Monday, June 22, 2009


Everyone was flying. The whole party. I of course had known this since the beginning of the encounter, but it wasn't until a few rounds into that fight that I knew it. And once I knew it, for real, not just intellectually, but emotionally, I silently made the decision, in the middle of the combat, that the campaign was over and nothing could be done to salvage it.

The campaign was several months old at that point. I had started up a D&D 3.5 game in Iraq as my first tour was winding down. The Mahdi Army in Sadr City were, if not pacified, quiet most of the time. Everyone in the unit used all the spare time that was suddenly available to pursue whatever little recreational activity allowed them to maintain sanity. Some religiously worked out in the gym, some sat around and watched pirated DVDs. I started a campaign using the online SRD, one set of dice (my lucky ones!), game tokens from a dozen board games, and a hand-drawn battlegrid on a dry-erase board. Very minimalist and very fun. At first.

I ran the game twice a week. Starting with three players, the party soon consisted of five player characters (and a number of henchmen and animal companions). After expanding to seven players, I had to turn people away, admonishing them to start their own game (and pointing them toward the SRD). A few of them did, and I played in those games. But, my game would have spectators. Really. Guys would come back from a patrol down Route Bravo and stand off to the side and watch the game. It was eerie, in a way. But again, it was fun. At first.

As the party wandered through my sandbox, they rose in levels, but more importantly, the players rose in experience. I handed out treasure and XPs as if I was 15 again and running a 1E game. Several adventures per level, please. Of course, it was almost like being back in school, because we could play several times a week when we weren't running patrols. I ignored the "suggested wealth per level" guidance. I houseruled magic item creation - that is, item creation feats had to have a tutor in order to take them (and predictably, no tutors were to be had in the sandbox...)

I gleefully and without hesitation dropped in monsters too tough for the party. Hey, if they were stupid and went mucking around a place that was rumored to be home to giants and trolls, then they'd get hit by giants and trolls and have to beat feet out of there. But, more than anything, I let the consequences of their actions stand. The yuan-ti pureblood assassin that they weren't supposed to catch but did? I let that stand. Of course, they handed the yuan-ti over to the sheriff, who was actually a fallen paladin with his own agenda, but that stood too. The world was there and it was their job to explore it.

They learned to negotiate and think, not just mindlessly attack and sling spells. By the time they reached a "mini-climax" of the campaign, they handled the finale perfectly. An army of mail-clad hobgoblin mercenaries led by a fire giant is not a group that a few sixth-level characters should be fighting. They didn't. They did the smart thing and talked their way out of it. They even realized that the various townships would have to cooperate, because that army would be back. They set about forging alliances and arranging for outside help. Great fun!

At that point, we were all heading back to the 'States - at last. After the obligatory "let's blow a bunch of cash and drink Texas dry" weekends, it was back to regular work. Several of my players from Iraq were still around. We decided to do a sequel campaign, starting a year after the old one ended. This time, they, and the new players, decided to enlist the aid of a dwarven clan to outflank the growing hobgoblin threat in the mountains. But the dwarves wanted something in return. They wanted the party to explore Hammerkeep. This turn of events gave me the chance to use a great, great old Dungeon Magazine adventure (illustrated by no less than good old Dave Sutherland. How old-school is that?)

But, everything began to unravel. As I look back on it, the culprit was rules bloat. In Iraq, all we had was the SRD. I was the referee, judge, and final arbiter. Several of the players hadn't played since 2E, or even never at all, and they were fine with the way things were run. I run the game. I run it for you to play in, but it's my game. The rules exist to aid me in running the game, so I decide what is and how it is implemented.

But, back in the land of the free, the FLGS beckoned. The first session, a couple of the 3.5 "Complete" books were brought along by the new players. Ok, fine. More options = good, right? My battleboard was purchased, REAL miniatures were pushed around on it, and my computer had many, many MBs of PDFs to "help me out". Fun, right.

Not so much. There was (excuse my language) too much fucking shit at that table. Too many rules, too many goddamn laptops, too many books, and too much extraneous jazz that actually detracted from the experience, rather than enhanced it. Of course, I was only dimly aware of this at the time. Hammerkeep and it's nefarious derro masters awaited. I dove in and started running the game.

Until I realized that everyone was flying. A party of various warrior and cleric types, with one wizard, were all flying. Fly, Air Walk, giant eagles, what have you. I was ready to run D&D, and I ended up having to run Dawn Patrol with elves and derro. It sucked. It was a terrible, giant, mind-numbing nightmare of tedium. We spent all damn night counting squares, determining elevation, adjudicating area-affect spells (and their elevations!), and making sure attacks of opportunity weren't provoked by the simplest of actions. I even had one player ask me what affect or item the derro had that made them be able to phase in and out. My thought was "none of your business, pal!" Seriously. The players had all the rules. If they saw something they didn't know the rule for, they felt entitled to be provided with the information. Fuck that. That's not how I came up in gaming, and I'll be damned if I ever play that way. Again.

So, after the fight, I informed the group that the campaign was over. I'd be more than happy to play, but I didn't want to DM that game any more. Of course, some of them were a little perturbed. They'd put a lot of time into making "builds" for their PCs - some even going so far as to chart out a 20-level progression. My thought, later on, was "if you want to build a combo, bring some Magic cards over. I play that, too. But this isn't D&D."

It really wasn't. I ran another game in Iraq on my second tour, but again, it was a minimalist 3.5 game, with mostly newer players. I ran it like it was 1985. Only I had the books, and they didn't mind, because I ran a good, fun, game where great risks could be taken, and, if you lived, great rewards were yours. But it was only after reading Philotomy, Grognardia, and Delta that I realized, concretely, what I had been missing and what I'd have to do to obtain it. Drop the bunk, the needless complexity, and the "splatbook" explosion. Rather than try to hammer 3.5 into what I want to play (and I tried...), or houserule the hell out of 4E in order to approximate the type of system I like, I'd now much rather just play the damn system I like.

So, after all that, I have only one more thing to add...

...Fight On!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Unorthodox Party Composition

Reaching into the cluttered portable hole of my memory, I've pulled out a few party rosters from games past (either as a referee or player). Depending on the referee, the players, and the campaign, party composition can certainly have a great effect on how the campaign begins, lives, and ends.

For your amusement:

1) Unnamed 2E Campaign, 1996-1997
- Gnome Thief
- Human Bard (later infected with's a long story)
- Half-Elf Druid/Mage

I refereed this campaign. It's a good thing I was into evocative exploration and character interaction, because this bunch had zero melee capability. Great group, though, very effective at the meaty, political aspects that became the focus of the campaign. I sure as hell couldn't put them through a dungeon-crawl grind!

2) The Flaming Staff, 2E Forgotten Realms 1992-1996 (with periodic resurrections here and there)
- Three Human Mages
- Elf Cleric/Mage
- Human Fighter
- Dwarf Fighter (berzerker-type)
- Human Bard (played like a F/M/T, only human)
- Human Cleric of Gond

The party was named for all the spellcasters (the dwarf, bard, and cleric weren't even in on the first few sessions). The pure wizards dropped out, one by one, and the name became a bit of a joke, as this crew ended up being nothing more or less than high-level bandits. In Undermountain, no less.

3) B4: The Lost City, Moldvay Basic, 1982
- All elves

That's right, all elves. We were ten or eleven, and the prospect of being able to fight AND cast spells was enticing, I guess. We cleared out the pyramid and slew Zargon. Later, the DM (Ryan) let me look at the module, and I realized that Zargon wasn't dead for good (as we hadn't thrown his horn into the volcano). I don't remember caring, though. We had a lot of loot and I think I made 7th or 8th level by the time all was said and done.

4) Adlerweg Campaign, 3.5E, 2004-2005
- Elf Monk
- Human Cleric
- Elf Rogue

What a group of heavy hitters this was! Really, these guys actually were great at taking down foes. The cleric's player had never played before, and he kept the same spell list, just adding as he gained levels. The later addition of a wizard and a druid made it even stranger, but no less effective. As the ref, though, I had to be careful. This party dished out the damage, but the armor classes were awful and no one had any amount of hit points to write home about. (Let's not even get started on Jack, the guy who had 4 classes at 5th level. 3E supported some stupid stuff, didn't it?)

Anyone else have some fun/strange/unexepected party combos you especially remember?

The Ogre and the Cliff

Like a lot of D&D players out there, I had drifted away from D&D, and gaming in general, sometime in the late 2E era. I ran a very enjoyable campaign in late 1996 and early 1997, but after that, moves and lifestyle changes ended my gaming. I still picked up Dragon whenever I saw it at a bookstore, three or four times a year. I kept abreast of the hobby, even though I missed the so-called “2.5” Player's Option series. I followed with mild interest the wind-up to 3rd Edition, and, truth be told, I liked a lot of changes that were on the way.

Several of the changes I liked because I had run my last few 2E games with them, that is, no racial class restrictions or level limits, 3E-style sorcerer arcane spellcasting, a unified ability bonus table (just like the 1981 Moldvay set), ability scores for monsters, etc. It looked like, at the time, that Monte Cook, et al., were on the same sheet of music as I was. So it was, in late summer of 2000, I walked into The Game Preserve in Bloomington, Indiana, after seeing a handbill for a 3rd Edition demo game. “Let's see what this baby can do” was my attitude.

The DM was a nice enough fellow, and he handed out pregenerated character sheets. I later learned that these were the “iconics.” I got Krusk, the half-orc barbarian. I wanted to take the combat system for a spin before anything else, and a fighter-type seemed the best character to play in order to do that. I glanced over the sheet as he explained Base Attack Bonus. Simple enough, good man, let's play! (Although I didn't like the fact that my bow only shot once a round. I'd been shooting two arrows a round since 1980!)

I don't remember the adventure, except for the last encounter. I do, though, remember liking the defined battle grid, but being confused about Attacks of Opportunity. I'm pretty sure the DM didn't get it either. Really, though, not knowing the ins-and-outs of the system, I pretty much played like I learned to in 1980 with my cousin Mike and the Holmes Basic set – the same way I had played and refereed for twenty years: the DM describes the scene, the player describes his actions, and the DM adjudicates the result. In 2000 I wouldn't have articulated it thus – the realizations about the philosophical underpinnings of my gaming style would not happen for years (more on that later, though).

The last battle was with what the 4E crowd would call a “solo”, a lone ogre versus a group of first-level PCs. We battled a bit in his cave, near the edge of a cliff. Sovelis the ranger was down. My PC Krusk flew into his berserk rage. With my boosted strength, I charged the ogre, trying to push him over the cliff. That didn't work. I tried to leverage the ogre over. That didn't work either. A little perturbedly, the DM thumbed through the DMG and PHB, looking for a rule to cover my unorthodox tactics. Finally, the next round, I just pulled the greataxe off my back and killed the damn thing after two 1d12+4 hits.  

Frankly, I would have rather have thrown the ogre off the cliff. It was easier on the rules, though, to just fight. It seems obvious now – the rules were too dense, trying to cover every eventuality. Rather than rely on DM rulings, on common-sense adjudication, the rules called for, well, the rules. I walked away from that game a little irritated – not at the DM, but just vaguely annoyed. I did, though, walk away from the game with a newly-purchased set of the core rules. I love tinkering with systems, and I was looking forward to tearing into the game and seeing what made it tick.

I later learned of “Bull Rush” procedures and grappling rules. They blew, though. The game would slog down and become unbearable when these rules were invoked. Attacks of Opportunity – these too – many combats throughout the next few years seemed to revolve around AoO's, either provoking them or avoiding provoking them.

This is not not say that I didn't play in and run some very enjoyable games with 3E and 3.5. I did. But, every time the system annoyed me, every time the multilayered density of the system's attempt to codify and define everything frustrated my personal style, I thought back to the ogre and the cliff.

It's now well into 2009, and I've got some work to do. That ogre isn't going to throw itself over.