Playing at the Game Store

For the past few months, I’ve joined a weekly 5E Dungeons & Dragons game at my local game store – Better World Books. This campaign has irregular attendance; we fluctuate between 5 and 10 players (including the GM). A few weeks ago, we had 10 players and 4 others interested in playing for the first time.

Procedure of the Game Store Game

The following procedure has emerged:

  1. Kick in the door
  2. Defeat the monsters
  3. Loot the bodies
  4. Interstitial role-playing
  5. Goto line step 1

Splitting the Party

I talked with the GM to see if we might want to split the table. It looks like we could support two different tables most weeks.

I’m considering running that second game. The primary consideration is to run the Dwimmermount campaign using the Labyrinth Lord rules.

With unpredictable attendance, the following artificial constraint may be helpful:

By the end of the session the characters must be back in the city

This was mentioned in Dreams in the Lich House.

Adding More Mortar to the Three Pillars

The Three Pillars of Adventure

Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: exploration, social interaction, and combat.

From the “D&D Basic Rules: Player’s Basic Rules”

I want to look at a few subsystems of previous versions that are not part of the core rules of 5E. Rules and guidance for these subsystems can be found in the current Dungeon Master’s Guide. But they are not a first class citizen in the rules.

These systems are:

  • Hirelings, retainers, and specialists – additional hired support that can bolster the parties ranks or provide specialized services
  • Random encounters – a procedure to determine if the party encounters random creatures/events outside of the set pieces of the adventure
  • Reaction checks – a procedure to determine non-player characters initial reaction (friendly, indifferent, hostile, etc.) to the party
  • Morale checks – a procedure for seeing if non-player characters and creatures surrender, flee, or fight on

Exploration

Hirelings provide additional options for exploration: a translator, a torchbearer, a rear guard, a camp guard, etc.

Random encounters breath life into a location; Instead of a series of disparate locations the random encounters highlight that the location is dangerous and dynamic.

In editions prior to 3E, random encounters put pressure on the characters to not delay. The majority of experience was from treasure and not combat and a random encounter was a high risk, low reward ordeal.

Reaction checks codify that not every encounter will escalate into combat. It provides a chance for factions and agendas to be discovered and exploited.

Morale checks primary purpose is to ensure that not everything is a fight to the death. In exploration, this means that players may be aware that any opposition is falling back to bolster defenses.

Combat

In older editions, one role of hirelings was to diffuse the lethality of combat. They are both support and built in back-up player characters. They also provide a logical means to for a guest player to join for a single session or so.

Random encounters provide a steady source of potential combat. In older editions, its ill-advised to escalate every encounter (i.e. high risk, low reward). However, for players seeking combat, random encounters are sure to please.

Reaction checks are there to make sure that not everything needs to be combat. It can steer an encounter into a social interaction instead. It adds a bit of unpredictability.

Morale provides a clear mechanism so that not every combat is fought to the bloody end. This is something that a GM could adjudicate on their own, but having procedures in place allows the GM to fall back on the beauty of randomization. No one knows when a combat starts if it will be to the death; But the rules can be leveraged to provide an unbiased decision.

Since morale checks also apply to all non-player characters, it raises the stakes of combat; Will your still loyal torchbearer turn tail at the sight of skeletons? Will your seasoned veteran continue to fight even if their employer has fallen? A story emerges from the dice rolls.

Social Interaction

And this is where the four subsystems shine.

Hirelings may have their own agenda. They may leave on good terms and help the party in the future. Or a mistreated hireling might betray or openly oppose the future endeavors of the party. They provide another known social interaction point in the campaign; No need to create something new, reuse a hireling.

By leveraging reaction checks, it is not immediately obvious if each encounter is meant for combat or social interaction. This ambiguity provides a crease in the game that allows players to flex their ambitions.

And then there is morale; Does the hireling turns tail and runs at a critical moment? Or do they double down with steely resolve? How do the players respond? Do they dismiss them outright? Do they seek to rally, comfort, or console? At a minimum, there is now an in game moment with one of the hirelings that changed the state of the fiction.

And morale for possible opposition enforces that not everything is a fight to the death. Will the players spare the creature? Will they gain an ally? Or will they be betrayed? Can they hire their opponent? It keeps the questions open.

And in all of this, the random encounter is yet another source of fuel for social interactions and combat.

Conclusion

In my survey of numerous OSR games and D&D editions, I have found several implementations of these subsystems.

For Hirelings I’m fond of:

For Morale my preference is:

For Reaction checks:

For Random Encounters:

There are differences between each, but the key components that I look for are as follows:

  • Randomize the hiring process; Some should slander would be employers
  • Codify when morale checks should be made
  • Codify what random encounters are possible and how often
  • Reaction checks should happen at the beginning of the encounter (I prefer that Charisma not come into play unless the characters interact with the creatures)

Evil Wizards in a Cave by Johnstone Metzger

RK2 Evil Wizards in a Cave by Johnstone Metzger has the tagline “A short adventure module for Dungeon World and Labyrinth Lord“. It provides interesting hooks to a short adventure as well as a regional sandbox to keep the adventures going.

This review is based on an advance copy of the PDF that I requested from Johnstone Metzger.

Minor Spoilers Ahead

I’m trying to keep this adventure review from delving into the adventure contents.
There is a very early move that I quote which may provide more information than you want to know. It ain’t much but some people will do anything to avoid spoilers.

Starting Hooks

I appreciate that Johnstone Metzger gives attention to the adventure hooks. In total, he provides five hooks. Two hooks are about rumors. Three hooks are about being hired for jobs.

Each of the 3 job related hooks describe the employer, and ask you to roll some dice to determine the status of your employment. Below is an example of one of those hooks:

If you were sent by the Church of Law to aid the Tellurine Monastery, roll 2d6+WIS.

  • On a 10+, they have sent a relic-finder with you.
    This is a magical, single-chain thurible that will indicate whether or not a powerful arcane object is located within two miles of the direction you are facing, when you suspend it in front of you with one hand.
    It pulls forward gently if it senses another magical item, but does not indicate its type or nature.
    It must be returned to the church after the helmet is returned to the monastery.
  • On a 7+, the church has also offered you a reward of 500 coins to solve the monastery’s problems.
  • On a miss, this mission is your last chance to atone for your crimes and transgressions.
    If you do not retrieve the helmet, you will be excommunicated permanently.

For those of you coming from Labyrinth Lord, this could be a new structure for a starting hook. For those of you coming from Dungeon World, this is the rather familiar “Love Letter” format seen in the various Apocalypse World Engine games.

I am a particular fan of this opening hook, as both the 10+ and 6- key things up for further adventures.

A Monk’s Life

The Tellurine Monastery is a  , a potential home base for the region. Brief details about its history, industry (beer and cheese), and their current need. We then have fuller details of the monastic fortress and its layout.

Included are maps of the surrounding region, the Tullerine Monastery, and the caves below. And as with any location in an RPG supplement there are a few things going.

I particularly like that each many of the rooms have a paragraph description with an important word or small phrase bolded for ease of scanability.

Provided within a Monk’s Life are a few dual stat characters. These characters each have a rich background, tactics, a Dungeon World stat block, and a Labrynth Lord stat block.

In my opinion, some of the Dungeon World stat blocks are a bit lacking; There could’ve been a few more interesting moves. But compensating for that are the more generic tactics listed beforehand; Afterall this is a dual system adventure. These provide enough to more than easily make a custom GM move on the fly.

Thieving Wizards

As called out in the above move, the church’s helmet is missing;
And the thieving wizards have nefarious plans for it.

The adventure calls out a timeline, but leaves the timing up to the GM to implement. Here I wish Johnstone Metzger would stretch a bit more and give a Dungeon World style breakdown of the danger of letting the timeline slip. Its adequate what is given, but I would have loved to see his take on the danger.

The thieving wizards are given similar treatment as the characters in a Monk’s Life section; background, tactics, Dungeon World stat block, and Labrynth Lord stat blocks.

Following the above details is a brief section on the thieving wizards hideout and corresponding map.

And then comes what I consider to be one of my favorite parts of the adventure.

The Dubious Experiments!

Not to go into too many details, but these thieving wizards haven’t been idle.
There are a handful of monsters, with non-standard backgrounds, each with their own stat blocks.

To the Sandbox

The starting hooks, monk’s life, and thieving wizards sections provide enough for the skeleton for the adventure; A rich sandbox is the backdrop for this adventure. Below are a few interesting, though not too “spoiley” locations in the sandbox.

0105

There is a famous cave located in the hills here, known primarily for the weird stalactites that seem to have faces in them, and the healing waters that drip from them.

0602

There is a cemetery here that belongs to the Palace Plantation.
There is a 1 in 6 chance that a grave contains a gold ring or other small piece of jewellery, worth no more than a dozen coins.

0801

There is an ancient bridge next to the river here, but it is so old that even if it wasn’t broken and crumbling, it would still not span the river, because the river has moved since it was built. The two worn ends both sit on the same side of the river now.

0205

A young man is out taking a walk through the hills the first time the PCs travel through here. His name is Petar Magnusson, and he is a student from Nornfell University. He chanced to see the striking red striations in the hills here, and noticed that there are also holes in the ground about big enough for a person to crawl into. Since his is studying alchemy, geology, and stonecrafting specifically, he is very curious about the strange colouring and would like to know more.

Some of the hexes are significantly more detailed, providing a rough outline for a possible side-trek or further development to the region.

Attribution

As is customary with Johnstone Metzger’s work, he provides a fantastic enumeration of the attribution of art (all public domain), maps (created by Johnstone himself), and game licenses (Creative Commons for Dungeon World and the Labrynth Lord Trademark License 1.2).

All of the font’s are available under the SIL Open Font License.

And best of all, Johnstone Metzger release the text of this adventure under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

To Buy or Not to Buy

Buy this adventure if you enjoy a human(oid) centric adventure involving some mystery and social interactions; Or if you enjoy a sandbox adventure. Also consider buying this if you are interested in seeing how you might bridge your other written adventures from one system to another.

Don’t buy it if you want a dungeon crawl. While there are caves and dungeons these are not exhaustive but instead small areas for exploration. Don’t buy if you are looking for high flying fantastic adventure with loads of monsters and piles of treasure.

Nostalgically Wishing I Would’ve Been Part of the Old School

There is a bumper crop of Old School games available.  Some are rebuilding the 1E / 0E rules based on the OGL.  Others are re-imaginings.  And others sit somewhere in between.  This list includes, but is certainly not limited to: Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Champions of Zed, Barbarians of Lemuria, World of Dungeons and certainly many more.  Even the D&D Next, by other people’s accounts, is harkening back to the days of yore.

I never played D&D 1E, having started on Star Frontiers, Rolemaster, and D&D 2E. I never had a character who had a cadre of henchman and followers. And none of my characters have made use of the ubiquitous 10 foot pole.

And from the outside looking in, this runs counter to what I believe to have been the Old School game.  Characters were disposable “back in the olden days.” They were fragile. You needed meat shields to protect your characters. Yet, even then, a character was a fragile thing. The hyper capable heroes came along later.

The Old School games are about exploration…cautiously advancing through a dungeon. In fact, as I was reading my 0E copy, I found that turns (10 minute increments) were marked off based on the distance moved within a dungeon. And if memory serves 10 minutes passed after the party moved 120 feet. And strangely, that rule blew my mind. I don’t know if that rule is in the 2E DMG or not, but I never discovered it when I first started out.

It seems so obvious to track time by distance moved, but it isn’t quite as obvious saying that you would move so slowly in 10 minutes. Unless of course you were exploring your surroundings.

These days, I’m looking for a good story to emerge from play. Exploration is clearly one of the means to emergent narratives. To explore requires questions and answers, a constant back and forth for clarity. Each side of the screen engaging each other.

I remember scoffing at the idea that XP was derived from gold pieces earned. In our 2E days, I used to award XP for being on time, killing monsters, and role-playing. It only occurred to me much more recently how elegant a reward system the XP for GP really was.

There is an intrinsic reward in role-playing, defeating monsters, and arriving on time. But by tying advancement to gold, players are rewarded by exploring…by thinking up ways to avoid fighting monsters, which in the Old School are outright lethal, especially if you attempt to fight each room full of monsters.

So I’ve never played in an Old School game, though several of them sit on my shelf. I’m fascinated by the style of play and the reward mechanism.

Post Script

Old School games don’t have the implicit tyranny of the Tolkien inspired campaign – You know where you start out small and follow this plot arc that culminates in sneaking across the continent and casting the artifact of power into the volcano. That campaign where the GM plans everything in advance and ensures that you play with blinders on.

Because, let’s face it, how many of those campaigns have you started? And how many of those have you finished?

The Old School is about getting together for an evening of adventure. One that is self-contained and doesn’t require every one to be there. And if your cleric is missing? Find a hireling or two to fill the void for that evenings foray into adventure.

Survey of Methods of Advancement

The other evening I had an interesting RPG conversation concerning character advancement.  His opinion surprise me.  However, I’ve since started thinking about the various systems of character advancement that I’ve seen – this is not an exhaustive list, only ones that I’m more familiar with.

Level Only

In this method, when a character levels up, everything about them gets better.  They are better at hitting, resisting, enduring and doing things within the narrative. The classic example would be the earliest editions of D&D and Labyrinth Lord.

One of the key points of this method is that all elements of a character improve with level regardless of the actions taken to achieve that level.  Namely, if I raised my level solely by treasure and role-playing rewards, I’m still better at fighting.  In this method, it is likely easiest to “balance” characters against each other.

Points

In this method, there are no levels, instead, characters advance each statistic independently.  Dresden Files, and if memory serves ShadowRun.  In ShadowRun you get a certain amount of Karma after each session and when you simply pay to advance a statistic.

When points are part of advancement, there is typically a graduating scale regarding point cost.  That is to say Rank 1 costs 1 point, Rank 2 costs 3 points, Rank 3 costs 6 points, etc.  It is a non-linear advancement cost for a linear statistic.

From my limited exposure to these systems, use of the skill is not a requirement for advancement.

Points per Level

In this method, character’s still track levels. However, upon achieving a new level, they receive a set number of points to improve their character – but again regardless of the skills used during the sessions.  Rolemaster and Alternity are the best examples, although the D&D 3E skill sub-system also applies.

In Rolemaster it is possible to create a 10th level fighter that is no more competent in combat than a 1st level fighter – or a 1st level wizard.  This would be done at each level by having the fighter’s character invest their points not in sword and hit points, but in other wilder fancies.

Points & Level Hybrid

In this method, character’s track levels.  But it is an amalgam of the above.  The potential areas of development – the character statistics if you will – are broken into sub-systems.  And each of those sub-systems operate a bit differently, and may overlap (i.e. D&D 3E/4E Feats overlap with the D&D Combat and D&D Skills sub-systems).

By breaking the sub-systems into different advancement methods, the game system can tinker with balance across the sub-systems ensuring that one character classification is stronger in one sub-system than the other.  That is to say a fighter is better in combat than a rogue but a rogue has a wider range of skills.

Test-Based

In this method, a character using a skill advances that skill.  If you want to get better at something, you had better do it.  In this way, characters evolve based on the ongoing narrative.  Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, TechNoir and Hârnmaster are some examples.

This method requires a bit more attention to any goals that you as a player have for your character.  Do you want your character to defeat some alluded to master swordsman? Then practice your combat skills.

Potpourri

One could argue that Apocalypse World and Dungeon World are point per level.  Each time you “level” you get one point to purchase some advancement.

Diaspora fixes your total possible talent, but allows you to rearrange your statistics within those constraints.  So if you want to get better at something, you’ll need to get worse at something else.

In Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple your monks don’t get better but instead changes how and why they interact with the ongoing narrative.

Any others? In particular, how would you categorize Dogs in the VineyardInSpectres and Lacuna Part I, but the advancement mechanisms aren’t registering.

Personal Preference

I like to see characters that are mechanically different.  I like the idea of advancement through use.  I also understand that as players we are not necessarily seeing every action of our characters – I know I don’t follow my character into the bathroom – and therefore arbitrary advancement is acceptable.