Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An Evaluation of Watchfires & Thrones: Year One

Please forgive the cross-posting as this article appears on both Archive of the Rotten Moon and The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. It appears on the former since it concerns the Watchfires & Thrones campaign and has been repeated on the latter as it deals with old school roleplaying campaigns in general and may be instructive to those thinking of starting or at the beginning of a classic D&D game.

This Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of our Labyrinth Lord campaign. In the past twelve months, we’ve met thirty-nine times for a rough total of 150+ hours of gaming. The original intent was to have a game schedule of three weeks on/one week off, making for forty meetings a year. As you can see, we came very close to hitting that mark.

The Hard Numbers and Mechanics of the Campaign

When the campaign began, each player created two characters to help them survive the very lethal first two levels of campaigning. Many of those characters have come and gone, and with the exception of one player, no one has an original PC left on their roster. The largest experience point total for a single character is 14,848; the lowest is 2,500. We’ve had two players leave the group due to real life issues and a third player who had to take two extended leaves of absence for the same reason. Of the original three players from the first session, two remain active.

Player character deaths were rife in the early months of the campaign, but stabilized as the survivors advanced in level, a change was made to the critical hit house rule, and the players themselves learned from the mistakes of the past. There have been a total of twenty-two PC deaths (two of which were later raised from the dead) and three NPC deaths (including two dogs). The most PCs lost by a single player is nine.

The campaign itself has spanned two worlds: the original pulp sword & sorcery venue largely centered in and around the city of Rhuun and my traditional D&D campaign world of R’Nis. Between those two worlds the party has explored a dead sorcerer’s tomb, a temple dedicated to the Black Goat, a megadungeon that was built by aliens, Stonehell Dungeon, the ruined cellars of a wizard, a series of insect-infested caves, a ruined monastery holding the blood of a goddess, and (tentatively) a crumbling temple inhabited by hobgoblins. They’ve also participated in a street fair gone amok and defended a frontier homestead against an army of goblin raiders. Although many of the adventures have been homebrewed, other material has come from “The Ruined Monastery” by James Maliszewski, Night’s Dark Terror by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher, The Horror on the Hill by Douglas Niles, Temple of the Ghoul by H. John Martin, The Veiled Society by David “Zeb” Cook, and “The Pits of Bendal Dolum” by Doug Lyons.

There have been many rule selections and changes over the past year, and some have worked better than others. The campaign began using the Original Edition Characters rules for Labyrinth Lord, but changed to straight Labyrinth Lord minus thieves after two sessions, mostly due to the fact that I wanted to have monsters with variable damage dice. Character generation was 3d6 in order and two rolls allowed for starting hit points. Once the PCs left the pulp campaign world, Advanced Edition Companion rules were added to the game and starting attributes changed to 4d6 arranged where desired. Thieves also became available to players at that time. Critical hits were initially handled as a “20” results in double damage. This rule changed around the middle of the campaign to a roll of “20” meaning full damage. This resulted in less PC casualties. Clerics cannot cast spells at 1st level and must wait until reaching 2nd level to access their first daily prayer.

My intention was to run an open sandbox campaign where the players could choose what adventure seeds to pursue against a backdrop of a vibrant, constantly changing, living world. The plan was that the PCs would build their fame and fortune and eventually acquire or build a stronghold of their own. This endgame would effectively bring this portion of the campaign to a close.

Evaluation of the Campaign and its Progress

In my eyes, the Watchfires & Thrones campaign has been a successful one. I approached the game with an equal mixture of excitement and trepidation. This was to be my first time in the referee’s chair for more than session or two in almost a decade. I was confident with my decision to use Labyrinth Lord as the ruleset, but simply knowing the rules cold is by no means a guarantee of success. There are too many X factors that can scuttle a campaign before it hits its stride and I was out of practice in how to handle them. To my relief, the rust came off quickly and I’ve been able to handle most of the in and out of game issues with aplomb.

It is the rare campaign that is 100% successful, however, and Watchfires & Thrones is no exception. Looking back on the past year, I can see several missteps that I wish I had avoided and paths I should have taken. These might not have always been noticeable to my players, but they were glaringly apparent to me.

My first mistake was succumbing to gamer A.D.D. on the cusp of the campaign’s start date. Although I had been preparing to run things in my longtime campaign world of R’Nis, I decided at the last minute to switch gears and do a more hardcore pulp swords & sorcery setting instead. This meant that I effectively put myself back to square one in regards to prep work, which would continue to haunt me during the early sessions. I felt that the setting never really came to life for the players as I myself had no clear understanding of the campaign world outside of a handful of idle thoughts stung together on the flimsiest of frameworks. I was constantly trying to do work on the campaign world and was barely a step ahead of the players at any given time, which if you’re trying to use your roleplaying game as a recreational escape is not the best route to take.

That constant scramble led to my making the decision to transport the entire party to my regular campaign world via a magical portal. This allowed me to keep the campaign moving with the established characters while giving me access to all the work I had already done. But there were unforeseen, long-lasting ramifications to that decision.

The swapping of campaign worlds also occurred not long after the release of Advanced Edition Companion for Labyrinth Lord. Since the world of R’Nis had been forged in my days of playing AD&D and its inhabitants skewed in the direction of those rules, I threw open the floodgates of character generation for all subsequent PCs starting play in the new world. This meant that formerly verboten classes like thief, assassin, monk, and others were now playable. It also affected the manner in which attributes were rolled. Rather than using the 3d6 in a row method, I allowed “roll 4d6, drop one and arrange.”

While this decision didn’t result in a gross unbalancing of the game, I personally feel that it didn’t add anything to the campaign either. I had been concerned that the campaign was missing something by reducing the probability of someone rolling scores good enough to play a ranger or paladin and I wanted to allow those classes to be played. But after representatives of those classes entered the game, I discovered that they really don’t bring all that much to the table and, like I discovered with thieves, a campaign can roll merrily along without their presence. After having seen both methods of character generation in play to compare and contrast, I’ve come to the conclusion that 3d6 in order is the superior method for classic style play and I will likely be sticking to that system of character creation from now on. I’ll also be limiting other material from AEC in future games as well, preferring to rely on homebrewed materials that make the campaign world more uniquely my own over “stock fantasy D&D.”

My other major issue was my failure to take the desires of the players into account when working on the campaign. I should have questioned the players more often and earlier to better determine what they wanted out of the campaign. The problem, to my eyes anyway, was that I had anticipated running this wide-open sandbox world, one where the players would be free to chose from any number of adventure seeds. I did a lot of preparation to allow for this once we swapped worlds, only to discover that the group was pretty enamored with Stonehell and would happily continue delving there until they reached name level, uncovered all its secrets, or the campaign collapsed—depending on which came first. As the old line states: “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight…and don’t bring the whole sandbox when the guys just want to play in a hole in the ground.” It’s not a game-breaking issue by any means, but it does mean that I could have used my energies in a more productive manner by concentrating on my campaign tent-pole instead of the surrounding, never-to-be-visited locales.

There were (and remain) a few minor quibbles and reevaluations, but since this campaign was intended to get me back up to fighting weight, referee-wise, I’ve looked at these as lessons rather than problems. Amongst them are whether I will have future starting players roll up two characters and run them off and on. There are benefits to this, especially at starting level, but the dividing of experience amongst multiple characters makes for a slower level progression, which in turn limits me in regards to what fun monsters and magic I can throw at the party. I may allow a player to run multiple PCs in the future, but this would be by player choice rather than campaign design.

Somewhat connected to this issue is the use of training to advance in level, resulting in a time and money cost. I’m currently using training in my game, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this is baggage from AD&D that doesn’t have a place in original or basic D&D and their retro-clones. I’ve got a simpler system in mind, one that allows for more player choice when it comes to advancement, and I think my next and subsequent campaigns will do away with training completely if this other system works as intended.

One final problem bears mentioning as it is something every referee who runs a game long enough encounters: burnout. A few weeks ago, I was feeling this to great effect. My energy levels were running low and there was even one session that I really didn’t feel like having because I was at the end of my creative tether. I thought the campaign might be overdue for a temporary sabbatical as I recouped and regained my energy. However, I’ve continued to push through these feelings and it seems that I’m getting back into the groove of the game. The last two sessions have done wonders for my attitude, and although other real-life concerns remain to plague me and I have a tendency to want to do anything but sit inside and play once spring arrives, I’m hopeful that by continuing to work through the slack times the campaign will continue until it reaches its natural ending. My advice to other struggling referees: Keep pushing until you break on through the wall. It’s worth it.

Despite all these concerns, which may be more apparent to myself than my players, the Watchfires & Thrones campaign has been a great source of fun for the guys who come to the table each week. Some have stated on more than one occasion that this campaign is simply the best one they’ve ever played in. I’m prone to be modest in the face of such praise, but so long as everyone else is having a good time and keeps coming back for more, I’ll accept those compliments as intended.


Telecanter said...

Useful stuff to hear. Thanks for sharing.

What will you be doing for level advancement? I've just let characters advance immediately when they receive enough XP. The players seem pleased as punch, but it feels sort of anticlimactic to me, like there should be a ceremonial step of some sort.

Keith Sloan said...

Interesting...it's always good to hear how other DMs deal with long campaigns!

Greg Gorgonmilk said...

It's great stuff like this that make The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope one of my favorite game blogs.

"That constant scramble" ~ This sums up all my DM experience. I always feel as though I'm playing catch up between sessions. It can definitely be exhausting.

Nick Kessler said...

Great post, Michael, an enjoyable read. It does sound like you're getting a little down on yourself considering you took the role of LL, which is daunting enough in itself, especially when you're playing 39 times in one year! Anyway, I know you posted this way back in 2011, but it's always refreshing to hear experience/advice from dedicated DMs. I applaud you for being so resilient about ol'school role-playing.