Archive for the ‘Behind the Screen’ Category

We had a good game last week, first in a while really.  Gathering more than a half dozen adults around a table to do something other than eat, drink, work or watch television is no mean feat.  And it was a good game besides; everyone invested, interested and having a great time!  The previous session hadn’t gone well, so last Wednesday night was a real treat.

As Dungeon Master I feel responsible to the entertainment of my friends, so these sessions, the good and the bad got me thinking.  And it seems to me all of us, yes me but you too, worked hard, felt committed to the game, and something more.  The story.  Lots of words have been let to describe RPGs as storytelling.  Games like Fiasco and Future Shock, Robin Laws recent work all simply and elegantly bring groups to a place where they can tell stories.  But I’m fairly convinced the central driver isn’t the mechanics of the game, but the people playing it, or more to the point how they’ve chosen to play together.  My experience, and if there’s a place I can make that claim it’s here, suggests groups play well when their members strive to-

  1. Guide the narrative, beyond the characters player and non,  the treasures and traps there’s the story.  Death and destruction,  fortune and glory are not assured at this table. What is certain is the chance to discover who we are together, and what we should do.  Let’s each tell our part.
  2. Respect the rules,  for how else here or in any game do we know we’re playing together?   Marking down arrows and hit points lost and gold spent simply and elegantly ensures you and I are telling the same story.  How lonely Lance Armstrong must feel competing all those years by himself..
  3. Maintain focus,  regardless of our desires and intentions only word and deed move this story along.  And we can’t all talk at once.   Let’s attend the story instead,  and give it and who has it now our full attention.
  4. Remember time and place,  be glad for where you are now.  Stories, not characters jump moments and locales.   As you release the narrative for others to carry may it return to you.
  5. Enjoy good company!  Writing and speaking this way brings me joy.  Let’s enjoy the game together.   And should rules stymy us let us change them!

All these elements of course work together.  Remembering you’re character isn’t in the same corridor where your friends currently battle zombies allows you to enjoy the melee and give them the focus they need to maintain a dramatic tone.  Running out of arrows or forgetting to don armor before battle can take a bad turn – or make a real statement.  Think Sel walking into the Temple grounds in a flowing dress surrounded by wolves and followed by an arrow storm.  Fucking cool.  Your oversight just made the story that much better.

Don’t think I as the DM am above this advice.  I cannot enforce these points as a creed; I won’t.  But I will take responsibility for my part.  Here that means returning to adjudicating rules in a combat round or less.  But it also means spending my time to set the scene so everyone can work that time and place into the story.  I also think I’ll keep my liquor until after play on game nights.  Beer makes me slow, and you’re quite the crowd to pursue.

Hopefully you’ll excuse the paucity of this creed, this covenant for play.  I choose my words carefully.  May this note help you better enjoy the game. It isn’t that I cannot tell this story without you.   I cannot tell this story at all.   So let us at it!


Read Full Post »

No doubt, this could be the death of any Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  Having slogged through foul dungeon corridors riddled with harrowing traps and populated by creatures written specifically to kill, what delver in their right mind wants to face the ultimate challenge – THE TAX COLLECTOR!?  What DM could possibly be so cruel, having levied through violence and atmosphere a price for glory, a fee for simply walking into a town?  Well Gary, for one (May His name ring around convention center concession stands for all time!) –

“It is important in most campaigns to take excess monies away from player characters, and taxation is one of the better means of accomplishing this end.”  (DMG 90)  See, cruel right?  Or is it?  After all he wrote AD&D as a long form means of exploring “Heroic fantasy” with rewards “made of fortunes and king’s ransoms in loot gained most cleverly and bravely and lost in a twinkling by various means – thievery, gambling, debauchery, gift-giving, bribes and so forth.”  Not much of a Tolkensian, Gygax preferred more fantastic, and economically debauched heroes like Fafrd and Grey Mouser, Conan, Elric etc.  And no small wonder!  Even Lawful Good parties dedicated to eradicating Elemental Evil need weigh their lofty ideals against the needs of the many – and the many need roads to travel, water to drink, and of course men-at-arms to guard tax monies..

Gary (May His dice always crit in play!) then goes into lavish detail defining and describing the duties, exizes, fees, tariffs, taxes tithes and tolls levied to keep the powerful in power and the orc hordes at bay.  We have a campaign to play here, so I’ll skip most of that for a modest summary of some costs delvers, crusaders, raiders and other adventurers will encounter in and around Verbobonc County.  The ‘Bonc in this case comprises the city and immediate metro area, as well as Hommlet, Nulb and even far off Sobanwych – the reasons for which I’ll make clear.

Duties on goods foreign (ie not originating) in Verbobonc County = 1% sales value, 2% for non-residents.  Note this applies to the City, Hommlet village, and even Nulb.  Some fancy pants Castellan got it in his head less taxes would spur trade and rejuvinate the area – what was he thinking?!?

Luxury and Precious Goods Tariff = 2% sales value, forms required for completion granting right of sale

Entry fee to Verbobonc city = 1 copper per head, 5 for non-residents

Flat Residence Tax of 10 copper per peasant, 5 silver per freeman, and 3 gold per noble or gentleperson per year.  Needless to say the count is not loved, but it makes up for the low duties on foreign goods..

Sales Tax of 5% charged to all non-residents

Tolls of 1 copper per head, 1 per wheel, twice that for non-residents exists for the road leading to and from Veluna and Furyondy.  Tolls aren’t levied on the low road from the Kron Hills through Hommlet, Nulb and Sobanwych.  Then again there’s only about thirty men at arms to patrol that stretch.  And we wouldn’t want to damper free trade..

These relatively low taxes on everything save the ordinary joe were meant to spur trade, trade that would help the Count pay off the usurious loans issued by Veluna and Furyondy to pay for their role in the Temple Wars.  However the resulting lack of funds means the important road from Dyvers is almost entirely without patrol, and the Velverdyva river is a free for all.  Cheap to travel, but dangerous.  Furthermore the high Residence Tax (did I mention the property tax?) most places save Hommlet means most folks are not big fans of the count.

Remember those men-at-arms, patrolling roads, eating donuts?  Yes they keep the orcs (Bugbears, Gnolls, Kobolds and the occasional Bullitt) at bay.  They also, um, ‘assist’ the tax collector from time to time, bringing into town those travelling without a bill of goods showing a ‘Taxes Paid’ stamp for prosecution on tax evasion.  The penalty?  Well a hefty fee of course..

One final note on taxes in AD&D.  Recent debates surrounding the origins of our hobby (See Jon Peterson’s 2012 Playing at the World; you’ll see I’ve included his Blogspot above) contemplate the cross over in role play from Napoleonics to Fantasy in 60’s versions of a LARP called Braunstein.  In it Napoleonic companies are managed (or mismanaged) to and from the battlefield through a fictional city, replete with a cast of characters including burghers, merchants, thieves, strumpets, beggars, proles and, of course, tax collectors.  Without the pesky hack and slash monsters afford these early parties were forced to role play their way through this town.  So just because Gary (may his Hot Pockets long sizzle!) first proposed these taxes doesn’t mean enterprising and imaginative players cannot find ways around them..

Read Full Post »

Look at the cover of the First Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), the one with the wrap around illustration.  There we see two heroic men, a Fighter and Magic User, battling a Djinn for the life of their beautiful, blonde scantily clad thief.  Change the sexes, classes and combat equipment and you have the typical dungeon delvers we know and play today.

The First Edition Player’s Handbook was published before the DMG, and shows a distinctly different collection of characters.  All men I admit, but the Fighter and Magic User are assisted by a collection of Men-at-Arms, porters and other hirelings and henchmen. Now answer me this; on which cover do we see the Player Characters (PC) clearly triumphant?

Earnest G Gygax (Praised be his name!) came from a different class of tabletop player.  Schooled first in unstructured, Napoleonic LARPS, and on the cutting edge of medieval fantasy role playing, Gygax (long was his wisdom!) never mistook swords and sorcery as an excuse to violate physical laws or common sense.  If Mordenkainen, Robilar, Otiluke and Tenser wanted to schlep mounds of gold from Castle Greyhawk, you can bet your Bag of Holding they hired somebody to do it.

1.  So what is the difference between Hirelings and Henchmen?

“Henchmen are defined as the associates, companions and loyal (to a degree) followers of a player character.. They are useful in individual adventures as a safety measure against the machinations of rival PCs, provide strength to the character in his or her stronghold, and lastly serve as a means of adventuring when the PC is unable to.”  (DMG p 29 and 34)

“Hirelings are the servitors, mercenaries and employees of the PCs.  Most hirelings.. are typically employed at such a time as the character in question has an established stronghold.  Common, standard hirelings are the usual craftsmen and laborers taken on by lower level characters.”(p 28)

2. The Dungeon Master’s Guide makes my eyes bleed.  English por favor?

Henchmen are essentially first level non-player characters (NPCs), Fighters, Magic Users, Thieves and the like, who adventure alongside the PCs and get involved in the same kind of dirty work.  Hirelings carry torches and treasure, look after the horses, and clean up once the slaughter is done.  Although different in profession and outlook, the same social and economic factors impact loyal followers and mere servitors alike (see #7 below).

3. How do I hire hirelings?

If you’re hiring to adventure far afield from town and village count on spending double to triple normal wages for a three in six chance of finding the right person for the job.  Luckily for you lower level PCs that means 3 GP a month for a porter, or 9 GP/month for a pikemen.  Gygax (in his Beneficent Ambiguity) suggests each sort “will be found in the appropriate section or quarter of city or town,” or reference pages 28 through 34 of the DMG.

4. How do I hire henchmen?

Adventurers are pretty unique, so according to Gygax (may his pencil remain sharp!) only about one in a thousand city dwellers count as first level PCs interested in employment.  To find them he details several steps and outlines costs incurred for what we’d recognize as a full on marketing blitz minus the LinkedIn (p 35). Incentives begin with base one hundred gold pieces for a 25% chance of interest, then go onto magic items offered (+15%), quarters and support (maybe 5%) duties requested and shares of loot offered.  Never fear however, the eventual chance this NPC will sign on is affected by your Charisma Reaction Adjustment (PH p 13).

5.   What is a Hobilar and why should I hire one?

Expert hirelings generally follow divisions of labor similar to those found in our post-modern society.  Pikemen, archers, sages and castellan each play an important role protecting a stronghold or projecting a PC’s sphere of political influence.  Adventuring for the most part however requires a different kind of character – one most PCs would immediately recognize as their own, ie a henchman.

6. But Gary would never say never!!

Lighten up Francis.  While you probably want to leave Hobilars and other cavalry outside the dungeon (Gygax in his prudence says horses can’t dungeon crawl) there’s no reason you cannot bring a half dozen footmen with you.  Following that division of labor however your DM (may this being have mercy on us!) will only recognize the expert hireling as good at one thing – say archery – rather than being proficient with an entire arsenal.

7. How does my Charisma affect the loyalty and obedience of hirelings and henchmen?

Some situations will sorely test the loyalty and obedience of hirelings and henchmen.  Gygax (in his Infinite Anality!) identifies a raft of factors, from economic considerations like share of the spoils and organizational aspects like discipline and training, to cultural issues like alignment, race, length of employment and other special considerations on page 36 of the DMG.  To keep your DM honest and speed game play (may this being have mercy on us!) you may consider calculating some of this yourself beforehand.

Read Full Post »

When I reach a lull in gaming activity, and feel dry of the inspiration that fires my run, it helps to dwell on my favorite games, and geek on their awesomeness.  So I submit this question to you in the spirit of better game play and profound geek-itude.

Now I’ve run a fair share of games, and got it handed to me in more than a few.  So I’ve learned to nip rules fights in the bud to get on with the real thing.  That means knowing the rules; a real chore given the author.  When that author is none other than the great EGG, things become more interesting still..

My question is simple: how should surprise work in Dungeons and Dragons?  They probably worked out this question in later versions, but we’re talking Gygax here.  How did he understand it?  You see I’ve got this halfling that says he cannot be surprised; a one in seven chance on a six sided die equates to zero.  Something like that.  Well I’m glad the little guy feels safe (as does his crew), but I’m responsible for making the game exciting; no danger makes AD&D dull.  That can be challenging without at least the occasional “Gotcha!”

So I’m doing a little homework into what the ‘old man’ said.  Now the Player’s Handbook (pg 17) grants halflings a 66.33% chance to surprise an opponent, with strings attached.  The hobbit must be either alone, or at least 90′ feet from his armored, noisier comrades.   The chance decreases by half if the halfling tries opening a door to get a jump.  Again, this is to surprise an opponent.   Dexterous burglers (those lucky folks with an 18 DEX) also gain a +3 Reaction/Attack adjustment (Ibid pg 11).  And while I cannot speak to his Move Silently skills (I don’t have the DM’s Guide with me on this plane) you have to presume a further advantage.

But does all this add up to a one in seven chance to be surprised, much less to surprise the bad guys?  Now based simply on his halfling-ness I would concede the one in four chance to surprise opponents, strings attached.  But that Reaction adjustment would seem to apply to being jumped, not on surprising the opponent.  Should say an Elf (1 in 3 chance to surprise in the Monster Manual) roll a five and the halfling roll a one, the former would have the advantage – but only by so much.  The Reaction Adjustment of the halfling would cut down the four segments of surprise to one.  Now I cannot say right now whether that translates to the whole crew, or just the halfling.  I suspect the latter, although the highest surprise in a party does apply to the whole party.

So we’ve accounted for the one in four chance with strings attached, but what of that one in seven chance to be surprised?  I put this question to the geeks at Geektown Tavern for their cogitation.  A character with a one in seven chance would effectively negate any special surprise abilities belonging to other monsters.  In a rules set dominated by statistics, why would Gary allow an incalculable ability?

Read Full Post »