Saturday, July 27, 2019

Murdered by Pirates is Good

This year started off with so much promise for the blog but, obviously, I fell off the wagon in May. So what has the Troll been up to?

Quite a lot. I'm involved in three regular campaigns. One is weekly, the other two switch off weeks, so that's two evenings of gaming every week (plus regular meet-ups for board games and the like). What's crazy for me is that, due to quirks of fate, all three games are 5e D&D. What's really crazy? I'm a player in one.

The big news is that I'm getting an adventure officially, professionally published for the first time. I've written one of the GenCon exclusive adventures Raggi will be selling at the Lamentations of the Flame Princess booth this year. Being a fan of the Orientalist painters, I wanted to do something involving the Barbary Pirates, who were busting out of the Mediterranean and onto the world stage in a big way during the default time period of LotFP adventures.

I worked with Tabby L. Rose on this one. She's DMing the 5e game I'm actually a player in. Her experience with RPGs is very different from mine. She got started later (because she couldn't find anyone who'd let a girl join their games until after high school) and played very different games from me. Where I've been accused of treating most RPG rules as variations to add to Moldvay/Cook, Tabby had an extremely varied RPG diet, ranging from first edition Rune Quest and FASERIP Marvel to Talislanta and Shadowrun. The longest running campaign she GMed was a Firefly game that started using Margaret Weis Productions rules but later migrated to Fudge. This makes her fun to collaborate with because her expectations and assumptions are often very different from mine.

And this was very important on Menagerie of Exiles because, hoo boy, was this a reminder of how odd my games are. When my players' PCs board a pirate ship, whether as guests or crew or cargo, they want to know all about what's happening: who are the pirates and where did they come from and what are they doing right now (at 3 PM on a Tuesday afternoon) and when can we get the quartermaster alone without anyone else overhearing our conversation? They're going to want to seduce the First Mate, and if they see an opening, they're going to prep a mutiny plan, even if they don't necessarily pull the trigger.

Most of my notes for something like this would be almost-kinda bullet-points jotted into my moleskin or possibly just scribbled on post-its tucked in as bookmarks into the rulebooks. Now I had to make it intelligible for other folks all while keeping it within the word-and-art limits of a GenCon exclusive booklet.

We were absolutely overly ambitious. What you’ll get is a ship and crew with the broad outlines detailed and a bit more focus on particular individuals. There’s a dark secret on the ship that threatens to split the crew apart, a secret that the enslaved prisoners in the hold are part of. And that’s probably skirting too close to spoiler territory, so I’ll stop there.

If you’re running a LotFP campaign, you’ll get a creepy little adventure on the high seas that you can use to move the campaign to more exotic locales. In the decades before the start of the English Civil War, the Barbary Pirates were raiding as far afield as Ireland and Iceland (and, in both cases, absconding with the entire populations of small villages). So you could have these pirates pop up just about anywhere and transport the PCs to just about anywhere. If you’ve been looking for a way to move the campaign to North Africa for Rafael Chandler’s World of the Lost, here you go!

If your game is not set in a real-world analogue of the 16th through 19th centuries, you still get pirates with a dark secret. They can transport your PCs across an ocean and give your table something to do with that journey, rather than just handwave it as “time passes.”

If you’re going to be at GenCon this year, be sure to stop by Raggi’s booth (#3010) and check it out. For myself, I can’t wait to get my hands on Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas. Zzarchov always does neat stuff. And I have a sneaking suspicion I know what James’ mystery book is. If I’m right, yeah, it’ll twist more than a few noses out of joint.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From One Generation to the Next

So people are talking about the generations of D&Ders. And, as usual, I don’t really identify with what the author is writing about.

Part of that is my near total lack of running into any friction for my gaming. Nobody teased me about it. I was encouraged to bring my gaming books into school. My 8th grade English teacher used the NPC generation tables in the 1e DMG as part of a creative writing exercise.

But more than that, I don’t think the level of acceptance of D&D in the culture at large had a huge effect on how we played the game. Rather, I think it was the assumptions we brought to the table.

If you look at Grognardia’s Ages of D&D, you notice that the Golden Age doesn’t even look like D&D as most people know it. Players didn’t invest with their characters the way they’re encouraged to do so now. You rolled 3d6 in order to generate your character, meaning you had no idea what you were going to play until after you’d rolled your stats. You probably had a handful of characters ready to go at any time, and might play your cleric or your wizard depending on factors like which was too busy training up to their next level (something that didn’t happen automatically) or what the group was likely to need tonight. Taking your character on vacation with you and playing in a game across town or across the country was a completely natural thing to do.

But above all of that, D&D was a game about exploration. Monsters were not opportunities for EXP but resource sinks; every fight limited how much longer you could spend in the wilderness or dungeon. Barely any effort was made to balance encounters. Carefully mapping the dungeon unlocked opportunities for finding unguarded or lightly-guarded treasure which was the key to gaining those first few very precious levels.

Unfortunately, early D&D did a poor job of explaining itself. The assumption was that most would learn the game from someone who could trace their learning of the game back to Gygax’s group. Even the Basic boxes fumbled here; the clues were there but not everybody connected the dots. “Why should my characters become better killers from gathering treasure?” was a commonly heard refrain.

2e muddied these waters. The advancement mechanic moved to class-specific criteria: wizards and clerics earned EXP for casting spells, thieves earned EXP for acquiring treasure, fighters earned EXP for slaying things. Even more transformative was the stuff coming out of DUNGEON magazine. Gone were the funhouse dungeons like Castle Greyhawk or thematic ruins that were all about place. The adventures crafted by the Hickmans like Ravenloft and the Dragonlace series, already described as classics, were seen as the model. Everything had to be about story. The assumption that the PCs would be accompanied by a small army of henchmen, something obvious to the first generation of DMs, now seemed weird. You never saw Strider or Raistlin or Elric hanging out in a tavern, interviewing mercenaries to see who would go into the dungeon with them. Charisma transformed from being one of the most important stats in the game to being everyone’s dump-stat.

By the time TSR hit financial troubles, few still played the way that first generation did. The game was about story now, which meant actually killing characters became a hassle. Steps were taken to insulate characters from death, like going unconscious at 0 hit points instead of just dying, giving PCs max hit points at first level, and making resurrection spells more common.

When 3e came out, you could easily see that perceptions of the game had transformed drastically. Now D&D was seen as a game about combat. You earned most of your EXP from killing things, which meant wandering monsters stopped being a threat and started to be a boon to characters who needed just a few dozen more EXPs to level up. The game became more about mechanics; we got all sorts of new ways to differentiate our characters with numbers, like feats and skills. (And, suddenly, nobody’s character could tie knots or swim anymore.) The DM was given tools to balance encounters so that fights were more likely to be “close calls” or, at least of “reasonable” challenge. And to aid in this, each monster got massive, page-long stat blocks, allowing the DM to craft their own monsters using the same rules the PCs used to make their characters. The chains of feats and class abilities made character creation a mini-game, on par with deck-building in games like Magic: the Gathering.

With 4e, D&D had completed its transformation into a game centered around combat. Only, it turned out, that wasn’t really what the fans wanted. And with 5e, the focus was moved back to stories.

Unfortunately, the chassis of the game is still built around the exploration model of the original game. So it does story in a rather clunky way, requiring all sorts of bizarre tweaks (like ubiquitous resurrection magic) to smooth out the rough patches.

Ok, but how does this history help us make sense of D&D’s multiple generation gaps? Well, each generation comes to the table with its own expectations and assumptions. The oldest Grognards play a game about exploration and personal challenge. They want to use their own brains to overcome the challenges and fully expect to use their real-world knowledge of things like physics as well as the rules of the game to triumph. They approach combat as a war and expect to need to use every clever idea they can muster to just survive. Character death is just part of the game to them. They don’t invest in their characters as much, and might not even name them until they’ve reached 3rd level.

After them come the Voyagers. They wallowed in the crazy imaginative worlds of TSR from the ‘90s like Planescape and Dark Sun. They want simple rules that will keep things consistent but don’t get in the way of telling their stories. They love having entire sessions go by without touching the dice and really want to delve into the orc warlord’s backstory. Hacking the rules of the game to better fit the strange settings they love creating is very common. Meta-knowledge is something to avoid. Fights can be tense and dramatic, but not really why they came, and most discovered, sooner or later, that they were best served by the Basic/Expert rather than the Advanced rules. If the DM’s world is described as “Game of Thrones in Oz” or the player has an original character race with a detailed description of how its biology evolved, you’re probably dealing with voyagers.

3e engendered a new generation that reveled in rules mastery. They expected intricately balanced encounters that utilized the rules in new and challenging ways, but they viewed combat in the game as a sport, to be played within a certain set of bounds. The solutions to every challenge was on the character sheet; 10’ poles and using spilled wine to find hidden passages were replaced by skill checks and character abilities. DMs obsessed over encounter design, always seeking to create unique circumstances that conformed with the rules of the game, but did so in new and surprising ways. For some groups, story became simply a path that strung together one gorgeous set-piece battle or skill challenge after another. Crunch reigned supreme and everything else was just fluff. If you hear grumbles about how D&D doesn’t allow enough mechanical differentiation between characters (or, how you really ought to be playing Pathfinder), you’ve got some Rules Masters in your group.

We have a new generation of players coming to D&D today thanks to streaming games. They thrill to the roll of a natural 20, but they seem to be just as much about story as the second generation, perhaps even more so. They’re not as excited about exploring strange and alien worlds; rather they seem to prefer the tried-and-true high fantasy that’s considered D&D’s default. They also don’t appear to be as interested in kit-bashing the rules as the story-focused gamers of old, beyond crafting new backgrounds, races, and classes. They want to play the “real” game with as few tweaks as possible. And they apparently love the idea of not really earning EXP at all, but rather going up levels when their characters meet milestones in the journey of their personal and group stories. If you’re group uses “Milestone leveling” instead of awarding EXP, or the DM bends over backwards to avoid character death, and most especially if they only started playing in the last three years, you’re probably playing with Epic Stream players.

If you want to talk about generation gaps, discussing expectations and desires seems a far more useful taxonomy than simply Old vs. New, or even TSR-era vs. WotC players. And keep in mind, few groups or even players are purely one or the other. While I started in the “Golden Age” with the Grognards, I was self-taught and started the game with many of the Voyager’s assumptions. And, on top of that, most of my groups are dominated by players who are new to the game, so there’s a lot of Epic Stream influence in my games as well. How much mileage you’ll get out of this discussion will depend largely on your exposure (or lack thereof) to people with alternative expectations. When you find someone at your table making odd assumptions, it’s time to start asking questions. From my (terribly not scientific) experience, you’ll likely find the source of those assumptions comes from when and how they started playing the game.