Saturday, September 24, 2022

Starting the campaign with a near TPK

Today was the second game of the new campaign. Last session, the PCs had discovered that the town constable was acting strangely, and were asked to investigate. They discovered that the constable's new lieutenant was an aswang - a shapeshifting creature. 

This session, they followed up a few leads and set out for the desecrated shrine on a map they found among the lieutenant's stuff. Despite hints from me that they could hire men-at-arms, the party just went in on their own. Despite setting off an alarm at the gates of the shrine, they proceeded anyway. Despite the kensei falling in a pit trap and losing half of her hit points (and no healing spells), they pressed on. 

When they found captives tied up in a locked room, there was a little bit of suspicion, but they came to the decision that these were in fact captured farmers from the neighborhood and set them loose. Then when they were about to go through the next door, the "farmers" revealed themselves to be aswang and attacked. [They'd been warned by alarms and set the ambush for the PCs.]

Now we had some unlucky dice rolls. The aswangs (bog standard doppelganger stats, revised description) got surprise on the party. With 4HD and 1d12 damage, and a couple of good rolls, they managed to kill the party wu jen and thief in the surprise round. One of the fighters was wounded. 

Instead of surrendering or retreating, the other party members fought on. They managed to kill one of the aswangs, but then the sohei and kensei and one fighter were killed. The other fighter, a cat hengeyokai, transformed and fled the combat. 

Most of the players have been playing in my West Marches game, so they know that old school play can be deadly, and that I'm not pulling punches. The kensei's player had played a bit of WM back when I was still using 5E rules, and she's mostly played 5E since then. She was a bit surprised that nearly everyone died, but took it in stride. She was at least satisfied that her character achieved a noble death in battle. A previous version of her PC in a 5E campaign run by a friend had a less than satisfying end, so this gave her character concept some closure at least! 

I did try to warn them by suggesting multiple times that they hire some men-at-arms. Also, bad luck that they were surprised by the aswang. If the wu jen had not been taken out in the surprise round, he likely would have put two or three of them to sleep, making the encounter manageable without the men-at-arms. Oh well, two of the PCs (wu jen and kensei) were still at 0xp since the players couldn't come last week. And the other three that died didn't have that much collected yet. They can roll up some new PCs and play will continue in two weeks.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Threat Assessment is an Important Part of the Game

Ever since 3E came out, the currently published editions of D&D have included rules for "leveling up" monsters to keep their power level in line with those of the PCs. So instead of graduating from battling kobolds and giant rats to battling bugbears and carrion crawlers, then moving on to trolls and chimeras, and then on to frost giants and purple worms, we instead get just an ever expanding roster of creatures to fight. But it's perfectly possible for a DM to have a war against ever increasingly powerful orcs from level 1 to level 20 of the game, if that's what's desired. 

And this is a problem for more than one reason. For one thing, aside from the ability to now face some creatures that were off limits before, as a player you still feel like you haven't really gained in power. Your character has gotten more bells and whistles. Managing all the special abilities, feats, spells, and magic items takes more time and focus during games. Things slow down because of it. But you still need to wipe out ONE MORE nest of goblins. 

Part of this problem is also that the DM is either too engrossed with their idea of the great goblin war or whatever, or else too limited in imagination to use other types of creatures effectively. They know how kobolds work. Just keep pumping up their hit dice as the players go up in level, and it will all work out fine! Or so they think.

But another problem that people might not consider at first is that this means, to experienced players, that they will never know just how tough an encounter with orcs is going to be. 

I don't hear much bemoaning of "metagaming" these days, say compared to 10 to 15 years ago. Maybe I'm just missing a lot of the community chatter since I'm not really in a lot of RPG discussion social media groups and don't frequent any forums regularly. I do remember people championing this exact phenomenon because it helped to "prevent metagaming." But what it really does is render an important part of player skill irrelevant. 

If players know, from having faced certain types of monsters before, whether earlier in the campaign or from previous campaigns, that helps them with risk-reward assessment. They can gauge the power level of their part, the type and numbers of a group of monsters, and be able to judge easily whether to engage or try to avoid the encounter. Just like the artificialness of "dungeon levels" helps a party decide on their level of risk vs potential reward, knowing the monsters is information that experienced players (and by extension their characters) can use to make decisions. And decisions are the heart of game play. 

Now, if a DM is going to go the 3E and forward path, and try to run level appropriate adventures where the PCs are assumed to a) take on every encounter they come across and b) have a near guaranteed chance to win these encounters until the big bad at the end...which they still have a pretty good chance unless they make some dumb decisions or the dice are just not there for them, well for that DM it probably doesn't matter if the orcs have 1 hit die or 6. The PCs won't encounter the 6HD orcs until they're 8th or 9th level. 

But in an open world game, or a megadungeon, or any other more old school player driven game, knowing the monsters is part of the player skill set that should not be ignored. 

Now, this doesn't mean that there can't be an especially big and tough version of a normal monster, or that DMs should never introduce new monsters to the mix. It's important to shake things up now and then. But really, this works best if the players KNOW most of the regularly encountered creatures. The creatures they don't know will make them act cautiously until they know what they're up against. And really, a good DM should be giving clues when they put in those tougher than normal creatures. 

So, my advice for DMs? Don't scale up weak goober monsters for mid to high level PCs unless there's a solid reason to do so. Telegraph that when you do it. There are plenty of creatures of all challenge levels that can be pulled from 50 years worth of the game. And no matter what system you're running, it's probably not that difficult to convert between rule sets. I've converted plenty of 3E creatures to BECMI stats. And back when I played 3E I converted old school monsters to 3E. It's not that hard. 

[Yes, this post was inspired by an event in one of the the 5E games I play in (via PbP). We ran into an encounter with orcs wearing black chitinous armor. They're a lot tougher than normal orcs, and we're (6th to 7th level) getting our asses handed to us. But the GM DID give us clues that these guys were tougher than normal. I'm not faulting him! He did it right. But the encounter got me thinking about this phenomenon.]

Friday, September 16, 2022

Feeling Confident

Tomorrow, I'm starting up my new TS&R Jade campaign. It's a mixed Asian-inspired fantasy realm. Not faux China like in Flying Swordsmen, not faux Japan like in Chanbara. Just a big old fantasy goulash of Asian history, legends and pop culture tropes. Just like most D&D campaigns mix up all the European (and sometimes Near/Middle-Eastern) historical and legendary tropes. 

Two of the players missed the session 0 two weeks ago. I've been working with them online to roll up their PCs. One of them, Lisa, got the rules document from our Discord channel and was looking over it while we text chatted. We had this exchange: 

Seeing Lisa's reaction, I'm feeling more confident about releasing this rule set (and the TS&R Ruby, which is standard Euro-centric D&D classes that no one really needs if you have any old rules or modern retroclones, but anyway...). 

The TS&R Jade Bestiary and Treasury book is more or less done. Some of the art is placeholder stuff. I cobbled some pictures together with my meager GIMP skills, and they look fairly crappy. Others were low res public domain images, that looked OK on the screen, but when I printed them out looked bad. 

I'd also pared down the monster descriptions in order to fit in art, but now there are plenty of gaps where things just didn't fit the way I expected, so I could go back and expand on some of them to have less white space on the pages. 

Oh, and I've got some space in the magic item description sections for some images, and need to find some good PD sources for items (or again try my GIMP skills to modify them). 

So the Player book is good. I'm happy with it, and at least one person has given me a glowing review. The monster/treasure book is nearly done. I just need to add a few "magic item" images, remove or replace the monster images that make it look amateurish and expand a few monster descriptions that were overly truncated. 

Then I need to totally rewrite the Game Master guidebook. I've got a lot of ideas for how to do it, many based off of recent posts at The Tao of D&D, and some ideas from other blogs or YouTubers (check out an old school YT channel called Bandit's Keep if you haven't yet). 

So for the dozen or so people actually waiting for this, Treasures, Serpents, & Ruins is coming. Soon. Hopefully by the end of the year!

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Session 0

Had Session 0 for the new Asian fantasy campaign today. 

It didn't go off exactly as planned. One player was out because she has a friend visiting this weekend. Another is recovering from covid. 

But we met up and made some PCs for those that could attend. My boys have each made one PC already, both fighters. Flynn's PC is human, Steven's is cat hengeyokai. I asked them to make a back-up PC, and Flynn rolled up a human wu jen. Steve is attached to the idea of his character and refused to roll another. Well, we'll see how things go. 

Justin rolled up a koropokuru yakuza and a human wu jen. 

Nate rolled up a yeongno sohei and a vanara thief. 

It looks like an interesting group already. I had planned to do a little mini adventure after the character creation, but it took a while for Flynn to decide on his wu jen taboos. And we were short two players. So Justin pulled out a card game and we played that. The boys had a lot of fun with it. 

This evening, I called Denis and we talked about the session (and his work on an upcoming Gamma World campaign). He's now thinking of a samurai or noble warlord type PC (probably fighter, but maybe kensei or xia), and a mudang (shaman) of some sort. 

I have no idea what sorts of PCs Lisa might roll up, but she always has a lot of fun and high energy when she plays, so I know they'll add to the campaign. 

I'm going to allow the players to use their PCs as a stable, if they wish, alternating between PCs from session to session if they want. Or they can keep the backup as a spare in case the main PC dies. 

In other news, I think I finally have my next Star Wars d6 adventure idea down. I have an idea for what will follow from the events of the previous session now, but I need some input from the players about what they'd like to do next. Once I have that, I can merge their plans with my plans for the enemies, set up a situation, and then let the players mess it all up!