Monday, October 30, 2023

Tricks of Successful Domain Level Play

Justin Alexander at the Alexandrian blog has had a similar line of thought to myself in reaction to the news that WotC is planning to drop some domain-level play rules for 5E (or One D&D, or whatever). 

And it seems from the comments of Justin's blog that a lot of people don't really conceive of how to run that stage of the game. Justin himself seems to get it, but the focus of his post isn't on how to manage that tier of play, so he doesn't really get into it. 

I haven't run a domain level game for a long time, but I still remember the things my friends and I did that made it work for us. Even as kids, with little real experience or expertise about politics or war or project management, we were able to understand the rules and make them work for us. 

So first of all, my advice to anyone wanting to run a domain level game, or transition their normal game to domain level play when the PCs get more powerful, would be to get the Mentzer Companion Set, or a game like Adventurer Conquerer King that goes into actual rules and systems for this sort of thing. I'm not that familiar with ACKS, but I am with Mentzer's Companion rules (with some extra useful bits in the Masters Set, also most of it is compiled in the Rules Cyclopedia). 

Or, pick up Chanbara. I've got a version of domain management rules in there! 

I'm sure there are other games with rules for setting up domains and managing them. Find one you like. It doesn't really matter which one. Or make up your own. It's just useful to have some solid rules for determining the size of a barony, its population, resources, etc. And then rules for how well you're managing it over time. This is one of the areas where I find BECMI superior to AD&D, as AD&D seems to default to just giving you some passive income and the DM figures out the rest on their own. 

Next, several commenters over at the Alexandrian seemed mystified about how to have the party remain a party at high level. 

Here's the trick. They mostly don't. 

Sometimes, there's a quest or a threat that requires them to band together. That's a typical session or adventure, only scaled to high level PCs. But they're rare at this level. That doesn't mean you have to slow down the schedule of actual sessions of play. It just means that more time passes between quests or adventures. You are keeping STRICT TIME RECORDS aren't you? This is exactly the sort of thing those time records are for. How long will it take the Lord to train up the new recruits? How long will the Wizard be out of the action crafting a new staff of power? What resources does the thieves' guild have on hand to assist the Master Thief? 

Most of the time, the DM will be meeting with players separately to manage domains, or else devoting a segment of each session to domain upkeep and management with each player before getting to the adventures. Sometimes, an entire game session may just be this domain management. That's OK. Handle the management this session, then have some epic quest or killer dungeon to tackle the next. 

In fact, these days, with easy shared internet resources like a wiki or Discord server, it should be pretty easy to manage each player's domain online between meetup sessions, saving the weekly get-together for more action packed adventuring.

Also, again, read the Companion Set rules carefully (hopefully other rules systems will suggest the same). The PCs don't all have to set up independent strongholds. High level Fighters can become lords with their own castles, but one could be the "landholder" while the others are "wandering" and become the Knights in service to the Baron, and the Paladins and Avengers could serve the Baron and/or the party's Patriarch (if alignments match). Each of these wandering Fighters may have an estate (small castle/tower/outpost) that supports the main landholder Fighter's castle. The Patriarch's stronghold could be part of the Baron's castle, or another satellite stronghold within the barony. Maybe the walled town within the barony is ruled over by one of these other PCs already mentioned, or by the Master Thief of the party. Or the Thieves' Guild may be based in the main barony castle's dungeons. And the Wizard may set up a tower within the barony, or may be the baron's Magist with a tower in the main castle to do their research from. 

This way, the players are all invested in the fate of that one barony, and are working together to grow it into a County or Duchy (with the other PCs as barons, earls, knights, etc. under the "leader" PC), maybe eventually a kingdom or even empire. 

And of course, if the players each want to have their own independent fiefdoms, that's fine, too. It will just involve more solo or small group play to manage each one of these areas, as mentioned above. And when a threat arises in one of the domains, like a dragon awakening from centuries of slumber or a necromancer's undead army invasion, it's only natural that the ruler of that particular domain calls in their old friends to help manage it.

Finally, as DM, you need to shift your focus for running the game. There needs to be less of an emphasis on dungeon crawling for the sake of dungeon crawling -- although that will still happen, because in my experience, the income from taxes won't cover expenses, and PCs will want to supplement their domain's treasury from their adventuring earnings. 

There needs to be a focus on the politics of the land. Dealing with the despot king, or land-grabs by hostile neighboring rulers. Monsters or humanoid hordes invading. Peasant revolts. Diplomacy. Finding NPC specialists to hire (the Companion Set again has a great list of retainers needed by a fief, including salaries they typically require, in addition to those in the Expert Set). Dealing with natural and unnatural disasters (which the Companion Set suggests how to deal with, although this isn't as fleshed out as it could be).

But it's not all defensive actions. Players will most likely want to use their own armies (again, the mercenary costs aren't just there for a way to drain funds from PCs) to expand their territory. The Companion Set has the War Machine mass combat rules, but AD&D's Battlesystem or Chainmail can also be used, or some other set of mass combat rules. 

My friends and I had a great time with all of this stuff. It didn't supplant more typical adventures. We still had plenty of those. But as I mentioned above, there was more down time between adventures, and we found ways to mix in the domain management with the adventures for that tier of play. And we also would often roll up new, low level characters to get some dungeoneering or hex-ploration gaming in.

Also, remember, the Domain Game can be the end game, but it doesn't have to be. Again, the Companion Set suggests ways for PCs to continue to be murderhobos wandering adventurers at high level. It's just that instead of focusing on Dungeons of the Week or hex crawl exploration, you're more likely to be enticing the players into epic quests for artifacts or planar exploration, or whatever. But that's a topic for another post. 

If you want to play the Domain Game, it can be really fun and rewarding, but both the players and the DM need to shift their conception of what the game is for it to work.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Don't let the limits of tournament play limit your campaign

Riffing off of my last post, I was thinking of how the "module" as presented by TSR, Judges Guild, and others back in the day has had an overall negative influence on the game. This is not a new observation, by any means, but it's what's on my mind. 

As mentioned in the last post, most modules focus on dungeon delves (at all levels of play), with some wilderness exploration/sandbox modules and a fair number of epic quests for artifacts for higher level play, but very few dedicated to city/social adventures, domain level play, or planar excursions. The rules suggest that the development of players' skill should develop from dungeoneering out to wilderness exploration, then to domain management/war gaming mixed with RPGing, then on to the epic quests and planar exploration. But the examples of play provided by the vast majority of modules are maybe a bit of town play or wilderness exploration as a prelude to the dungeon, if it's not just the dungeon itself. 

There's a good reason for tournament play to focus on the dungeon. If you're going to have many groups of players competing, it makes a lot of sense to just run everyone through the same dungeon. Other types of play are much harder to compare. And scoring is easy. How many monsters were defeated? How much treasure was found? How many traps avoided? 

It's a lot like in teaching. Often, the most effective ways to teach students are the hardest to fairly measure with a test. So we get teachers teaching to the test, rather than trying to inspire and motivate their students to become independent learners. We focus on grammar and memorizing facts and formulaic mathematical calculations rather than inspiring the minds of our students. Well, I try to inspire my students as much as possible. I think I do a pretty good job of it. But many teachers don't. 

Many DMs are similar. They look at the rules, and read over the ideas of what the game could be. Then they look at modules produced by TSR or WotC (or others) and see it's just dungeons all the way down. Not that there's anything wrong with dungeoneering (and I totally read that in a Seinfeld voice as I typed it, although that wasn't my intention when I started writing it). But it does limit the game, and the appeal of the game, if it's only ever dungeon of the week play. 

I tried all sorts of odd adventures when I was young. I'd get a crazy idea from a book, movie, TV show (especially Saturday morning cartoons), Nintendo game, or whatever, and modify it into a gameable situation. And the only modules I  had back then were Isle of Dread and Crash on Volturnus for Star Frontiers. I had alternate realities, dream worlds, other planar pocket dimension dungeons, weird quests for not overly high level adventurers, etc. And we all dove into the domain game once we had enough high level characters and the Companion Set to guide us.

Was it consistent world-building? Hell no. There was often no rhyme or reason. But I did explore many facets of game play. But as I got older, and was exposed to more modules, my play design did shift. It wasn't something I consciously decided to do, it just sort of happened. My designs for adventures shifted. Even my current campaign has a relatively realistic area map, with relatively mundane (by fantasy adventure standards) dungeons. There is a room in my micro-megadungeon that has portals to odd places, but the party hasn't found it yet. 

I need to start adding some more things like that into the game. Get back the vibe of freedom and creativity I had when I was younger. Shake off the yolk of "module" design and just have some fun with things. Get a bit more wild and wahoo with the game. And encourage others to do the same. And that doesn't mean to throw out consistency in the world, or realism to balance out the fantasy. It's just that my designs for many years now have been a bit too "realism" based rather than just letting my imagination run wild. I need a bit more of that creative chaos in my games.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Tiers of Play, Repetitive Modules

Despite the way a lot of people view Frank Mentzer's Basic Set for its hand-holding tone directed at 10 year olds, I've said it many times that as an 11 year old with little experience in fantasy gaming other than Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and Endless Quest books, that tone was just what I needed to get me into the game for life. 

There's also something to be said about how the box sets of BECMI break down the tiers of play. 

Start out with dungeons. Clear premise (monsters and treasure in dangerous ruins). Focused game play.

Expand to wilderness and town adventures after you've gotten used to dungeoneering. Explore the world, go on quests, become more powerful.

Once you've gotten enough dungeon/wilderness exploration done, you build a stronghold and become a ruler. Deal with political factions and grow your power even more.

There are also epic quests to go on, including to the other planes of existence or searching for extremely powerful artifacts. 

Get powerful enough, you might challenge yourself to become one of the deities. 

Become a deity, do god stuff. Maybe decide to become a mortal and do it all again? 


But despite this obvious progression, there really are some holes in published modules, aren't there? Plenty of dungeons at all levels. Lots of wilderness adventures for low to mid level. A good number of epic quests for artifacts for high levels. 

But not so many town/city adventures. Very few domain game modules (CM1 Test of the Warlords is the only one that springs to mind, outside of the Birthright AD&D stuff). And not a lot of planar adventures. And a lot of the planar adventures are either a brief jaunt into another plane, or a trip to an alternate Prime Plane. Not a lot on the elemental planes, astral plane, or most outer planes. Just lots and lots of dungeons. 

It's no wonder the people at WotC decided to focus all their efforts on games of never-ending but progressively harder (but not really because you level up with them) dungeon adventures.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Mundane-scape: Planar gaming advice is hard to give

 I've been slowly working my way through TSR advice on planar gaming. 

Mentzer's Companion Set has some rudimentary, but functional, advice on the Ether and Elemental planes. There's not a lot to go on there, but as a kid, I felt it was enough that I could riff off of for planar adventures. 

The Mentzer Master Set, however, gives some information on Immortals and Artifacts, and adds to the planar monster roster, but doesn't actually give much good advice about the Outer Planes (something advertised in the Companion Set). As such, as a kid reading these books I always felt a bit hesitant to do much with the Outer Planes. I was familiar with the Great Wheel of AD&D, but Mentzer suggested a different type of Outer Planes which intrigued me, but there was never enough stuff for me to really dig into the implications. 

I only acquired the Immortal Set a couple of years ago, and was reading up on the Outer Planes the last two days. Hmm. It definitely sets things up in a more interesting fashion than the Great Wheel, with an infinite number of possible planes, weird planar intersections, and planes hidden behind other planes. But there's too much focus on statistical measurements (how big, how many stars/planets within, how many dimensions, what mix of the five Spheres or the four elements) and not enough examples of what a plane might be like on the inside. And from a straight reading, each one is just a mundane little pocket universe. A limited area of space with stars, planets, etc. within. Maybe those planets are unlike anything in our universe, but they're still planets. No vast infinite plains of blood-soaked land under an ominous orange sky. No paradise of solid clouds. No M.C. Escher-esque mind-bending realms. Or rather, you could have them, but the game implies just lots of Class M planets to explore. 

AD&D is interesting. In the PHB, we get a basic rundown of the planar geography of the Great Wheel. We get a few notes on adventuring in planar realms, plus encounter charts, in the DMG. But not that much. I don't have the Manual of the Planes in hard copy, so I haven't dug into that yet. That's gonna have to wait until I get a bunch of assignments graded, and Halloween costumes finished. But I will. But just from the core books, there's a bit to spur your imagination, but not much. 

Anyway, while I can appreciate the need for all the statistics and discussion of how 3- or 4-dimensional beings interact with 6-dimensional spaces, the Immortal Set is a bit of a let down. AD&D without the MotP is also a let down. 

Why is it so hard to come up with good material for outer planes? Is it just that the game designers didn't want to infringe on DMs' imaginations? But the Great Wheel suggests otherwise. I guess I'll need to find some time to read the MotP, and later get into some 2E Planescape stuff to get a better grasp on what TSR thought planar adventures should be like.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Planescape and the Traveling Circus

Call me an old fuddy duddy all you like, but the majority of my D&D characters (when I get a chance to play rather than DM) are humans. I know that's not the norm these days. The big 5E West Marches game I'm in, with dozens of players and over 100 PCs (players are allowed multiple PCs in different parties) has all sorts of oddball races in it. 

Full disclosure: in that game, I have 5 PCs. A Half-Orc, an Elf, a Genasi, and two Humans. When in Rome...

I'm pretty sure that the emphasis on adding new races to the game started with 2nd Edition AD&D. Sure, there were sections talking about allowing monsters as PCs all the way back in OD&D, but no hard codified rules. I think it was 2E, with all the various settings like Planescape and Spelljammer, Ravenloft and Dark Sun, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk and Birthright, plus plenty of splat-books with demi-human subclasses and new races (yes, in that era BECMI also had the Creature Crucible series that did this as well, and the GAZ series) that heralded the desire by many players to play an oddball race, rather than stick to the Tolkien cannon. 

Oh, and the Drizzt novels. Lots of friends wanted to play a "good Drow" back in the 90s/early 00s. Many people apparently still do.

Now, there's nothing wrong, in my opinion, about a specific setting having a different selection of standard PC races. Doing that sets the tone for that campaign world. But 5E is just sort of ridiculously overblown. It's not because it has so many options, it's because it seems like many DMs just allow all of them by default, rather than crafting a world with the selection that fits. And so we get a traveling circus as the adventuring party. Dragonborn, goliaths, tabaxi, genasi, drow, warforged, and more! Plus there are usually a few humans, dwarves, elves, halflings...

Now, I am running a Star Wars game, and there are tons more alien races that could be selected...but most of the PCs in my campaign are still human! We have one sentient droid (and the player ran an Umbaran in the fancy ball session where battledroids would not be welcome), a Caamasi (player usually can't join us anymore...Hi Tallifer!), and a Fosh (My younger son is now into eagles, instead of bulldogs, so he changed his Bulldogman Jedi into a Fosh birdman Jedi. Give him a break. He's 9, and possibly on the spectrum [I may be as well]. At least now there's a proper species he can pick to represent what he wants.). One player had a Duros pilot, but now plays a human scout. Oh, and one player made a Togruta Kid, but then she hasn't been able to play. There are seven humans, counting the aforementioned scout, although two of those players haven't joined a game session in quite a while so may be out. 

Getting back to D&D, I don't want my standard D&D tavern to look like the Mos Eisley Cantina. I don't want the city to look like the streets of Coruscant. I want them to look more like Lankhmar or Shadizar. Sure, there may be a few places off the beaten path that look more like a Star Wars background, but the standard of the campaigns I prefer is to be more humanocentric, with a few demi-humans for spice.

Anyway, back to Planescape. If I remember right, Spelljammer came out first, so that's probably what really kicked off the desire to make the adventuring party a circus full of weirdos, but I think Planescape really popularized it. At least that's my conception and memory of the 90s gaming mood. 

And there is a new Planescape for 5E coming soon. WotC put out a video promoting it, but I found it kind of laughable. 

I have already mentioned elsewhere (in the comments of noism's blog) that my take-away of the video was that WotC was really hyping the idea of Sigil being a place where angels and devils live side by side...but doing humdrum jobs. The angel, the servant of the gods of Law and Good, an eternal being whose essence is Alignment made physical reality, is a baker? Really? Why? Does it need to pay rent? 

If WotC wants the new Planescape to be a wild, concept bending, mind-expanding experience like the original 2E version apparently was (I never got into it), then they're gonna have to do better than that. 

The circus is already the default for 5E adventuring parties. We've already got Eladrin, Tieflings, Hobgoblins, and Tortles as a normal part of standard vanilla Forgotten Realms/Greyhawk (5E version). Getting to play an oddball species won't have the same effect anymore. It's just the norm.

And having a setting where the Outer Planes are just some weird capitalist style workplace realm but with medieval fantasy bolted on is just...lame. 

I've always struggled with the Outer Planes. Sure, the Great Wheel is a fine concept. But ever since I was a kid, I've had ideas to make Outer Planes like Avalon from Arthurian legends, or based on lyrics from Led Zeppelin songs, Land of the Lost, or otherworldly scenes from B grade horror and sci-fi movies inspiring what I think outer planes should be like, along with all the mythology that inspired the Great Wheel. It's hard to make my desires about what the Outer Planes should be into a reality in my games, but I have tried on occasion.

To quote Baylan Skoll in Asohka, the Outer Planes should be lands "of dreams and nightmares." But not the nightmare of having to get up at 6am every day because it's "time to make the doughnuts." 

We deserve better.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Who Did Worldbuilding Advice Better, TSR or WOTC?

 Recently, there was a comment on JB's excellent B/X Blackrazor blog by Simulated Knave claiming that they found 1E AD&D lacked solid advice for interaction with NPCs outside of combat or for worldbuilding, something that the commenter found that 3E D&D/Pathfinder was better at. 

Now, I've played a bit of PF but it has been many years since, and I never had the books. I've only briefly looked at the PF 2E thing. So maybe the good folks at Paizo went above and beyond with advice for NPC interaction and worldbuilding. But I did play plenty of 3E/3.5 D&D, and I have those books on PDF still to reference. 

WAY back, I did also make this post about how OD&D has more pages of rules for exploration of the game world than for combat within the game system. The sixth post I ever made here. I think that's relevant to the discussion as a bit of context.

Let's examine Simulated Knave's claim. 

Of course, SK, if you're reading this, feel free to comment and let me know if I misunderstood your intent or points you brought up. It's always possible, and I'm open to having my mind changed on this front. 

Also, one last disclaimer. As most regular readers know, I'm a Frank Mentzer edited BECMI kid. That's my go-to D&D set. And Frank did a pretty good job (I feel) giving the budding DM advice on how to build the dungeon, how to build the home town, how to build the world, and how to set up the politics, and how to set up the planes of existence/powers that be/legendary artifacts* of the world all in an easily digestible format that provides just enough advice to get you going on each of these fronts without overwhelming. 

*Having only relatively recently acquired the Immortals Set, and still not having read and digested it thoroughly, I do have to admit that a bit more advice on creating planar adventures could be helpful than what's in the Companion and Masters Sets. 

But the claim by Simulated Knave was about AD&D giving "garbage" advice compared to d20 system games. 

So let's start with d20. 

3E etc. obviously have some simple and direct player facing rules for NPC interactions. There are skills for lying to NPCs, sweet talking with NPCs, trying to see if the NPC is lying to you, and so on. Bluff, Intimidate, Diplomacy, Sense Motive, Perform...are there anymore? Maybe I'm missing one or two. Roll d20+skill bonuses vs a set DC or the NPC's contested roll. 

Sure, it's simple, it's easy to remember, it's in the PHB so players can know the rules. But it doesn't always make sense. I don't care that you've got a +15 bonus to Intimidate, your Barbarian with the +5 greataxe is not going to make the Lich Lord, who commands the army of the dead outside the gate, tremble in his boots. I don't care what you say, or that you rolled a natural 20. Maybe try again after his army has been decimated and you've located his last phylactery. Then you might have a chance.

And yes, I know that d20 has advice to not allow a roll in that sort of situation, but I've seen plenty of players demand things like that over the years. 

What advice or rules does the 3E DMG (I found my 3.0 DMG before the 3.5 one, so I'm referencing that) have for interactions with NPCs outside of combat? 

Two pages on using the Leadership feat to manage sidekicks and cohorts for PCs, including a half page sidebar on animal companions. 

Then we've got a bunch of pages on NPC stat blocks (mostly combat stats). And a big section going over all of the combat rules, procedures, and so on. It's 25 pages long. 

Then there are a few pages on dealing with environmental dangers, which counts as world building advice. 

The next section is on skill and ability checks, so we get detailed rules on how each skill can be used, and example difficulties for them. This includes the various skills for NPC interaction mentioned above, of course. It's a little over 4 pages. Then we're on to saving throws and adjudicating magic. The second part could be considered world building advice. 

Now we get into the dungeon, wilderness, adventure and campaign creation advice. And it covers around 60 pages for all that. But with in that, it's not all world building advice. A lot of it is combat encounter creation advice. Or how to mechanically handle traps. Or dungeon dressing suggestions. Encounter tables. Random town generation. Advice on linking adventures and player goals into a coherent campaign. Not bad stuff, but a lot of it reads as very surface level to me. There are world building tidbits in there, but also a lot of combat encounter (or challenges requiring skill checks) explained, more so than there is advice on crafting a fantasy world. There is world building advice, as I say, but I don't find it as deep as SK seems to. Or maybe the 3.5 DMG or Pathfinder improved on this base. 

There is a section in all of this on running NPCs. Or rather, there's some advice on the stock types of NPCs you might include in an adventure or campaign, and advice on how to use them as allies or opponents. There are some rules for DCs to influence NPC attitudes. Some hirelings you could hire explained. 

After all this, there's the XP and treasure sections, some reference charts, and the index. 

So for NPC interaction, SK claims that 3E/PF provide the following: "What are the odds of sneaking past an NPC? Of stealing from them? Of convincing them of something? Of them knowing some particular fact? Of them existing at all in the particular town?"

3E does do these things. But AD&D gives you all of that, as well. It's different. Instead of giving you the NPC's Perception skill for the player to roll their Stealth score against, AD&D gives you the surprise round and the Thief skills for hiding and moving silently. AD&D has NPC reaction tables. In fact, they're more robust than 3E's. It's got modifiers for racial animosity, for example, in addition to general reaction rolls. How do you decide in AD&D that a particular NPC lives in a particular community or knows a certain thing? Well, that's called making a decision on your own, rather than rolling some dice. 

All of the NPC interaction that SK seems to laud in d20 systems is just a very mechanical functional take on interaction. d20 gives you lots of skills and difficulty numbers to beat, while AD&D gives you actual advice on crafting a medieval fantasy world (granted, a very specifically Gygaxian one) and lets you extrapolate from there how you want your NPCs to interact with the PCs. 

As for world building, I mentioned above that d20 gives you lots of lists of challenge ratings (how hard is it to climb a wooden wall vs a stone one, or how hard is it to pick that lock vs the lock over there), and a lot of surface level dungeon/world dressing. But everything is centered around making some sort of skill roll, saving throw, ability check, or...yes...combat. There's not a lot of fodder for interesting world building and organic, dialogic play. 

AD&D's 1E DMG has tons of pages of charts, lists, and what not to give flavor to the world. It's got lists of gemstones and flowers and their folk belief uses. It's got that random harlot table. 

There are 9 and a half pages near the front of the 1E DMG giving advice on NPC hirelings, retainers, specialists, and so on. Way more detail than 3.0. And yes, much of this is also mechanical. Will your spy complete their mission? How long will it take the sage to research your questions? How will the dwarven mercenary crew react to your Elf trying to hire them? But it's also a lot of extra information on running these NPCs as well. 

Anyway, I'm out of time so I can't dig for more examples right now. But they're there. 

Yes, there are a lot of combat rules in AD&D. There are a lot in 3E. But in my opinion, AD&D gives richer information on all of these things. Sure, it lacks really detailed stronghold development rules. But BECMI has them, so it was never a problem for me. Maybe that's a cop out, but it's true that a lot of gamers I know mixed and matched what they liked from the TSR editions to fill the gaps.