Friday, 30 March 2012

Think Smaller for Big Rewards

Inspired by Ckutalik’s campaign map (and an adolescence soaked in fold-out Gazetteer maps), I began playing around with Hexographer, trying to knock together a first draft of a map suited to *gaming* rather than writing fiction or engaging in fantasy economics. Centred on a Port Blacksand-alike den of thieves, cutthroats, and sentient topiary, I placed a 20-mile band of settled farmland around the city before we got the adventuresome wilderlands; to the north, isolated, curiously-odd fishing villages (the Wicker Man / Innsmouth), before the land rises into moorland punctured by jagged teeth of slate, populated by hill tribes, Ogre shepherds, monastic hermits, as well as the odd Citadel of Chaos (and the ruins of previous megalomaniacs’ country retreats). To the west, mist shrouded woods, spider webs thick enough to entangle a strong man, spotted with villages full of superstitious yokels, who speak with frightened reverence about the Thin White Duke (Ravenloft / Mirkwood). To the south, beyond the Keep on the Borderlands, a broken land of limestone caves and white walled valleys, home to countless humanoid tribes and ways into the underdark. The streams and rivers that cut this monster-ridden land drain into the (Scorpion) swamp, which might well contain a Frog Man pyramid…

Wholly derivative, but then I’m not trying to be original, I’m trying to build a world in which the players can’t help but point their characters towards adventure. But then I read a post by noisms, which has the effect of pointing out that my map, using a nominal scale of 5/6 mile across a hex, might well be at a hopelessly large scale – at least to be used as an adventureful hexcrawler in a world of foot travel over moors and through woods. And then, to rub it in, I find this article, at the Hydra’s Grotto, which points out that the whole of Skyrim would fit inside a single hex at this scale!

Monday, 26 March 2012

Roll 2, Die 2

I really love Caverns of the Snow Witch. The art, that is. Gary Ward and Edward Crosby produced some stunning mock-woodcut illustrations that give the book a really distinctive atmosphere. If they had a wider portfolio of gaming art they might well have got up there with Chalk, Nicholson, and Blanche in my personal pantheon.

Pity then, that I didn’t get to see many of the illustrations in their proper context, my adventurer dying after two – yes TWO! – paragraphs. So, there’s this ice bridge over a crevasse, right? It looks dangerous, yeah? Precarious, even. So, being a cautious adventurer, I decide to skirt the lip of this crevasse, only to run into a MAMMOTH. An angry, SKILL 10 MAMMOTH, with no option to retreat. With a SKILL 7 adventurer (I told you I was playing these straight, no cheating) there was very little chance of surviving this encounter. So, my adventure ended there.

Naturally, I wasn’t satisfied with a two paragraph game, so I rolled again, this time getting a SKILL 9 LUCK 12 adventurer. Who cares about STAMINA? I’ve got 40 STAMINA points of provisions in my bag! Now, this guy, the luckiest man alive, I decided would be able to cross the ice bridge. Sure, of course he could. And, with SKILL 9 and a good dose of TEST YOUR LUCK, he killed the SKILL 11 YETI (it would have been SKILL 10 if my adventurer hadn’t fumbled his spear). The adventurer then lucked his way through, deep into the Snow Witch’s lair, only to run into a SKILL 11 CRYSTAL WARRIOR. My adventurer had a warhammer, so he was able to fight the diamond geezer, but the two point difference in SKILL was too much to overcome – easily eating up my adventurer’s extra 10 points of STAMINA and his 13 points of LUCK (Potion of Luck, never leave home without one). The annoying thing is that just a couple of paragraphs earlier my adventurer had won the favour of a GENIE. Had he not been carrying the warhammer he could have called on the GENIE for aid. As it was, my adventurer stood there, ineffectively swinging his warhammer as the CRYSTAL WARRIOR cut him to ribbons. The life of the second incarnation of my adventurer ended here.

Did Ian Livingstone expect the kids reading these books to cheat? The proliferation of SKILL 10+ combats in this book, most of which are either literally unavoidable on the part of the reader (the YETI) or unavoidable by the adventurer exploring on the basis of the information presented in preceding paragraphs, suggests that rolling up anything less than SKILL 10 is going to end with the adventurer dead at the hands of the dice rather than YOUR decisions. I’m sure that mid-1980s kids did write ‘12’ into the SKILL boxes by habit – I know that I did, but then I also held my fingers in pages to take back unwise choices. Designing an adventure with the expectation (or requirement – Creature of Havoc!) the reader cheat is, however, only going to frustrate 30-odd year old readers, 20-odd years later, who are trying to play the game by the rules!

These combats reminded me my misgivings about using Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e as an engine for a campaign. The consequence of using a 2D6 system, because it produces a bell curve distribution of results, is that when one character has just a couple more points of SKILL than another the difference is almost insurmountable in the repeated ‘opposed skill test’ of combat. The issue isn’t that a skilled fighter more often than not defeats a less skilled fighter – we’d want the system to do that. The issue is that the range of SKILL values in which a combat is still some kind of a contest is so low, a problem exacerbated by the ‘opposed skill test’ nature of Fighting Fantasy combat, where the one test incorporates both combatants’ attacks, meaning that the one with the higher SKILL is the only combatant doing damage.

Okay, AFF2e introduces a whole bunch of modifiers to the dice rolls to allow the adventurers (and monsters) to ‘act’, rather than ‘roll’, their way out of trouble. But when increasing a ‘special skill’ is pretty low, that characters will have an effective SKILL of 10+ in a short period of time looks a pretty likely outcome. Caveat: while I’m hoping to run a couple of games of AFF2e over Easter, I doubt that’ll be enough to get a feel of the advancement system in action.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The One Hour Game

Everyone has been writing about Mike Mearls series of articles discussing the design philosophy of D&D Next. His latest was about the ‘one hour’ D&D game, including character creation, which Mearls argues is supported by B/X D&D-style rules. While I don’t agree with much of the design philosophy that is leaking through from Mearls’ articles, and can’t see myself playing D&D Next (I’ve got various D&Ds and retro-clones, I’ve got WFRP, I’ve got RuneQuests and OpenQuests and Stormbringers, what do I need Next for?), I do have some sympathy for a game designed with shorter, episodic games in mind.

Back in the day, when we were carefree teenagers, we would play for whole evenings, whole days even at the weekend. But we’re not carefree anymore. We’ve got kids, and worse, jobs! We’ve even got to do our own washing and cook our own food. Oh, the humanity! And so we can’t play for 8 hours a day, or 5 hours in an evening. We play for about 2 and half to 3 hours in a single sitting, punctuated by cups of tea we brew ourselves, rather than jug after jug of Kool-Aid mixed up by Carlos’ mum.

But a one hour game? That’s too short, it seems to me, though I’d be willing to give it a try. 2 to 3 hours is the length of a decent film, and so should provide plenty of time for the PCs to get up to a whole lot of stuff. Importantly, it allows the PCs to get up to a whole bunch of stuff at their pace. I cannot help but think that a one hour game that has a satisfying level of content will have this satisfaction diminished by the amount of railroading that the GM will have to do to push and drag the PCs to the action. But that’s me putting the ‘one hour session’ into our current gaming framework, thinking about playing for one hour every other week or so. If we’re thinking of a one hour session every few days, which might well be possible if you only need to assemble the gaming group for the length of time it takes to drink a cup of tea and eat a few biscuits, then a few ‘dud’ sessions might be a price worth paying for something that rattles along at a fair pace. It wouldn’t be Mearls’ vision of the one hour session, with recommended XP and treasure hauls and each session coming to some sort of climax, but it might be a pretty nifty way to play for people with busy lives.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Kill the 1%

A/D&D isn’t a game about scraping a living through mundane paid employment, or attempting to run a small business. It shouldn’t even intrude on the play, in the way that scrabbling for a few coins might form part of a WFRP game, or mixing adventuring with management of the clan stead might be the yearly rhythm of a game of RuneQuest. But the standard economics of a game system paint a picture of the implied world, and in A/D&D’s case, the economics of the implied game world are not just a case of massive salaries for a few and grinding poverty for the majority, but something much stranger than that. In A/D&D, gold IS experience, and for a character to gain any kind of power he or she must accumulate (through robbery, mainly) treasure to the value of hundreds of thousands of times the average monthly wage. To get to second level, a Fighter must win, by trickery, combat, or stealth, more or less 2,000GP. If he or she had instead served as an average footman, it would take them over 2,000 months – just over 166 years – to save that amount of money. More, much more than that – as 1GP a month is what the 1e DMG suggests is the cost to the hiring character – including housing and feeding – not the gold received by the footman. Given that 4 weeks of standard rations are 12GP… er, whatever, we can assume that the footman is able to set aside far less than 1GP per month. So an adventurer who achieves anything has already accumulated, or had pass through their hands, a fantastic amount of wealth by comparison to the average person in the implied game world.

Which is why, in D&D, awarding XP for GP spent on carousing and conspicuous consumption are a great idea, but they do tie the game both to a very particular playstyle and idea of ‘the adventurer’. But the rewards of adventuring are also why the early levels of D&D should be a meatgrinder, eating up PCs nearly as fast as they are created. If the rewards for being a pretty mediocre adventurer are so high, only very real fear of death (and very real actual death) should keep anyone in the implied game world at a forge, working in a field, or even soldering in an army that might have to fight dragons and giants! Kill the 1%!

Let them eat Lembas

For the sandbox game that is on the horizon – I can see it, but it is no closer than it was yesterday – before I settled on WFRP’s colourful career system I had been toying with systems that have mechanically determined advancement. It does, after all, say to the players, ‘You go out and pursue your characters’ goals and the game will reward you. I’m not going to give you 200 EP just for turning up.’ But mechanically determined advancement rewards certain ways of playing, and if these don’t mesh with the goals of the PCs… well. Alternatively, I’ve always been taken by earlier BRP-based systems of experience checks against skills used [successfully], but later games built on the BRP engine seem to favour a number of player allocated improvement rolls per adventure. Maybe an option would be to play a game with no character [ability] advancement at all – such as Traveller – with character advancement entirely in terms of the achievement of goals, the accumulation of political, social, economic or military power, or simply reaching their next birthday.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Building Sandcastles

I was inspired by this post on Monsters and Manuals to bash out some more justifications for my switch to a sandbox campaign for our irregular (new babies do that to you) game nights.

I have been mulling over a range of systems for a co-GM’d fantasy sandbox campaign we have planned. As I have written, I get the distinct feeling that the players in our group are hankering after a bit more of the ‘kill the monsters and take their stuff’ playstyle of D&D and a bit less of the ‘scrabble in the mud, survive, though mentally and physically injured, and go unrewarded’ playstyle of WFRP. This doesn’t mean that the system will be a class and level D&D-alike system. After playing around with A/D&Ds and their retroclones, BRP-derived games, and even small timers such as Dragon Warriors and Advanced Fighting Fantasy, it looks like we’ll be using WFRP (1e or 2e? we’re not sure). However, by letting the players choose their starting career, the range of skills and trappings should create an *adventuring* party capable of a bit of fighting and a little magic. Replacement characters, by contrast, will be rolled randomly the old school WFRP way – but as they will (barring a TPK) be coming into an experienced and better equipped party, these characters will have a better than normal chance of survival. And as WFRP isn’t a level-based system, replacement characters that start at ground level can be far more useful; they needn’t be mere torchbearers. More, the career system of WFRP is the perfect match for sandbox play; your character wants to be a sea captain, a merchant, an explorer, a knight, an outlaw chief? Well, do it, and the system will support that[*1]. All said, the aim is that the game will be much more in the image of the front cover of WFRP1e – grim and perilous dungeon delving – than that of a ‘classic’ WFRP game – in fact, we intend to borrow as much from that other great 1980s Brit-fantasy world, Titan, as we do from the Old World. More Blacksand, less Bogenhafen.

More of this, please.

Now, The Enemy Within starts with a great switch – what begins with a promise of D&D dungeon-delving for hordes of treasure quickly turns into a Call of Cthullhu scenario. But while that is a really nice idea, the players in our group struggled to rationalise just why budding treasure-seeking adventurers would be bothered about the mysterious goings on of a town that they had never before visited. Sure, they were pushed along by the events that force them to leave town rapidly, to travel a certain way up the river, and so on. D, my co-GM for the upcoming sandbox, used his character to rally the party with (frankly delusional) renewed hope of great rewards, even as the riches promised were snatched away from them. But it was all a little ‘forced’; NPCs turn up when needed by the plot, neither the chasing Watch nor the angry mob will catch the PCs unless they do something very stupid – it was all a little ‘forced’, on both my part, as the GM, and on the part of the players.

I should have let the party bog off into the woods, roll up some random encounters, fight goblins, discover an ancient barrow, and then, as they slowly bleed out, die of disease, or gibber insanely, they would have watched the town of Bogenhafen fall into a abyssal portal of Chaos fire.

I should have let… no, I didn’t stop them, but as we all knew we had to play our roles I didn’t have to. We played our roles in the story, not our roles in the game. So I made sure that Guild Master Johann Exposition pops up when needed, as written, and they make sure that, despite being a bunch of lightly armed, poorly experienced ne-er do wells, they maintain the motivation to investigate a possible daemonic cult even as the apparent odds against them mount. We wouldn’t want to ruin a great campaign by not following the trail set by the GM, would we?

Yes, we would. The best parts of the handful of sessions that played out Mistaken Identity and Shadows over Bogenhafen didn’t involve dealing with the cultists – for those bits, the PCs were pushed and pulled along until they got to the right spot for the plot. The best parts of those sessions were the player-driven bits: when the sneering Elf played by S decided to become an Agitator for Human-Elf understanding and had pamphlets printed (at the printers of the fake lawyers’ stationary that had lured them to Bogenhafen); when the illiterate farmhand played by C threw these in the face of anyone who obstructed the party, accusing them of racism; when the thug played by A knocked out the festival boxing champion, and was in turn knocked out by the C’s illiterate farmhand with a spectacularly lucky punch in the same tent the following evening.

I want the players to be excited to play because they get to decide what to do. Not because they are waiting to see what the GM has planned for them. I want the players simply to drive some incidental colour but the adventure itself.

This is all going to go wrong, I fear. But then I remember that it has only gone wrong if we don’t have fun…

[*1] And the career (and skill) system doesn’t support linear ‘plotted’ campaign play in quite the same way. The character actually has to take up the new career in order to advance – it is not an abstract levelling up. Sure, this can be done during ‘downtime’, but even that breaks a ‘plotted’ campaign. But if the campaign can respond to one of the players desires that their character becomes a sea captain, let them do it, and offer them the Isle of Dread, the Gold Coast of Lustria, and the Island of the Lizard King to explore. Player choices with regard to advancement shape the world as it is created in play, and by playing WFRP, even when you offer the players a way for their characters to get what they want, you are sure to leave in plenty of ways for that to end very badly.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Graeme Davis on the Enemy Within

Then, and now.

You know, a little bit of me is tempted to buy the new WFRP. But then I remember what I could buy with that money - the undoubted RPG classics that I could pay well over the odds for, and...

Friday, 9 March 2012

This is not an argument for balance

Sigmar no.

Erik Tenkar posted a few days ago suggesting that running a skill-based RPG demands greater system mastery on the part of a GM than a class and level-based game. I thought of D&D and OpenQuest, and AD&D and RuneQuest II, comparing the two families of games. My intuitive response was; ‘No, he’s wrong. What can be easier than running a game with a unifying mechanic such as ‘roll under skill’? A GM can be up and running a game of, say, OpenQuest in no time at all. The eccentricities written into the variety of systems used to resolve character action in D&D demand that the GM doesn’t only have a feeling for the system, but real knowledge’.

But Tenkar is right, of course, to say that character generation, getting *players* up and running, can be far quicker in a system such a D&D. A player rolls stats and chooses a class, and away they go. Okay, they still have to buy equipment, but it is possible to streamline this process, with the help of a few dice rolls. A player rolling up a character in a game of OpenQuest or RuneQuest II has to assign skill points, choosing the abilities that are either class-based, or universal, in the simpler forms of D&D. Of course, that too could be streamlined by bringing in archetypes – kind of like proto-classes – in which all the starting skill points are assigned and a set of equipment allocated. Similar to the way careers work in WFRP1e/2e.

But there is one area in which an A/D&D-based system trumps a RuneQuest-based system in terms of ease of GM system mastery. Encounters. A RuneQuest-based system allows for pretty open-ended character advancement. Great. This supports the mechanical resolution of non-combat situations and encourages ‘gaming’ playstyles that emphasise those situations. Combat is ‘realistically’ deadly. Several adventures into a campaign, and two similar starting characters might be very different mechanically. By contrast, a 3rd-level Fighter is a 3rd-level Fighter is a 3rd-level Fighter. Boring?

Well, maybe. But if you want to run a free-wheeling on-the-fly sandbox campaign, that a GM can easily have a very clear idea of the capabilities of a 3rd-level Fighter makes judging the threat level of an encounter fairly straightforward – you know the abilities and levels of the PCs, and can, at a glance, measure this against the hit dice and abilities of the monsters. Note, I didn’t write, ‘makes balancing an encounter fairly straightforward’. By contrast, you have to have some experience in running a BRP-derived system to understand the interplay between outnumbering, skill levels, and equipment, before you even add magic into the mix.

It's not about finding a perfect balance, just understanding the relative weight.

I know that OpenQuest/RuneQuest are explicitly not games of ‘killing monsters and taking their stuff’. This is built into the system. And this is why, if you want to run quick, episodic games, I think that they are far more difficult games to prepare for as a GM, though they are potentially far more rewarding for everyone involved.

As you might read into this I’m still stuck on the system of the sandbox campaign.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Don't get too excited about this...

The Enemy Within returns (to WFRP3e).

Whatever it is, it won't be this (which doesn't mean that it won't be good).

h/t The Altdorf Correspondent

p.s. Has anyone (who likes WFRP1e) played WFRP3e? Is it as bad as it looks, or am I just being a grognard?

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Building From the Ground Up

"What does your Character want to do?"

"How should I know?"

Giving PCs 'world knowledge' [*1] is a central problem of a sandbox campaign. Sure, the Character part of 'Player Character' knows, in principle, a lot about the world, but that doesn’t, in itself, much help the Player. If we’re running a tightly plotted 'railroad', the GM can tell the Player what the Character knows, as appropriate. What is appropriate is determined by the plot, and perhaps moderated by a skill/characteristic check. But what is 'appropriate' world knowledge if you are trying to build Player (and Character) agency into the game at a more fundamental level?

(An aside - I'm aware that I'm teaching fish to swim, here, for most people who read this.)

Well, a Player will never reach the level of world knowledge that we have about our own, real, world, which allows us to act freely, to make any number of decisions of where to go and what to do, given adequate resources. We are not constrained by our lack of world knowledge, but by our family ties, employment obligations, duties, social norms, and our limited resources. PCs in a sandbox campaign are not only constrained by these factors, but also by the fact that the Player making decisions on their behalf hasn’t spent 20/30/40-odd or more years being socialised into the geographical, political, social, and mythic possibilities of the incomplete, fictional world in which their Character adventures.

What are the sources of world knowledge for Players? Well, obviously, a GM might provide a description of the setting as a handout. The D&D Gazetteers actually did this quite well, with a players' section that described what characters might know of the history, myth, politics and social structure of the region. Something similar for a DIY setting need not be so detailed [*2] – it is the player’s job to ask questions. The players can put meat on the skeleton that the GM provides, either by prompting on-the-fly-world creation or by engaging in collaborative world creation themselves.

"What is the most important local festival?"

"I don’t know – didn’t Locnar the Brave grow up here? You tell me."

Of course, this needs inventive players who have bought into the concept. And the GM always has the privileges of elaboration – to flesh out the one line concept in ways that might surprise the player – and, of course, veto.

A much more evocative source of world knowledge are maps (a good post on the subject of maps can be found on the Hill Cantons blog). A staple of fantasy fiction a map covered in place names and geographical features should excite any adventurer. The map doesn't need to be accurate, or to scale, or of an area much greater (at the start) than of Threshold and the surrounding few miles. A hex map might allow exploration to be mechanised somewhat, but a more abstract map might serve our purposes – of giving PCs the possibilities to act – just as well.

And then we get to rumour tables (there's a nice rumnour table here at Blue Boxer Rebellion). The world should hum with the chatter of rumour tables. They don't necessarily need to be random – though we might enjoy letting the dice decide, and there are various ways of doing this, some of which (especially in skill based games or games that use characteristic checks) can reward roleplaying – but NPCs (even generalised as 'the people in town are talking about') provide ways to populate the developing fantasy world with possibilities for adventure. A more structured way of providing adventure appropriate world knowledge is the use of patrons – but the Players should have been provided with enough information about the possibilities of patrons for their Characters that the GM doesn’t need to turn every night in the pub into a speed-dating session for out-of-work strongarms and potential sugar daddies. With enough world knowledge, of the right kind, the Players should be able to seek out patrons, and their choices ought to be so unconstrained that their decisions force the GM to create patrons on the fly to meet the actions of the players. Fewer notices pinned to trees in the centre of Nuln, more PCs creating the world-on-the-fly, even if they don’t know it, by thinking up original ways to get paid to kill monsters (or whatever).

But two bog standard standard features of a D&D-style game are really exciting me about building both the world and Player world knowledge – random encounters and randomly rolled treasure. An encounter in itself is pretty adventurous, and there is no reason why it should be so simple as, 'You run into some bandits. Fight!' Daddy Grognard has been developing 'An Adventure for Every Monster'. So far he’s up to Cockatrice, so there a lot more monsters to come. My thinking at the moment is that there is no reason that random encounters couldn’t perform an even greater world building role by incorporating MORE random tables. Tables of adventure seeds and geographic features would create three points of variation providing interesting (and potentially very strange) perpectives that can be quickly fleshed out by GM improvisation on the structure of bare bones.

You can build a whole lot of stuff from bare bones.

And last, treasure, the point of much of this adventuring, can itself provide a great in-game source of world knowledge. Lots of adventures do this in reverse – the PCs are tasked with recovering the Sceptre of Dismay from the cannibal bandits of the Jagged Hills. More often than not, that involves the GM telling the PCs what to do. Doing it the other way round, the PCs find a sceptre after exploring the Jagged Hills marked on their maps, investigating a rumour that they heard several sessions. The PCs acted, the GM filled in the world. And while the GM has an idea of what the sceptre is (and this should be fixed, lest it become a quantum sceptre), what the PCs decide to do with the sceptre that they found will both flesh out its ‘reality’ and its future – shaping the game world at both a meta-level (what exists in the world and how are these ‘things’ related) and at the level of its fictional history (what happens in the fictional world once the existence of these things are decided). Again, Daddy Grognard has been filling his Adventures of Every Monster with interesting treasures, and has started a complementary series, 'A Horde for Every Treasure Type'. Wow. But he’s not the only one, we have the WFRP Random Treasure Generator, of course, and we have RuneQuest/OpenQuest found 'Found Items' HERE and HERE. Honestly, the latter link, to the list of Found Items at the Chaos Project, makes my own list seem paltry. 342 entries! But, hey, this game is building a world from the ground up, so here is a d10 table of shoes!

1 A pair of indigo dancing shoes in immaculate condition, in an elegant, plain wooden box.
2 A barrel of foul smelling vinegar, in which float 13 pairs of leather shoes.
3 A pair of knee-high riding boots. Etched into the hard leather is a dragon, with small red crystals for eyes, that coils up the wearer's thighs.
4 Three pairs of wooden clogs; small, medium, and large.
5 A pair of armoured boots with a nasty barbed spike on each toe-cap.
6 A rough sack filled with dirty children’s shoes. There are 20 pairs and 6 odd shoes.
7 A pair of fine shoes, suitable for a gentleman, with a hidden compartment in each heel. One heel contains a ‘lucky’ gold coin of an obscure design. The other contains a small green silk pouch containing white powder that acts as a stimulant.
8 A pair of glass slippers to fit very small feet. One of the slippers is chipped and is crusted with old blood.
9 A pair of sandals. The hairy feet of the previous owner are still inside them, cut off at the ankle.
10 A pair of waders made from seal skin that smell of the rancid oils used to waterproof them.

*1 'World knowledge' isn't about Players knowing the facts of the world, but knowing their Character's 'possibilities for action'.

*2 Although there is no reason why this handout need not be an ever growing document, providing short pen sketches of significant NPCs, organisations, and locations. The Players cannot be expected to retain the world knowledge of their Characters between sessions, so a well organised handout that develops into a guidebook (easily enough managed now we’re not building worlds in school exercise books but on endlessly editable electronic documents) might be one of the best ways of externalising the world knowledge of the characters without relying on the GM re-cap/prompt that might restrict PC agency.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Painting in Primary Colours

I have lots of D&D material. AD&D1e, AD&D2e, and my beloved BECM(I[*1])/RC. A cupboard full of the stuff. But I haven’t played D&D in ages. Recently, we've been playing WFRP1e and 2e in our gaming group. And lately, I've been really interested in running RuneQuest/Legend (or OpenQuest) recently. I like the elegance of the d100 system, the bloody death that awaits characters who charge thoughtlessly into combat. I’d been considering it as the engine for a new sandbox campaign, with a world to be generated from the ground up (with some components acquired by unashamed robbery from existing campaign settings, fantasy fiction, and legend – I wouldn’t even file the serial numbers off). To satisfy my desire to both GM and to play, I convinced D to run this campaign as a co-GM, populating the world through a developing array of random tables and a library of stock elements. With no great secret plot driving the action, rather the decisions of the PCs, co-GMing is not much of a problem. And, anyhow, if you are unable to separate player knowledge from character knowledge, you are not going to make much of being a GM anyway.

But what do we come up with? A Viking-based, low-magic, all-human campaign, in which the PCs are tied to their community and culture by 'realistic' economics and a Pendragon-based personality system, with one or two adventures per game year. Giving the campaign an epic, intergenerational scope. I am not saying that is boring. It certainly got me and D excited. But will it excite the players in our campaign in quite the same way? This is a campaign concept that you really need to buy into. I have a strong feeling that, at the moment, some of the players in our group want their game painted in a few more ‘primary colours’ rather than the seven shades of, er… grey that is a well done WFRP or RuneQuest game. And that isn’t just in terms of the game style – killing monsters and taking their stuff >over> scrabbling, unrewarded, in the dirt – but also in terms of game mechanics – I’m a fighter, I’m a wizard etc. lets get to it >over> I have a range of skills that mostly overlap with yours. These things, of course, are a spectrum – skill-based systems have class-like archetypes, and class-based systems, even RC D&D, have skill systems, and campaigns about fighting dragons and clearing out the kobold caves can have gritty elements, just as a campaign that began wrestling in the Middenheim mud with a pox-ridden beggar[*2] might end with a Trollslayer, a Wardancer, a Knight, and a level 4 Wizard facing down giants and chaos warriors.

More than that, there's the structure of our gaming group. My wife and I have just had a second child. The other GM in the group has two children (and a non-gaming wife). This produces play sessions are short compared to what we might once have played - 3 hours is about the typical maximum - and, potentially, irregular. If we’re gaming weekly, we’re doing well. The other players, well, I’ve got a feeling that they would be far more into a ‘killing monsters and taking their stuff’ style of campaign – I am pretty certain that, for all they enjoyed Shadows Over Bogenhafen, for example, the lack of combat and character reward[*3] did not match expectations.

So what game and play-style is geared towards quick, episodic thrills and easy fun? My thinking is a sandbox campaign, with a hex map populated by small dungeons – strongholds, encampments, ancient tombs, sewer systems, caves, and dense forests – with random tables and improvisation generating the world on the fly in order to generate a sense of real player/character freedom. Put aside any worries about the world having a ‘realistic’ economy [*4], ‘realistic’ geography, or ‘realistic’ cultures – in Mystara for example, the Viking analogue culture complete with Scandanavian analogue geography immediately abuts an Arabian analogue culture and geography. So what? There is also a flying Gnomish city, an Empire of 36th level Magic Users descended from extra-dimensional ‘humans’. And if you really want the problem of unlikely neighbours, there is a nation of Halflings living in a late-Medieval rural English idyll right next to a plateau of magical Native American analogues. And all this makes it fun. Not mindless fun, not even cheap fun. Just primary coloured fun.

But what rule set? Well, I can’t use AD&D1e. Why? I can’t make head nor tail of the arrangement of the rules in those books, I never have been able to. I love them, but it is like reading someone’s house rule document out of context. AD&D2e [*5] is a goer, and I’ll be able to make use of the rulebooks that I had shipped from Scotland to the Caribbean [*6] the Christmas of their release. Those books are well travelled companions of mine. BECM(I)/RC is also a goer – many of those books are also the original having assembled all the GAZ/PC series etc. over the years I have endless optional rules and classes to incorporate, and campaign locations and NPCs to steal. Largely, though, I see D&D and AD&D1e/2e as essentially the same game. Alternatives would be Dragon Warriors, or Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e, though the D&D nostalgia, and the weight of the D&D cupboard, bear down on me. The default settings of those two do contain important flavours to stir into the mix – the darkness of Dragon Warriors Legend takes some of the edge off the high fructose corn syrup of Mystara, and a dollop of Titan adds a very British spice. But in the end, this will be a world that develops from player/character action (and overt player suggestion), GM improvisation on top of some sketchy preparation, and random tables – let the dice decide!

*1 I don't have the Immortal Set. I do own one Immortal level module - The Immortal Storm -, and I think I'd have to be in a pretty special headspace to consider running it.

*2 Sorry, I mistyped. You are the pox-ridden beggar wrestling in the mud. And it is fun.

*3 The PCs were all still alive at the end. What more do they want?!

*4 Though I will be returning to my series (currently stalled on part 1) on ‘fantasy’ economics – did you know, for example, that a BECMI Magic User can earn 3,000GP per month for sitting around in someone else’s castle?

*5 What is the ‘problem’ that some have with AD&D2e? It is still recognisably A/D&D, unlike 3e and on.

*6 Releasing the Monstrous Compendium as a ring binder rather than a book was a nice idea, but made it awkward to post internationally in the 1989.