Thursday, November 26, 2009

Our 4th Edition TPK

So I'd been itching to run up some 4e action lately, for no real reason other than I've been playing Dragon Age: Origins, which has a lot of what are often derided as "kewl powerz" for every class to engage in. I was sort of itching for big tactical mini fights with roleplaying on the side, which is definitely not everyone's taste (or, as should be obvious to even a casual reader of this blog, not even always to my taste), but it's certainly what 4e is great for, as noted in many places.

The funny thing is that I say DA:O helped get me in the mood for 4e, and it's true, but the true germ of the idea rests in wanting to introduce a co-worker to D&D, and while we rolled up a Labyrinth Lord thief for her, I also had her make a 4e version of basically the same character (with the addition of being an elf), "just in case" (and because, lacking any D&D experience, I thought she might get a kick out "kewl powerz" and not dying at low level- which, yes, is again not for everyone, especially in our damn new-fangled video game age.

Well, the plan backfired, but a time was had by all. Before I even started playing Dragon Age, I had the idea of a 4e campaign that would be as player-flexible as my Labyrinth Lord campaign. The dissolution of my previous 4e campaign, Aquea, was due to us only playing when the whole party was present, every time. They were travelling and roaming as a band, and we always wanted everyone represented. This new campaign is going to break with traditional 4e levelling. The PCs are all members of the Dusk Watch, a secretive-but-not-secret organization founded centuries ago to seek out and destroy the curse of undeath. The similarities to the Dusk Watch and the Grey Wardens of Dragon Age was actually an accident; I was brainstorming this campaign before I even read the Wikipedia entry on Dragon Age. I don't even pretend to claim my idea is original, but it certainly gives a good basis for interchangable squads sent on specific missions. And everyone loves smiting undead! (Although, of course, undead will not be the only foes or villains of the campaign.)

How it will work, is, the chapter of the Dusk Watch that the PCs are assigned to will gain the experience and level, and all the PCs will be at the level of the chapter. Yes, some players might only play two or three times in the whole campaign and have a character of level equal to people who put in the time to play every session, but that's fine with me. It wouldn't be for an old-school campaign, but this is a decidedly new-school campaign, meant to be accessible, quick, and creepy and dangerous, but not outright lethal- I kind of want people to get attached to their favorite character concepts and wailing with it- while allowing for PC death when it happens.

And- the best laid plans, eh? I designed the first mini-dungeon with four players in mind, but knowing that I may only have three. It was sort of on the hard side for three PCs, especially with one being totally new to D&D, in terms of combat; however, I did not expect it to go the way it did. And that was, the entire party was dead in a matter of rounds, at the hands of a small skeleton encounter that was on the lower end of a level-three encounter for their party. Two levels higher than party level is definitely rough, but not impossible- but rolling maximum damage almost every hit for the monsters while the players whiffed or hit light definitely helped. First the elf rogue, Only-He-Stands-There, dropped. Then, the half-orc warden dropped. Then, finally, the warlord fell to the skeletons.

It was horrible. It was over so fast, the new player didn't even know what had happened. One moment she was lining up sneak attacks and the next, she was lying in a pool of blood, gurgling as the warlord stressed over whether to patch up the rogue or pad the warden's HP to try to slog through the encounter. And then it didn't matter because they were both down, and then the failed death saves started rolling up while the warlord made a desperate but futile last stand.

The players loved it, though, and commented on the setting (after an introduction about their quick, dirty training in the Dusk Watch, they were sent to a one-man outpost in a far northern, remote, snowy region in the dead of winter. Their commander, as it were, is a half-mad halfling named Bix who takes his Dusk Watch status very seriously, but also has gone a little bit kooky from long winters alone in a log cabin, waiting for the undead to strike the nearby populations for years.

So we decided we'd ret-con it and run it from the beginning in December, with the same PCs, when we can have more players. If somehow we don't get more players, I'm going to dial the encounters back a bit, at least until the players start getting all their synergies down pat.

It was fun, but it was a massacre. We had much better survival rates in our Labyrinth Lord session a few weeks back, but then again players are very cautious when they know any hit could be lethal and monsters sometimes roam in packs far outnumbering them. 4e PCs are definitely robust, definitely tough superheroes, but they are not invincible. I think maybe the veteran players even had invincibility in mind when they got into the fracas, thinking of our last campaign where only one PC died in six levels of play.

So now I'm looking forward to both campaigns. The free-form megadungeon of Labyrtinh Lord and the basically more plot-driven adventure paths of this Dusk Watch (hopeful) epic.

And with that, Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Our First Foray into the New Labyrinth Lord Campaign

So tonight, despite having only three players, we decided to just go ahead and start playing Labyrinth Lord, already! We had already rolled up characters for most of our players, and the three in attendance only had to put names to their counterparts- and we ended up with Parasalthus the elf (a recurring character across multiple editions and universes), Yrinjar (or something) of the North, a fighter, and Violet the halfling. We had little time and everyone was itching to slog through a dungeon, so with a quick introduction to the shabby, frontier two-bit town that will serve as the base for adventures into the daunting dungeons under Andressadiff, a series of ruins from time immorial, long rumored to contain the lost fortunes of a wealthy civilization's kings.

Leading our intrepid party to the fabled hill were two NPCs, Keva the cleric and his companion Lewis the magic-user. Keva, seeing people in town obviously geared up to search for fortune, offered to lead them to an entrance on the southern side of the hill under Andressadiff in exchange for their help seeking out a rumored holy site located somewhere in the foul dungeon's rooms. There was a more well-known entrance on the west, but the cave thus leading into the dungeons is also part of a large goblin camp, best avoided for now as far as everyone was concerned.

Almost immediately upon entering the dungeon, the party found a large ceramic pig with a slot slightly bigger than a gold coin in its back. Poking around at it, the halfling decided it was a "piggy bank," which- since neither the elf nor the Northman had ever heard of such a thing- is apparently a halfling custom, although usually on a much smaller scale, having to do with something called "rainy-day money." The halfling suggested someone smash it to find the money inside and, hearing the word money, the Northman abliged with the hilt of the sword. Hundreds of coppers fell out, which the group piled into the elf's sack by the handfuls.

It wasn't long before the party, making their way through the dungeon without mapping (the only player who really maps didn't feel like it- ha!, we'll run with it), ran into two men in the same white robes, with the same holy symbol, as Keva, the NPC cleric. After some talking in a secret language of gestures and grunts between Keva and the two similarly clad men, the two were introduced as monks of Avanda, god of Justice. It seems the monks- from a sect unrelated to Keva's own form of worship of the same deity- had also heard of the holy place in the dungeon and had sequestered one corner of the dungeon to be their base of operations as they, too, sought out the site- while also defending, as best they could, their little dead-end corner of the dungeon from a clan of orcs.

Following the two monks, the party came across six orcs impaled crotch-to-mouth on spikes thrust into the floor of a large room. The monks explained that the distasteful display actually seemed to help keep the orcs at bay. The party kept politely silent. The two monks led the party to the common room of the monks' area, where a dozen monks or so milled about, praying, eating, and studying. They were introduced to the leader of the group, Brian, who informed the group of his monks' goal and offered them safe shelter and meager food any time if they would help deal with the "orc problem," and further intimated that if the problem were permanently solved, he might dip into his church's coffers for a reward. He showed the party some exits from the monks' area, labeling some as off-limits to all but the monks themselves. One exit led to what Brian described as a "cursed treasure" that had claimed the lives of two of his less devout brethren who broke their vows of poverty and tried to take the treasure. Brian said the group was free to enter this room at their own peril, although both Keva and Lewis declared they would stay behind if the party chose to so venture. Another door was locked from the monks' side, with Brian explaining a strange growling noise heard some time before.

Wary of curses and interested in growling noises, the party ventured into the rooms beyond the monks' abode, discovering little beyond a strange wall of animated- but silent- tiny, carved stone faces that silently screamed in agony. Well, all but one, which disguised an arrow trap. The fighter almost took an arrow to the eye as he poked around the hole in one face's mouth, but dodged just in time to watch the arrow loose, strike a door, and then, after a moment, transform into water and fall into a puddle. Hearing a sound they took to be the trap reloading behind the wall, they moved on to discover what they deemed to be the source of the growling sound- a goblin struck dead, seemingly by the magic arrow trap. Having reached a dead end, the party returned to the monks, took a short rest and snack, and headed towards the direction in which the monks had said the orcs dwell.

It wasn't long before some of the rumored orcs made an appearance. Heading through doors with abandon, the party stopped short at a doorway that, when thrown open, revealed six orcs with crossbows behind a crude picket of lashed-together posts, defending the doors behind them and lying in ambush of the party. Although all six orcs loosed their bolts at the fighter who threw open the door, not a single bolt hit- two coming close, but being swat out of the air by the fighter's polearm.

Advancing to the fence, the party slew four of the orcs. The remaining two dropped their crossbows, pulled out swords, and swiftly retreated out a door behind them. The party gave suit and quickly put an end to the orcs before they could regroup with any reinforcements.

Exploring further, the party came across a door behind which were the sounds of slimy and suction, horrible slapping noises and loathsome squishing noises. Intrigued, the party used its patented "open the door with a grappling hook and rope from a safe distance" (which has been used on most doors found so far, since they've all been doors that open in two directions) to find a large, domed room dominated by a circular pit with horrible black tentacles reaching out of it. At least eight of the slimy things flailed about in the darkness, and the party quickly slammed the door shut. The Northman carved an "X" into the door so that, even without a map, they'd keep wary of the room beyond. They also discovered stairs leading up and discovered thereby a new entrance to the dungeon, on the east side of the hill.

Backtracking and trying to get to the corner of the level that they believed the orcs to be in, the room came upon a corridor interrupted by large curving pipes jutting out of a wall and going into the floor, bolted at either end. The pipes were covered in frost and a low humming noise echoed from the side of the wall from which the pipes descended. The party made a cursory inspection of the pipes but kept the orcs foremost in mind, and moved onward. Coming upon the orc's armory of crude weaponry and catching three orcs unawares and putting them down quickly, the party moved on to find a group of orcs playing dice. Again dealing with the orcs deflty, the group made off with the sizable number of coppers stacked next to the orcs' bone dice (which the elf also took).

Having found the first signs of the orcs' lair, the party ventured ever deeper, navigating around dead ends. Another group of orcs fell to the party's might before they came upon a door that led again into the room with the tentacled horror. The Northman again marked the door with his bastard sword, and as the party turned to retrace their steps, they realized they had drawn a sizable horde of giant rats to their presence. Thinking to meet the critters head on, the party charged at them. While orcs had repeatedly fallen to the deft attacks of the party, the rats proved a more valid threat as the Northman received a vicious bite to the shin. While some of the rats fell, so did the halfling- as a giant rat tackled her and, in one bite, drew the halfling's lifeblood. Realizing that there were two rats for every remaining party member, the party decided to retreat behind the nearest door- the door into the room of the tentacle horror. "I'd rather die by a terrible monster than by some filthy rat," the Northman declared, and Parasalthus, Keva the cleric, and Lewis the magic-user agreed. Securing the door against the rats, the party turned to face their doom- only to realize the tentacles were moving harmlessly through their bodies.

Relieved to discover the tentacles were but an illusion all along, the party opened a door in the room to find themselves entering a cell of a jail from a back entrance. They discovered that they were in but one of six cells in the room, all of which opened to the center of the room- while the cell they were in only opened from the back, and had no entrance into the jail proper. Odd construction indeed, but they lucked out- the cell held a battered old chest. Before they could open it they spited a large group of orcs, apparently watching over the jail, who noticed the intruders and headed out one of the doors in the main jail room. The party figured that the orcs were trying to move behind them through a corridor yet unknown to them, so they quickly scooped the coins in the chest into the elf's growing sack, and without even a word to the six halflings they saw locked in cells across the room (not that the party had a direct means of accessing them anyway), made their way back to the stairs that led to the east side of the ruins. Exiting the ruins as the sun set beyond the horizon, the party quickly fled south to Keep Town, where they counted their haul and remembered the courageous death of Violet the halfling, gnawed to death by a rat under Andressadiff.

This little, mostly impromptu session was great fun. I'm definitely still a green DM/Labyrinth Lord, and I have much to learn. While I love the map I've made for this dungeon for all its weirdly shapped corridors and rooms, it's turning out to be almost as painful as it is fun for me. Describing all of these rooms and angles to the players is hard, and I tend to default into boring, horrible descriptions of feet (which I don't want to do if the party isn't taking time to measure lengths) with little flavor. The players didn't even bother mapping this session, though, which seemed certain doom to me- although they made it, after all. It did save me some of the description detail that the mapper needs to draw what his character would reasonably notice.

All in all everyone had fun. My players are definitely more used to newer D&D editions, though, and have a very defeatist attitude about the lives of their characters. The halfling player was expecting to die all along, having rolled 2 hp. She wisely stayed back and used her great skill with missiles when possible, but in the end the party couldn't keep the giant rats back from the tiny, pig-tailed snack. Still, the fighter player also more or less expected to die but his lowish armor class and my monsters' bad luck left him mostly unharmed through the short session. The elf saw plenty of front-line fighting with only minimal injury throughout the session as well; his armor class is top-notch, being 1.

I think as we stick with this campaign and get the bigger picture in all of our heads things will smooth out. I'm already mostly not needing to consult the rulebook at the table- I made a crude Labyrinth Lord screen this weekend that holds all the charts I really need, and I've been making index cards of all the monsters and factions I put into the dungeon as I go along, so I have an index of all the stats I need right there in front of me. I need to be more aware of which room numbers I need to have ready as the party is moving forward, to minimize the leafing I have to do- this dungeon is huge, and the first floor alone is a good number of sheets to flip through. I tried to number the rooms as best I could to fit what I thought the party flow would be, but it was not perfect (accounting for multiple entrances into the labyrinth).

It was quick, it was dirty, but it was fun. The party has allies in the monks of Avanda who are living in the dungeons of Andressadiff, but enemies in the orcs who "share" a half of the dungeon with the religious order. Both groups have bodies (or parts of bodies) of the other impaled at the entrances to their respective territories, and so it seems the party has become embroiled in a turf war- for which they quickly chose a side. (Stinkin' orcs!) The party seemed more interested in loot and orc-killin' then they did with exploration, which is totally fine by me, as the motivations of the party are entirely up to the players. The dungeon is there, doing its thing, and the characters can and will do what they will inside of it.

I can't wait to report our next session! Whew!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Quick, Useless Update

I just wanted to pop in here and let everyone know, for no real reason, that my hardback copy of the revised Labyrinth Lord rules arrived today and I couldn't be more excited or happier. The book is gorgeous, it feels great to have something more substantial than a PDF in my hands, and I know now which edition, yes, we'll be playing from now on.

Long live Goblinoid Games! Long live Labyrinth Lord!
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Saturday, October 3, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love D&D (Again)

So last time I got touchy-feely and let the whole damned world (or my two-reader simulacrum of it) know that D&D had been the signpost on the highway to a dark, bleak two or so months wherein- yes, gentle readers- I found no room for D&D in my heart or my mind.

What terror such a thought is! There are two kinds of people in this world: I don't know what they are, exactly, but one type loves D&D and, by God, once that bug bites you the poison is for good, Martha. There is no cure for loving D&D- the phases come and the urges wax and wane, but there is a breed of person- regardless of his professed edition identity- that feels the blood flow down at the thought of such arcane phrases as "armor class" and "saving throw."

So I've gotten over myself, finally, and noticing a real dearth of D&D in the lives of those around me and have decided, in my Infinite Wisdom, to Do Something About It. Namely: to stop dicking around with a million versions of D&D and just nail one down, Damn It, and play by hook or by crook.

And may the heavens strike me down, but I think we're just about to do just that. I've been having my friends/players roll up new characters based on AD&D 1e by way of OSRIC, but not really because we're going to play "AD&D 1e", as it were, but because we're going to play Dungeons and Dragons and I figured I'd let my players choose a race AND a class. I have no real intention to even try to play AD&D "By the Book," for not only would it offend my Discordian sensibilities to cleve so tightly to any established (written) ruleset but because the AD&D rules are far more complex than what I intend to do (which is, again, to play Dungeons and Dragons).

We're going to use the Rules I Like, which will look something like AD&D except where I can't be bothered with it. One example is combat: I'm going to handle it the way that comes naturally, which I think will end up being more like Classic/Basic D&D- I'm not sure how deeply I'm going to worry about segments, for instance, except as a sort of interesting mental guideline for my own narrative purposes. A really long spell will take a long time to cast, for purposes of Losing Said Spell Because of Massive Axe Trauma, but that's about as far as I'll probably want to worry about it.

Because, damn it, I'm the DM, and that's how I'm Gonna Do It.

My players will have access to all those nice long spell lists, I will have that AMAZING 1st edition Monster Manual of options, but no body is going to have to worry, really, about weapon speed. Purists would hate it, which means I'll love it. Talk to me until you're blue in the face about how much better it is when you use everything as a cohesive (!) whole, I'll be over there, rolling dice and heaping the best kind of misery on my players. Keep them on their toes.

So, yes, the cure for my personal Editionity Crisis may very well be to forget the edition, and just get to the dice-chucking. Hell, I haven't even nailed down character creation yet- and two of my players already have characters made. Their characters might not have been made the same way any future characters are made. So be it! Whatever works to the end of getting around the table.

And that's that! A campaign is under way again. Hot damn! All I know about it so far is the following:

  • It will be rooted around, but not entirely dependent upon, a megadungeon
  • Two of the characters will be an Elven Fighter/Magic-User and a Human Illusionist
  • It's going to start Very Soon, by God
The next time I post I hope to have a great Session Report to, ah, report. By then I guess I'll need a campaign name.

Friday, August 14, 2009

D&D Total Gut Blow-Out

Hello, friends and (probably long gone) readers!

It has been a long time since I updated this thing. Such is the fate of many a blog, of course, although I had sincerely hoped that this one would fare better. The truth is, I haven't been blogging about D&D because I haven't been playing, thinking, or even reading about D&D for most of the past month.

Shortly after my last post here, I was running a Labyrinth Lord session- using a module for the first time in my life ("B4 - The Lost City") and introducing a new player to the fold. We were having fun, it got exceptionally silly in the best way possible, and I just... had a nervous break-down mid-game.

It wasn't really D&D's fault that I was reduced to a blathering mess on my bedroom floor, but it got some of the blame because it was basically the only thing I had been paying attention to in my life- probably as an escape mechanism to avoid what was really making me upset and listless. The psychodrama of all this is not the point, though, the point is: I backed off form D&D for a month.

I am making small inroads back towards D&D, though. After four or so weeks of avoiding all gaming blogs, I slowly started reading Grognardia and A Rust Monster Ate My Sword again. I'm trying to avoid the zeal I was going at it with, because I think I over-saturated my being with D&D of all stripes. Juggling editions, running two campaigns before I had finished my first ever, spending every waking moment reading about D&D- it was newbie's lust, I admit, and I took it Too Far, all the way to D&D Edge City. Which is a fairly quiet, nerdy Edge City as those things go, but it was still Too Much for me at the time, and I cracked like a cowardly dog.

For my birthday (which was on July 30, presents still being accepted, hint hint) (not really) (well I wouldn't say no) I went camping with some good friends. We went up to Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Garretsville, OH- one of my favorite spots on earth- and had a time of it all, watching Buckethead and Ekoostik Hookah rock the Quarry, swimming, and basically not being in the City. It was the balm I needed, and while I've been sort of bored since I came back from all the adventurin' to a life of a part-time job, I've been in much better spirits than I was previously. In fact, for the first time since I was unemployed in January, I am not actively depressed about life in general.

Anyways, I'm not sure when I'm going to be jumping straight into D&D again. Like I said, I've been slowly getting back into reading Old-Shool blogs. This is kind of funny because while I love the Old School stuff, if/when I start running games again I think I'm going to concentrate on my 4E campaign. It's not my preferred rule set necessarily, as discussed before, but it was the campaign I set out to run when I started playing D&D last year, and it's the campaign my players are most invested in- even the players who are learning to love Labyrinth Lord as a rules-set.

I think I need to focus on one thing, not let it take over my every waking thought, and run with it. I'm not positive it will happen anytime soon, though. Yesterday I started writing a young adult novel that I've been thinking about for years, and if I hope to not abandon it like most long-term projects I get involved in, I have to keep it on the front burner and not get distracted by something more- pardon the word- novel.

And to make matters "worse", I've also been mulling over reading up on Traveller (so I can run a Firefly inspired game), Pathfinder (I have no idea why, I have no interest in 3e), and I recently read HarnMaster and kinda want to roll up characters (though I'm not sure I'd ever want to play).

So I'm not sure, moving forward, how often I'll be updating this blog, as D&D is not going to be a big part of my life in the immediate future. I'm probably not done with it forever as I pledged to be soon after my breakdown, but I am definitely taking it easy. A friend is starting up a Labyrinth Lord campaign soon- actually, it's Brett Day from Late to the Adventuring Party, humorously enough- and I don't know that I'll even roll up a character for it right away, despite wanting very badly to be on the other side of the LL table. I'm just not quite that ready yet.

That's me in relation to D&D. I just didn't want my two readers to think this blog was gone for good. It's not- I just went a little sane for awhile, is all. Happens to the best of us, no matter how hard we fight it.

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.)