Friday, July 10, 2009

Creating On My Feet

The Stonehell session gave me the opportunity to put into practice something I’ve written about but have never been able to field test until now: creating at the game table rather than at the desktop. I’ve been guilty of the crime of doing too much advance world-building and fluff-spinning, as well as creating minor campaign details and obscure house rules long before they’re needed in actual play. Like my attempts to devolve my dungeon notes down into something less than novella-length, this is a work in progress.

Getting back behind the screen two weeks ago made me put my gold pieces where my mouth was. I could no longer safely philosophize that this was the way to do things from the safety of my Daern’s instant soap box. I’d have to see if I could really allow house rules and world design to occur in an organic way. I’m pleased to report that I can and did do just that.

Although it was just a single game session, I did manage to take two things away from it. One has to do with the cult responsible for the Temple of Evil™ the PCs explored. In the notes for Stonehell, the cult behind the temple is left undefined, as is the deity venerated in that ancient place. The reason for this was to allow any referee to customize his or her version of Stonehell to their particular campaign and to cut down of the word count for the one-pager. Considering that I’m the guy who created the dungeon, you’d think that I would have some idea of who the temple was meant for, at least in my own campaign. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), I didn’t. I figured I’d make it up if it ever became important.

When the characters began exploring it in game, I still had no concrete notion as to the divinity behind the temple. But as the hilarity and the over-the-top evil décor of the place came out during play, I began to get a notion. After the game, I toyed around with that notion a bit more and - oh yes- now I know who was once worshipped in that fane. Without revealing too much, it’s a new deity for the campaign; one that draws heavily upon Baron Samedi and spiced with a dash of the Comedian from Watchmen. Evil with a profound sense of gallows humor. I think he/she/it and those devoted to this entity have a lot to offer my little fantastical world. Time to think of an adventure seed to sow somewhere…

The second result of creating on the fly was a new house rule involving doors. Since I was running B/X, an open doors check was required to bypass any closed portal found in the dungeon. This has always been one rule that I agree with in theory but am often disappointed with in practice. I see the purpose of it: the dungeon is a hostile environment (a Mythic Underworld if you will). The characters can never be assured that they can rush into a room and take their enemies by surprise. Perhaps the dungeon itself is out to get them or it might just be the general state of disrepair that thwarts them.

In actual play, however, what sometimes happens is this: the strongest or second-strongest fighter attempts to open the door. He fails his open doors check. The next strongest gives it a shot and he fails. This is followed by a third attempt and continues on down the line until the scrawny magic-user lucks out with a 1 and the door pops opens. Comments are made that the strongest guys “softened it up” for him. The party then enters the room and the game continues.

I was looking for a way to be true to the intent of the rules, yet keep things moving in the game. I landed upon a solution during the Stonehell session. Dimly remembering reading that up to three people may make an attempt to open a door, I’ve decided that adventurers get three chances at a portal. If all three attempts fail, the door remains sealed until either A) the party employs tools to bypass the door (crowbars, mauls, axes – anything that creates a god-awful amount of noise to summon wandering monsters to dinner), B) the party exits the dungeon and attempts to try the door at a later date (maybe those monsters who can open every door have used it in the meantime and it’s no longer as tightly sealed), or C) magic is used on the portal.

The “three person rule” does exist and it’s mentioned in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Of course, its intent in that tome is to address the fact that most doors are 8’ wide and only three characters can fit into that space to make the attempt. The rule as read is that up to three characters may attempt to open a door at a single time. I just prefer to read it as three attempts total.

I’m hoping that this house rule will keep the game moving and will goad the party to move on unless they really, really want to find out what’s behind Door #1. It gives them a reason to re-explore sections of the dungeon previously visited too. I used this ruling during the game session and there remain three crypt doors that have not been breached. Given the bounty discovered behind the rest of the doors, I’m certain the party will return with crowbars, jars of lard, or whatever else they might think would allow them access to whatever may wait beyond. It seems like a fair compromise between the dungeon and its explorers.

One last observation from the Stonehell session is this: I refereed on my feet much more than I ever did in the past. In my younger days, I’d often spend the entire evening with ass planted firmly in my chair when I ran a game. I even mastered the art of using the referee’s screen as a prop, leering at the players from over its top or peering around its edges to simulate ambushing foes. For my return, I wanted to try a change of pace and brought a landscape format screen to use during the session. I thought being more visible would engender more trust with the players.

To my surprise, after the initial intro to the dungeon, I don’t think I sat down again until I calculated experience points at the end of the night. I have a theory as to why this change occurred. Prior to my exodus from the hobby, my last gasp at refereeing was a long series of live action games, which by their very nature require the referee to be constantly moving around. I think I might be retaining that physical memory and my body now needs to be standing in order to adjudicate. My other thought is that we were using a dry-erase map grid during the game session and having to update the grid and move miniatures probably led to me spending most of the evening upright. It’s probably a little of both. Whatever the case, I must say that I enjoyed doing it that way and it certainly cut down on the amount of liquids I drank and the subsequent bathroom trips, which were much less than when I’m in the role of a player in a session.


Chris said...

Love the 'three attempts' idea. That's so getting yoinked.

As for the standing to referee thing. I've noticed that a little myself recently. Back in the day I'd be lodged securely behind the screen; no more likely to move than a limpet from its rock. Now I'm much more likely to bound about the place, like some weird gaming Gollum.

Having only limited LARPing experience myself ("Agh! No like getting hit with sticks while knee-deep in mud"), I don't think it's a LARP thing. Maybe it's a 'being unfraid to play' thing that comes with age?

P_Armstrong said...

In B/X I allow a character to try to open a door as many times as they want with the knowledge that what ever is on the other side has time to ready themselves and every failed attempt also gets a wandering monster check.

JB said...

If I remember correctly, I used to rule that a door could not be opened by a character weaker than than the strongest character that had tried and failed. If the 16 strength fighter had thus failed to open the door, the 7 strength magic-user would have no chance to do so.

Anonymous said...

@JB: That's interesting. But wouldn't that just mean that PCs would then send the WEAKEST person to try first and work their way up? Rather than starting with the strongest and working down until someone succeeds?

That doesn't seem right, either.

Timeshadows said...

Great post.
Kudos. :)

Bob Reed said...

It's funny what you said about being on your feet during a game. I also find myself on my feet all night while DMing B/X. Partially, but not totally, because we use a lot of minis. I actually get a bit physically tired after 4 hours or so jumping around my end of the table!

Steve H said...

Every week when I'm running my own 4th Ed game, I find I spend more time standing and walking around the players than sitting behind the screen. Your mention of our mutual LARP days may have keyed me into WHY, finally.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I love the blog. I haven't played anything in 15 years and Stonehell has made me hunt down my old group. We meet tomorrow for the first time in over a decade and I'm running it using Labyrinth Lord.

The standing up bit made me think. I'll probably find myself doing it and I think it has something to do with the experience of delivering presentations in a work environment.

As for opening doors, I hadn't given it any thought, but the way I read the rule is that the roll is simply to open the door and gain surprise. Subsequent attempts, or an attempt where surprise won't be gained don't require a roll.

Keep it up matey, you're doing a sterling job.

Crusty One

Anonymous said...

I ran into the same trouble with the B/X approach to doors; my reading of the "three person" rule was that up to three characters can attempt at once to smash the door, and that in theory they could continue this until they succeeded. However, this did get a little tedious in play when every single door had to be forced.

I made two changes. First, i marked on the Stonehell map doors that were likely to be stuck by virtue of being rarely used by the inhabitants, and being exposed to moisture, decay, and the like. As the players delve deeper into the dungeon, they'll find that more doors resist them, even those that are frequently passed with ease by monsters - mythic underworld rules gradually kicking in. (The Asylum is likely to be the first place this becomes the norm.)

The second is similar to Anonymous, above: I decided that any door can be smashed open eventually, but if it takes more than one attempt, there is absolutely no chance of surprising whatever's on the other side. If they successfully smash the door, they get to roll for surprise as normal.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

I also DM from my feet. Need more practice DMing "on" my feet, from the hip as it were. I use the landscape screen but it still blocks too much of my view. Also, I get excited, gestulate, jump around, couldn't stay seated if I tried. Nothing to do with acting or LARPing.