Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Current Campaigns, Part One: Aquea

So I thought I'd get the ol' content ball rolling with some posts about the current campaigns I run. To start off with I'm going to look at my first ever campaign, Aquea, which is run using Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition rules.

Aquea is an odd campaign because it represents my continuing birthing process as a DM and it is the unfortunate (or fortunate) "victim" of my Edition Identity Crisis that started when I accidentally stumbled upon a site that has the three original, 1974 D&D little brown books. It started sort of accidentally; I had the 4e books, but wasn't sure I was ever going to use them (I had bought 3rd edition and never touched it besides making a character or two for myself for kicks). At some point last summer I decided to start having my friends make characters for 4e, sort of on a whim. They started getting excited, and then they started getting me excited.

It didn't all get started until this past January, though. I put a whole lot of questionably-useful front-end work at the beginning; I had my players fill out lengthy player character background questionnaires (a mistake), I drew up a rather largish countryside (partially a mistake), and I started a now-dormant Facebook group to keep us in touch between sessions (a mistake).

The characters in Aquea at the start were Balasar, a dragonborn paladin of the Raven Queen; Fai, an eladrin cleric of Corellon; Lucky, a tiefling warlock; Aldran Naranas, an elf ranger; and Enorac, an eladrin wizard. I had them start having already met in a loose travel agreement, for safety on the roads between the town of Patch (which still exists only off-map even in my own head) to the town of Riversay.

I don't want to get into the nooks and crannies of the story; suffice to say that since then the party has ventured into, cleared out, and saw swallowed by the earth a corrupted, forgotten cathedral of Erathis; stopped an orc attack on Riversay ordered by Fai's old mentor; saw the Governor of Riversay killed in that same attack; talked the guards out of arresting Aldran after he tried to loot the Governor in the town square, in broad daylight; and ventured to the city of Urradon, and there picked up a want ad that led them by and by to chasing a halfling's necklace, latetly taken by kolbolds, through Urradon's sewers and, ultimately, a forgotten underground laboratory of the mysterious, geometry-obsessed wizard Marazmus.

That last part has been a real crease in the t-shirt, though. I was starting to get into older D&D editions and the retro-clones when I got the idea to send the party on a huge dungeon crawl- unfortunately, 4e and lengthy, multi-level dungeon crawls (with huge breaks in between sessions to boot) do not get along all that well. Hour-long encounters can turn a labyrinthine level full of monsters into weeks and weeks of play, therein only covering days of gametime. It was this, more than anything else, that convinced me that the games I want to run are better suited for older editions than 4e.

I chalk almost everything that happens in any D&D game, even as a player, to be an education in DMing. Plenty of DMs have years and years of play under their belt by the time they are 28. Next month I'll be 28, and I'll have, oh, about seven months of DMing experience at that point. Aquea has been a university-level course in failure, recovery, and occasional self-doubt; I'm only now really grokking what works best within the 4e framework and what would be better suited to a different ruleset.

It's been a hell of a ride, though, and I wouldn't trade this new-found hobby for anything at this point. Fourth Edition is definitely not my favorite edition of D&D, despite having far, far, far more experience with it than any other edition; plenty of the things I am learning in Aquea are edition-neutral, though, and even when a lesson is specific to 4e the learning makes me the fonder for the system.

I'm not sure now how long Aquea is going to go on. At the beginning I was certain it was going all the way to 30, but even if I wanted to run that campaign now I'm not certain it would work with the changing schedules (and addresses) of some of our players. It's just not holding up well with all the breaks we're forced to take- with Aquea, because of how XP and everything works in 4e, we just Don't Play if anyone can't make it- and I already feel it sort of unraveling. Hell, I even had trouble remembering the name of the first major hub town because it was so long ago that we played in it- and we're only at level five (and have only seen one other settlement since then).

One of the things I am looking forward to with Labyrinth Lord (which is what I'm fixin' on playing tonight) as a campaign is the idea of a more modular party. If Player A can't make it this week, well, his character is busy, too; no XP, no treasure, but the party goes on. There's no worries at all of differing levels, given that they are built into the system through varying XP rates, and shorter combats and an emphasis on exploration and pure adventure (and roleplaying!) gives plenty of time for the party to bum around town, head into the dungeon, kill some things, map some stuff, and get back to town all in one play session (usually).

But I get ahead of myself. All of that is fodder for my next post, which will be titled, I assume: My Current Campaigns, Part Two: Dakkan.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

This New Header

So I had people on this website I go to a lot, OtakuBooty, to come up with a header image for me. A few people made some D&D-y type banners, with swords and the like, but as soon as I saw this one it was love at first sight.

So thank you, Mr. Penbrook- if that is indeed your real name. (I have no reason to believe it is.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

That 4e Aftertaste

So I've let it be known that, gasp, I enjoy the 4th Edition of D&D. On rare occasions when the moon is right and the fog rolls in at an angle most portentous, I even say I "love" it. But there's no denying to myself the fact that after sitting on the player's side of the DM screen, I can never seem to get the taste of 4e out of my proverbial mouth- and it's never quite a nice flavor.

I've found that I much, much, much prefer running 4th to playing in it. As a DM it's a plug-and-play affair. Sure, I've been going out of my way to throw higher-level encounters at my PCs (what DM wouldn't, faced with a party containing two great healers?), but I use the DMG to guide the encounter process. This leads to great, crunchy combats that rival any miniatures game I've ever played. They come out of the oven just right, like flavorless cookies, every time- not so challenging that the party is wiped, not so easy that my players feel cheated.

Even running 4e combat is fun as a DM; I get all these monsters with all their own intiatives, and I get to take tons of turns doing crazy, logic-defying supermoves! But for me as a player, 4e combat is, well, kind of dull. Sure, we have all these cool options- but most of the time it's miss, and then wait ten minutes for your turn to come back up. Sure, you keep a half-eye on the rest of the party and monsters as they move and swing and bellow and whatnot, but really you're just mad you missed with your encounter power again, and hoping to God you roll something higher than a 3 next round, even if it is with your crummy at-will.

When I DM I try to keep the encounters as interesting as I can, but after awhile everyone loses some steam. With huge stacks of HP, relatively minor damage amounts to ensure everyone gets their fair share of hits in, and easy access to healing, I find that combat always gets going, hits a sweet spot- and then just keeps chugging well beyond its welcome. Yeah, there are plenty of shortcuts to cut off combat- like retreat, surrender, and other such measures- but it's not necessarily appropriate for, say, some Giant Radioactive Zombie Slug to retreat. It is, after all, perfectly mindless- and very, very hungry (or so we should suppose). And is it really too much to ask for the engine of the game to handle things efficiently?

In the end I feel like 4e tries so hard to get around the "I swing my sword this round" psuedodillema that it goes right back into similar territory: boredom, a dearth of real options (how many characters wail on their best at-will most rounds? Yep, almost all of 'em), and real fatigue by the end. Combat just takes it out of you, like a gallon of Tijuana tap water.

So every time I play on the foreign side of the DM screen, I get that 4e aftertaste. And this is even before we consider things like- how tedious to roleplay some of these powers! I'm sliding around, moving enemies, causing supernatural terror in others- and with such repitition that descriptions can't help but get a little stale no matter what we try to do to make it all seem fresh, every round. Sure, "I swing my sword" gets hokey if you repeat it, but "I blah blah and shift blah and get +2 to blah until the end of blah (save ends)" sounds hokey no matter how much colorful language you couch it in while letting the DM know exactly what your power does and will continue to do while he tries to also run the rest of the combat.

My brief forrays into both Basic and OD&D gaming have shown me the beauty of short, abstracted combat. Just pissing around, running my friends through a dungeon for kicks with no real plot or anything, we were able to get a whole night's worth of adventure- multiple encounters and all- into the time it would take to run one solid combat in Aquea. And that included all the standard fare of old school dungeoneering: wandering monsters, set-piece encounters, mazes, traps, and secret door searching- not to mention a brief hireling fair and plenty of roleplaying (something that happens much more naturally, even in combat, when players aren't weighted down with pages and pages of character sheet).

Yeah, I know, this is all old territory by now. 4e combat is long, oh me oh my. But it goes beyond that, too. The aftertaste involves all that other stuff: how to roleplay powers, the lack of fear of anything, ever, because characters are made of titanium; I've even seen players get bored at all the roleplaying inbetween encounters because in 4e, you have part of your character sheet that talks about your character and then pages and pages of colorful powers that are basically only useful in combat.

You can talk to me about DMing until you're blue in the face but you won't convince me that 4e isn't meant to be a series of plotted tactical miniatures skirmishes. Yes, a DM can take the combat out of 4e. Yes, a session can go by without a shred of combat. Yes, yes, yes. But why should I have to wrestle with the system to get what I want out of it? It's certainly intimidating to try to change anything in 4e, considering the jumble of numbers it is. That shit's why I gave up programming as a teenager.

In the end, I say I'd rather play older editions- and, to be fair, I'd rather run them at that. But as a DM I'm happy when my players are happy- usually- and they're happy with 4e right now. I'm very excited to get into some 1e/OSRIC sometime this summer, though. Not only do I have a bunch of entirely new-to-the-hobby players already chomping at the bit to get into it, I'm really excited for the difference in logistics (our 4e game doesn't run if someone can't show, because the party is a fixed unit linked by XP and such; my 1e game is going to be a strict "if you're here, you get to adventure today, if not, balls" affair). And, with any luck, it will assuage- if not completely remove- that 4e aftertaste (without ever fully removing it, of course, because for all my bitching I keep running the damned game with a smile on my face- good gaming happens irrespective of the game, after all).

Editions & Dragons

Well, howdy! Here begins a great saga, namely: my third attempt at blogging. First there was LiveJournal, which I still use on rare occasions; then there was my short-lived (though I suppose technically still-alive) fiction blog; now there is Editions & Dragons.

So what is Editions & Dragons? It's my foray into tight-focus blogging, for starters. Twitter, Facebook, and LiveJournal all keep my friends and acquaintances abreast of my day-to-daying. This, then, is something more by virtue of being about less. It is, then, my Dungeons & Dragons blog.

First, I must thank my wonderful girlfriend, Lisa, who has cajoled and ranted at me for months to start this damned thing. She saw how fanatically I was reading various D&D editions, various D&D-related fora, and various D&D blogs- especially of the "Old School Renaissance"- and wanted to see me write something of my own. I hemmed, I hawed, but like all great ideas, the woman won out in the end. So, thanks, Babe!

Ahem. First post and already rambling like a drunk conductor. Onwards!

I'd like to take this, my first post, to go in to my personal history with Dungeons & Dragons, and furthermore to explore what I hope to accomplish with this blog.

I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in 198x, some mythical year of my early childhood that will never be accurately nailed down in even my own mind. I was having one of my rare visits with my mother, and she handed down to me two books from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons first edition: The Player's Handbook and the Monster Manual.

I'm not certain how long I had these books before I even began to realize it was meant to be some sort of elaborate game well beyond my ken. I was, again, very young- to mention nothing of the fact that I was lacking the Dungeon Master's Guide- but slowly bits and pieces began to fall into place. There was the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, which I remember watching with my father. At some point I must have realized the show had the same name as those funny books with the crazy pictures my mother had given me. I also distinctly remember having a bendable, rubber carrion crawler toy- no doubt a tie-in to the cartoon- that survived years of bathtimes.

Even as I grew aware that these two strange books I had were part of a game, I couldn't make heads nor tails of it. It's not hard to see why, even now; that special Gygaxian way of writing just wasn't going to fit into my fiction-filled young mind, which had no notion of roleplaying games. The Players Handbook was simply Greek to me, although I was fascinated by the Monster Manual and all the great illustrations inside. I probably even started to get familiar with some of the monsters' stats (especially that succubus!) without quite grasping the extent of what I was learning.

It was all for naught, though, when I was invited to actually play Dungeons & Dragons by some kids in middle school. The guy who was DMing it and I had worked on a psuedo-wargame the year before for a class project, and I guess he knew gaming was in my soul. And it was, despite the obvious dearth of any knowledge of roleplaying games; I was steeped in video gaming and board gaming until I was brown in the gills, and was already creating my own simple board games. Looking back now I know that the book this particular DM caught my interest with was the Rules Cyclopedia, and I fell in love with it those scant few minutes I was able to glance through it. I ran home, excited; I was finally going to play that crazy fantasy game I'd been reading about for years! Someone could finally teach me!

Imagine, then, my lack of joy when I found out my father Did Not Approve. I was not yet of an age where I would do things on the sly, so when he said I was Not to Play D&D, Just Because, that was that. I was heartbroken, to be honest, and a bit confused; hadn't he been there with me when I watched the cartoon every Saturday? Still, that was that, and I was left wanting, athirst! I suspect now that my father was mostly worried about me abandoning all other activity to play games he knew were right up my alley; he had already had to take measures to keep my video-gaming to a minimum if I was to even think about doing such things as homework and chores.

Fast forward to high school. I'm still not supposed to play D&D or any related roleplaying game (having been most recently forbidden from playing Paranoia at that point, having my uncle's copy taken from me). Still, I'm a little older now. I have a younger sister now, and I'm not nearly as scared as I once was to do things Not Allowed, as long as I was sure I wasn't going to get caught. So I counted up years' worth of nickles and dimes from under my bed and dresser, converted them into a check through my grandmother, and ordered the Second Edition of the Star Wars roleplaying game.

When that arrived, I had- finally!- my first taste of true roleplaying. It took awhile, but eventually I had all my friends make characters and, at my best friend's birthday party, I ran an adventure of my own design. I barely remember how it went now, but I know we had a lot of fun. Not a one of us really knew for certain what we were doing- least of all me, as GM- but it was a gas, and that was the important part.

Through high school I tried a few other games. There were a few short sessions of Vampire: The Masquerade, but I always felt the world was much cooler than the game could hope to be. There were a few over-the-phone AD&D 2E games run by my friend's younger brother, which usually devolved into robbery, murder, and extortion on the part of my friend and I, the only two players.

And then- silence. I basically stopped roleplaying. Sure, I picked up books now and then- notably D&D 3.0 when it first came out, and Nobilis (which I still wish I had run at some point, even though I'm still not sure how to do such a thing)- but I lacked other players who had the time and inclination to get involved with me.

Then I moved to Columbus, Ohio to start an (ulitmately futile) eight-year University Odyssey. With my new-found college friends I eventually ran a few Call of Cthulhu sessions and an anime-themed, homebrew campaign that sputtered out after a few months. The roleplaying spark was reignited, but nothing took hold.

Then, last summer, into my life came Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. I wasn't sure what to make of it at first; I had read- if never played- 3.0, and it was definitely different. I even tried to sell off the books before I ever had a chance to even make characters. But then a few of my friends started getting excited about it, somehow, and then I did- and now we've been playing since January. We're supposed to have a weekly session, but it's turned out to be much more like twice a month.

Our campaign has been going well, considering a lot of factors. The most significant factor has been learning to DM/GM from the ground up. I've only played RPGs a few times, and only once with what I would now call something like a competent GM. I've had to learn almost everything from scratch, pieced together from game books, magazine articles, internet sites, and sheer dumb luck. I'm still nowhere near where I'd like to be as a DM, but my players are apparently having a ball for all that they wish we'd play more often (as do I!).

Our 4e campaign world is Aquea, a world of my own design that I have been making up more or less as we go along. The past few months have seen the party amassing levels and treasure in a dungeon crawl, and we're all excited for the next leg of the campaign. I've been sussing out 4e all along, and- for instance- I'm not happy with how the dungeon crawl has gone. Because of the hour-long (or more) combats of 4e, it can take more than a single session just to explore a few rooms. This has necessitated pausing the game almost every time we play either just before or just after a battle, and plots and clues are long forgotten by the time we get somewhere good again. Still, we're making do and as the campaign evolves, so do the players and, of course, my DMing skills. I'm learning- slowly- what works in 4e and what doesn't.

My ambiguous, love-it-today, hate-it-tomorrow relationship with 4e led me to what has been called the Old School Renaissance. It started when I downloaded OSRIC and read it over a few weeks at work. I was intrigued to say the least; I knew that those books I had so long ago pawed through on the sleepless nights of my youth were what OSRIC was trying to emulate, only in plain language- something I would have nearly killed for as a ten-year-old wishing to go toe-to-toe with some nasty dragons or trolls- or to pit such fiends against my friends.

My flirtations with the older games have led to a few one-off sessions with my friends, first with Swords & Wizardry and more recently with Labyrinth Lord. These sessions have ranged from mostly-futile mapping expeditions in randomly-generated dungeons to laugh-out-loud roleplaying gems (such as my friend Drew trying to replicate his young female magic-user's voice at the expense of his own poor vocal cords while trying to hire mercenaries to join the group in the dungeon).

In the end, I've found that I'm of two minds. Part of me loves Fourth Edition most of the time. I like the tactical combat for what it is, and my players love how the campaign is going, which is hard for any DM to ignore. And yet another part of me is eager for our 4e campaign to either reach its logical end or fizzle out from player disinterest so I can start an older-edition campaign (I'm thinking 1e so that I can feel nostalgic for that old Monster Manual, although I see the appeal of Moldvay via Labyrinth Lord, as well).

I find myself, then, as a DM in two worlds. I'm certainly not unique in this, just as I don't believe I'm the only person interested in the Old School of D&D without actually having a single root in it. Plenty of people seem to enjoy multiple editions of D&D; certainly my players have let me know that they trust me to run any D&D system well.

This blog, then, is for all my D&D musings, game recaps, and other miscellany related to what is quickly becoming my favorite hobby. And despite some serious love for Call of Cthulhu (and an interest in some of the newer, narrative-based RPGs), I've found that I really, really love D&D. I love its tropes, I love its flaws, I love damn near everything about it. Is it because I was so specifically denied it as a child? Maybe. Or maybe it's just a solid game of fantasy, perfect fare for people like me (and so many of us) who love to chuck dice, make dirty jokes, and slaughter monsters with abandon.

So! That was a whole lot of introduction. I won't always be so long-winded, I promise. I'm not really sure how to end this, now. Is it proper form to invite y'all back? Did anyone even read this far? Can I fit one more rhetorical question into this paragraph? (Yes, yes I can.)

Well, then, until next time, folks!