Some background. Notes towards a mission statement.
I’ve been running GURPS 4th edition games for the past few years, with mostly the same group of people. During this time, I’ve taken a more “story-driven” approach. The universe might not revolve around the PCs, but the story does, and so the events of the game were driven by the characters.
Over time, I’ve grown dissatisfied with the results. The amount of prep work I had to put in, versus the amount of payoff in game time, was growing onerous. On more than one occasion, I felt like my failure to “click” with a character had led to a lack of player enjoyment. I was having trouble coming up with moments for each character to shine. Even worse, I got the sense that my players were starting to rely on that approach; there was a distinct feeling of “I can’t wait to see how the GM gets us out of this one!”
Over the past several months, I’ve found myself reading about this Old School gaming stuff. Now, I started playing D&D back around 1984, but I don’t know that I’ve played a real dungeon crawl.* I remember laughing at all the usual things folks used to say to poke fun at dungeons: the ten-by-ten room with a huge ancient red dragon; the questions about how the orcs find food; asking where the goblins handle the call of nature… But more and more, I found myself thinking, those weren’t problems with the format, they were problems with having a 12 year old DM.
Obviously, I decided to give the Old School Dungeon Crawl a try. You did notice the synopsis of the first session, didn’t you? For this game, I’m all but reversing all my usual rules.
- I’ve always demanded that the players come up with relationships between themselves, to give the group a reason to adventure together. This time? It’s a gold rush town, everybody meets on the boat or in a bar. Joining a delve is about as formal a thing as joining a pick-up basketball game.
- Back story was encouraged, the most intricate the better. For this game, I don’t care. Have it if you want it, but I don’t need to hear about it, especially. If it’s important, it’ll come up in the game. If it doesn’t come up in the game, it’s not important.
- I’ve wanted the party to work together to heroic ends. This time, there’s no complicated philosophical goal or anything. The PCs are here to get rich. If need be, they’re going to bash in the heads of some goblins to get rich. I’m not pushing the moral quandaries.
- I’ve hand-waved things like Fatigue and encumbrance. Not this one. (I heard “You’re tracking time?” while marking off the time it took to walk down a long hall.)
- Every PC was a perfect, unique, magical snowflake. Not so! I’m making it a point to ignore the characters while setting up the dungeon. It is what it is, independent of the heroes. If they don’t bring a thief, there will still be locks and traps. Furthermore, the characters themselves are practically disposable, at least by GURPS standards — the templates in the Dungeon Fantasy PDFs were a big help with that.
The results, after all of one session, have been astounding.
Most importantly, of course, everybody had a good time, including myself. We played considerably later than we’d managed in the previous games, since I wasn’t running out of material. Everybody got to participate – even more, everybody got a moment to shine!
I’m seeing all the players engaged and working together to make decisions, and the decisions they make, make a difference. More than that, they’re making plans! As the party returned to town, they were discussing a group fund** and going in together on a cart. They’re following up on rumours, actively working the clues.
One thing that was really entertaining for me to see was how they learned and adapted along the way. Alric, the barbarian, took some damage early on from barging into a trap, and got a moment of respect from sucking up the damage without slowing down. Then, a little later, Needles had to handle an identical trap, and got his moment by disarming the trap without damage, without slowing down, and bringing the loaded crossbow along afterwards. I noticed, after that, they started to form a standard doctrine for door-opening, with Needles giving it the eye before Alric gave it the boot. They’re still learning how to work together, but I can see them learning.
So far, so good. I guess we’ll see how it goes from here.
* I mean, I must have, right? I remember one time when my fighter charged some guys, only to fall into a concealed pit trap. That must have been some kind of dungeon scenario…
** This is the second time they’ve tried this in one of my games. The first time, nearly all the characters were well-off, related, living together, and in business with one another. Those characters were reluctant to pool their resources. This time, the characters are a band of homeless murder-hobos who met each other, literally, on the boat ride over… and from the sound of it, they’re ready to write up a charter and incorporate. Weird, huh?