Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Tag: D&D

D&D Known World, Session #2: The Haunted Keep

The continuing adventures of the kids’ first D&D characters, using the rules from the Dungeons & Dragons Rules CyclopediaLast session, both the PCs gathered enough experience to level up, so now we’re talking about Styx, the 2nd level thief, and the Shadow, 2nd level magic-user… plus, Bob, the charmed goblin.

One of the highlights of this session was the kids’ first argument over alignment. Shadow’s player objected to Styx’s repeated pickpocket attempts. He felt they were risky, and more the kind of thing a Chaotic thief would do. Styx’s player wasn’t impressed by this argument, pointing out that he’s a thief, and thieving is just what he does.

There’s no cleric in the party. In the Cyclopedia‘s edition — “BCEMI D&D”, I guess? — the assumption is that there’s no market for magic items, so one can’t just buy a healing potion off the shelf. As far as I can tell, after repeated searches, the Cyclopedia has no rules for natural healing. (Immortals regenerate 1 hp per day, though, which establishes an odd baseline…) I’ve ruled that a day of rest restores 1d4 hp, modified by the character’s Con adjustment, minimum of 1 hp. Furthermore, because I’m a big softy and the kids both chose classes with d4 hit dice, I’m allowing any character to bandage another after a fight to restore 1d3 hp.

If you’re wondering: yes, this Haunted Keep is the same Haunted Keep that’s the example dungeon from the Basic Rules. So, uh, I guess, SPOILER WARNING for a two-page example dungeon from a product that’s ©1980 by TSR Hobbies Inc. (Further spoiler: TSR doesn’t make it.)

What happened:

Our heroes made it to the town of Threshold, where they sold one of the goblins’ pearls, keeping the transaction out of Bob’s line of sight. (When he stole the pearls, Shadow went to some trouble to make it look as if they had been taken by a raccoon, so it would be hard to explain how they came to be in his pouch.) This provided enough cash to pay for rooms at the inn for the humans, and a haystack in the stables for Bob.

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It’s All About The XP

I’m trying to suppress my instincts, and be a lot more free with the experience points than I have in the past.

Ever since I ran 3rd Edition AD&D and realized the party had gone up something like ten levels over the course of two weeks, game time, I’ve tried to pay attention to the speed of character growth. In more realistic games, with 150 point starting characters, I tend to hand out a minimal point or two per session. Even in the 1200 point supers game, I was handing out around 5 points a session. I figured, supers tend to be pretty stable over time, but if I tried to hand out less than 1/1000th of the starting point total, I’d get cut.

It’s a rough crowd.

So here I find myself, throwing around 10 point awards like they’re normal. Sure, I only hand out XP when they return to town, so it’s pretty normal for them to average closer to 5 per session, but that’s still more than I’ve handed out in the past, both as a percentage of starting points and as gross points-per-payday.

By my math, the Space Cowboys game, at 1 point per session for 150 point characters, had a standard award of 0.66% of starting points. I thought that was bad, but the Supers 1200 game was even worse, returning only 0.42%. The 500 point street-level supers game might have been my most generous, since I seem to have averaged 4 points per session, for a return of 0.8%. “Most generous”, that is, up until the Dungeon Fantasy game. Even at 5 points per session, with 250 point starting characters, we’re talking about a whopping 2% return!

Like I’ve said before, I’m aiming to simulate an idealized version of the dungeon crawl from 1984. Now, truth be told, I don’t recall a single instance of one of my characters going up a level through the entire decade. I don’t think any of my D&D characters ever received any XP, strictly speaking. I remember a lot of characters started off at 5th level, or 10th. We were kids, we didn’t have the attention span to run what you’d call a real campaign. (Though we did come pretty close, in high school, using the Marvel FASERIP system: folks played the same characters for more than one session, and Karma was awarded. I think I might even had once upgraded a character in play. Bought a skill. One of the five styles of martial arts, as I recall.  All the prices were super-steep. I think I might have been the only one in the group who stuck with a character long enough to think about doing such a thing.)

But in the ideal game, characters would grow and expand over time. They start off scrubs, then grow into competent adventurers. (We skip over this stage for DF. It’s boring whacking rats, and it’s no fun playing the apprentice wizard with only one good spell a day in ‘im. We assume our PCs are the kind that went out and found a nest of giant ants, then flooded it. Cha-ching! Third level, baby!) As adventurers, they wander around doing their murder-hobo thing, kicking in doors and gathering wealth. They gather gangs of followers. In time, they rack up so much wealth, kick in so many doors, and gather so many cultists-er-troops-er-henchmen *cough*cough* that they become a hassle for the local authorities. At that point, they’re invited to go subdue some wilderness and build a castle, at which time, they become murder-landowners, rather than -hobos, and start building up the castles and dungeons and towers that will become the ruins for the next generation of murder-hobos to explore.

I don’t know that I want to swear that we’ll play it to the natural endgame, but I do want there to be a sense of growth and increase in power. Realistically, that means I need to throw the points at ’em. We play once a month. (Pardon me while I go cry in the corner for a moment. I’d love to play more often, but adult life is what it is.  We’ve got one night-owl, two early-birds, and one guy who routinely works around the clock. I’m thrilled if we go a whole session without someone falling out from pure fatigue.) Historically, the campaigns I run tend to hit their peak at around the 12th session. What with the flexibility of GURPS, it’s really easy to give in to restlessness and switch genres.

Now, I think this campaign is going strong. Here we are, 2/3 of the way to what experience says is supposed to be the final game, and it feels like everybody’s just now finally settling in to their characters. Folks are planning ahead, interest is high, and there’s plenty more dungeon to explore. But, still, I have to figure, that’s the likely size of the canvas, so it’s best to paint a picture that’ll fit on it. If there’s room for more when we’re done, we’ll paint more then.

I think it’s working out. We’ve had a few people pick up multi-class lenses in play. That feels like gaining a level or two.

Here’s the scoreboard, as it stands after session #8, with everybody having just received a 10 point award (and TKotBO picked up an extra Cool Point on top of that):

  • Alric Redbeard — 280 point Barbarian (working towards Barbarian/Swashbuckler, a prospect which shakes me to my core, and oh my goodness you should have seen the look of unholy glee in the player’s eyes when he laid the news on me), 18 unspent points
  • Gabby The Cabin Girl — 255 point Swashbuckler (currently at 235 effective points, thanks to her shiny new One Arm disad, until the bones in her arm grow back), 24 unspent points!! What?!?
  • Mississippi Jedadiah Walker — 271 point Bard/Wizard, 10 unspent points
  • Needles — 282 point Thief/Swashbuckler, 12 unspent points
  • The Knight of the Blood Oath — 291 point Holy Warrior/Knight (only short the formality of choosing some combat skills), 6 unspent points

Folks have gotten away with paying less than 50 points for their multi-classing lenses thanks to overlapping traits. Jed really made out on the deal the best, I think, since he was designed as a Bard to cover a Wizard position. TKotBO probably climbed the steepest hill, what with having to buy Combat Reflexes in play — first time, I think, that I’ve ever seen that happen.

Alric is saving up to become the world’s tallest Musketeer, so I understand his unspent point total (even though, I allow lenses to be purchased bit by bit)… but I couldn’t tell you what’s going on with Gabby. With a reserve like that, I half-suspect it’s a waste of time for her to look for magical healing for her crippled arm. She should just talk me into allowing her to buy Extra Arm twice, and grow two new ones.  “Oh, those?  Curse. You want a story, you should ask about the horns and tail…”

Hmm.  Come to think of it, “critical failure with a Regeneration spell” is actually a better explanation than “Curse”…

No, really, why not D&D?

That last post seemed to stir up some response, with some great discussion over on G+, so I thought I would throw a little more fuel on the fire. As the wise man said, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” 😉

But, seriously, I’m not knocking on the D&D ecosystem. It was what started me on this road.* It’s my gaming roots. Clearly, the idea of playing desperate men and women crawling into a hole in the ground to whack monsters and take their money is an idea that has resonance, even today, decades after the original ideas came up.

I absolutely do not want to push negativity.**  I would rather lift GURPS up than push down the whole wide world of Dungeons And-Or Dragons.

So, that out of the way, I’ll double-down: GURPS has the level of focus that I like, a level of focus that I haven’t seen offered by any edition or variant of D&D.

Here’s an example. I’ll keep picking on the hit points. Everybody loves to pick on the hit points. Some of the G+ discussion centered around how the D&D HP is an abstraction. Take your 20th level fighter, who can jump off a cliff and survive, where her 1st level self would have died outright.

Yes, yes. <waves hands> I know, there are various “massive damage” rules that kick in to discourage high-level fighters from choosing to eat a giant-sized bowl of damage. Doesn’t matter. Say the fighter would have to make extra rolls if she took 50 points of damage, but the actual damage from the fall was only 45 points. That’s plenty enough to kill a 1st level fighter.  (Or, at least, it was in my day. I hear recent editions have given 1st level characters lots of HP? Or something?)

I’ve heard folks complain about that 20th level fighter leaping off the cliff, saying it’s unrealistic. That’s not my beef at all. Take Conan, for example. He’s pretty high level, right? Throw Conan off a cliff.  What happens?

I’ll tell you what absolutely does not happen:  Conan does not fall to the base of the cliff, impact, and die of his injuries! Even if he’s already tossed a dozen soldiers to their deaths off that same cliff, it’s just not going to happen. Sure, it’s a lethal cliff… but he’ll grab the edge. Or a branch on the way down. Or something. So, by that standard, the classic D&D HP mechanic does its job.  D&D Conan goes over the cliff, marks off some HP, dusts himself off, and keeps on truckin’.

But, then, I’ve got the nagging voice in the back of my head, saying, “Sure, but if he grabbed the edge at the last minute to save himself, why is his miniature now at the bottom of the cliff? Shouldn’t he now engage in an exciting battle of strength, using one arm to fend off the enemy’s kicks? … rather than now being out of reach, telling them that they’re #1 in Cimmerian sign language?”

Myself, I’ll want a game that will focus in tight enough to detail the fending-off-on-the-cliff-edge. GURPS does that for me. The various D&D’s set their focus a bit fuzzier, and accept that the mechanics aren’t going to support certain outcomes, in themselves. That sort of cliff’s-edge detail becomes something injected by the DM.

And if you were playing some kind of war game, where the focus is at a higher level of granularity, you wouldn’t even have talked about the time Conan had the exciting battle against the angry demon worshipers at the top of the Cliffs Of Poor Risk Management. You would roll Conan’s dice once and note down: “Conan sacks temple, takes out 100 gold and 1d4 distressed damsels.”

If the war game were at the level of Risk or the like, Conan himself would be abstracted away. He would be a joke after a good roll:  “My one figure took out your whole temple complex! They must have had Conan along! Hey, little figure guy, what is best in life?”

These aren’t flaws and virtues of the different systems. The problem is figuring out the style and level of detail that you’re looking for, and then choose the system that supports that kind of play. For me, that’s GURPS. Specifically, the 4th edition.  Third was great, but Fourth really knocked off all the barnacles and shined up all the brass.

Is it complicated? You’ll hear this one a lot, but I think folks are just repeating what they heard from a grumpy Usenet post from 1992. You could make the case that some parts of Third Edition were a bit complex. (Hey, I loved GURPS Vehicles. I’m not afraid of a very occasional cube root. I use spreadsheets no matter what game I’m running.***) Fourth Edition does a great job a scaling to whatever your game requires… just so long as you’re clear on what that is.

Carrying on with the sad, threadbare hit points question…

Two other GURPS campaigns, besides the current Dungeon Fantasy one, have appeared in this forum:  the Space Cowboys game, and the Marvel Supers 1200 game. They had some pretty different requirements, when it came to the sturdiness of the PCs.

The Space Cowboys game was designed from the beginning to be low-combat. The goal was to do a “slice of life”, “normal guys in an exotic situation” story. If somebody pulled a gun, the metaphorical soundtrack would do something dramatic and we would cut to commercial. Folks built their characters accordingly. You could feel the difference, in play, in combat, between Bubba and Osolo. If you’re familiar with Firefly, it was like the difference between Jayne and Simon. (If you’re not familiar with Firefly, what are you thinking?!? Stop wasting your time here and go watch it! NOW!)

I haven’t actually tried it — threatened more than once — but based on the Space Cowboys experience, I have no doubt that GURPS could handle a high school slap fight, realistically and satisfyingly. No doubt whatsoever.

At the other end, the Supers 1200 game was based on the Marvel Universe, where folks are more sturdy than in the real world. I knew, up front, that I was going to have to rig the game to make that happen. It’s a beyond-cinematic world. So, acting on advice from the forums, I declared that everybody in the universe who had a name, also had Injury Tolerance: Damage Reduction, which divides injury suffered. Fragile ol’ Aunt May had IT: DR 4, dividing any injury she took by 4. (Face it, it’s easy to put Aunt May into a coma but it’s really hard to put her down for the count. Look at the lady’s history.) Actual heroes had more, lots more. It was strictly explained as plot protection… which is to say, it wasn’t explained at all, just noted as How The World Works.

People addressed the issue in other ways, of course. At least one took Unkillable, and I seem to recall a lot of Regeneration and Very Rapid Healing. The point is, we were able to “bolt on” the ruggedness of comic book characters as needed.

Another thing that you’ll hear from the 1990’s is that GURPS can’t do supers right. I would dispute that. In actual play, Araignee Rose felt like Spider-Man. Goliath felt like… well, Goliath. The other one. The dead one. From the comics. You know what I mean. Again, I’ll admit there used to be a grain of truth to the complaint: I tried to run a supers game in Third Edition and had difficulties, back in the mid-90’s. These days, with the current edition? Nope, no problem. The engine supported it. (My energy level didn’t, but that’s another story for another time.)

I would go so far as to say that in my opinion, in a lot of ways, GURPS did a better job at supers than HERO System. (I haven’t seen the latest edition, so I’m talking FREd and the big blue book that had Seeker about to die on the cover.) I ran HERO System for a long while, and I started to notice that every PC I saw was doing pretty much the same amount of damage, roughly the same chance to hit, same small set of disadvantages… everybody was starting to blur into everybody else. With its tighter, more detailed focus, GURPS fixed that problem.

So, there you go. That’s what I was trying to say before. More of it, at least. 😉

* Ok, I’ll admit it. The thing that drew my attention in the first place was the nifty maps. They were what started me on this road. “What’s this ‘S’ on the wall mean? How about this square with an ‘X’ in it, sitting in the middle of the hallway?” Little did I know, that square with an ‘X’ would turn out to be the most lethal thing thus far in the current dungeon, a pit trap.

** This may come as a shock to some. 😉

*** Not really. Almost. I ran some White Wolf, World of Darkness stuff, way back when, that didn’t have any need for math stronger than counting on fingers. Take that how you will.

 

So, why not just play D&D?

A lot of my players play various flavors of D&D. I understand there’s a Pathfinder game going on amongst them. I’ve got some of the books on my shelf, plenty enough to run at least two different editions. I’m converting classic Gygaxian monsters and magic items. I’m consciously trying to emulate the 1st edition feel in a lot of things.* I’ve been asked: why not just play D&D?

So, I’m already thinking about this question, when I stumble across this: Why GURPS?  That being the flip side of the question, really.  Why this path, and not that?

What it amounts to is, there’s years and years of good, resonant setting details to plunder in the D&D ecosystem, but the system itself frustrates me to tears.

Oh, I exaggerate.  I can play it. I can even run it. I just prefer to set my level of abstraction differently. I like being able to figure out what happened in the game world from the play in the real world. GURPS is very much rooted in the real world, using measurements from reality wherever possible and aiming to translate the dice rolls into tangible effects within the game world.

TL; DR:

For example:  For those who haven’t already become bored to tears with the whole question and don’t know, the D&D “hit point” is an abstraction. If your fighter dies after getting hit 10 times with a sword, taking 50 HP in damage, it doesn’t mean he was literally tagged by a sword 10 times before dying. It could mean that he had 9 narrow escapes, avoided by his high level of skill and luck, only to buy the farm with the final blow. This is all well and good, except… what if that sword had been poisoned? If the first damage-dealing hit actually delivers sword to flesh, poison should be delivered and saving throws made. If, on the other hand, only abstract hit points were lost and no real contact was made, then no poison could be delivered.

This is some really old news, here. It’s been chewed over by about three generations of gamers. That horse isn’t just dead, it’s beaten into bean dip. Just typing it makes me want a nap. ZZZzzz….

Huh? What? Where was I?

Anyway. The point is, I like the level of focus that’s available in GURPS. If you want to play it fast and loose, guesstimating modifiers on the fly, you can. If you want to get down to the most hyper-detailed, drilled-in view possible, that’s available, too. But, either way, it’s aimed at providing a playable simulation of the real world. Turns out, that’s an excellent foundation for building a fantasy upon.

* In particular, I feel there used to be a heavier pulp vibe, more of a Weird Tales feel, that got lost somewhere along the way. I’m an Erol Otus guy, more than an Elmore fan (even if we do both come from the same state).

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