Monday, October 26, 2015


This post is a bit tongue in cheek, as I realize it doesn't matter, but it's something that came up when I was running my Under the Hillfort Ruins game a couple weeks back (and I'm just getting to blog about it now).

In my game the other night, Jeremy was looking for a character he had already rolled up to play, and grabbed one he had used in Justin's Vaults of Ur game. Dean also had used a character he has used a few times before in different game systems, most memorably to me in Justin's "Panoply Sector" Stars Without Number game. The thing is, in other games both of these PCs had died.

Now, don't get me wrong. I was running a play test. I didn't really care where the PCs had been used before, or if they were "still alive" or not. For a play test, it just isn't an issue. But during the course of play, Jeremy mentioned that his fighter, Danyael, should level up because he already had 1000xp from Ur. I reminded him that Danyael had died in Ur (partially my fault, Thidrek ran away rather than risking paralyzation at the hands of ghouls after Danyael and another PC had gone down). So does the character still get to keep its XP for use in other games after death in one campaign?

It made me think about the whole FLAILSNAILS conventions a bit. I'd considered in the past the fact that anyone could show up to a game with a character at level X, with magic items A, B and C, and who's to know if that PC actually earned that or not? Of course, the FLAILSNAILS Conventions give the DM power to nerf anything egregious in any way they wish (all ability scores are 18 and you have a Staff of Wizardry at level 2? Well, you're suffering from a curse in this realm, and you find the staff is nonfunctional at the moment).

Now, I'm not arguing that there should be a FLAILSNAILS police or anything, but shouldn't what happens to a character actually matter? Even if it's just taking your favorite character to another game as a one-shot, if good things happen you wouldn't ret-con them into not happening. Why should we ignore the bad just because we can?  Is that cheating to just pretend your character didn't die, or didn't lose their best magic sword to a rust monster, or whatever?

Is this cheating? Should it be discouraged?

Or is it a case of "What happens in Greyhawk stays in Greyhawk"?


  1. I think the reason that flail snails works at all is because what is written on your character sheet isn't as important as your actual actions in the game. Unlike in some games, you can comfortably have a b/x party with a level 1 magic user, level 3 fighter and level 5 cleric. So I don't think that cheating is a big issue in terms of game balance.

    I don't like the idea of 'cheating' because it feels like it makes what actually happens in the game, which is kind of the point, matter less. But that's something that I, as a player, care about. If another player doesn't care about that, for whatever reason, then I think that's their business.

  2. Most games have rules. If you are not following the rules then you are not playing that game. If you do not follow the rules for your own benefit then you are cheating.

    You can break the rules for reasons other than cheating. e.g.
    - Teaching. You play D&D with a beginner and their first level character tries to stab the dragon. The dragon kills the character. You explain what happened, talk to them about why they took that action, and roll time back to before the attack.
    - Play testing. You start a D&D game and give a character three magic items that you want tried out and present the character with situations where they could be used. The character has received items outside of the usual method of play and you are also ignoring standard maps and encounter rules to ensure the situations occur to ensure you get the information you need.

    In neither of these cases are you really playing the game. If you want to play the game then you have to follow the rules.

    Players will naturally form a bond with their characters over time, in the same way as someone might always like to use the same piece in Monopoly or play a particular colour in Chequers. They still have to follow the rules though and if you are the referee you have to enforce them.

    The players in your example tried to use dead characters. This is against regular D&D rules and the Flailsnails conventions Article 9. They are cheaters and they sounded you out to see if you were a cheater as well. By letting them into the game you became a cheater as well. It is kind of like a referee allowing a banned player to play in a game of soccer.

    If you were just doing a playtest then of course you can use whatever characters are laying around but you shouldn't use Flailsnails conventions in that case since there is no point, and you should make it clear to the players that this isn't a real game. i.e. they don't get experience points, treasure, etc. Likewise if their character dies it did not 'really' happen. i.e. no permanent changes to their characters can come out of a playtest session.

    It may be that the lack of oversight will encourage players who have leanings towards cheating. The internet based nature of the game may also suit players who have trouble finding a face-to-face group because of that kind of behaviour.

    You can obviously be as lenient or as hard on your players as you like, cutting out the bad stuff and only 'remembering' the good stuff that happens to their characters. I knew that this kind of thing has been discussed ever since the start of D&D so I started trawling through the Dragon Magazine archive to find some advice about it. It only took me up until The Strategic Review #7, April 1976.

    1. You seem to be conflating my hypothetical situation I posed with the actual events that inspired it, regarding who was actually cheating.

      The game I ran was not a FLAILSNAILS game. I wasn't using the conventions, didn't pitch it to the guys as such. The FLAILSNAILS connection is just speculative based on the actual events of the game.

      It was a play test of a module, but we played it as a normal game, with no mulligans or going back to cover something or try something differently. When PCs died, the party went back to town and replacement PCs joined the group. I was testing out the module as it would play in a real game, by playing it straight.

      The players brought characters. I asked them to make 1st level PCs. Dean used an old character concept to make a new PC, starting at 0 xp (the original was a SWN Psychic, this was a LL Magic-User). When one of Jeremy's characters was killed in the second session, he came to the third with a replacement he'd found in an old folder -- the sheet of the PC who had died in Vaults of Ur. Until he mentioned the 1000xp from Ur, I had assumed he'd just used the character concept/name for a new PC he'd rolled up. An "alternate universe" version of the character like Dean had done.

      Anyway, since we had played through the module as a normal type game, the players asked for XP and treasure to be divvied up at the end, in case they wanted to use these characters again in another game (IE, taking them to a FLAILSNAILS game after this first trial game).

      So feel free to label us all as cheaters if you wish. I'm really less concerned with what actually happened in my game and more interested in the hypotheticals of potential abuse that could happen in FLAILSNAILS games.

    2. Thanks for that. I think any time you move characters from one campaign to another there is the potential for abuse and the onus is on the DM to investigate the character and keep control of their campaign. This isn't a new problem, it happened in the past as well with people moving between campaigns. So yeah, it's cheating I think.

      I didn't mean to cast Wall of Text on your blog. I thought the article was useful and interesting in that it was talking about how easily gained rewards are hollow and take the challenge out of the game.

    3. The article was a good read, thanks for that.

      And I don't think that my players felt the rewards they earned in the module were easy. In the first session, the group (3 PCs) were one round away from a TPK but managed to escape alive. In both the second and third sessions, 4 PCs went in, only 2 came back. They also had to solve a lot of tricky puzzles to get what treasure they did, and they didn't get all that there was to find in the dungeon. I think they asked for the treasure and XP at the end because they felt they'd earned it.

  3. D&D Is Only As Good As The DM
    Gary Gygax

    (some text removed)

    Successful play of D & D is a blend of desire, skill and luck. Desire is often initiated by actually participating in a game. It is absolutely a reflection of the referee’s ability to maintain an interesting and challenging game. Skill is a blend of knowledge of the rules and game background as applied to the particular game circumstances favored by the referee. Memory or recall is often a skill function. Luck is the least important of the three, but it is a factor in successful play nonetheless. Using the above criteria it would seem that players who have attained a score or more of levels in their respective campaigns are successful indeed. This is generally quite untrue. Usually such meteoric rise simply reflects an in-competent Dungeonmaster.

    It is often a temptation to the referee to turn his dungeons into a veritable gift shoppe of magical goodies, ripe for plucking by his players. Similarly, by a bit of fudging, outdoor expeditions become trips to the welfare department for heaps of loot. Monsters exist for the slaying of the adventurers — whether of the sort who “guard” treasure, or of the wandering variety. Experience points are heaped upon the undeserving heads of players, levels accumulate like dead leaves in autumn, and if players with standings in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s of levels do not become bored, they typically become filled with an entirely false sense of accomplishment, they are puffed up with hubris. As they have not really earned their standings, and their actual ability has no reflection on their campaign level, they are easily deflated (killed) in a game which demands competence in proportionate measure to players’ levels.

    It is, therefore, time that referees reconsider their judging. First, is magic actually quite scarce in your dungeons? It should be! Likewise, treasures should be proportionate both to the levels of the dungeon and the monsters guarding them. Second, absolute disinterest must be exercised by the Dungeonmaster, and if a favorite player stupidly puts himself into a situation where he is about to be killed, let the dice tell the story and KILL him. ... Third, create personas for the inhabitants of your dungeon — if they are intelligent they would act cleverly to preserve themselves and slay intruding expeditions out to do them in and steal their treasures. The same is true for wandering monsters. Fourth, there should be some high-level, very tricky and clever chaps in the nearest inhabitation to the dungeon, folks who skin adventures out of their wealth just as prospectors were generally fleeced for their gold in the Old West.

  4. Another point to remember is that you should keep a strict account of time. The wizard who spends six months writing scrolls and enchanting items is OUT of the campaign for six months, he cannot play during these six game months, and if the time system is anywhere reflective of the proper scale that means a period of actual time in the neighborhood of three months. That will pretty well eliminate all that sort of foolishness.

    When players no longer have reams of goodies at their fingertips they must use their abilities instead, and as you will have made your dungeons and wildernesses far more difficult and demanding, it will require considerable skill, imagination, and intellectual exercise to actually gain from the course of an adventure. Furthermore, when magic is rare it is valuable, and only if it is scarce will there be real interest in seeking it. When it is difficult to survive, a long process to gain levels, when there are many desired items of magical nature to seek for, then a campaign is interesting and challenging. Think about how much fun it is to have something handed to you on a silver platter — nice once in a while but unappreciated when it becomes common occurrence. This analogy applies to experience and treasure in the D & D campaign.

    It requires no careful study to determine that D & D is aimed at progression which is geared to the approach noted above. There are no monsters to challenge the capabilities of 30th level lords, 40th level patriarchs, and so on. ... It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.

    By requiring players to work for experience, to earn their treasure, means that the opportunity to retain interest will remain. It will also mean that the rules will fit the existing situation, a dragon, balrog, or whatever will be a fearsome challenge rather than a pushover. It is still up to the Dungeonmaster to make the campaign really interesting to his players by adding imaginative touches, through exertion to develop background and detailed data regarding the campaign, and to make certain that there is always something new and exciting to learn about or acquire. It will, however, be an easier task. So if a 33rd level wizard reflects a poorly managed campaign, a continuing mortality rate of 50% per expedition generally reflects over-reaction and likewise a poorly managed campaign. It is unreasonable to place three blue dragons on the first dungeon level, just as unreasonable as it is to allow a 10th level fighter to rampage through the upper levels of a dungeon rousting kobolds and giant rats to gain easy loot and experience. When you tighten up your refereeing be careful not to go too far the other way.

    I hope this helps. Regards,