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Session 23: The Rats of Thrax

January 4, 2011

How can you tell if your players enjoyed the last session?  Well, one possible way is to check your email a few hours later and see if you get a message like this:

We talked about it for a while and decided that we don’t want to sit around and meditate while massive rat armies horde up around us behind walls of flame. Our plan, instead, is to immediately run for it. We want to go *right now* to the western door of the office, open it, walk across the large hall to its western door (leading to the stairs), drink the potions that will disguise us as rats, open those doors, proceed to the diamond room, and boost ourselves onto the ceiling space next to poor, poor Alyssa. There, we intend to meditate a bit until Clarence can levitate our asses out of there. We’ll have our invisibility potions sort of ready to hand for in case we need to use them, and the whisk-us-to-Oz amulet ready in case all else fails. It’s an important point that we plan to drop at least one volume of the Concordia before using the Sylvester escape hatch, should we need to use it.


Putting aside the campaign-specific gobbledygook (some of which I’ll explain later) the take away here is that after the session ended and I bid them all adieu, the players conferred “for a while” about their next course of action.  And concocted a multi-stage plan for the next session with well thought out contingencies.  This is as good a way to tell that I got to them as I’ve ever encountered.  Awesome.

So, what happened, on this the 23rd session of my 18 month long game?  Well, the characters went down through three dungeon levels that they “cleared” long ago,  encountered an enemy that they’ve dealt with on multiple occasions, and grabbed a magical item that they already knew was there.  In other words, as far as maps, treasure and monsters are concerned, there was absolutely no new ground broken.  And again, I point to the above email as proof that it was Awesome.

What worked, exactly?  A lesson learned from Philotomy’s OD&D Musings.

As you may have gathered, the campaign is centered around a Megadungeon in the classic sense.  The eponymous Dungeon of Thrax, as a matter of fact, which is a massive underground ruin of untold depth, ever-surprising dangers, and pervasive mystery.  You know, D&D shit.  For years, I turned my nose up at the very idea of such a thing for the same reason that so many forum dwellers deride it to this day:  a game about kicking in doors and killing stuff, clearing level after level and hauling gold home?  BORING.   I want to throw the ring into Mount Doom and save Middle Earth! And, of course, what they miss and what I missed for so long is that the Megadungeon is… alive.  Living, breathing, growing, changing.  Not so much the walls and stones and stairs and so forth, although they certainly COULD, but rather the shit that lives down there.  The monsters waiting on the other side of those kicked in doors.  They’ve got reasons for being there and motives and plans and just because the players have mapped out one level fully doesn’t mean that things are going to be left alone when they head off back to town.

Exhibit A:  The Rats of Thrax.

Your standard Ratman, really.  Oh, they have a background, an origin story if you will, rooted in the mythic history of the dungeon, but let’s face it, they’re your average, every day ratmen.  They essentially fill the same niche as goblins, a low-level, intelligent enemy that can be scaled up through numbers and cunning.  To my mind, they offer a number of advantages over goblins, the most important of which is that players don’t *quite* know what to do with them the same way they do with Tolkien-esque goblinoids. Goblins you can just slaughter mercilessly and never feel too bad about it and anyone who has ever played D&D knows that deep in their bones.  But ratmen?  Well, maybe you can talk to them?  Make an alliance?  Stay on their good side?  But they’re vain, and tricky, and unexpectedly clever, and a tense alliance went suddenly wrong when the players infringed on shit they didn’t know they were infringing on.  A dynamic, changeable relationship, in other words, which is the heart of any good drama.  Here are two entities with their own motivations forced into interaction with each other:  How will it go?

And there they are, these ratmen, down in the Megadungeon, pursuing their own ends.  When the players leave a room, the ratmen might very well enter, and what will they do there?  It’s been wonderful for the campaign-  a persistent “other” that can be kind of coexisted with, or at least avoided, but that is always *up to something*.  And the ratmen have gotten to my players moreso than any other monster, trap or circumstance, to the point that last session, I SWEAR to you that the players, sitting in their living room playing a skype D&D game, suddenly realized that they’d been whispering to each other for fear that the ratmen in the dungeon might hear their out-of-game conversation.

I steeple my fingers and intone in my best Montgomery Burns voice:  “Excellent.”

(PS:  That totally awesome ratman pic was drawn by Erik Loiselle, and can be seen in its original form HERE.  You can  buy a print of it, or a greeting card.  For ratman themed holidays.)

Briefing for a descent into Thrax

January 1, 2011

Tomorrow, my group and I will have our 23rd, no 22nd, no 17th, no 25th session.  By which I mean, we will have the next session in our  line of sessions stretching back to May ’09, and I really wish I had kept a little better track of these things because, although it surely doesn’t matter to anyone, least of all me (in any real sense), I wish I could point to a real, definite number and say “See!  23 sessions!  So!”  But I can’t.  Instead, I will do what any good DM does and choose something kind of arbitrarily and then commit.
Tomorrow, my group and I will have our 22nd session.  Yes, 22 sessions of dungeon delving the Old Schoole Way, 22 sessions of blood, routs and slaughter, 22 sessions of houserules tried and backpedaled on, 22 sessions of “Oh, please let them open this door… please, please, please.”  And today I am preparing.

Here is what “preparing” means to me:  Staring into space, picturing how it might go;  Practicing NPC voices (because when you have a primary antagonist with a Count Floyd accent, you can’t not practice it every chance you get);  and, of course, toying with the idea of actually stat-ing up The Villain, but somehow finding  better things to do.  The single most wonderful thing about the Old School Way is that I’m pretty sure I could stop all preparation right now and still have a perfectly enjoyable game where my players don’t suspect that I’m shirked DM-duties.  But today is a “preparing is half the fun” kind of day, so I’m going to go ahead and whip up that Villain and jot down a few notes about things that have changed in the dungeon since their last adventure.  Today, I’ll enjoy it, but I’m happy to have the option about how much energy to expend on it.

What I play, and why I play it

December 30, 2010

Three years ago, I lived in Austin and I GMed an Ars Magica campaign.  And it was awesome.  But god was it hard.  Labor intensive.  I’m talking historical research, philosophical rules debates, wiki page management, hour long character generation, hour long spell creation, primary player characters, secondary player characters, tertiary player characters, troupe-style GMing, point-allocation home-base creation, spread sheet inventory management, and formulae for figuring out how long it takes to read a frigging book.  Like I said,  I LOVED it, but I would spend hours each week working on aspects of the campaign and STILL have anxiety attacks before games.  When I moved away and the campaign necessarily came to a close, I was sad that the story was over, but not exactly unhappy about losing that particular source of sleepless nights.  In fact, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I might be done with RPGs altogether.

But then, about two years ago, the itch came back.  If you’ve played or GMed RPGs, you probably know what I’m talking about.  An idea bubbles up to the surface of the brain, a vision of a war-torn kingdom or a doomed spaceship or a walled village on the edge of an irradiated jungle.  Something that plucks at the synapses for a while and inspires a run of daydreams, but nothing that I’d really like to write about.  And the choice for me has always been to either forget about it, simply let it slip back into the subconscious and fade away, or, in the words of Principal Skinner, make a game of it.

So there I was, newly returned to the city of my birth, Albuquerque, NM, with that old RPG itch asserting itself, when a friend of mine invited me to his D&D game.

Truth be told, I had been done with D&D for about a decade and didn’t really relish the idea of returning.  But I had really enjoyed it once upon a time, and the more I thought about the things I had liked, the more interested I was in reacquainting myself with it.  Besides, it was a new edition, the 4th, and I was curious to see what had become of my lost love in the hands of Hasbro & co. So, I said yes, and I played a few games.

Long story short:  I hated it.  Too rigid, too different than what I remembered, too many frigging numbers to enter on the character sheet, too many hours spent on the same damn fight, too little time to spend trying out crazy ideas and causing miscellaneous trouble.  BUT, the old D&D embers were still smoldering somewhere inside me, and just enough fuel had been added that I now actively wanted to find the game that I remembered.  So I did what every other unfulfilled role player does:  I took to The Forums.  At the time, they were filled with 4e backlash and counter-backlash and counter-counter backlash and you get the idea, and I got a certain thrill reading over the various bile filled invectives for and against, and somewhere buried in the muck and slander I found a link to Grognardia, and thence to Swords and Wizardry.

When my old RPG group reasserted itself through the magic of Skype, Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox became our game of choice.  Here’s what I like about it:

–  No brainer setting.  There’s nothing to explain, we all know what D&D is like.  Wizards and warriors and elves and dwarves and all that shit. Nothing to explain.  Now, as we’ve played, the setting has grown in its own quirky direction, and there are hints of a cohesive world that assert themselves in our sessions, but aside from a one paragraph setting pitch I sent my players at the beginning of the campaign, I’ve NEVER had to explain anything outside of play.

Stripped down, classic D&D mechanics.  Look, D&D has always kind of been an ugly system that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense if you think too hard about it, but in its original form it offers the Prime RPG Virtue of Staying Out of the Way.  Rules look-ups are nonexistent, monsters and bad guys take about 4 minutes to fully flesh out (or 30 seconds to whip up on the fly), characters can be generated in 10, every one knows how a fight goes down and everything else can be improvised. Which brings me to

House rules are welcome–  Now, I know that any decent group will probably house rule every single system that comes their way, but the law of unforeseen consequences can play hell with some of the more complicated rulesets out there.  There’s something comforting about tinkering with a minimalist system in that it’s easy enough to leave the parts of it that work alone and focus on the stuff that you want to change in isolation.

The tropes–  And by this, I mean the rules, not the setting.  Clerics turn undead, magic users are pasty weak fellows who later blossom into destruction engines, fighting men are the utility class, and every once in a while a poison needle pricks you and you save or die.  Yeah, these things are weird and quirky, but they’re also uniquely comforting.  D&D is the comfort food RPG, and god love it for being so.

Now, you’ll notice that I’m pretty much using Swords & Wizardry and D&D interchangeably, and that’s on purpose.  S&W isn’t really a game in its own right, it’s a (and please understand that it’s still kind of hard for me to use this term with a straight face) “retroclone”, which is to say, an imitator of the original Dungeons & Dragons edition from the late 70s with a few modifications, so why pretend otherwise?

So now, something like 18 months later, I’m running a more-or-less biweekly game with my old players, and we’re loving it.  It’s a blast, and it doesn’t require any more sleepless nights to keep it going.  Oh, way back at the beginning I did a bunch of work designing dungeon levels and so forth, but these days I only need an hour or so of prep time before a session and I love that.  At this point anyway, I don’t see myself wanting to play anything else.

A stone door, carved with mysterious runes

December 29, 2010

Well, why not have an OSR blog?

I play D&D, I’ve been following this OSR thing since nearly its inception, and I have opinions.  No, make that Opinions… capitalized for Extra Self-Importance. Opinions and Ideas. And, at the moment anyway, free time.

So then, a blog.  A place to hold out my Opinions and Ideas to the internet at large and, you know, see what happens.  “Foster discussion”, that’s the sort of thing to write here.  Yes, with my Opinions and Ideas I will Foster Discussion.  On Dungeons and Dragons.  In other words:  Ego is enough.

But what about you, oh internet traveler?  Why should you stop and read my Opinions and Ideas, and why should you assist me in the Fostering of Discussions?  On Dungeons and Dragons?  What can I offer you?  3-7 posts per day examining every aspect of this hobby in all its minuteness?  Heavy metal ‘tude and shotgun iconoclasm?  Goofy surfer charisma and cooking lessons?  A commitment to calling everyone else an assholePorn stars?  No to all those, I’m afraid (and I’m especially broken up over the last one, trust me).

How about this:  Lighthearted, yet earnest, discussion of a game that you and I both enjoy, and just a touch of pretension, because it’s in my bones and I’d be lying to us both if I insisted it wouldn’t be here.