Saturday, January 23, 2016

This Old Module-Ing B5: Horror on the Hill, Building Inspector Edition

Since we've talked about the strong foundations (the "good bones") of B5, it's time to take a trip through the less awesome parts of this project, looking for rot and water damage and black mold and all sorts of junk that your building inspector would throw a conniption over, except here we're less worried about rot and water damage and black mold and more worried about tired tropes and bad design and elements not living up to our expectations. 

Slope & Grade: What's the Yard Like

Putting on my building inspector hat, I quickly identify some problems outside the dungeon itself. Here we go:
  • Common Enemies - This module makes use of some really boring monsters as enemies, ones of the sort that I identify as tropes of "Genre D&D." Goblins. Hobgoblins. Ogres. I'm sick of them. Uninteresting.  
    • Proposed Solution: Make up new monsters to take their place. 
  • Unaccessible Egress - Here's something that really, really bugs me: there's a secret entrance/exit from the "boss area" of the dungeon that the players aren't allowed to find. Per the text: "The characters have no chance to discover this cave." Yuck. There's not even anything notable concealing it, just some vegetation that the dragon flies over. WTF?
    • Proposed Solution: Let the players find this. Just make it very, very obvious that herein lies certain death. Rumors that no one returns from this cave, ever (not even the big badass who tried a few years ago) and maybe even demonstrate a better way in (through the monastery) so the PCs can "get the jump" on the Horror (remember, we're going to de-dragonify and Horror-up the module). 
  • Map Grid? - Yuck. I only like gridded maps for dungeons.
  • That's my kind of witch
    • Proposed Solution: Hexify that map! While we're at it, we might want to expand the scale, too, so that it's over a larger area, making provisions and hirelings and other sorts of bookkeeping stuff more interesting/integral. 
  • The Kindly Witches - Maybe I'm spoiled, but these witches are completely boring to me. They feel less like they belong in my D&D and more like they belong in a Disney film. "Fairy god witches" or something. No thanks. I say "maybe I'm spoiled" because I take as inspiration one of the coolest witches in modern gaming, the one from Doom of Savage Kings by +Harley Stroh. The witch in Doom offers to help the PCs, but only if one of them agrees to marry the ancient, decrepit crone. Great stuff! I want my witches to be more like the creepy ones from folklore (like Harley's) and less like the sort that help you to get to the ball on time. 
    • Proposed Solution: Stroh-ify these crones. They'll probably have a post of their own coming their way.

Faulty Wiring: Problems with the Interior

  • Common Enemies Again - I almost didn't write this out again, but it bears repeating: if you're writing a module that you expect people to spend money on, it behooves you to make things up for them. Do not simply provide them with yet another lair of orcs. That is boring and lazy. No orcs. No goblins. Do something different.
  • Boxcar Doors - Once you're on the railroad, you can't get off. Or, in this case, once you fall down the hobgoblin king's trapdoors in Return of the Jedi fashion, the "chute is... impossible to climb back up... even by a thief who successfully rolls to climb sheer surfaces." This, friends, is a shitty example to set for your players and reinforces the "DM as asshole wannabe-deity" bullshit that really runs against the DM's role as a fair and impartial judge or referee. Not cool, Doug Niles.
    • Proposed Solutions: Take out the "no, you can't do that!" Let the players go back up if they want to. 
  • One-Way Feng Shui - Just like a house, a dungeon should have a flow, and the flow should allow multiple paths through (yes, the cooler name for this is Jacquaying). The aforementioned trap door is the only way to get to the dungeon's second level, which really constricts the flow through the dungeon, and the only way from the second to third level is via an underground river which, you guessed it, the PCs can only use to travel down stream. Each dungeon level allows for pretty cool mobility throughout the level itself, but the movement from level to level is restricted to two few pinch points and only work one way. Couple this with the "you can't get in there" cave that the players "have no chance to discover" and we've restricted flow to... a trickle. 
    • Proposed Solution: We need more ways to get up and down, so we'll add them to the map. We might have to get more creative for the level 2 to level 3, but that's cool. 
    • This one sort of feels like a repeat of Boxcar Doors above, but I think the point of Boxcar Doors is the railroadification of the module and the One-Way Feng Shui is a broader sort of design flaw: the restriction of movement throughout the dungeon.
  • Replaceable Parts - Treasure is awesome and it's really the reason that the players are interested in risking life and limb inside a dungeon. Anyone who pretends otherwise is trying to sell you on a boring game. Sure that can be additional reasons, but the chief reason is always going to be filthy fucking lucre, as it should be. Part of that deal is that the treasure that comes out of a dungeon should be interesting and, for the most part, it is in B5, with one exception: there are way too many magic items and most of those are boring ones. Swords +1, armor +something, potions of inscrutability. Boring. 
  • The dragon is nowhere near this cool
    • Proposed Solution: We'll be spicing things up a bit. No weapon will be a simple plus something, and potions will be more interesting. Scrolls should be unique as well. All of that will make the PCs' hauls more interesting and memorable, justifying their greed. 
  • The Disappointing Dragon - So yes, the game is called Dungeons & Dragons, but I'll be frank: I prefer my dragons to be a little more metaphorical. You know, in the "here be dragons" sense. But this module has an actual dragon, and one that the PCs are funneled toward (see pretty much all of every points above). Now, B5 is one of two B-series modules I can think of that includes an actual dragon, so I guess some folks look to that as a strength of the module. However, we're talking about, again, Dungeons & Dragons, so the inclusion of a dragon really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, and if the big bad Horror (see the previous post) isn't a surprise, it hardly qualifies as a Horror. Further, the esteemed Mr. Niles made some odd choices for this dragon, such as a fairly wonky spell selection (the dragon would have no need for continual light, for instance, and I don't think I'd ever worry about a dragon casting detect magic) and setting the hit points lower than average (22 hps, which is 10 points below the median of 32 hp for a 7 HD creature) but still giving it a high (low) AC (-1; the logic is that it's harder to hit but goes down after fewer hits, I get it). Now, when we take this as the culmination of the railroad that the dungeon has been so far, not allowing the party to make multiple forays into the dungeon (Boxcar Doors, above), it makes sense to "nerf" the dragon a bit. But if we're fixing the other problems of the dungeon, this dragon might become a little too easy. Further, I WANT A GODDAMN HORROR, DAMNIT! Something more Lamentations of the Flame Princess and less "OMG TEH DRAGONZZZ!" 
    • Proposed Solution: You pretty much got it already. Let's give the players something to seriously fear. 
Well, I'm out of steam. Next time, I want to give you a little background on my influences for where this is going. Because we are actually going someplace. This isn't going to be just me picking nits over a module that is over thirty years old. Before I starting the new construction, I wanted to do a little demolition. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

This Old Module-ing B5: The Horror on the Hill; Foundation Edition

A few weeks ago, on +Drink Spin Run - An RPG Talk Show Podcast, we played this neat game I called "This Old Module" with +Stan Shinn & +Nathan Panke of Rogue Comet games (here: http://www.drinkspinrun.com/2016/01/drink-spin-run-s2-e52-this-old-module.html). Not only was this one of the most fun episodes to record (if only +Donn Stroud didn't have this weird hangup about "spoilers" and could contribute), but people seemed to like it, too. I've always liked the idea. I liked it back when I had it the first time in the dawn of this blog (I called it "This Old Module" back then, too), when I talked about how I would update/personalize/improve B2: Keep on the Borderlands and pretty much every time I mention Quasquethierion (my take on B1: In Search of the Unknown's dungeon of Quasqueton).

In the wake of that incredibly fun venture, I've had a lot of folks (most vocally Nathan) say that I need to bring back This Old Module on the blog or do another round on the podcast and "renovate" a single module as a committee. That sounds like fun, sure, but I feel like "redesign by committee" is a bit beyond the scope of the podcast and I'm not sure if it'll be a productive or fun use of the 1-ish hour we have our guest panelists on for.

And so, instead, I'm bringing it back on the blog and talking about module B5: The Horror on the Hill. If you're not familiar with the module, two gents I have immense respect for have already told you pretty much everything you need to know.

I will not be focusing on what they wrote. Those links are for your reference. (I also thought that James Raggi wrote something about this module, but I can't find it. If anyone can point me in that direction, I'll add it to the list.)

I have my reasons for picking B5: The Horror on the Hill, but I'm not going to go into that, either. Instead, I want to treat this like Bob Vila & Norm Abram did on This Old House. 

The Project & Plan

We have a Basic-series adventure module from 1983, written by Douglas Niles. Although its publishing date marks it as a BECMI-era release, since it was released the same year as the Mentzer Red Box (the "B" in BECMI), it was probably designed with Moldvay BX in mind, not that there's really a lot of difference between BX & BECMI (I know, I can catch hell for that remark, but if we're looking at the "BE" in BECMI only, the differences aren't that huge, mostly stylistic). B5 is in many ways an update of B2: Keep on the Borderlands, with many of the additions and "improvements" that TSR -- with this module -- began to introduce across the board. James Maliszewski does a great job calling these out, so I won't waste your time reiterating them. 

For this project, we're looking at accomplishing three things: 
  1. Update the module to D&D 5e while still maintaining the old school feel of the original. It seems to me that double-statting for DCC would be really easy, too, since there are many rules parallels between the two. 
  2. Change the outdated features of what I call "Genre D&D." Things that are readily identifying as "D&D-isms" like standardized monster types (hobgoblins, bugbears, etc.) and swords +1. 
  3. Make the module live up to its title: the HORROR on the HILL. As it stands, the "horror" aspect is a little toothless and, by my estimation at least, fairly uninteresting. We'll be fixing that. 
Many of these changes mean that at times I'll be dispensing with what many (including James) have referred to as "Gygaxian Naturalism" and instead give more of a "fantastic dread" feel. "HORROR on the Hill," remember? 

Why work with B5 at all, though? Why not just start over from scratch? Well, much like Norm & Bob would think about houses, this module has good bones. The foundation that this adventure lays down is very solid and worth building off of and its worth "fixing" the problems that we identify later on in the process. Before we get to punching holes in this thing and tearing down walls, lets look at that foundation and figure out the strengths of this one.

Foundations Are Solid 

Here are the parts that I identify as being the exceptionally solid foundations of the module that we can build up from, working on accomplishing our goals. 
  • Guido's Fort - Bad name, great idea. Guido's Fort gets no detail in the module, which is sort of to its strength. It can be anywhere. Well, anywhere with a huge nearby hill. It's a kind of undefined Keep on the Borderlands, which means you could use that Keep, or you can do what we're going to do: use the B2 Keep as a model and we'll build a Fort that makes sense for the aesthetic that we'll be building later on.
  • The Big-Ass Hill - In order for there to be a thing on which for the titular Horror to be, we have The Hill. The good news is that The Hill is a big cool place with a bunch of monster lairs. Sure, it also has the module's dungeon, but it's nice that there some wilderness to explore on our way to the dungeon.
    • As a side note, we're going to want to play this aspect up. Maybe even to the point of folks at the Fort not knowing that the monastery is the source of the badness going down which, of course, implies badness, another thing to introduce.
  • Hexcrawl Realism - I know that James views this as an extension of the Gygaxian Naturalism that he espouses as a virtue of the module (which, from that point of view, it is), but since I've spent the past 3 years running a hexcrawl game, I tend think of this as a hexcrawl issue. Cutting to chase, it seems like nearly every monster on the wilderness random encounter table has a lair somewhere on the Hill. This tells us an awful lot about the Hill and its environs. 
  • A Nice, Mid-Sized Dungeon - A megadungeon this ain't, but it gives enough space and varied experiences for a really solid bout of exploration. Some of the dungeon features are really cool and somewhat tricky (the looping caverns of level 2, for example), and some are really bad (especially the railroad mechanic of "oh, no! You're suddenly on a lower level and there's no way back!" -- I'm fine with there being a winding path back, but there should be one; this thing needs a proper Jaquaying), but there's variety. We'll be looking at how to build on what's good and fix what's not so awesome. 
Next time, I'll start talking about some of the larger details we're going to change to make the Horror on the Hill a unique and fun modern gaming module. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

More Thoughts on the Lunchtime Game

So, I've had a few more days to think about the idea of a Lunchtime Game and, of course, I've had a few more thoughts about how to run it.

#1 - A Virtual Tabletop is a Must

My favorite is Roll20, but I don't care what you use. No, you don't have to use one, BUT it saves a lot of time when you can show your players something rather than describe it to them. Best is a mixture of both. Further, Roll20 helps automate a number of functions like to-hit rolls and such with the use of macros and character sheets. I'm really just starting to scratch the surface after almost four years of using the service. Realistically, if you're playing for a one hour session (really about 40 minutes of play), the amount of in-VTT prep necessary to fill that session is pretty minimal. Further, if you prep a bunch in advance (say a level of a dungeon) that could be enough prep to last you for a bunch of sessions. One and done, that's my kind of prep.

#2 - Players Need to Be Organized

Most of us are already using social media to organize games, sure, that's a given. Your players' characters should be on social media, too, and we should all have access to them so no one loses anything. Use that crappy part of the afternoon (you know the one) to write up session summaries. Talk smack away from the table. Share your Youtube links to Brad Neely shorts and snippets of MST3K ("Stump Chunkman!"). If the DM has access to advanced features of the VTT like character sheets, make sure they're entered properly. Junk like that. Sure, this stuff helps a normal game immensely, but will help a 40-minute-run-time game even more.

#3 - I Don't Care How You Roll Dice, Just Do It Fast!

Some players prefer to roll their own dice and add things up, some players want to do everything through the VTT to "avoid cheating" (or whatever). Honestly, I don't care. Just do your rolling quickly, know whether you succeeded or failed or what AC you hit or whatever. Don't take up our time looking for your dice, trying to figure out how to properly parse a dice rolling command (Roll20 has a little pop out menu so you can just click the d12 to roll a d12, the d6 to roll a d6, etc, no need to fumble around with "r/ d12" when it's "/r d12," etc.) or looking up a ton of different modifiers and charts and other BS. Always be ready to roll, literally and figuratively.

#4 - Yes, This Is Me, Adam Muszkiewicz, Encouraging DM Prep

Freaking do it. Using something like Roll20 -- as I've said above -- an afternoon coffee break worth of work can be enough to keep a game going for hours. Since you only need 40-ish minutes of game time, this will probably mean that you'll be set for several sessions by just doing a moderate amount of work. I ran an alternate "hey, there aren't enough people for our normal game, so let's play this instead" Dwimmermount game. I prepped for this game once, when I set up the map for the first level, and never had to prep again. Of course, they never found the stairs down to level 2 and that would have been a game changer, but, as far as it went (turns out that +Donn Stroud can be a total baby and can't hang with the "hard mode" BX-style cleric!), I prepped once and d got I think 3 or 4 nights of gaming out of it (about 6-10 hours, somewhere in there).

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Lunchtime Game

The other day, +Mark Donkers asked if I was interested in playing in a lunchtime game, running at hours that I guess most folks have lunch. For me, this was about the time that I normally get to work and get the store ready for business and open, so it was going to be tough for me to do it, but I needed to come in early to do some work (which didn't end up needing to be done), so I signed up. We were scheduled to run for one hour but got a late start due to one guy showing up 15 minutes late (we were able to do some prep stuff during that time, so it didn't feel like a loss) and we finished at a natural break point, which came about 5 minutes before the final bell, so all in all we got about 40 minutes of gaming in. It might not have been a lot, but 40 minutes at the beginning of my day was pretty freaking awesome.

I realized that I could make games like that work awful frequently, particularly on days that I work out of the store that I normally work out of (it would be hard to get the correct amount of privacy at the other store). Short, one-hour game nuggets like this make a lot of sense: let's get straight to the game since we don't have enough time to sit around and bullshit about all of the non-game stuff we normally bullshit about.

Further, a shorter form of game would make more obvious the points where games break down. How long did we take wrestling with that rule? Why did we argue about X thing? How does fiddly process Y work again? By gaming through these things in a smaller format, we have less time to get hung up on minutiae and less time for the experience of getting hung up on them to get lost amidst all the other experiences. The lunchtime game is a sort of game in microcosm; in order to get everything in, the game needs to move fast and places where it doesn't will become more readily apparent and therefore can be dealt with faster.

Even further, forty minutes of playtime is just enough to give me a taste for gaming, but not enough to actually whet my appetite. I'm not going to get to the "oh geez, let's just get this over" part of a session (those don't always happen, but they do happen) because it doesn't have time to occur. By the same token, it would seem like the session ends just as things are starting to get interesting, which should make you anticipate the next session even more!

The more I think about it, the more I think that a lunchtime game should become a regular feature of my gaming future...


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Managing Player Expectations, A Response

First, I've got to say that I love reading +Jens D.'s blog, The Disoriented Ranger, and while I don't always agree with him, I'd say that he gets my wheels turning more often than not. This morning, he posted this thing here [http://the-disoriented-ranger.blogspot.com/2016/01/procontra-has-dm-to-please-his-players.html] and I thought I'd actually reply to something he wrote as a full post for once, rather than just a rambling comment. Oh no, instead you get a rambling blog post. Here goes.

Jens asks the question "Should the DM cater to the whims of his players?" then provides an argument for and against the proposition. While I'm not a big believer in the idea that "the truth lies somewhere between two extremes," I think that the dichotomy that Jens sets up is a false one: neither can a DM completely capitulate to player desires, nor can he completely ignore them. The secret to achieving real balance here is managing player expectations. 

Every player goes into every game with an expectation for what that game will be like. This is why they showed up to the gaming table. Whatever they are expecting, it's what convinced them they should come to this session. 

While some parts of this expectation comes from the game group itself (the oft-cited social aspect of gaming), much of it comes from the game as presented by the DM to the group in general and the player in specific. 

Central to the problem as Jens presents it is when the DM wants to play the game in a very different way from the way the players want to play it. The players want high fantasy and the DM wants low-magic grim & gritty. The DM wants pirates and the players want crusaders. Stuff like that. 

I'm going to come off as a jerk for a minute, but by now I'm sure you're used to it. 

I don't understand how dissonance in the manner that Jens outlines can occur. Seriously. If you didn't want the kind of game the DM is presenting, one of two things failed: either you as a player failed to understand what the DM was going to present as a game (or feigned interest) or the DM failed to manage your expectations for what the game is going to be. While I can't investigate why a player fails to understand anything ever (and am even less able to investigate disingenuous behavior on the part of players), I can talk about how DMs should manage player expectations.

First, the DM needs to know what kind of game he wants to run. Dungeon crawl? Hex crawl? A political game? Fates of nations? Epic quest? Sure, much of this is going to hit the fan when it comes into contact with the players, but the DM should know the tenor of the game he wants to play. For example, when I was coming up with my Iron Coast setting, I knew that I wanted a game about misfit adventurers trying to make their fortunes in a sword & sorcery setting amidst the maneuverings of rival small nations all vying for the crown of the Iron Prince. Thinking about this premise, it becomes pretty easy to sell to my players. 

Key to "selling" a game idea to players and managing their expectations of it is an appeal to the aesthetic(s) that will guide the game. If anyone ever tried to sell me on a game by just saying "hey, we're going to play D&D" I might do it, but I wouldn't be sold on it. There's nothing for me to latch onto here. In fact, this happened recently: a friend was starting up a 5e game and his entire pitch was "Hey, let's play 5e. They published a module I like for it." Everything in that sentence told me why I'm not interested in participating. All I know about the game is that it's vanilla 5e, that it's based on a published adventure and therefore buys into the tropes of Genre D&D (that I can't stand) and that no effort was made to sell me on the game. No statement of what to expect, why the DM liked the adventure, anything to build my expectations about the game except for the really lame stuff that are points against it. Sure, I wanted to hang out with some of the players (and the DM!) because I really like them and love spending a Saturday night with them, but I'd rather not play the game that was presented to me. 

The DM of this game failed to positively manage my expectations. Instead, he let the negative expectations I have about what I'd learned about his planned for a game to outweigh the one positive (the social aspect). 

Not knowing anything about the game now (since I'm not participating), I can't tell you how he could have better managed my expectations and made me want to sit down at that table in specific. Rather, I can tell you that I don't know how this game would be different from any other D&D game (if at all), what the game would feel like (other than it feels like 5e D&D) or what the game would actually be about. And here the about-ness (properly called "intentionality") of the game doesn't have to be super-explicit ("this is a story about x-types-of-character who do y-thing to accomplish z-result" smacks of a scripted railroad), but some sort of hint as to the sorts of things we can expect the characters to be doing is goddamn important. "We're gonna play D&D" doesn't answer any of that.

DMs can mine their players for expectations to help create a consensus for what the game should be like, too. Seriously, you trust these players to come up with interested and inventive solutions to the challenges of the game -- so much so that they entertain you the DM (if you're not entertained by the game, why run it?) -- so why not tap them for the things they're looking for in a game as well? Incorporating these ideas into a game only helps draw your players in more firmly to the aesthetic (creating what we like to call "player buy in" and building expectation). Honestly, this feels like a no-brainer. The sort of Ivory Tower DM-ery where you sit in seclusion planning a game for players who aren't involved in that planning process makes no fucking sense ever

Managing player expectations isn't just for the beginning of a campaign or game, either. Being clear about themes and aesthetics throughout and discussing these things with your players is essential to keeping a game going over time. Because I've been clear about my aesthetic and such with Iron Coast, the game has been running for three years to pretty great success. Metal Gods, although I haven't been a part of it since my son's birth in July, has been going even longer for the same reasons: solid communication about what you can expect out of the game. 

And so, in answer to Jens's question, I choose not to answer. Or rather, that the answer to the question is that the wrong question is being asked. Instead, we should ask "How do we come together at a gaming table to play a game we all agree to enjoy?"