Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Fantasy Cupcakes

While browsing the cesspit that is Reddit I stumbled upon a thread in one of the D&D subs where some people were discussing cupcakes. Upon reading said thread, expecting to see tales of delicious treats consumed by players whilst rolling dice, he was actually talking about characters in game consuming cupcakes.  My immediate response, “Cupcakes! D&D? No, not possible.

In my mind, D&D is medieval.  Technology is limited to that era, societal attitudes from that era are the norm, and there are no cupcakes…. because they are American, and weren’t invented until the late 18th century.  And the US didn’t exist when D&D is set. And they are called ‘fairy cakes’ in this country anyway.  But I digress.  D&D’s roots are in games that attempted to simulate medieval warfare, and it’s easy to pick up on those themes when browsing through the 1E hardbacks for example – the weapons are drawn mostly from the period of AD1000-1500, as is the armour – though there are a couple of mistakes in there in the historical sense, as Studded Leather did not exist, and the jury is out on whether Ring Mail ever existed too. There are chapters on castles, complete with the correct old English terminology, and some of the terms used to describe spells and magical items are drawn from the Old English language – dweomer for example.  The infamous ‘random prostitute’ table contained multiple archaic synonyms for the world’s oldest profession - Gary Gygax was clearly an avid enthusiast of European medieval history.  Gygax’s own Greyhawk setting also showed direct feudal Europe inspiration – Perrenland is clearly Switzerland, and Veluna looks to be based on the Papal States.

I'll have a double Saucy Tart with a dash of Haughty Courtesan please barman!

Europe in the Middle Ages was a brutal place, cities were vile, rat-infested places, the general populace were uneducated and impoverished.  Society was very superstitious and extremely intolerant of anything ‘different’ – resulting in religious persecution, genocide, mass public executions, civil war, and so on. AD&D (and the Greyhawk setting) reflected that.  Various races did not get on with each other, certain states are at war, others are brought down by human frailties, and there are frequent clashes between devotees of various opposing faiths. It is a constant fight between clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is a grittiness to 1E and to Greyhawk, and beneath the layers of monsters and magic there’s that basis in historical fact.

 Nobody really likes Half Orcs - quite right too, the smelly beasts!

As a child, the 1st fantasy novel I read was The Hobbit. Tolkien also drew on similar inspiration – the technology of his world is very much of the early medieval era, most racial groups are portrayed as being wary of ‘foreigners’, and his world is also very brutal.

So, in my early teens, ‘Fantasy’ meant a medieval setting with magic and monsters.  I had no interest in the sci-fi that enthused many of my peers, and the modern day was just plain dull, no, when I retreated into my gaming world it was also back in time to an era of swords, chainmail, brave knights, and damsels in distress.

Towards the end of the 80s Forgotten Realms became popular, then the likes of Spelljammer (D&D in Space!), Planescape, and onto the techno-magic of Eberron.  Over the next few decades it appeared that the historical grounding was being forced out - the game was becoming more 'fantastical'.  Classes were opened up to more races, traditional racial enmities were quietly left to wither and die, as it seems the game attempted to incorporate more modern societal norms in its play*.  Gone was Gygax’s colourful, lengthy, often difficult prose – in its place were more direct rulebooks written in a more basic and mechanical style.  The game was no longer imparting its ‘feel’ on its players, it had become more of a framework around which DMs and Players could build their own definition of ‘Fantasy’ - for better or for worse.
But mine will also be that gritty, medieval, somewhat historical fantasy of the 1st Edition.

A time before cupcakes existed. And the USA.  And Reddit.

·         * something I’m planning to write on soon.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Analysing the Feedback

There were several reasons why I asked my players what they thought of the modules we had played thus far.  Of course, part of it was to gain tangible feedback on how I had DMed them, but also, I wanted to gain an insight into the style of game that each individual player enjoys.  The modules I have selected thus far have been very different in their approach, some have had very focussed plots, others have been weird and wacky, and others have had a more sandboxy approach.  We've had claustrophobic combat in cramped tunnels, wilderness skirmishes, and several very large battles.  In short, I've thrown the whole gamut of gaming at them in the last year or so.

Some of the feedback was quite predictable, but there were several surprises.

The first of the group to fill in his rankings was Jordan.  In play he is the one who seems to get most engrossed in a *story*, preferring a defined direction rather than the freedom of sandbox play. His top 3:

1st Castle Amber
2nd The Gauntlet
3rd equal The Sentinel
3rd equal The Village of Hommlet

Castle Amber featured highly for 3/4 players, so I will discuss that separately.  Of the others, Jordan was the only one to placed The Sentinel and The Gauntlet in the top 3. I believe this is because they have a strong plot that ties the 2 adventures together.  Crucially too their plot is self-contained - it starts with The Sentinel, ends with The Gauntlet, and has little or no impact on the rest of the world.  This means it is a very focussed and compact storyline.  Jordan was the most critical of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, feeling that it was *too* big. Of course, that adventure is a massive sandbox, with only a loose structure laid down representing the enemy motives.

James was the second player to send me his opinions.  He is the youngest member of the group, and revels in comical situations, the dafter the better.  Killing monsters is very much a secondary concern.  And his top 3:

1st Castle Amber
2nd Beyond the Crystal Cave
3rd Temple of Death

The key outlier in his rankings was placing Beyond the Crystal Cave as high as 2nd place.  This is a whimsical scenario with minimal combat, set in a fairytale garden inhabited by Leprechauns, Pixies and Satyrs.  We played it in a single session of about 6 hours, so it was a brief and highly light-hearted interlude, with some amusing (and somewhat risque) moments.  This adventure suited James perfectly. Also quite telling was his placing of the gritty, cerebral Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan down at number 11.

Ritchie was the third of the group to voice his opinions.  A little older than both Jordan and James, he seems to enjoy a fairly direct game, with a leaning towards a combination of puzzle solving and the darker side of fantasy. In his feedback he mentioned it took him a while to adjust to 1E, but has enjoyed it more as his familiarity with it increases. His top 3:

1st Castle Amber
2nd Master of the Desert Nomads
3rd Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

His top 2 were played using 5E rules so that fits in with the rule familiarity issue.  Master of the Desert Nomads is quite heavily scripted in places, and ends at an Abbey occupied by semi-undead Monks - this gave us a highly memorable session of play, and was very much in the vein of the aforementioned 'dark fantasy'. Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is also dark and atmospheric, packed with puzzles, and forces the party to hurry and think quickly.

Finally, Bryan gave me his verdicts, which differed quite wildly from those of the other players.  Bryan invests himself more heavily into his characters, creates rich backgrounds for them, and likes a module's story to be tweaked so as to make it feel relevant for the PCs.  He would probably most enjoy a homebrewed campaign in which the DM wrote material for the group between sessions, based on what occurred in the preceding sessions. His votes:

1st Master of the Desert Nomads
2nd Temple of Death
3rd Eye of the Serpent

With his top 2, I did develop some of the encounters so as to challenge the party members specifically.  I added Bryan's character's brother to the roster at the Temple for example, and the desert Dervishes interrogated his character over his faith. These embellishments clearly appealed to him!  Eye of the Serpent provides a realistic wilderness environment with very little story, but a lot of freedom.  He was the only one to really criticise Castle Amber, saying that Stephen Amber's Tomb felt rushed, as if it was tacked on in a hurry.  I agree with him there.

So, 4 very different players.  None of them are powergamers, none of them are overly tactical in their play, none of them are rules lawyers - for those 3 factors I am very thankful.  But they do have differing playstyles, and mostly they enjoy different types of adventure, and that's the challenge for me as the campaign progresses.  I need to personalise the experience for Bryan, ensure there are puzzles for Ritchie, inject some daftness for James, and ensure rich but logical plots for Jordan....

So why did Castle Amber do so bloody well in the vote?  Well, first we need to examine the material itself.  The module does not have much logic, the Chateau's layout is clearly designed for fun at the expense of any sense of realism, and has a number of monsters living in very close proximity to each other... clearly my players don't care about that.  This is quite an old-school mindset.  The adventure is very much location based - there are very few big 'events', and it gives the party a lot of freedom to roam within the Chateau at their own pace.  Many of these encounter locations lack any real logic, but much of the fantasy manages to be very dark as well as whimsical - a ghostly feast, character possession, hallucinations and the like, combined with traditional trolls under bridges ! There also are a lot of NPCs, each with no more than a few lines of text giving their personality and motives, so it is left up the DM to embellish these.

So I did.  I gave them silly French accents, played up the cross-dressing Ogre, added songs (in French), and tried to inject a real sense of fun.  The module inspired me, which in turn made for a great game.

DMing Castle Amber was hard work, it wore me out, and I was glad when it was all over.  But it was worth it.

(but yes, the module is a bit too long, and Stephen Amber's tomb is crap in comparison with the rest of it)

Monday, 10 July 2017

Player Feedback, and a little experiment...

It's a tricky job being a DM.  You need to know the rules of the game to a decent level, you need to know the adventure material in details, you need to be able to think on your feet, and improvise and adapt when the players do things that are wholly unexpected, while hiding the fact that you are desperately calculating possible outcomes in your head, sometimes panicking inside.  Above all though, you need to keep the players happy while also enjoying the game yourself.  And players are strange animals, they come in all shapes and sizes, with differing wants and needs.

So, in an effort to better understand my group, and to give me yet another opportunity to waffle on here about my favourite subject of modules, I asked each of the 4 players in my group to rank the modules we have played thus far in order.  This has a tangible benefit for me in that I can see where I did stuff right, where I possibly screwed up, but most importantly it gives me insight into the type of game that they want to play.

I gave them each a list of the 12 modules we have played as a group:

L2  - The Assassins Knot - we played this as part of a 5E campaign.  I butchered the setting, and dropped the NPCs into a city applicable to the game were running, while keeping the plot and motives consistent with the original module.

X2 - Castle Amber - The 2nd of my 5E conversions, played almost identically to the original, with lovingly converted monsters and NPCs - that was hard work!

X4/X5 - Master of the Desert Nomads/Temple of Death - 2 more 5E conversions, though I adjusted parts of these to tie them into the backstories of a couple of the party PCs.  The campaign was effectively ended with an epic battle in the Temple itself in which all bar one of the PCs died.

UK5 - The Eye of the Serpent - the opening adventure of our 1st edition AD&D campaign, which I've followed up with:

T1 - The Village of Hommlet

UK2 - The Sentinel

UK4 - When A Star Falls

UK3 - The Gauntlet

UK1 - Beyond the Crystal Cave

I1 - Dwellers of the Forbidden City

C1 - Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan


What should be borne in mind first and foremost is that none of the adventures yet played are bad ones, I have only chosen modules that have some considerable merit, be that in terms of their scope, their plot and/or atmosphere, or maybe just ambition.  TSR produced a lot of duff adventures, mostly in the mid-late 1980s - I have avoided those - yeah I'm looking squarely at you The Forest Oracle, and as for you Dragonlance saga, you can shove your heavy handed railroad squarely where the sun don't shine.  So if the adventure is placed low here, it's akin to a sports-car poll in which a Fiesta ST comes 10th of 10, as it is pitted up against cars from Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini....

12th place - UK5 - The Eye of the Serpent.  This result was not unexpected, as it's quite forgettable.  It's not bad, just a little bland.  See my detailed review

11th place - L2 - The Assassins Knot.  Playing it with 5E rules was far from ideal - a whodunnit doesn't work quite so well with 5E's Insight skill and Detect Thoughts both being spammable!

10th - UK3 - The Gauntlet.  Whaaaaaaaaattt!

9th - UK4 - When A Star Falls.  You fools.  Whose stupid idea was it to allow players to have opinions?  Review here

8th - UK2 - The Sentinel.  Gobsmacked this one finished above its more superior siblings UK3 and UK4. Review!

7th - I1 - Dwellers of the Forbidden City.  I expected this to be around here, most placed it towards the middle with just 1 dissenter.

6th - C1 - Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. As I1.

5th - UK1 - Beyond the Crystal Cave.  1 player *loved* this.  The player who would probably have disliked it was away for the session in which we played it.

4th - T1 - Village of Hommlet.  An expected result, as this has had an enduring impact on our 1E campaign.  My Review tells you why...

3rd - X5 - The Temple of Death.  Slightly confused by this, I thought my conversion was messy, and it all ended with that near TPK.  Nought as strange as folk - apart from RPG players - who are even stranger!

2nd - X4 - Master of the Desert Nomads.  No surprise. This converted really well to 5E, and the set piece nature of the battles worked well with that system.

1st - X2 - Castle Amber.  3 out of 4 players rated this as #1, but was that down to the adventure itself, or was it down to my DMing?  You'll have to wait to see the analysis.... coming soon....

Best laid plans...

With Oasis of the White Palm now complete, and the party restored and intact, we now enter a short break due to outside committments.  This is time for me, as DM to think, and reflect.  I've been sticking very closely to the 1E rules on experience, awarding according to loot found with in the modules, and requiring the traditional payment for training, but this has brought about a problem.  And that problem - Tracy Hickman.  Hickman wrote some excellent adventures - at least he did before he inflicted the Dragonlance series on the gaming fraternity.  These adventures had finely crafted settings, intricate plots, and compelling NPCs - they were hard work for the DM on occasion, but worth the effort as the end result was usually excellent. But now, deep into the epic Desert of Desolation series, we have hit a problem for the second time.  Hickman didn't give a shit about sticking to accepted levels of experience and loot.  Pharaoh was fairly light on monetary treasure, and Oasis of the White Palm has been lighter still.  The final episode of the series has barely any.  If my players' characters are to achieve the levels needed to continue the sequence of modules I have planned for them they need to be considerably richer. Of course I could ignore it, and simply require them to sell some magic items (again!) in order to gain more experience and train, but they've already had to do that once, and is that really fun?

So what is the solution?

The summer holidays are here, I have some time on my hands.... so there will be an interlude, let's label it I4.5, and the title - On the Trail of Thurnas.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Last Session Recap

With it being 3 weeks since our last D&D game, here's a quick refresh of the people the party met, information they learned, and areas they explored:

Sheikh Kassim Arslan - seems to be a man of his word, with a firm but fair approach to leading his people

Hassan Arslan - heir to the 'throne' and the older of 2 twins

Korus Eikoth - younger of the 2 twins, seems to be embroiled in something dodgy (though the Sheikh would not accept this).  Treats his slave girl Kerina poorly.  Often hangs around by the Obelisk at night - Tarrin saw him enter a secret doorway into the Obelisk itself.

Nadron - High Priest of Anu - looks to be devoted to his faith and hates the mere thought of the Cultists

Thurnas Netmaster - current head of the Sandvoyagers' Guild - involved in dodgy dealings regarding Slaves and has been fiddling the accounts.

Tolnus Granicus - former head of the Sandvoyagers' Guild - was kidnapped and held in an undergound complex beneath the Guild. He mentioned a deal between Thurnas's Slavers and the Cultists to kidnap Shadalah, but that she disappeared before the Slavers could reach her.  Each side blames the other. Tolnus believes the Efreeti has her holed up at a place called the 'Crypt of Badr Al-Mosak'

Corga the Water Bearer - cultist priest - currently buried up to his neck in sand

Hogan Underwood - Halfling owner of town pub

Rose Underwood - Hogan's daughter

Rolando the Minstrel - knows the details of Martek's prophecy

You fought your way through the Sandvoyagers' Guild and headed down in the complex beneath the guildhouse. There you encountered creatures that you previously believed existed only in the nightmares of elves - Drow! 

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Insane in the Brain

With Ritchie unavailable this Friday, it's time for something completely different...

A Call of Cthulhu one shot!  This will be my 1st time ever running the game, and for 2 of the 3 players, their 1st time playing it too.  For that reason I'll be keeping it as simple as possible.

I hear they are reserving 3 beds at the Asylum already....

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Oasis of the White Palm Background Info

Approaching the Oasis you were intercepted by a group of Symbayan Airlancers and led directly to the Sheikh himself, a richly dressed and imposing man seating on fine pillows, and attended by 2 slave girls. You showed him the medallion you had been given by the dying soldier, and Zach regaled him with tales of your heroic deeds. He quickly mellowed, and shared with you his sorry tale:

"Seven Suns ago, Shadalah, a young noblewoman from our tribe was betrothed to my first-born son Hassan.  She was the chosen bride because she had on the palm of her hand the sacred symbol.  After their betrothal a 3-day feast began.

"Yet the place was set and no man knew the time.  May Anu guide us!  Word came by runner that the army was needed to fight an Evil Efreeti in the north. The warriors departed at once.  On the following night Princess Shadalah disappeared.  The marks in the sand outside her tent told of her struggle.  The trail ended just north of our camp.

"Our warriors have struggled to hold the Evil One and his army at bay. They have kept us safe until now - but their absence has weakened my position here and made my enemies bold. I believe that my enemies in the camp, whoever they may be, have Hassan's bride.

"I wish you to help us recover Shadalah, the beloved bride of my first-born son.  My second son, Korus Elkoth, will aid you if you wish.  And if you find her, then the wealth of my tent and the friendship and service of my kingdom shall be yours."

At this point he handed you a solid gold medallion with an arcane symbol engraved on it.

Meeting Sheikh Kassim Arslan

The Amulet

On leaving the tent, Sothal, one of the slave girls pulled you all to one side and told you she was fearful for the Sheikh's safety, and that she believes some of his own guards wish to kill him if he leaves his tent to search for Shadalah himself.  She also mentioned that the manager of the Sandvoyager's Guild warehouse has disappeared, and is possible a victim of foul play.  He has not been seen for weeks, maybe months.  Worryingly, she mentioned people in the camp might be returning to worshipping the old idols.

You then went exploring the walled compound, where you met Nadron, High Priest of Anu, who carried out a service to restore life to Tarrin's broken corpse.

He affirmed to you his loyalty to the Sheikh and Anu, and mentioned his fanatical hatred of Thune worshippers.  He then spoke of the symbol on Shadalah's hand, mentioning that it is an ancient tradition, and that only one woman can ever bear it at any one time.  Some say the symbol gives the bearer great power over evil, but he believes that to be mere superstition, and that it is simply tradition.

"Shadalah must be alive, as the symbol has not returned to his altar."

"The Sheikh believes the Oasis was once the tribe's ancestral home because of writings found inside the old temple within the compound, these read The place is set, but no man knows the time"

He is more than a little unhappy that the Sheikh should believe in such sayings, as they were the words of idol worshippers, but he keeps quiet about that.

He also explained the purpose of the sacred White Palm, and how dates from the tree grow into fully fledged palm trees within a week.  "If the White Palm is harmed in any way, Anu will be angry."

Fantasy Cupcakes

While browsing the cesspit that is Reddit I stumbled upon a thread in one of the D&D subs where some people were discussing cupcakes. Up...