Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Current Campaigns, Part Two: Dakkan


Dakkan is my Labyrinth Lord campaign. It's really been a Frankenstein's monster of a campaign thus far. It has its roots in our first furtive attempt at playing an older edition, and we went whole hog by trying out Swords & Wizardry. "We're playing the newest edition," I surmised. "Let's also try the oldest."

So characters were rolled up, written on index cards, and a dungeon was created by yours truly using mostly random results from the AD&D DMG. I don't remember much from that very first adventure except that one of my players, Drew, played a character that developed a same-sex crush on one of the hirelings they found in the tavern. There was death, to be certain, and a lot of getting lost in the labyrinth the dice had created.

Dakkan was not yet Dakkan at this point. There was this big random dungeon, some rolled-up characters, and some very basic roleplaying before the group was led lickety-split into the depths of Castle yaddawhatever.

We only played S&W maybe once more after that before we took things over to Labyrinth Lord. We rolled up new characters (although Drew's character was the sister of his S&W character, despite being in different worlds). This was when the campaign started to take shape- hex map and everything!- as Dakkan, and I wrote up some basics about the world (mostly about the gods, which is the kind of thing I go giddy over).

Dakkan has since been "reset" once, because I had gained new focus about it. I let the players keep their characters and any XP and treasure thus gained as "previous spoils", but informed them that they are now just meeting for the first time. They are now all from the starting town with a nice big dungeon just a day's march away.

We've only had one session in the new, definitive Dakkan, and it was the session touched upon in my last post. Three characters, an Elf named Parasolthus, a thief named Lina Inverse (in homage to Slayers, natch), and a young female magic-user Triana (in homage to Venture Bros., o'course). There was more role-playing in the front end as the characters skulked around the bar in their hometown, itching for adventure having heard of strange happenings around Fellow's Hill to the west. The players, seeing their party so thin, were keen on hirelings but I didn't give them any, wanting them to spend a session feeling truly vulnerable without a mass of meaty, sweaty men to attack from behind.

And it worked, too, in terms of the kobold warrens they explored. Using glasses that allow optical zooming, the party spotted kobolds guarding a cave entrance in the side of the hill. An incredibly lucky long-range bow shot by the thief left a kobold dead before he could clutch at the arrow through his trachyea. The kobolds burst into chaos, not knowing where the arrow had come from. A second arrow hit a kobold in the stomach and the mass of them, including the wounded one, fled into the cave.

Long story short, the party played it very carefully in the caves, and were well off for it. Avoiding groups of kobolds, setting their food stuffs on fire, and looting through their meager holdings were the self-made objectives of the party, and their stealthiness mostly paid off until the thief tried to snipe what appeared to be a kingly kobold- complete with a bone crown- and instead only put an arrow into the throne next to his head.

But then something interesting indeed happened: the King Kobold, initially incensed as any good kobold would be, begged peace. He suggested his greater numbers could be a real threat to the party, and offered them passage through his caves in exchange for a 20gp toll each time they entered, given they only went straight to the mysterious door the party had spotted at the end of one tunnel- a door blocked off by the chaotic, shoddy piling of junk in front of it. The kobold king told the party that deranged humans had been making off with the babies in the warren for shoe leather, and he wanted an end to it- and seemed relieved that the party was not after his kin (despite the fact that the party had discussed murdering the babies before they could become kobolds proper).

That was most of the first real, honest session of Dakkan. Then there was that troll that came along and ripped the party to shreds, as documented earlier.

Now that we've sort of caught up on my campaigns I might start writing up session reports for my two campaigns. And if that happens, get ready: my players are right now leveling up to Level Six so that we can continue our 4E campaign, Aquea, now that the party has found itself stranded inexplicably in the Shadowfell.

Nothing Risked, Nothing Gained

So my friend Charles- fellow DM and player in multiple of my campaigns and past adventures- started his own D&D blog, Late to the Adventuring Party, and he recently touched upon something that got my fingers so wiggly to write that I'll have to yet again postpone the much-noted post about my Labyrinth Lord campaign (but, by God, at least this post will have more substance than a simple call to foul gods).

Charles was talking about a recent Labyrinth Lord session of mine, one that ended with a poorly-employed Random Monster on my part but which resulted in Fun for all involved. A net gain, really, even with the horrible abuse I put the poor players through. What happened was this: the party- only three strong for want of hirelings- was camping out near a kobold warren to try to catch a man they have been told has been preying upon the kobolds. (The party had earlier discovered many kobold babies in the warren, and were about to try to slaughter the Kobold King- as they call him- when he shocked them by offering a peace treaty in exchange for their help.) After a fruitless first night, the party figured they'd camp out once more to see if the fiend would appear to make more shoes out of that supple baby kobold leather.

Well, I rolled some dice to see if anything interesting happened during any of the watches during the night, and lo and behold, something interesting was indeed to happen. On a lark I rolled on a wilderness Wandering Monster table and came up with that good ol' chap, the TROLL. I knew this was overkill. I knew the table said "tailor the actual result to your party." I knew the party didn't stand a chance. I knew all this- and I shrugged, laughed, and decided to, eh, see what would happen.

Well, the predictable happened. One of the heroes was dead before she knew what exactly was charging out of the woods at her and one of the others was chased down as he ran, slammed to the ground and beaten to a pulp. The third, the Elf, made it back to town, sprinting blind and furious in his bulky plate mail. (What a sight that must have been!)

It was a slaughter, of course. And it worries Charles that his own Labyrinth Lord character- Rabbi Rosencrantz (Charles decided his people needed more representation in fantasy worlds)- is as fragile as the thief who was torn literally asunder by a troll, or the young magic-using girl who was also torn literally asunder by a troll. It bothers him that in older editions death is not only a threat, but a very likely outcome to the life of adventuring.

I understand where he is coming from, especially knowing why he games and what he wants out of gaming. Suffice to say, it is very different from what I want out of gaming, and specifically what I want out of fantasy role-playing. My Editionity Crisis is partly founded on the unshakable feeling that 4th Edition characters are just Too Damn Healthy, too damn reliable in the old HP department. The very real touch of death inherent to older systems is one of the main draws for me, both as a DM and as a prospective player.

The very word ADVENTURE reeks of death and risk to me. Adventuring is not a safe career. It is not something someone with money, comfort, or choice really does. It's a stinking, sickly, dangerous job and only psychopaths, outcasts, the overzealous, and miscreants would really consider it. If adventuring was safe enough that simple resource management would see one through, I doubt many tombs would still have treasure left for any johnny-come-lately 1st Levels to ever find.

It can be called "realism" that death is so easy in older D&D, but it's not really that. "Realism" is so arbitrary to the system, the setting, and the very ethos of the game to be almost beyond consideration. No, to me it's about a risk/reward equation that is far better tuned- through a lack of tuning- than the current edition. Adventuring needs to be literally risky, literally deadly, to merit such rewards as magical swords that cleave the enemy in twain, piles of gold that would make a king blush, and arcane secrets so powerful the gods themselves wish them to remain buried in some foul swampy crypt rife with vermin, horrors, and the undead victims of disease and malady.

In my humble but of course 100% Accurate opinon, character death is what it's all about. Of course it sucks. Of course it's aggravating. That's kind of the point. Not only is it a great tool for learning from your mistakes, but it lends itself very naturally to really prizing the times It Finally Went Right. Yeah, you're three characters deep before you're lucky and cunning enough to hit level four. It was all part of the learning process as a player. And really, it's about the player- not the character- in this equation. The PLAYER knows he or she has earned the treasures and powers commensurate with his or her level, because the risk was not only real, it was demonstrated time and again as prior characters and fellow adventurers died to seemingly trivial traps, sword slashes, and simple daily dumb bad luck.

No, it's not for every taste. For Charles, it's all frustration and defeat. It ruins his sense of escapism. This is in contrast to me, where 4E's mechanics and superheroics do the same thing. Action Points, Healing Surges, calculated bonuses at each level that determine the amount of magic items that the party should have- all of this ruins the escapism for me. Neither one of us is right; if we were, there'd only be a need for one edition. As a player, I love roleplaying when I forget there is even a set of mechanics behind the scenes. I have a feeling that Charles is most comfortable when he can approach the game from the mechanical side first. And that's great for someone who loves 4E, because even character creation is an exercise in mechanical balance and synergy optimization- things that, to me, should be anathema to a fantasy campaign.

And so it goes. I want to steer my campaigns away from mechanical mastery- or even much mechanical understanding- on the part of the players. Because I've seen these Labyrinth Lord sessions where truly unique, utterly genuine moments of true brilliance come out without single recourse to a character sheet, and I've never been scared to just roll with them. Do those moments happen in 4E? Of course, but not in my personal experience nearly as often, and when they happen in MY campaign I get real anxious that whatever I do will step on toes X, Y, and Z as dictated in the Character Builder and etc. and when I have to worry about removing mechanics to get to the game I want to run, I feel sort of- dizzy.

So, yeah, I realy like the risk of earlier editions. It's not because I think it's more "correct" that the heroes be necessarily mortal, or that I feel it's more important to have psuedorealistically fatal combat for any grand reason. I just see no reason at all why fantasy characters- even the "heroes of the story" (although I'm trying to steer my campaigns away from story and more towards world-discovery) should expect to live given a "balanced encounter" and proper management of the options if they also expect great rewards to mean something personally, to the player- not the character. A character can have any reaction or belief a player wants it to have, but a player knows when he or she has earned something through his character, or at least should know such. In a game as well-balanced as 4E, I don't see the risk/reward equation working out very well- rewards are guaranteed by the system if the DM wishes the mechanics to keep working, and to get those evenly-metered rewards the party must never face Too Much Risk.

In my preferred world, sometimes you take an axe to the spleen, and baby, that sucks, but at least you know where you stand. And yeah, sometimes it's not in your control- like when a nutso DM still learning his chops throws a nasty troll at a first-level party and lets the surprise roll play out as it landed, giving the troll time to savage the party good and proper-like. Sometimes fate is cruel, but as a DM I know that the crueler the world, the better the treasure, and my folks are earning themselves one hell of a haul... if they make it that far!

Still, I hope Charles will give my Labyrinth Lord campaign a go despite his fears and ill feelings. After all, despite my own misgivings I'll gladly play in his 4E campaign again should the stars ever allow it to be run. As I've said before (and then probably only echoing wisdom of Previous Generations), fun is independent of system- especially if you allow that there are more than one kind of fun. (After all, 4E does make a heck of a tactical skirmish miniatures battlegame with roleplaying elements- although I feel more and more that that's the long and short of it.)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ia! Ia!

So while we're all waiting for me to sit down and write my next "Current Campaign" post, Part 2: Dakkan- detailing my Labyrinth Lord campaign (which just recently hit an all new level of AWESOME)- but I wanted to take a moment to say, despite my growing ambivalence towards 4e in general:


It was news to me when I found him under the Demogorgon entry. I don't know if I'd mentioned it much, but Lovecraft is Big Bonus Plus Good in my book, and Dagon and the Deep Ones are so dear to my slimy New England Coast heart that I even liked that Spanish Dagon movie that was released a while back with the naked chick with tentacles for legs.

I'm already considering using parts of the Cthulhu Mythos as the mad core of the "Chaos" pantheon in my Labyrinth Lord campaign, but now I kind of want my 4E campaign to go far enough to have the players travel to the underwater temple-complex of Dagon (and possibly Mother Hydra).

Anyways, yeah!