Monday, September 20, 2010

Another game I'd like to run someday

Scott over at Huge Ruined Pile is going through a very cool thought experiment to create a campaign starting with only the Moldvay 81 Basic Set, B2 Keep on the Borderlands, and the inspirational reading in the back of the book at first, only adding Cook/Marsh Expert (and other resources) when a character reaches 4th level.

It reminded me of this idea my friend Steve came up with that we never got to play. Unfortunately, his company decided to move him back to the States before we got it off the ground, and there went the Ebisu Gaming Group.

Anyway, I don't think Steve will mind me posting this here. It's long, but it's got some good stuff in it.

November 28, 2006
Steven Stewart January Game Day Pitch –starting point
Inspired by Rich Forest/Ben Lehman’s post on the Forge ( under actual play. Loose setting that follows the Rules as Written for Moldvay ’81 Edition of Classic DnD Basic and Expert. The setting will be created in play by both the players and the GM. Primarily inspiration for the setting is based on teasing interesting setting details from the rules themselves. Here is the process that Rich told me from an email from him,
1) establish a core point of reference (D&D Moldvay ’81 or ’83 edition)
2) establish a setting detail (arcane magic = evil)
3) play
4) notice setting detail in play (hey, we've never seen X, or only seen X)
5) search for an explanation.
6) viola, new setting detail! (New point of reference)

Now here is where it starts to get a bit interesting. Based on this process when we start with level 1 characters, it instantly gives the goals of the characters, get lots of loot. However, a big point of difference between DnD and DnD 3.0/3.5 is that most of the rewards “XP’s” is from the actual gold itself, very little from the actual act of killing monsters. Gold = Victory Points.

But wait what if I don’t want to play a tomb raider? Well here is the kicker, like in the post we use the old Judges Guild Rules from First Fantasy Campaign, where you don’t get XP for gold until you spend it, and spend it on non-equipment (i.e. buying a magic sword no, spending money on beautifying your armor that you already have – yes). It will be your choice on how you spend it, and that of course is the context for “victory” in the game. It is also the point where you can start to develop the character in the classic lit sense of character development, what you choose to burn gold for tells the other players at the table a lot about how you see the character.

Following Rich’s example as well the players contribute directly to the setting details, so we will keep a setting log sheet as we play for what gets ratified. Also, what you choose not to play will become just as important as what you choose to play (e.g. in Rich’s game no one played an arcane spellcaster, therefore Arcane spell knowledge is evil).

Now the Creative Agenda can’t be realized except through play, but this is what I am pitching in regards to what our priorities are at the game table. I think the creative agenda for the play of this game could be threefold, but can be summed up by “explore the setting and characters through the system” or “discover who the character is through play rather than explore the situation by an established preordained character”. In case it is not already a given, since this pitch starts with basic DnD the first adventures will start outside the entrance of the Dungeon, all the traveling between towns and stuff is not “in game”. That comes later when we get to expert.

1) At its heart “gamist”, meaning that the fun comes from facing a challenge and overcoming it. The context for victory is of course your (XP = gold). How you measure that “step on up” is upto the players, one might like the creative ad hocing to avoid combats, while others enjoy the strategy challenge of overcoming a foe. The other context for victory in this edition is not just in maximizing character effectiveness (i.e. how you play your character’s skills/feats/powers), but also in how you as a player deal with the challenges through negotiation with the DM. There will be a lot of “ad hoc” negotiation at the table for overcoming obstacles, so the game really revolves around (A) trying to come up with a way to get the gold without putting yourself in danger (B) knowing when gamble on the dice when (A) lets you down.

2) All games are about exploring the shared creative space, but this one I see stressing two aspects – setting and more importantly setting in the context of the rules as written, as well as character development. Basically character creation in Basic DND is a cinch (more on this later) there are three decision points (what class am I playing, what alignment am I, what equipment do I choose to bring with me). So I don’t envision a lot of backstory, basically just one or two sentences for each character as to who they are, and why they are together. Then through the constraints of (A) the rules (B) the fact that you are a “party” (C) the situations they find themselves in and actual play – you create the character personality and development along the way.

3) WARNING: this requires a few things upfront, the most important is that neither the GM nor the players develop an elaborate backstory, or an unbreakable vision regarding who or what they will become. That is not to say that you can ‘t have ideas of what we as players want, but we should be prepared for actual play to alter that outcome. We should stop and discuss when we think this happening and get everyone on the same page before moving on.

So in summary the social reward is overcoming obstacles, and the story itself is formed from these events and give the basic context for victory. There will of course be a lot of “exploration” going on as well, in terms of the setting (asking questions about why is that this way?) and characters (I wonder why “character x likes to spend all his money on wine women and song” and “character B tithes all his money to the church” – what is the common bond between them that keeps them together?).

Personally, I don’t see the above as negative constraints, but rather positive constraints. So point four of the proposed creative agenda is:
4) The reward of coming up with interesting ways to rationalize x to y, and have that make good sense and an interesting story. i.e. don’t see this group working as a “party” as a negative story obstacle, but an opportunity to come up with something cool.

I would propose to use the ’81 Basic DND edition, provided it is available, failing that falling back to the boxed sets of ’83 (which I believe Dennis has). I propose the following for character creation:
(1) Use ad hoc negotiation between player and DM when possible for things outside the rules. If discussion goes on too long, then roll dice. Generally this will be an attribute check according to the rules as written. This part of the fun of the game, the game gives the freedom to do what makes sense. Mostly “roleplaying” rules will be handled by the actual players (i.e. bluff is not a roll of the dice but the player actually trying to come up a reasonable bluff that the NPC will buy). DM will make every attempt to reward creative roleplaying. Ad Hoc may take the form of
saving throws as well as attributes. Remember a saving throw is basic DND is “you should’ve been hosed but this gives a chance of a mulligan” not the “reactive stat” that it is DnD 3.5.
(2) Slight modification on the rules as written. Players can generate 4 sets of 3d6 as per the rules, meaning in order. They can off course use the attribute swap contained within the rules. They take whatever two they want to make a character. We will be using the rerolling 1-2 rules for 1st level hitpoints, so each character will start with a minimum of 3.
(3) Every two levels the character can raise an attribute by one to a maximum of 18. This would mean each player is playing two characters. That means you get an attribute point at 3rd level, 5th level, 7th level, 9th level. Once you reach name level you no longer get the attribute bonus. So over the course of your adventuring career you can get 4 more attribute points.
(4) Use the rules from First Fantasy Campaign, gold is only converted to XP when a character spends it. We will keep track of what (generally you spend it on). What you spend it on will impact some ad hoc interpretations according to the rules (e.g. if you spend it on wine women and fair weather friends, in many social situations you can bring that up, if you spend on it tithing to the church it can show your character is religiously devout). (Eventually in ADnD the training rules would appear, but I like this version a lot better, gives the player a lot more freedom for character development).
(5) Meld the weapon rules, so while we use the (optional) rule for different damage for different weapons (base DnD just used D6 for all weapons), no weapon will be below a D6. This is due to the leathal nature of Basic DnD.
(6) Players may be asked to justify how their actions are in accord with their alignment, but not constrained by that, in the spirit of the gamist agenda, alignment won’t restrict you, but is more an “indicator” of your character. The DM may ask you to change your alignment if they perceive your alignment is not in accord with your actions.
(7) (Note sure about this one) In terms of some NPC interactions, some groups will only speak with a leader, the person in the party with the highest charisma is the automatically the leader.
(8) (Note sure about this one) Intelligence bonus gives you a “secondary skill”. This is some profession that you know like “scholar”, “trapper”, “armorer” or whatever that helps in ad hoc discussions.
(9) When a character dies, (as will happen depending on how much risk you are willing to take), the next character will be based on however much XP already banked the previous character had. Additionally, the DM can choose to give that player an extra roll for hitpoints and take the highest one for that character. For each level, the player writes a sentence or two regarding that character (but no more than that – generally how did they get there and what did they spend their gold on).
(10) Fudge Points – I won’t fudge dice, instead what I will do is put a number of counters in the middle of the table equal to the number of characters. This is a pool for the “party”. Players can spend a fudge point to allow someone to reroll a die during the game (it can be a DM roll or a player roll, any roll whether that is initiative, surprise, morale, damage, to hit, etc.). This doesn’t take the gamble out of the game, but helps take out some of the sting.

(1) For the NPC’s I would suggest using the actual details from the character classes. For example, someone who fought in a war is a veteran,(this also means most lords are name level). I will look up what level a veteran fighter is, and so on. In practice, most dungeons will be “as per the rules for the party level”. That means I will try to pull stuff off the charts that correspond. But please remember that this stuff is all deadly in this game. It is not set up like DnD 3.5 which is based on attrition, in this game a single roll can (and will) kill your character. The nice thing is a character takes about 10-15 minutes to make.
(2) All rolls will be made in the open, this is I trust that everyone can separate themselves outside their character good enough that if you fail your find traps roll you can separate character knowledge from player knowledge. If you don’t think you like that, or it binds the gamist agenda too much into a sim agenda, then I will roll the dice in secret if you wish. But combat roles will be made in the open.
(3) Ratification of setting facts. As much as possible, I would encourage discussion about setting stuff between GM’s and players, and group ratification. I suggest we use the threshold of credibility rule, which basically says everyone has to buy into it. However, also we understand that there are some things the DM is going to have to do in the game to make up the challenges, some of these won’t require ratification (e.g. I’m not going to ask if it is ok to put skeletons in the dungeon, I will just put them there, what we can do is discuss in a group why you think they are there) but some of them will (such as the fact that there is a dungeon here, and the nature of the dungeon itself).
(4) History etc, will be given through NPCs and Books, therefore it is subject to some change as it is a perspective, not cold hard fact (e.g. a priest may have a world creation myth, but an ancient book contains a different one, which one is right? Who knows).
(5) We can take breaks and discuss, at least one break halfway through the day where we go around the table to discuss (A) setting facts (B) things that are bothering a person (C) how we can make things better.
(6) Based on what Pete is saying, I think we can make this a long term game. So we can work it towards expert pretty fast, but I do think we should start at first level. I will do everything I can to advance us quickly through the lower levels (probably by adding 200% treasure to the first dungeons.
I would propose to use following interesting tidbits to build the proto-setting.
(A) Common – everybody speaks it, why? This implies something about the political structure
(B) Strongholds and Namelevel – When a character reaches namelevel they can start to build a castle or stronghold or some type (thieves guild, temple, wizards tower, castle, or demi-human stronghold). This implies something about the social and political structure of the kingdom?
(C) Only humans have clerics, and elves and humans have arcane magic, but humans can’t wear armor and cast spells and use swords, but elves can. (implying at some level something about magic and differences between humans and elves)
(D) Clerics all have the same spell list and have to prove themselves to their god before they receive magic, and have the same taboos, but can be of any alignment. Turning undead is a big part of being a cleric. Clerics can’t use bladed weapons, but are clearly warriors. This implies something about religion, myth, and the church.
(E) There are a lot of unexplored places that have lots of treasure in them (and with the 200% rule for beginning treasure even more so). This implies something as to the history of the world, why are there so many dungeons and such around?.
I think these 5 points can easily build two to three paragraphs of setting material. Again I don’t think we want pages upon pages, just a few facts to start that we ratify as a group. I have some ideas of what these mean, but I want to hear what you guys think first.
Last thing, what kind of dungeon do you guys want? Or do you want that after we are making up the character? By dungeon type I am talking about color, it is an ancient elven tomb, is it an abandoned castle, is it a humanoid stronghold, it is abandoned dwarven mine (moria!), barrows of ancient dead kings, something alien and bizarre that just appeared overnight, a your call. Tell me what you want and that will be the first dungeon and the first bit of established fact that will allow us to riff off into more setting relationships.

Ok, so that is the pitch, I think I have hammered out what the game is about, but maybe not. Interested in (A) do you think this sounds like fun to play out as a group (B) if yes, any specific points that make you go “ugh…I don’t like that or any points that make you go “wow, way cool”

Finally before writing off the system please check out this post and this webpage: especially the bit about thief skills

I think this game pitch is a desire to try and hit everyone’s priorities (note some of these are at the technique level but seem important based on the emails so far) (A) context for victory and winning and an opportunity for winning to be acknowledged (B) opportunity to emphasize exploration of setting and character, more importantly pulling the story out of a single person’s hands and into the group (I think we all liked making up a setting together) (C) context onto which people make their decisions regarding what is most important to them (through how they spend gold for XP) (D) small social frintprint (E) potential for long-term campaign (F) removing the skill roll as a mechanism for determining every outcome (G) Fantasy setting.

Finally if for some reason this is not what the group wants, I would suggest that a similar type of pitch be made by other players with the same level of though into “what is this game”, including as a minimum the type of characters, the emphasis of the game and creative agenda, and the “system” not just the rules but the whole thing about roles of players at the table for the game. I have absolutely no problem if the group says, no I don’t want to play that, I know they aren’t banging on me, but rather saying that particular games doesn’t sound like fun.

I'm not sure if those links of Steve's are active. This was written nearly 4 years ago, and I know Robert Fisher isn't using that old infogami site anymore. The Forge stuff may be long gone as well.


  1. Cool -- this is a blast from the past -- I'm the Rich Forest from that post!

    I like Steve's write up. I'll be looking forward to reading about it if you end up taking a crack at a campaign based on his pitch!

  2. Cool. I never knew. I guess I've got you to thank for playing a part in helping me rediscover the joys of Old School. I was getting burned with d20, and Steve was pushing for a more Forge/Narrativist switch, but then he read about that game of yours, showed it to me, and I thought, hey, I should really take another look at that.

    KillingMachine had never given it up, that was the other big push to go back to Mentzer for me. I knew I had had a lot more fun back then than I was at the time.

    Good to finally put a face (well,your 8th level Elf's face anyway) to the name.

  3. Yeah, it's funny how these things can work. The internet is the gift that keeps on giving.