Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In Defense of the Railroad (or the Dungeon as "Bounded Sandbox", Whichever You Prefer)...

Choo!  Choo!  Time to ride the railroad, everyone...

There seems to be (at least) two approaches to a campaign.  First, there's the so-called sandbox.  A vast, open world reduced to a hex map and reliant on random tables.  This has the advantage of freedom and a certain "realism".  The characters can go where they will and deal with whatever they must.  Life's like that.  Shit happens, and the "story" of our day (or week or whatever) arises organically in the heat of battle.  For instance, the party approaches a pastureland and the GM rolls an ankheg.  Battle ensues, and the fighter ends up tossing the badly wounded Halfling to the cleric for healing!  You can't script this stuff...

Later, the characters stagger into the nearby village, where they're hailed as heroes (the ankheg was terrorizing their pastures for months).  And so it goes.

What could be more open?  Or more free?  But all's not well in Hexland.  Ever read The Hobbit?  Or Lord of the Rings?  Or anything else along those lines?  These don't read like a hex crawl.  They read like a railroad.  The fact is, the narrative flow of our favorite literature (ostensibly, a major inspiration for our games) simply cannot be reduced to an assemblage of random encounters.  And just how long could we be entertained by endless battles with wandering orcs anyway?  But I understand, it's different in a game.  Games are about what we do, and it's impossible not to get caught up in our battles - or our characters.  

Now, in truth, many GMs steer a middle course, superimposing sandbox elements over an overarching storyline.  I'd argue this is best.  But "best" is subjective, and who am I to tell anyone they're not having the right kind of fun?  Still, for sandbox purists, modules and other scripted adventures are (sometimes) derided as uninspired railroading.

Nothing linear about this dungeon...

So, about the railroad.  The GM writes a quest (often, a dungeon), and the players ride its single rail to whatever the scenario dictates.  They have no option to decline.  Or to leave.  Or to wander off and do something else.  And I've experienced the worst this approach has to offer.  You see, I knew this guy back in the 80's.  I won't name names, but we called him "The Conductor" because his adventures were (quite literally) a straight line corridor through a dungeon with a linear progression of encounters.  This was the worst version of the style, and we avoided his games.  No offense to him if he's reading this!  We were kids...

But, again, most GMs steer a middle course.  Moreover, the dungeon is (or can be) a bounded sandbox complete with abundant choices combined with a quest-like atmosphere and an overarching storyline to tie the characters to something bigger.  Once Bilbo agreed to accompany the dwarves, it became a (sort-of) railroad.  But there were also many random encounters to season its otherwise linear flow.  For instance, while the dwarves were seeking the Misty Mountains, they could choose where to rest.  And if they'd passed up the goblins' back porch in favor of something else, there'd be no riddles and no ring.

This is randomness superimposed over an overarching storyline.  Better still, it's a bounded sandbox - and something worth exploiting in a game.  A tool for the old toolkit.

The town is a bounded sandbox.  There are multiple locations.  The blacksmith (who runs a secret gambling den in his basement), the cleric (who fears an infiltration of undead in the catacombs beneath his chapel), and the innkeeper and his (magic-using) wife (both members of a druidic cult keeping vigil against a demon lord).  The players can go where they wish, and in any order.  And they're free to deal with these NPCs however they wish and decline their offered quests in the process.  But there are quests.  Several.  Because, realistically, the world is full of location-specific quests.  And more importantly, everything encountered (or undertaken) is fleshed out in a way that random encounters can never be...

The best ones are like this, I think.

But the dungeon is also a bounded sandbox.  At least it can be.   Let's say the entrance is a massive (50' x 50') vault with a door on each wall.  Each, in turn, opens to a passageway bisecting many more - not to mention numerous chambers along their path.  And the players are free to go where they please and in any order, perhaps taking the western door, going north, and encountering area #27 before anything else!  This matters, trust me.  Taking on the bugbear garrison in area 12 is a different thing entirely if you've already gotten the wand of fireballs from area 21!  And not all choices are spatial either.  The players are free to react as they wish, perhaps leading an uprising of kobold slaves against their bugbear masters or whatnot.  There's a thousand stories in the dungeon - no exaggeration 

No, the dungeon doesn't have to be a railroad.  It can be more like the street plan of a metropolitan city, complete with busy intersections and neighborhoods.  And superimposed over its scripted encounters are many random happenings.  It's the best of both worlds underground!  But also in terms of strategic choices, for even an individual encounter is a sandbox of sorts with many strategic choices ready to exploit...

Ditto for the local wilderness.  And there's an overarching storyline and fleshed-out encounters that benefit from being prepared in advance.  Remember that demon lord?  He commands the bugbears from afar and has seduced a local necromancer to stir up an undead army beneath the cleric's chapel.  And the more successful the party is at thwarting his servants, the more aggressive he'll become towards the characters.  Nope, this isn't railroading.  This is consequences.  But even then, the players have choices, whether joining the demon or converting the bugbears to the "one true faith" and making them give up their evil ways.  The possibilities are endless for a clever and creative group...

And all because the GM has "scaled down" their sandbox to a manageable town, local wilderness, and one or two dungeons.  Again, it's the best of both worlds and something to keep in mind when preparing your own games.  So all aboard!  And tickets, please...

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Against Gonzo Dungeons and Total Party Kills (or Some Old-School Tropes Overturned)...

Old-school gaming.  The dungeons are gonzo, funhouse constructs with no discernable purpose save to be plundered by a never-ending succession of short-lived characters.  Death is commonplace, and the narrative structure of a game (such that any exists) is akin to the Donner expedition with swords and spells.  This is the customary image of old-school, and it certainly has its adherents.  But it's one I accept while also rejecting...

So let's start with the dungeons, because these are central.

Yes, some of the earliest dungeons were, in fact, gonzo affairs.  Arneson's Blackmoor dungeon was pay-as-you go, complete with turnstiles to admit a never-ending succession of enthusiastic adventurers.  And the elves kept fire hoses nearby to douse any undead with holy water (since the pesky things sometimes tried to get out)!  In short, the dungeon was a  landscape, deep and endlessly stocked with monsters and treasure.

This is the classic dungeon crawl.  The dungeon is just there.  And so are the largely disposable characters.  Play exists in the moment divorced from any overarching narrative, because that's the nature of the beast.  And it's a beast we all know and love...

Death happened, just not all the time which,
arguably, made it more impactful in a campaign with
established (and beloved) characters...

But by 1975 (still respectably old-school), Arneson's Blackmoor supplement to OD&D included the first published scenario; Temple of the Frog.  No spoilers here, but the dungeon was built for a reason.  There was an overarching storyline, complete with non-players possessing complex motivations.  And the characters could shape the 'story" through their own interactions.  In short, we're talking about bona fide role-playing.

So now we see two divergent models early on.  The gonzo, funhouse dungeon crawl and adventures with complex storylines with abiding (and interesting) characters...

In 1978 (still old-school), Gygax wrote Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and its esteemed follow-ups; Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and Hall of the Fire Giant King.  Once again, there was an overarching storyline with plenty of complex non-players to interact with, perhaps shaping the story in new ways.  Yes, a party could approach the whole thing as a hack-and-slash affair, but only if they ignore content and miss opportunities.

Oh, and the terrible conspiracy unearthed will lead the characters underground and, eventually, to another dimension!  It's a deep and richly satisfying campaign - and one that plays out like an epic novel.  And this approach was inevitable.  Once you have a game capable of replicating fantasy adventures, clever and creative players will absolutely turn it to recreating heroic tales because who wouldn't want to take part in a fantasy epic?

So is old-school just dungeon crawls with disposable characters?  No!  There were two parallel traditions - and almost right from the start.  Story has always mattered.

Having a game capable of fantasy simulation and
limiting it to hack and slash expeditions divorced from any real
storyline is a missed opportunity.  What do you think?

But what about the supposed "disposable" heroes?  One need only read OD&D's Men and Magic to understand that at least some were expected to reach higher levels and build strongholds.  Much time was given over to higher-level spells, for instance, which would have been a colossal waste of time if some longevity weren't expected.  Back in '78, we actively avoided combat and sought wealth with minimal danger.  Gold was experience, and we sought this with minimal fuss.  The thieves plied their trade, and everyone else gave them cover, because the goal was to get rich while not fighting everything...

And by AD&D, clerics (who originally couldn't cast spells at first level) actually got bonus spells for wisdom.  With the right luck (or the ability generation rules provided in the Dungeon Master's Guide), a first level cleric could cast three spells per day, which means three healings in the course of an adventure.  All it takes is a 14 wisdom, a feat not difficult to achieve when rolling 4d6, picking the highest three, and arranging to taste.  And this option was absolutely endorsed by the (old-school) manuals.  Indeed, it was Method #1!

Anyway, constant death caps level, which is at odds with all those high-level monsters, spells, and modules.  Sorry, everything wasn't meant to end in a total party kill... 

AD&D marks a perceptible shift, doubtless honed from years of prior experience in multiple campaigns, from a mere wargame to a role-playing system where characters and story mattered greatly.  And not coincidentally, it came at a time when the hobby was expanding beyond its wargaming demographic.  These were fantasy buffs who wanted to create meaningful characters and participate in epic tales.  Why read The Hobbit when you could actually be that hobbit scaling Mount Doom?  Our hobby makes it all possible!

A few month ago, we said there's nothing new under the sun.  Well, this applies to adventures and characters as well.  Yes, there was (and continues to be) a grand tradition of lethal dungeon crawls.  But almost from the beginning, old-school allowed for complex storylines and abiding characters.  And by the late 70s, almost heroic efforts were made to increase survivability in the name of the narrative.  The lethal dungeon crawl was merely one of two old-school traditions - and the game, happily, allowed us to choose our own way...      

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Second Editions: How Soon Is Too Soon?

Well, we're back to blogging, folks!  The break was much needed, and we appreciate everyone's patience as we recharged our batteries.  And as we're working on a semi-major project that really breaks our mold, we have to ask ourselves... 

How soon is too soon to publish a Second Edition of a role-playing title?

No, we aren't doing this yet.  Hell, yours truly has just gotten back to doing anything game related at all, much less tackling a major do-over.  But as we (maybe) begin breaking established molds all over the place, we can't help but reflect a bit.  We've been doing this for four years.  It's been a learning curve.  But with time comes experience.  And with practice comes improvement.  And not just in the design department... 

So when does it make sense to re-consolidate an existing set of rules into a better, more coherent package and apply lessons learned?  Or improve its production?        

Is a Second Edition seen as a giant middle finger to the people who've already shelled out for the previous version?  Or a cynical ploy to get the buyer's money twice?  Now I'm not implying anyone is doing this.  My question is somewhat rhetorical because I could actually see the need for a fifth Edition D&D after the badly contrived 4th....


Much as I could see the need for a 2nd Edition AD&D, or pretty much any edition of my beloved Tunnels & Trolls.  Time makes rules better, and experience (and revenue) makes it easier to improve the physical (read: production) value of a given product.

So, for a little historical perspective...

OD&D to AD&D - five years (from the initial boxed release to publication of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, which made AD&D a complete system)

AD&D to 2nd Edition AD&D - ten years (calculating from 1979 to 1989)

2nd Edition to 3rd - eleven years (from 1989 to 2000)

Initially, you see a retooling of the original into a more coherent package.  And when you really think about it, AD&D was really was just a cleaned-up (and better organized) version of the booklets and their supplements.  Indeed, there was actually a three-year overlap...

After that, each new edition was given ample time to marinate at the tables of a thousand enthusiastic gamers.  Except for grumpy old holdouts like myself, obviously!

So when is the time "right" for a new edition?  I suspect it's when the game would really benefit from a little reconsolidation.  And I've seen it pulled off nicely across many different systems, so I guess I know.  But the mind wanders after a long break.  Especially when thinking about the future of your favorite projects.  Well, this blog has a future for sure, even if only as a monthly post.  And we'll try to make it worth your time to drop in and visit...    

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

We're Taking a Break...

We're pooped.  And our blog is taking a break.  We'll still be online, mostly to admire the efforts of others.  And we've still got a few surprises up our sleeves, so look out!  You're awesome, all of you.  But we're tired... 


See you here in a month or so.  Time to recharge our spell points and whatnot!