Monday, May 31, 2010

Campaign Journal: Session 1, May 11, 2010 Musings of a befuddled old-school gamer: Failed Campaign, new “old” system selection and character creation

Recently, my gaming brain has been on hold. Namely, I just couldn’t get into finishing the current campaign. I started, late in 2009, a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Campaign (second edition) self titled: Things to do in Marienburg before you die. The original concept was to run the game sandbox style. I was using Hogshead’s Marienburg: Sold Down the River as my main resource.

I was excited about it on several fronts. First, I’ve been wanting to get away from my usual story driven game master style and return to the sandbox style of my college days. Second, WFRP (first or second editions) is possibly my all time favorite, and normal “go-to”, RPG of choice. Third, I really dig M: SDtR, and think it is one of they single best RPG city books ever penned.

The campaign started off strong. The real time game start date was just before Christmas of 09. I was in the Holiday spirit, so I created an adventure based upon the Dutch stories of Sinter Klaus and Zwarte Piet. The first three sessions went very well. My plan was to start things off with a solid story line, and then hand the reigns to the PC’s. I thought I had given them an interesting background. They were all affiliated in some fashion or another with the Stevedore and Teamsters Guild. I seeded the plot with some political ins and outs, and hinted at dark things happening inside and outside of Marienburg. As a second resource, I was using Warpstone 25: The Fimir, Ruinous Inheritance. My “uber” plot was to eventually place the PC’s in a moral dilemma in first indirect and then direct conflict with the Fimir.

Flop. Pure flop. I tried rescuing the campaign by trying to steer the party in a direction that would lead into the portions of The Enemy Within campaign that I have not run them through (basically the last third of Death on the Reik then lead them into The Power Behind the Throne). Again, flop. In a last chance “hail Mary” I started introducing them into The Dying of the Light.

I realize now my mistakes from the beginning. My first mistake is, with this group, I have never run a campaign sandbox style. I have always, no matter what system we play, but normally WFRP, run story driven games. Second, I wanted them to take the reigns and run with the ball, but I didn’t hand them the reigns from the get-go. They reacted to my first adventure, story driven, and were expecting more of the same.

So now, I return to my favorite version of Classic D&D. This is not the first time I have used this rule system with them. About one year ago from the day I wrote this, I started a mini-campaign called Kill Bargle! The concept of that was to take the classic evil wizard from the 1983 Basic boxed rules version, and have him become the groups’ nemesis. Kill Bargle! was not intended to be sandbox, I planned it as a story. We only played, I believe one session, but it went well enough. It would have lasted longer, but my real world obligation as an Air Force Reservist demanded that I travel to Iraq for six months.

So here I am at the beginning of my lastest attempt at OD&D. My latest campaign is titled Retainer Dogs (yes, it is an obvious play on the Tarintino film Reservoir Dogs). My intention is for the game to be sandbox style. The only story element I am supplying is a reason for the group to be together: they are the hired retainers of a recently successful band of adventurers calling themselves The Fortunate Fools. The Fortunate Fools have been contracted by the Wizard Zebulon Whatley (name shamelessly stolen from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror) to clear the dungeon beneath his temple of unwanted beasties. I will resist the temptation of binding them to the “story”. I will supply plot-hooks, but my preparation time will be minimalist, allowing me to scrap anything planned and “go with the flow”.

I’m starting the campaign with a couple raped and bastardized canned adventures to start things off. Both are sandbox by nature. In an attempt to stick to the sandbox style of referring, I am primarily running a meta-dungeon campaign. There will be some wilderness adventure, and perhaps a bit of city adventuring for dungeon breaks, but most of the action will take place in the dungeon, which I will prepare some of prior to each session and much of it on the fly, taking cues from the players to read what kind of adventure they are seeking. Most of my preparation will be in the form of providing interesting NPC’s, and I’ll strive to keep encounters memorable.

Normally, I encourage my players to give a detailed background for their characters; however, I am using an old-school approach to world design. I may end up using the Known World as my backdrop, but I am intentionally keeping those details vague at this point. This is not spawned from a sense of mystery on my part, but rather I think it will be interesting to allow the world to grow organically around the characters. Hence, much of their background will be created in session to deepen character interaction with the world at large and will come when and if the need is felt to go beyond the dungeon. This is a trait of old-school RPG’s that I miss. It doesn’t have to be about setting or “the story”. Instead, let it be about the characters and “their story”. I do not know how long I will run this campaign. I have no long term plans, which is a conscious decision on my part. If there is no direction, it can end when it needs to instead of fizzling as my Marienburg campaign did.

My normal mode of operation is to conceive of an over-arching campaign story, but I am avoiding that. I will seed the sessions with story devices. If the players “bite” on a plot-hook, I will expand upon it. If not, I’ll shrug my shoulders and move on. I do have a theme in mind. This is a group that likes and is used to WFRP. I am borrowing a page from my Warhammer book: things are a bit shadowy and not what they seem, there is more going on then meets the eye, or is there?

I debated on what rules system to use. Normally, my go-to system is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. WFRP is great for what it is: a grim, dark land of perilous adventure, set in a world of low-magic. That is not the tone I am shooting for here. My tone for this campaign is a high-magic realm, cinematic action with door kicking cowboy antics. So I immediately ruled out WFRP and looked to other systems.

My candidates were: FUDGE, Tunnels and Trolls, and Classic D&D (in my opinion, anything pre-3rd edition). I ruled against FUDGE simply, because it did not feel right for what I wanted to do with this campaign. I’ve never played with FUDGE, but I want to. I think it would be a great rules system for some campaigns, but did not feel old-school enough for the tone I am trying to achieve. I have a belief that one system does not fit all. Some systems fit well with the games they are meant to run (such as WFRP). Even universal systems, such as FUDGE and GURPS, in my opinion, work well with some campaigns, but not others. Tunnels and Trolls definitely has an old-school feel to it and I’ve used it in the past; however, I’ve never been happy with the combat system. I feel combat gets too dragged out and while I like a narrative “wing-it” feel to combat, I also like a system that has more strategic possibilities. Dungeons & Dragons, circa 1981 to 1983, works for the tone I am setting and has the old-school feel I wanted, is free-style enough, yet strategic enough, and I get nostalgic just flipping through my dusty box of old-school, geeky goodness. It was my first RPG love, and I always return to it, eventually.

In my preferred version of D&D I freely mix Moldvay with BECMI and traces of AD&D 1st edition. My preferred tome is The Rules Cyclopedia (RC), but I am also allowing Labyrinth Lord. I am taking LL into consideration because it is close enough to my revered RC and is available for free to my players. Let me say that again: FREE. I determined that in this day and age, I will not play a game that requires a considerable financial obligation from my players. “Gratis” is good and hence my initial consideration of FUDGE. I also have copies of the 1981 Moldvay edition and 1983’s versions of BECMI Dungeons & Dragons editions floating around the game table. All in all, if it was published after 1980, it is close enough, but if there be squabbles, then RC trumps all others, unless I decree otherwise.

As I stated earlier, this is my second time running D&D with this group. There was some drastic resistance the first time. One player, who unfortunately had to be so foolish as to successfully retire from his career with the FAA and move out of state to become a professional ski-bum, was vehemently opposed the first go around and sat it out. Another player did so as well. He had other things going on in life at the time, so he bowed out of my Kill Bargle! game. He is still playing with me, and I hope he stays. He is being a sport about it this go around and is giving it a fair shake. A third player only has experience with D&D 3rd edition. He is trying his best to wrap his mind around the concept that dwarf is a class, and is happily doing his best to figure out the calculus of THAC0. My last two players are a married couple, both have played AD&D 2nd edition, D&D 3rd edition and I believe 3.5, and agree with me that 4th edition looks like the bastard child of World of Warcraft, and NOT D&D. They are for it and their infant son believes that all dice look tasty, regardless of the system being played.

Our first sessions was spent rolling up characters. I encouraged the group to include a dwarf, a cleric (no spells till 2nd level in my games) and a mage. I also instructed them to make two characters each and I recommended they round out their “back-up” characters with fighters. I decided to roll 3d6 and let the dice fall where they may. In other words, no arraigning, simply roll and write them down in order. I did allow them to re-roll one attribute that was 6 or lower and keep the higher of the two scores. I also allowed them to adjust their ability scores as per the character creation chapter of RC. I have always house ruled that 1st level characters begin with maximum hit points. Optional rules in use are Weapons Mastery and Skills. Since I use Weapons Mastery, other then Mystics and Druids, I do not require characters to follow usable weapons by class. If you want to be a sword wielding magic-user, go for it. Clerics may use edged weapons as well. With Weapons Mastery, it balances out. In addition to this, I used an article from issue 2 of OD&DITIES, Special Items for New PC‘s. I had them randomly roll for one item for each of their two characters.

I have four players with two characters each. I believe the primary characters are: the cleric, a mage, a Halfling and a thief. The secondary or “back-ups” are two Halflings, a mage and a thief. There is no dwarf and no fighters. This is not a big deal, as I had planned on throwing in two or three NPC’s to round out the party, depending upon their overall strength and needs. I believe I will add a dwarf and two 0 level men-at-arms commanded by a 1st level fighter. Plus, the Fortunate Fools as well, who will be a mixed adventuring party of 4 with 10 total levels between them. This sounds like a lot, but there is a method to my madness that I can not explain further at this time.

I had intended to run each of them through a solo adventure (one player with both of his/her characters), to give them a bit of background, a wee-bit of experience and perhaps some extra coin or a minor item obtained. I was going to spring board from having each of them going to the market to buy their weapons, armor and equipment. This would have been great, but frankly, character creation took much longer then I expected, it always does. During these solo adventures I was going to deliver two rumors to each of them. One of the two, all players would get, and another (rolled randomly) would be gotten by players individually. Not having time to run the solo adventures, I instead gave them each the shared rumor and their individual random rumors.

Rumors gained were:

The Fortunate Fools are hiring brave adventures to help them clear beasties from the Wizard Zebulon Whatley’s dungeon. They’re in the small village of Pendleton hiring candidates now (shared rumor)
Goblins have been spotted in the area and I ain’t seen goblins in these parts ever before
The Darkling Woods are haunted by slain priests of a best forgotten dark cult.
There used to be a Chaos worshipping cult in these parts. They had an abbey, but it’s crumbled and gone. Nothing is there anymore.
Kobolds ate the baby of Old Farmer Tann up the road. They broke in plucked the child right off the tit of Old Tann’s young wife. She was too young for him, if you were to ask me.

The next session will begin with the players in Pendleton seeking to be hired on as Retainers for the Fortunate Fools. I’ll try to resist having them meet in a tavern, but no promises.

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