 70% accuracy) and trying to figure out how the heck we’re going to tackle this with more ‘down-time’ discussion and strategizing going on than in any other game I’ve ever been in.

Now, one point I’d like to bring up on a separate matter.  Though our DM is letting new players have 3 level 0s to start with even though we’re no longer in the funnel, anyone with a level 1 character is going to just have that level 1 character, with any other survivors being ‘reserves’.  Those of us who made it out of our first session with level 1s got a few extra level 0s in our second session, mostly because we didn’t have enough folks to have a party balanced for how deadly this guy’s city is.  I ended up with someone who would have made a pretty decent spellsword (elf, but we’re not using non-human races).  Even though I could’ve played him, I still went with my thief, even though she’s net -2 on her stats.  I’ve grown partial to her because despite having all sorts of disadvantages, SHE was the only one who made it out of the meat grinder.  I feel like she earned being my main for this game.  Character death in this game has been in the double digits; I’d like to see her, with all of her 7s and 9s, be the one “hero” to make it through this adventure.  Or at least to level 2.  If anything, I think she’s a testament to why rolling for gender and alignment, especially in a game like DCC, is a neat idea.

Bar-Lev Take 2: Conclusion

It may have been a near run thing, but once the tables turned in my favor, they turned hard.

Had I lost one or two more tanks in Syria, the Jordanians would’ve been able to punch through to my artillery and force me off the map. Things were a bit better in Egypt by sheer virtue of the fact that I simply could NOT be dislodged from El Shatt which gave me both the village and the Bar-Lev defensive bonus. Still, I only had a few troops screening for three or four times as much artillery.

The Israeli double fire rules combined with Arab morale break made all of the difference. I had nearly 100 strength points of artillery fire on both sides of the board and was able to distribute it effectively against the heavy tanks that I couldn’t get ground odds on. Any tanks that weren’t destroyed by the first barrage would easily be insta-killed by the second.

With the ground situation in Egypt slightly more under control, I made sure that I had enough bombers in Syria to keep the Jordanians from giving the Syrians any meaningful advantage. So while my tanks and planes dealt with the Jordanians to the south, my artillery blew away what was left of the Syrian center.

The Egyptians finally lost their last best bet to beat me when the armored corps bearing down from the north and wearing away at my defenders in the hills were annihilated by boatloads of artillery fire. I even freed up enough that I was able to start taking out the short range artillery that had been shelling me from Suez. With the last southern bridge blown, I was able to start pressing north again, extending my forces out in strength and numbers I hadn’t had at all until this final point.

My dad surrendered, when we assessed the situation in Syria. Though Egypt would probably be kept to a draw (I don’t know that I could actually push across the canal with anything but heli-troopers, since the Egyptians were going to start blowing their own bridges), almost all of the units left in Syria were artillery. I could’ve spent the next two turns picking apart the remains of the Syrian army with bombers and self-propelled artillery. The only reinforcements Syria had left were militia that would only activate if I came within two hexes of any Syrian village, and eliminating all units on either map grants an instant victory, we decided it was just a matter of time.

My original air strategy changed by early mid-game. Once one side had shown a bit of weakness, it really did just make sense to keep flying against it. I split my forces some, but ultimately I spent way more time pounding the Syrians than the Egyptians. The Egyptian bombers couldn’t do much because I was concentrated in such a small area that I was fully covered by AA missiles until late game. With the Syrians so easily broken, air combat turned into a snowballing massacre with each turn.

The biggest difference in how our two games turned out was that I kept my artillery alive. As the Arabs, I would not suffer the presence of any Israeli artillery and would blitz past any other targets to make sure that the long range self-propelled artillery was taken out ASAP. MOST of the Israeli strength points are out there as Artillery, so keeping mine alive also meant that my Morale didn’t break as quickly, because I was able to recycle enough light troops to keep the churn going.

Anyway, I can’t recommend Bar-Lev enough if you’re into hex-and-chit style war gaming.

But speaking of wargaming, I’ve decided to make a go at doing a retroclone of Chainmail tweaked for use with Basic D&D. While D&D updated and incorporated stuff from Chainmail, I don’t know that there’s been an attempt to update Chainmail to incorporate stuff from D&D. I mean, I’m sure there has been, but I kind of want to rewrite Chainmail as a supplement to Basic. I hope it’s a good idea, because I’ve already sunk some money into a sweet cover.

The problem I’ve had with OD&D has always been that whatever rules are there are presented in a lousy format and are kind of confusing because of that more than anything wrong with the system itself.  I don’t think I can do the bangup job that Eric Holmes did with OD&D in his Basic edition, but I want to at least try to see if I can make something out of Chainmail that folks can pick up and use in their Basic games without a lot of headache.