We Play The Game We Deserve, Not…

by mshrm

I’ve started detecting signs that the Old School Dungeon Crawl campaign might be coming to a pause, some time soon.

Oh, don’t worry, I would never leave the PCs frozen in time at the bottom of the dungeon for anything short of real-world natural disaster or physical violence. I’ve still got a GURPS Cliffhangers character who has been stuck in the middle of diving into shark- and assassin-infested waters to rescue his non-swimming buddy for the last nigh-on-twenty-years. I’m sympathetic to the need to wrap up the story.

But, the restlessness is setting in. Everybody seems ready to switch over to the long-anticipated post-apocalyptic game. The dungeon will still be there, when we want to return.

So, of course, I’m all ready to do the autopsy while the patient’s still walking around. Sort of a pre-mortem, I guess. What have we learned from these past 18 sessions of crawlin’ around the dungeon (and one side trip to the nearby jungles)?

* * *

I would have done some things differently with the dungeon design, if I knew then what I know now.  To start with, I knew that I wanted the players mapping. With this in mind, I tried to avoid drawing up a map that would be too difficult to describe. I tried to build in structures that would reward mapping — the classic example, of course, being the secret room that only become apparent when you notice the blank spot on the map.

In practice, the mapping has been a bit hit-or-miss. If the dungeon were more spread out, with more chances of getting lost, I think the players would be more diligent about marking their path, if not actually mapping. If the dungeon were more complicated, it would be easier to get lost, but harder to describe and harder to map. The way it has played out, though, the party is rarely in danger of getting lost. For the most part, every place they’ve explored has been within fleeing distance of some place they had explored on a previous trip.

It’s notable, though, that these past couple of sessions, where they’ve gone further into the unknown, they’ve neglected to keep a good, accurate map, for one reason or another… and they’ve almost immediately gotten lost. I’ve been wondering, when we pick up next session, will the players still retain enough spatial awareness to find their way out?

If not, wouldn’t it make an amusing sub-campaign?  It’s like something out of Tolkien:  “The wizard said, keep to the path, but did we listen?”  The party steps fifty feet off the beaten path, gets turned around, and can’t find the exit. Spends forty days and forty nights living in the dungeon like crazed goblins. Runs out of torches on day two. Runs out of iron rations on day five.  Roasts giant spider over coals. For three days, obtains water only through licking condensation from the cold stone walls of the dungeon. Now that would be a warm-up for post-apoc!

Betcha Rolf eats McSwayze before the 30th day.

* * *

Which leads to the next topic:  resource management. The Old School Dungeon Crawl is all about keeping track of those resources, making them stretch, getting the return on the investment.

How many torches do we need?  First question is, how long do we intend to stay down there with lit torches? Second question is, how many do you have lit at one time?  You don’t want your one and only torch to go out, you want redundancy. Or do you gamble and cut one corner or another?  (The ostensible reason for the anti-magic zone from last session was that Bob and his party had hoped to strip any magical buffs from charging attackers. The deeper reason was, I wondered if the party had gotten so comfortable with their cold torches as to neglect to pack other light sources.)

How much food to pack?  If we go in for the afternoon, anything more than a granola bar and a canteen is a waste of encumbrance, but if we go in expecting an afternoon, get trapped, and have to spend a couple of weeks finding a path through the caves back to the surface…

How much rope is enough?  (Answer:  All the rope wouldn’t be enough. Need more rope!)

For goodness’ sake, this is the genre that gives us the trope of bringing along a ten-foot pole, just in case you find something that you want to poke at a ten-foot distance! It’s just as much oriented towards gear porn as any modern military fiction. You can see it in the glee when Needles pulls out the scroll that Jed carried around that finally has the right spell… the way TKotBO fusses over his great helm and Rol-X… the unholy joy that Alric takes in wrecking things with his custom-made two-piece oversized ornate dwarven combination axe-and-maul with the two-tone braided leather grip cover. Or his dragon-head helmet, for that matter.

(Come to think of it, I would say that either one of those are far more “signature gear” for Alric than anything obtained through a Signature Gear perk in any game I’ve run. But that’s a grumble from a different grave.)

Anyway, I feel like we’ve had some great successes on the “resource management” front, but there’s always more than could have been done. I feel that I could have put more pressure on the party, to emphasize the important of proper equipment and logistical planning.

In particular, I could have either chosen to go with the Dungeon Fantasy default of the dungeon-of-the-week, or placed the one dungeon’s entrance further away from town. As it stands, they’re so close to town that they can just about always disengage and go back for supplies. They’re so close, they could make first contact with some threat, flee the scene, go back to town, buy anti-whatever-that-thing-was measures (demon-bane, silver bullets, whatever), return to the dungeon, track the thing down, and kill it, all before sunset. In the summertime, anyway.

Even a couple of days’ travel, I think, would have made a big difference. At the very least, it would mean accounting for rations, going to and coming from. It would force the party to rely on itself and its own resources. (Remember Alric’s wild ride back to town to seek medical attention?  Yeah…)

In the beginning, I consciously decided to set the sandbox up with the dungeon close at hand. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the hiking rolls too much, thinking it would detract from the main event. In hindsight, I think I could have hacked together some kind of one-roll system, where the roll is heavily modified by preparation and the outcome determines the mood of the hiking montage and the shape everybody’s in when they show up. Crit success, everybody has a lovely hike, you make good time, and you luck in to a few meals’ worth of berries. Success, you tick of X days of rations and show up ready to go. Failure, suffer a couple of Hit Points from bee stings or some Fatigue from poor sleep. Crit fail, the supposed three-hour tour turns into three seasons of Alric calling Needles his “little buddy” while Gabby rebuilds TL 4 civilization out of coconuts and palm leaves.

* * *

What else have we learned?  Well, I, for one, am looking forward to a game using nothing but the Basic Set. (Almost entirely. Mostly.) Even with the simplification and codification of the Dungeon Fantasy line, I find myself regularly overwhelmed by the number of spells and perks and power-ups.

Similarly, I’m looking forward to lower point totals. These epic combats are, indeed, epic, and all, but they take a long time to play out. Everybody has lots of options to sort through, and really great defenses, and often (especially now that we’re getting into higher points) they’ve got layers of failure-proofing.  Like I got to noticing when reviewing the armor situation, some of these guys are dang hard to pin down. I expect fights to be a lot quicker and more emphatic in a less-cinematic, more-gritty, 10%-of-the-points situation.

Of course, now that I’ve said that, I can look forward to lots of “I advance a yard, then spend ten turns scanning for movement.”

Even if it works out that way, there’s still fewer pieces on the table to keep track of. Nobody’s going to pull a scroll out of their hat, or suddenly show up riding a giant chicken that provokes worshipful awe with its celestial beauty. Currently, I spent a fair amount of time and energy dealing with complicated what-if scenarios (“If Alric cross-trained into Druid and learned to shape-shift into a bear, would he be a normal-sized bear, or a super-sized bear?  What if Rolf did the same thing?  What if, while they were training as Druids, they crossed the International Date Line…”) that just aren’t going to come up in post-apoc. In post-apoc, just about any what-if question can be answered with “And how do you plan to feed yourself and keep off the ice weasels while you’re training to be a Druid, then?”

* * *

I learned that Dungeon Fantasy — at least, the way I’ve been running it — is a good pile of work to start with, then really easy to keep going, but it has its own set of hindrances. In particular, I feel like I’m tied to my notes.

Once upon a time — “Uh-oh, brace yourselves, grampa’s starting up again…” — I ran a sprawling Amber Diceless Roleplaying campaign.  Lots of players. Lots of characters. Events echoing from one end of creation to the other. In the last scene, one of the PCs destroyed the entire multiverse and sent it swirling into eternal chaos. Fun stuff. As I recall, all the written notes for the entire game were a few sheets of papers with some numbers on them, which I left at home, and only looked at when someone “spent experience”. I ran scenes while walking down the street. Over the phone. In the shower. I stumbled onto players running scenes all on their own, without me, the GM, being involved at all. That game was light on the baggage.

This campaign, I’m weighed down by something like 70-odd pages of notes, plus maps, plus about a dozen smaller, more specific documents. For a long time, I could only run the DF game in the same room as my desktop computer. Part of the work setting up the new game room was working out the kinks so I could access all my information at even that short distance. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had set myself up for portability in the first place.

So, it’ll be nice to have another crack at “in the first place”…