Thursday, June 25, 2009

An Eye-Opening Dungeons and Dragons Session

Throughout my juvenile career as a dungeon master, I have had very few instances when I've prepared adventures for my players. Usually I'll have a vague idea about where I want them to go and maybe what kind of adversity they'll have along the way and I make it up as we go.

Usually I don't have to come up with much since my players like to roleplay a lot in safe areas before setting off on any quests or missions they'd find. It's not uncommon for us to play for an hour before I even introduce an objective for them to work towards. The characters are all so interesting on their own, we don't necessarily have to be in combat for it to be entertaining.

I ran a session last night, however, that I wanted to be different. I actually prepared a full host of potential enemies and presented my players with a mission almost immediately.

The mission was designed to make use of some of the more plunder-hungry characters in the party because it was (hopefully) a stealth mission with at least one piece of really bitchin' loot. Sadly, only one of three money-centric characters actually played it appropriately and he nearly died as a result.

The task was simple, they had to procure naval travel to a small farming island to the west and steal an arcane artifact of indeterminable function and return it to their paycheck NPC.

They ended up jumping on the first boat that passed through that could be persuaded with coin, despite the fact that it was going the opposite direction, had a full cargo hold to unload within a specified deadline and they were in a port town that sees trade vessels come through all the time.

Needless to say, passage on that barge was expensive as hell.

After two random encounters in transit, the group landed at the farming village to find it basically a clueless hippie commune that didn't fish as most coastal towns did, and grew corn and soy beans in what is otherwise a tropical region.

To give you any idea as to the understanding of my players, one of the group's two rogues actually asked "Does it look like a place where there would be traps?" To which, I repeated my description of the town and moved on.

Ironically enough, there actually was a trap but I couldn't exactly tell them flat out.

The group found out that the device was kept in a longhouse at the north side of town and decided to wait until nightfall to attack. Rather then go straight for the longhouse, our bloodthirsty ranger (who is surprisingly influential with the players) talked the other party members into attacking the various wooden huts around the town for fun, rather then actually going for the longhouse and completing the objective.

Needless to say, they found themselves beset by about 8 commoners armed with various farming implements and the dice did everything they could to kill the player characters. A surprisingly epic battle ensued in the town square and in various huts throughout town while the longhouse lay silent.

In all the commotion it was obvious that many of the players completely forgot what the mission was and were just enjoying a macabre sandbox filled with unarmored peasants.

After finally killing what appeared to be all the able-bodied fighting men in town, all the characters beset against the various women and children in the huts while one money-grubbing character (a swashbuckler) actually decided to try accomplishing the mission.

He pressed against the longhouse's front wall and smacked his fist against the front door in a manner that would make Solid Snake proud, in hopes of getting someone from the inside to open it and maybe step out.

He found himself engulfed in flames and unconscious.

The two rogues finally arrived at the longhouse to attempt finding and disabling the trap. Neither succeeded in finding the device or picking the lock and they actually set the trap off two more times before someone finally decided to find another point of entry.

They ended up busting through the roof, killing the final guards and getting the device. At this point, everyone was wounded, both rogues had proven that they're lousy at being rogues outside of combat and the dexterous swashbuckler was nearly dead.

Oh, and did I mention that the group has no healer? In fact, it was nothing but dexterous fighters: two rogues, a melee ranger, a swashbuckler and a swordsage.

I found out that "standard adventures" with traps, environmental pitfalls and critical thinking just don't work well with a group that has the balance of a breakfast made up exclusively of Hershey products and characters who pleasure themselves in chaos more than story progression.

I'm left with the impression that I could just draw out different towns and fill them with random NPCs for my players to kill and most of them would be happy with that.

It's a little sad actually because I had planned on telling a story.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Musings on the Compression of Time

As I mentioned in passing in a previous entry, I've been in charge of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with my friend Kato and a number of other local twenty-somethings who are living in the same hometown as their parents for the summer (many of whom aren't moving out once the fall rolls around, but that's another story).

Since this is my first foray into Dungeon Mastery, I have been reading up on a lot of the basic rules and concepts that underlay the game's own mechanics; not so that I can run a campaign to make Wizards of the Coast proud, but rather so that I can shatter them while still keeping the game world logical. Sadly, I did find one massive problem with my plans and that was with the pacing of my encounters.

In D&D, multiple weeks are supposed to pass in game time between each encounter. This allows the world to continue ticking while the players aren't actually at the table. This would also explain why you're able to loot ancient ruins and fight epic evils every single time you sit around the table. If the characters actually had to face such monumental challenges every day, they would be a little tense and stressed out to say the very least.

In a virtuous campaign, it's easy for a group of adventurers to hang out in a friendly keep or inn for a month, get a quest from the proprietor once in a while and then return once you've safely completed the mission. During the down time, fighters would be training and sparring while arcane spell casters would be studying lore in the libraries in an attempt to hone their skills. This allows level progression to take a reasonable amount of time in-game even if your players are burning through levels on a weekly basis.

Sadly, the pacing of my campaign doesn't allow for this kind of down time in the slightest, not to mention the fact that my players have decided to actually role play the majority of their downtime. If I were to use the standard XP model, it would take three months out of game time to get from level one to two, and therefore I would have a lot of angry players on my hands. But the flip side is that the characters are learning new techniques and skills that are making them exponentially more powerful within the course of a couple of days.

It's a conundrum really.

The fact is though, that the best moments in this game (at least when I'm DMing) take place when the players step up and act out their character's motivations. I'm really fortunate to have a group of players who have adopted their characters so thoroughly and they're all too interesting to not let them speak to each other. We have a barbaric elven ranger who loathes humans, an evil swashbuckling accountant, a crack-addicted rogue who suffers from immense paranoia and an autophobic human druid who likes to believe he's an elf, just to name a few.

And the players will seriously talk with one another for hours on end. As a DM, I love this kind of interaction and it makes the game an absolute blast, but according to the official D&D model, I shouldn't give them experience for it. I do anyway, simply because I'd like to reward them for playing well, but then we end up with a logic-shattering situation in which we have characters becoming physically more powerful simply by sitting around a tavern and talking about the weather.

Oh well, at least we're all still having fun, which I suppose is more important then the world functioning logically. Come to think of it, people can throw fire from their hands in this world, so maybe logic isn't necessary at all.